My inbox is filled each day with many articles bearing on my interests in international affairs that I receive from a couple of high level online digests for professionals that also republish most of my own essays. One of them is Johnson’s Russia List based in George Washington University and serving primarily subscribers from among the American academic community. The other, also based in Washington, D.C., has subscribers drawn from among the diplomatic community in the nation’s capital. It was the latter which on Monday brought in a catch worthy of two thumbs up.
I will now direct attention to some important information contained in one of the articles, entitled “What does the Russian ultimatum to the West mean?” written by the French Sovietologist and historian of contemporary Russia Françoise Thom. https://en.desk-russie.eu/2021/12/30/what-does-the-russian-ultimatum.html
Thom is an old-school political scientist. She is 71 years old and did her doctoral dissertation on “Soviet Wooden Language” at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales under the internationally known Alain Besançon. Unlike so many of today’s professors of Russian studies in American universities who give courses and chair conferences on LGBT issues in Modern Russia and other frilly topics that may catch the fancy of students and land them a job in some NGO after graduation, unlike our mainstream media journalists who have long ceased to practice journalism and are mere conduits for Pentagon and State Department press releases, Thom’s work is intended to have direct practical application in formulation of government policy.
In recommending her article to my readers, I point out that Thom and I are on opposite sides of the barricades politically. She is a fierce defender of Western global hegemony. Nonetheless, what she has turned up about the sources of the latest Russian foreign policy initiative I see in no other publications at this moment. Of course, it may well be that similar knowledge is common currency within the Rand Corporation or, here in Brussels, among some faculty attached to the Royal Egmont Institute funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But none of that knowledge behind closed doors does any good to promote open public discussion of the most important foreign policy challenge facing the United States and other Western nations at this moment. As The Washington Post wisely observes (but does not facilitate in practice), “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
My debt to Thom for treading where few dare or are capable of treading is qualified by another consideration besides her political partisanship: she ignores a fundamental rule of historical and political sciences, which is not merely to find and present what you believe to be influencers of state policy whether in Russia or elsewhere but also to explain who they are, on behalf of which economic and other interests they speak. Thom has not done this although a simple visit to google.ru search would have been sufficient for the purpose. In what follows I will do precisely that, because the results of such search are very relevant to our understanding what makes Russia tick today.
In the subtitled section of her essay “What is at stake,” Thom sets out in detail the full scope of Russian demands contained in the two draft treaties submitted to Washington on 17 December. The consequence of accepting the Russian terms is clear: “In a word, Russia is demanding that NATO commit suicide, and that the United States be reduced to the role of a regional power.” So far, so good. I would not disagree with that observation.
Where Thom goes off the rails is her follow-on conclusion: “By negotiating as an equal with the president of the United States Putin demonstrates at the same time to the Russians that his position as the boss is recognized by the cursed Westerners. The feeling of debasement the Russians experience in their hearts by submitting to despotism vanishes when they see the humiliation of the West: foreigners too are bowing down to Putin. The regime’s propaganda knows how to play these sensitive chords.”
Regrettably, the Russian public that Thom knows about goes no farther than listeners to the fiercely anti-Putin radio Ekho Moskvy, meaning the two or three percent of the population who are dyed in the wool Liberals. These folks are not so much a Fifth Column as simply Russian self-haters, such as always existed in certain numbers through Russian history going back centuries. I think Thom is spending too much time inside the Sorbonne and too little time out and about in Russia, where she could see for herself what nonsense it is to apply the word “despotism” to the country and its form of governance today.
Another section, subtitled “An orchestrated blackmail,” puts in repugnant terms what other people might simply call Realpolitik. Yes, historically speaking, might has almost always made right. The USA has gotten away with this for decades, so why should the Russians, as another Great Power, not also feel entitled? The question is can you impress your greater strategic and tactical capabilities upon your adversaries by firing a cluster of hypersonic missiles, as the Russians apparently did on 24 December to show off to the world their ability to sink American aircraft carriers if and when necessary by the flick of a switch, or do you have to kill a few hundred thousand people to make clear your might, as the United States has done from time to time in ‘shock and awe’ events.
The segment of Thom’s article under the subtitle “Why this Russian ultimatum?” is the most valuable contribution by the author. She has identified one, perhaps the source of the thinking that I heard repeated and broadcast to the nation on the 28 December edition of the talk show “Evening with Vladimir Solovyov.” It is a think tank called Russtrat (Institute of International Political and Economic Strategies) and its publication on 21 November 2021 was a paper entitled “Russia has focused its mind: the country and the world on the eve of great changes,” by a certain Igor Kazenas. https://russtrat.ru/reports/21-noyabrya-2021-0010-7259
We see spelled out in this article the notion of a window of opportunity for Russia to solve here and now its international security issues with the West, both military and economic. This window of opportunity, by the way, falls conveniently within the present, likely final, mandate of Vladimir Putin as president.
Thom quotes extensively from the Russtrat source paper [translation hers]:
“In the next year and a half, Russia will considerably change the balance of global power.[…]Russia’s current historical situation is unique. The state has prepared itself for the major challenges that may arise under critical pressure. Huge reserves have been accumulated, including gold. National financial and information infrastructure plans have been created and launched.. Digitization has begun to encompass the entire economy, bringing it to a new level of competitiveness. The expansion of our own industrial base, including in highly sensitive high-tech areas, is proceeding in leaps and bounds, the ‘technology gap’ is closing. We have overcome critical dependence in the area of food security. […]For the past five years, the army has been the world’s leader. In this area, the ‘technological gap’ is in our favor and is only widening…Moreover, the explosion of planetary inflation is causing an energy crisis, which makes the Europeans for the most part, much more accommodating and rules out a blockade of our energy supplies, WHATEVER WE DO.”
Thom notes the author’s emphasis on playing the China card, to coordinate actions against Ukraine and Taiwan, with the effect of freeing Russia’s hands even more. And she quotes the Russtat conclusion which surely bears on the delivery of Russia’s ultimatum to the West of 17 December: “Russia has restored its weight in the international arena to the point that it is able to dictate its own terms in the shaping of international security.”
Thom sees weakness and errors of the Biden administration as having brought on this new belligerence from Moscow. In particular, the debacle of the summer evacuation from Afghanistan and the succession of envoys sent by Washington to deal with the Russians, none more damaging than William Burns, of whom she says, “Burns’ visit was interpreted in Moscow as an indication that the policy of appeasement has prevailed in Washington and thus an encouragement to raise the stakes and ‘seize the strategic initiative.’”
The least impressive section of Thom’s essay is “What to do?” Her recommendation comes down to this: “do nothing, say nothing and stand your ground.” So, no dialogue, instead wage a new Cold War. I think even those with her on the other side of the barricades will find this “solution” unconvincing in the face of what she calls Russian blackmail backed up by strategic superiority. Strategic inferiority was the hand of the Kremlin when the original Cold War was launched and remained the fact till the very end. On 1 March 2018 Vladimir Putin pointed out in his State of the Nation address that for the first time in modern history Russia had pulled well ahead of the West in development and deployment of cutting edge strategic weapons systems.
As I indicated in the opening, there are serious methodological failings in Thom’s analytical essay.
She tells us nothing at all about the various Russian media and think tank source that she presents, although that knowledge is an essential context for our considering the political dynamics in Russia and the contribution of each writer/institution to setting state policy. Without such background we are unable to choose between cause and effect or identify which economic interests the authors of the articles cited represent.
First, with regard to the Russtrat essay: we see here not a collectively prepared or anonymously written text as is customary in think tanks but instead a single author, Igor Kazenas, whose past and present is readily available using google.ru search. A biographical sketch of Kazenas posted on the REX Information Agency (https://iarex.ru) makes it clear that he is a certifiable crackpot. He is an economist by training. In that regard he fits the description of the Russtrat think tank, as I will discuss in a minute. But we are told that “Besides business, he has engaged in studies along the lines of the psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and with various gurus of India….As a result, he managed to develop a new philosophical-metahistorical toolbox allowing him to survey the prospects of any society, country, the world.”
Indeed, a substantial part of the text of his 21 November essay in Russtrat is devoted to spiritual issues and mystical-philosophical musings. Russia will show the world a new spiritual foundation for its unification. He calls out the triangle of Russia, China and India, which will lead humanity to the Kingdom of Light. Russian “conservatism” is said to be an ideology of planetary significance! “This is the creation of an agenda and one of the foundation stones of future world leadership.”
We need not be surprised that Thom has not quoted any of this philosophical claptrap, since it would detract from her story.
Meanwhile, Kazenas’s language, meaning his choice of words throughout his essay includes a lot of rough, bully boy words from the street. He is excessively boastful about Russia and excessively contemptuous about the United States and the Collective West. This is not what you would expect to see in the product of a ‘think tank’ and it is surprising that Thom, whose first academic achievements were as wordsmith and analyst of ‘wooden language’ does not convey these obvious facts to her readers.
It bears mention here that Russia experts have for years been looking for modern day Rasputins, crackpot advisers to the throne in Russia. Several years ago they settled upon a certain Alexander Dugin, professor of philosophy at Moscow State University who was said to be feeding Neo-Eurasianist thinking to Vladimir Putin that allegedly underlay the Russian president’s foreign policy. Eventually Dugin was ousted from his university post and disappeared without a trace into history’s dust bin. The same fate may await Mr.Kazenas, though, it would seem that his argumentation about this being the time to strike and rewrite European security provisions has now become mainstream thinking among certain Russian elites.
We learn which elites by doing a bit of background search into the think tank that published Kazenas. The Russtrat website tells us very little about the institution other than that it was founded in April 2020 and holds a registration number with the Russian Ministry of Justice. Then there is their Mission Statement: “…to ensure the national-state interests of Russia in the foreign policy sphere by the forces of a team of highly professional experts in various fields of human knowledge – politics, economics, the humanitarian sphere, ecology and so forth. We ensure professional and objective decisions based on profound knowledge of the subject of research.”
We learn considerably more about Russtrat by looking at the biography of its director, Yelena Vladimirovna Panina whose career is summed up on the think tank’s “About Us” page: “a well-known politician, chairman of the Moscow Confederation of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, doctor of economics, professor.”
Indeed, Panina is a very serious personality, with decades of service at all levels of the Soviet, then Russian government, both appointive and elective. Aged 73, she has served successive terms as deputy in the State Duma, where she was in the fraction of the ruling United Russia Party. Back in the 1990s she was the author of the law on self-government in the Russian Federation that was in effect until 2009. She crafted this law with a backward look at the functioning of the zemstvos, the institution of local rule established in the 1860s by the Tsar Liberator Alexander II. But it is clearly Panina’s role as a founder and officer of the Confederation of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs that is most relevant to our understanding of who chose Kasenas’ essay to be featured by Russtrat and why.
This conclusion about the economic interests behind the new muscular and assertive foreign policy of Russia is further substantiated by looking at the affiliation of another author whom Thom chooses to highlight in her essay without providing context. I have in mind Irina Alksnis, who is identified as writing for the news agency RIA Novosti. But Alksnis is also published in Vzglyad, still another media source that Thom quotes from. It is essential to understand that Vzglyad is a business daily. There Alksnis is a pundit, a commentator, nothing more. But the paper has a business audience, which is highly relevant to our case.
In this regard, it is worth noting that the argument for a muscular foreign policy rests not only on military strategic considerations but on economic-commercial considerations. Essentially they are saying that Russia is now sanction-proof, and they believe that the coming economic crises in the world, in particular high inflation, will favor inflows of industrial development money to Russia, where, due to low energy costs, prices will be much more stable.
From all of the foregoing, one wonders what are the concrete steps that Kasenas recommends for Russia to take the initiative and solve its security issues. I find that he is headed off into a number of different directions, none of which matches the clearly defined answer – ‘surgical strikes’ against NATO targets – that Vladimir Solovyov spoke about in his 28 December television program.
Instead Kazenas talks about finishing up the war in Syria by liquidating the Idlib area of resistance. Of course, the Ukraine figures prominently in his plans. He expects that country’s forces will be annihilated with likely loss of Russian soldiers limited to 100-150 if the fight comes soon, larger numbers if the fight comes later and the United States succeeds in planting ever more advanced equipment on Ukrainian soil. In his analysis, Belarus will draw ever closer to Russia, leading inevitably to their being a single state. The author concentrates on economic-commercial issues: winning the gas war and further consolidating its position in Europe, taking over market niches and whole segments thanks to its competitive pricing based on low energy costs. Kazenas foresees ever more localization of production in Russia.
What is missing entirely in the Kazenas plan for the way forward is any mention of ‘surgical strikes’ and very limited operations in Ukraine to achieve maximal political results in changing relations with the USA and its allies, which Solovyov promoted in his program. Nor is there discussion of how Russia’s present advantages over the Collective West arising from its advanced strategic weapons systems will be lost if the country fails to act decisively in the coming 18 months.
Put another way, the Russtrat article and the other articles cited by Thom are pieces of a game plan, while the integrated game plan was created at some other level, likely within the Presidential administration acting in consultations with the Russian General Staff. We may consider the authors of the various recommendations to be speech-writers of sorts, not principals. The only issue of substance, which is not identified by Thom, is that Russian business may be running well ahead of the Putin government in its aggressiveness towards the West. To those of us with an historical perspective, this is reminiscent of the situation in Russia in the several years just before the outbreak of WWI. Of course, Vladimir Vladimirovich is no Nicholas II, and surely he can keep his own society under better control and not be pushed to overplay his hand.
The second article which drew my close attention on Monday was “The non-West ‘stands up’. We witness history” by Patrick Lawrence, published on 3 January in The Scrum: https://thescrum.substack.com/p/the-nonwest-stands-up?token=eyJ1c2VyX2lkIjozNDA2NjM5LCJwb3N0X2lkIjo0NjQ5NDg5NywiXyI6InJTYlYyIiwiaWF0IjoxNjQxMTY4MTEzLCJleHAiOjE2NDExNzE3MTMsImlzcyI6InB1Yi0xMTIxNjQiLCJzdWIiOiJwb3N0LXJlYWN0aW9uIn0.XPFuWFugZKKxqMYNv_rdziv3Y5mwzFMDSk0ReIVte2Y
In this review of the year gone by from the perspective of the changing correlation of powers between those on the rise (Russia, China) and those in decline (USA and Collective West), the author identifies inflection points.
The inflection point of greatest interest to us is the first in his list, in March 2021 when Secretary of State Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the President’s national security adviser hosted their Chinese counterparts in an Anchorage hotel. The event was in Lawrence’s words ‘an unmitigated debacle’:
“Blinken and Sullivan….determined to lecture the Chinese on all the old stand-bys – human rights, democracy, a free press, persecution of Muslims, and so on. Instantly, the occasion blew up in their faces. In a manner I will risk terming unprecedented, FM Wang Yi and top diplomat Yang Jiechi dumped the whole shopping cart of condemnations back across the mahogany table: Who in hell are you to talk to us about human rights and press freedoms? Who are you to tell anyone else about how democracies ought to be governed? How dare you affect concern about the treatment of Muslim populations?…
“If Anchorage and its aftermath were disasters for the Americans, it was something else for the Chinese. They faced the U.S. in a way they rarely had until then. They said, We are done with humoring you people. We are done trying to work with you in a cooperative spirit so long as you insist on speaking to us as other than equals. It was not hard to detect that China had assumed a new posture toward America, the non-West as it faced the West.”
However, for our purposes what is most relevant is Lawrence’s following remark: “Immediately after the Anchorage encounter, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s very able FM, flew to Beijing to confer with Wang.”
There is no need to reproduce Lawrence’s narrative on other turning points in East-West interaction during 2021. He has set out a dimension that was missing in our examination above of the factors within Russia that led ultimately to the muscular, forceful presentation of its security demands to the United States and NATO in December. This dimension is the China factor.
Russia may have the weapons, but China enjoys the economic might to challenge the United States and the West in the most determined way. The growing alliance between the two countries and their ability to coordinate actions simultaneously in the two global hotspots that have the full attention of Washington, Ukraine and Taiwan, present important additional support for the concept of a window of opportunity that the Kremlin found so attractive and underpin the present defense and diplomatic playbook.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022