Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Putin and his Western fans

My recent Facebook discussion on Russia and Ukraine got me looking again at the state of play in the "new Cold War" the neocons are trying to drum up between NATO and Russia.

The Timothy Snyder clip I previously discussed focused on some extreme examples of ham-handed Russian propaganda claims about the conflict over Ukraine. I haven't tried to verify his description from other resources. But if he's right about Russian propaganda claims, they seem to have been remarkably ineffective in terms of their influence on the American policy debate. And apparently not that effective in Europe either.

Today I see a post by Gérard Roland, Is Putin out to destroy the EU? Berkeley Blog 12/15/14, which he opens by focusing on Russian propaganda claims:

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, tensions between Russia and the West have not abated. Nonetheless, it has been striking how much support Putin still enjoys in Europe, from intellectuals and politicians, from the extreme left and extreme right, from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen in France, and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and from the “Putinversteher” of Germany that includes not only former East German communists but many prominent German politicians and businessmen as well.

The Kremlin’s narrative that the Euromaidan was a fascist coup, and that the annexation of Crimea and support for the Donbas separatists were defensive moves to protect Russia’s strategic interests, has been repeated through a dense network of Putin supporters and Russian media outlets in Europe. While reminiscent of former Comintern propaganda, that narrative has been embraced by many Europeans at a time when European governments, and the European project, are already under great stress from Europe’s growth crisis. [my emphasis]
Honestly, this framing sounds depressingly like warmed-over stock Cold War claims. It's bad enough that we have anti-Islam zealots describing Islam in general and Islamic terrorist and military groupings in more-or-less the same terms that Cold Warriors described Communism. Now we're starting to hear it about a Russia that, whatever its strengths and weaknesses, is not a Communist country nor one trying to offer itself as a generally valid alternative to Western capitalist and political models.

I have a hard time buying the formula that Putin has western European fans "from the extreme left and extreme right." I'm probably more familiar with the discussion over Ukraine within the German Left Party than with other well-known left-of-social-democracy groups like Greece's SYRIZA, Spain's Podemos and Italy's Five Star Movement. The Left Party (Die Linke) is presumably what Roland means by "former East German communists," since it is considered the "postcommunist" successor party to the former East German ruling party. (See my German Left Party gets a governorship 12/07/2014 for more of my perspective on that particular matter.) And it's true that Die Linke are opposed to escalating tensions with Russia. But there has been some public bickering among Party leaders on how censorious an attitude toward Russia the party should take.

Former Social Democratic German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and his SPD are still considered center-left, despite their loyal support for Angela Merkel's Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies. But the SPD and SPD Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been backing their Chancellor Merkel as junior partner in her Grand Coalition government in her carefully anti-Russian position on Ukraine and sanctions. Sanctions which the Hoover/Brüning policies have left the eurozone economy ill-prepared to sustain. (See: Steinmeier für rasches Treffen der Ukraine-Kontaktgruppe Neues Deutschland, whose editorial line reflects the positions of Die Linke 15.12.2014; „Es geht nur mit Russland“ taz 12.12.2014) Steinmeier asserts in the TAZ interview, "die Verantwortung für die zugespitzte Situation, die mit der Annexion der Krim begonnen hat, ganz wesentlich auf russischer Seite liegt" ("the responsibility for the intensified situation that began with the annexation of Crimea, lies very essentially on the Russian side").

The Merkel-Steinmeier posture on Ukraine is less militant than American neocons would like to see. Berlin has a bigger immediate stake in peaceful relations with Russia than Washington does. And with low oil prices at the moment putting serious pressure on Russia's petrostate economy, the need for economic sanctions seems more symbolic than substantive for now. As Wolfgang Münchau writes in Ölpreis: Hurra, er fällt! Spiegel Online 15.12.2014, "Aufgrund ihrer ökonomischen Monokultur ist die russische Wirtschaft voll und ganz vom Energieexport abhängig" ("On the basis of its economic monoculture, the Russian economy is fully and completely dependent on energy exporting").

Schröder's more friendly attitude toward Russia in the Ukraine crisis has to be viewed in light of his personally lucrative business ties to Russian business interests, though that doesn't mean we should disregard his arguments entirely on that account. (Gerhard Schröder, Russia and the Crimea 03/09/2014) His former Green Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, is more supportive of the more hardline Merkel-Steinmeier positon. (German Foreign Policy Comes of Age/25 Jahre deutsche Einheit und ihre Folgen für Deutschlands Außenpolitik Project Syndicate 12/05/2014)

The more concrete political ties with Russia that Roland describes, which he notes are not entirely well-documented, are with far-right, "Euroskeptic" groups:

There is also evidence, much of which is circumstantial but not all, that the Kremlin is providing financial assistance to Euroskeptic parties. Marine Le Pen, for example, acknowledged last week that her far right party, The National Front, received a nine million Euro loan from a Russian bank. There are also rumors of Russian financing of Jobbik in Hungary and UKIP in the UK.
In current usage, "Euroskeptic" is used to designate rightwing nationalist anti-EU parties, "Eurocritic" for those demanding an end to Hoover/Brüning austerity policies in the eurozone and reforms to address the EU's "democratic deficit."

There are some American Christian fundamentalists and political conservatives who are Putin fans, who have been impressed by Putin's calls to reinforce Christian civilization. Particularly the part that involves repressing gays and lesbians. Accompanied at times by some fairly weird gushing about what a manly man bare-chested Putin is. They would likely be dismayed to hear the extent to which Putin's vision is married to a Russian Orthodox Christian notion of a distinctive Russian civilization.

Cenk Uygur pokes fun at this trend in You'll Never Guess Who Loves Putin The Young Turks 03/19/2014:

The notion of some kind of international alliance of nationalist parties seems strange on its face. But politics is politics, as Stalin said in 1939 shortly before concluding his Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler Germany. And the Russian model of oligarchical capitalism and authoritarian semi-democracy would presumably more ideological appealing to far-right parties than to the left, for whom the Putin model doesn't offer much that looks appealing.

Even so, the Russians obviously know that the decision-makers in the EU are found among the center-right and center-left parties. Roland uses the evidence of Russian collusion with the far-right anti-EU parties to show that Putin would like to weaken the EU, which seems very plausible. But he also makes an excellent point at the end: "The German government continues to promote economic austerity in the Eurozone, despite weak demand and very high unemployment. If Putin wants to destroy the European Union, there is no better way to help him."

No argument from me on that one!

Roland uses the German term Putinversteher (one who understands Putin), which is commonly used in Germany as an ironic-polemic way of suggesting someone is naive or careless about Russian policies. It has the implication of "Russian dupe" or "Russian sympathizer."

But in a literal sense, actually understanding Putin would be a valuable thing. I'm inclined to think it's more urgent to understand actual adversaries in foreign policy than allies.

Historian Jutta Scherrer has an article called, "Russland verstehen? Das postsowjetische Selbstverständnis im Wandel" (Understading Russia? The post-Soviet self-understanding in process" in the Ukraine, Russland, Europa issue of Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte (APuZ 47–48/2014). I find helpful in describing Putin's nationalistic definition of Russian identity. It seems consistent with other things I've seen on this. The integration of Czarist and Stalinist symbolism is fascinating, as is the length to which Putin is going to integrate his version of, uh, Russian Exceptionalism into the schools' history curricula. Scherrer also makes clear, "Heute instrumentalisiert auch die politische Propaganda „den Westen“ als Feindbild." ("Today the [Russian] political propagand instrumentalizes 'the West' as the Enemy.")

I'm sure a lot of Americans and probably Europeans, too, would find the degree to which Putin views the collapse of the USSR as a "catastrophe" surprising. Scherrer's analysis does suggest that the Putinist outlook would place a higher value on dominance in Belarus and Ukraine than in other former parts of the USSR.

We don't have to grant such claims by the Russians normative value to recognize that they may be operative values for the Russian leadership. As Scherrer puts it in a clarification that historians sometimes make when writing about touchy topics: "Die Herkunft einer Argumentationsweise zu verstehen, bedeutet in keiner Weise sie zu rechtfertigen" ("Understanding the origin of a line of argumentation in no way means justifying it").

In the same issue of APuZ, Hans-Georg Ehrhart writes ("Russlands unkonventioneller Krieg in der Ukraine: Zum Wandel kollektiver Gewalt") that Russia has made a major shift in its military strategy over the last decade toward more emphasis on "unconventional warfare" that the United States and its allies have successfully applied in "regime change" operations like those in Libya. (The Russians would be well-advised to look carefully as the uninspiring aftermaths of such operations, as well.) He writes that his shift accelerated after the Georgian conflict in 2008.

One effect of that shift that he describes has been the reduction of Russian ground forces from 400,000 to 270,000 despite a significant increase in the military budget, which presumably has been made momentarily more problematic because of the oil price slump. He notes that the size of the Air Force has not been reduced. But that does mean that, however one judges their intentions, the Russians are increasing their capabilities of making regime-change and counter-regime-change operations in nearby countries while reducing their capabilities to credibly threaten a land invasion of NATO countries.

Ehrhart observes that Russia's actions in the 2008 Georgian crisis "war eine eindeutige Warnung. Man mag diese Haltung als altes Denken abtun. Es leitet aber die gegenwärtige politische Führung." ("was an unmistakable warning. One may dismiss this way of acting as old thinking. But it guides the present political leadership").

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