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Post Events in Russia, Mali: Who's to Blame?
Created by John Eipper on 01/18/13 1:46 PM

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Events in Russia, Mali: Who's to Blame? (Istvan Simon, USA, 01/18/13 1:46 pm)

I am afraid Gilbert Doctorow is mistaken about many things--at least in my view. He is mistaken not only about Russia, but also about the USA, and now about France and Mali, and most certainly about Lybia and Syria.

In response to Gilbert's post of 17 January, it is simply not true that 99.9% of Americans think that the regime in Russia is no better than the dictators of the Soviet Union. I certainly do not think so. But nonetheless Putin is a mini-dictator and there are many good reasons to think so. He does plenty of illegal things in Russia, some of which I enumerated already in previous posts. Kidnapping, murder, murder for money (the Magnistsky case), murder for revenge for political opposition to Putin (Alexander Litvinenko), murder for writing inconvenient truths (Anna Politkovskaya)--nothing seems too low or too vile for Putin to shy away from. We must conclude that his hunger for power overcomes any moral scruples that he may have. He exhibits characteristics that seem to indicate a lack of moral scruples. But none of that makes him as bad as the leaders of the Soviet Union were. Clearly not even close to being as bad as Lenin, and Stalin, or even Khrushchev, Andropov, or Brezhnev.

Gilbert often paints a picture in which according to him Americans oppose Putin because they want a weak puppet regime. But this is simply not true. I do not desire this at all. My opposition to Putin is not because Putin is a threat to the United States. Let's face it, he is not.  Russia is today a mid-level power, which simply does not have the military or economic power to threaten the United States. It is at best a minor competitor on the world stage, and one that in my view would benefit more from being an ally of the United States rather than an antagonist. Nor do I believe that even Putin desires to truly threaten the United States, even though his policies and rhetoric are unnecessarily aggressive and anti-American. So Gilbert profoundly misunderstands my opposition to Putin, and therefore profoundly misunderstands that of millions of other Americans who feel the same way.

Gilbert is an expert on Russia, and I learn much from his expertise. But I also think that he misunderstands many many Russians and misrepresents those that oppose Putin. How do I know? I know because I have many Russian friends, and occasionally I ask their political opinions, and particularly their opinions about the diminutive Russian President. And none of them like Putin, or think that Putin is good for Russia.

I recently discussed the Magnistsky case with one of these friends. She is in her twenties, university-educated, a historian, and she knew about the Magnistsky case. So I sent her Boris Volodarsky's WAIS post. Though she knew about the case, she did not know all the wealth of detail that was in Boris's excellent post--and she was horrified and profoundly disgusted and repelled about how low Putin and his government has sunk. The sordid details were even much worse than what she already knew. So I resent very much when Gilbert puts democrats in quotation marks, because I think of her. She is not a "democrat"; she is a democrat.

My friends are not prominent well-known figures in the opposition to Putin; they are merely ordinary people trying to go about their lives with decency and honesty, something which is lacking in Putin's government. Furthermore they are all in their twenties, sometimes still struggling to pay for their university educations. They are all well-educated and well-informed. And this indicates a problem for Putin, a huge political problem, because there are millions like my friends and they are a young generation that completely despises Putin and his strategies and tactics and politics. Furthermore, quite a few of them see no future for themselves in Russia. They want to emigrate.

So summarizing my opposition to Putin, it is not because I think that he is bad for the United States--he is largely irrelevant about determining our success or failure in the world. My opposition to him is instead because I think that he is bad for Russia.

In his latest post, Gilbert accuses the French government of irresponsibility. I think that Gilbert is once again wrong. It is Russia that is irresponsible, not France.

Let's start with Libya.  Libya's Gaddafi was not murdered. He was summarily executed by his own people for the many crimes that he committed against them. Just like Ceacescu was executed in almost the same fashion in Romania. Just like Assad is going to likely be executed in the same fashion in Syria if he does not flee to Venezuela or some other banana republic.

It is not France that is irresponsible in intervening in Mali. It is Russia supplying weapons to Syria to be used to murder tens of thousands of civilians. That is irresponsible. Furthermore it will not work. Assad, the Russians themselves now have concluded and conceded, will fall.

Al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism is a reality and a fact. France did not invent it, nor it responsible for the appearance of armed Tuaregs, the former mercenaries of Gaddafi. It is Gaddafi that armed them, not France. France is correct in battling them, and battling them is necessary. Good luck to France in exterminating this scourge of humanity which threatens us all.

JE comments:  Istvan Simon has raised the central question:  Is Putin good for Russia?  Enough Russians thought so last year to re-elect him.  Perhaps not 99.9% of us, but a large number of Americans assume that Russians have a "thing" for authoritarian leadership.  Thus the Putin-Stalin comparisons are inevitable.  However, I'm learning from our WAIS discussions that Russians have the diversity of political philosophies that one sees in any healthy society.  In fact, Russians think more about political matters than Americans ever do, especially in odd-numbered years.

I'd like to invite thoughtful responses to this question:  Is Putin good for Russia?

(And I see that after a long hiatus, Gaddafi is back.  No man in history had so many spellings.  This editor must remember, after Wikipedia:  start with a G, then 2 d's and an f.)

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  • French Intervention in Mali (Vincent Littrell, USA 01/19/13 4:58 AM)
    Istvan Simon's comments (18 January) in response to Gilbert Doctorow's critical commentary on French intervention in Mali are spot-on. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates have to be interdicted and resisted by nations with the strength and will to do so. When discussing geo-politics, Gilbert's writings tend towards a moral relativism that must be overcome. The erosion of altruistic morality in the face of particularist "realism" is taking humanity down a dark road. Moreover, Gilbert's linking of "idealism" to the travesty of Al-Qaeda and affiliate resurgence in the Trans-Sahel of Africa seems an overreach. It might be stated that near-sighted military strategy, incomplete follow-through and the international community's general lack of will to ensure positive support to the populations of Libya and Mali after Gaddafi's fall and the fall of the recent Malian government contributed to nation-state and NATO reluctance to resist Al-Qaeda and affiliate power grabs in the Trans Sahel. It might also be argued that "realist"-supported notions of absolutism in state sovereignty in the face of trans-national terror have contributed to the mess of Al-Qaeda in the Trans-Sahel. France rightfully in my view has decided to ignore the sacred cow of sovereignty and "non-interference" for the moment in the case of Mali, for the greater good of civilization. Tyranny and terror have to be fought.

    It was appropriate for Gaddafi to be removed, and it is appropriate for Assad to be removed as well. The international community should have intervened in Syria. I suspect the West will pay for not doing so, once the Syrian people, embittered by being forced to suffer as they have, take control of Syria from Assad. Also, the lack of interference in my view (despite problems ongoing in Iraq) strengthens the sectarian nature of the conflict.

    An interesting rumor is spreading on the Internet. I don't know the truth of it, though I do wonder in light of Russian support of the Assad regime. There are Internet reports arguing for and against the rumor that President Bashar al-Assad is spending time going back and forth between Damascus and a Russian warship, and that the Russian military is protecting him and his immediate family. If the Russians are indeed harboring Assad and his immediate family, one has to wonder at Russian-stated intent to not interfere directly in the conflict. Harboring Assad seems a direct interference to me, though I don't know if that is actually happening.

    JE comments:  Any confirmation of the above?  If Russia is indeed a practitioner of "realism" in the international arena, I cannot see how their interests would be served by harboring Assad.  Perhaps these are shipboard strategy meetings?

    Vincent Littrell supports intervention in Syria.  Clearly the "West" has no stomach to do so--no will to sacrifice lives or additional treasure.  Moreover, the idealists in the West have no idea which horse to back.

    I believe this is Vince's first post of 2013.  My best wishes to him and his family for the New Year.

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    • Intervention in Syria? (Vincent Littrell, USA 01/22/13 3:41 AM)
      Regarding International Community military intervention in Syria, John Eipper commented on 19 January: "Clearly the 'West' has no stomach [to intervene], no will to sacrifice lives or additional treasure. Moreover, the idealists in the West have no idea which horse to back."

      I have a different view. I thought Western political leadership (or at least the US and Britain) would have been willing to intervene in Syria, except that Russia and China were going to veto any UN resolution supporting military intervention. Past statements by senior US officials like Hillary Clinton point to that official willingness of the West to intervene. In regards to the sacrifice of Western or International Community life and additional treasure in Syria, the levels of such expenditures would have been dependent on the nature and type of intervention, the strategy underpinning that intervention, and the amount of resources allocated to it. I'm of the opinion that had such an intervention occurred at the outset, with international participation to include the Russians and the Chinese, with no sides taken other than peace enforcement to stop the butchery and atrocities from all sides, that there might have been less blood and treasure expended than with traditional conventional military strategies (as opposed to irregular warfare in concert with nation-building strategies). This is the argument that increasing numbers of military thinkers do point to in their writings.

      Yes, physical risk for those with "boots on the ground" or operationally involved is the reality for peace enforcement. However, in the Syrian context, had collective security mechanisms been in place to quash butchery before the rise of Sunni extremist militancy and deeper sectarianism, then it might be argued the war might not have gotten so out of hand. Assad might have been forced to the negotiation table before his credibility with the bulk of Syrian citizenry was so eroded. Then again, maybe not, as on the surface it might appear he is willing "to go down with his ship" in the face of an international military intervention.

      It is my understanding that the Syrian citizen protests initially were not the seeking of Assad's overthrow, just for his government to reform. Now the savagery and hate in the conflict and mass killings and massacres add a dimension that make it much more difficult for international community military intervention to have an impact without mutually commensurate and balanced police and civil governance establishing institutions sensitive to Arab/Syrian local culture, Islamic ethics, and regional social realities.  I do acknowledge that such appropriate collective security mechanisms and institutions that balance the military, police and civil governance within a "failed state" as of yet don't really exist (or are just in embryonic form). Be that as it may, I am of the mind that Syria could have been appropriately intervened with. And, despite the lack of civil governance/policing stabilization institutions on the global stage relative to the amount of military forces, international forces could have been and might be still used to create protected safe-havens for refugees in-country. Also, it would be possible to have tactically precise combat forces (in targeting and execution terms) take down the most egregious of the active violators of human rights and laws of war, no matter their political or religious ideology/position. I could write much more here, but I'll close saying that I think the capability does exist to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt if the political will amongst the United Nations Security Council nations were clear. Political will to stop the atrocity that this civil war has become still might present itself, if the comments of Ladkhar Brahimi and other UN officials come to fruition, in that the Syrian conflict is being forecast to reach the level of a full-on human catastrophe. It is sad it might take catastrophe to get the UN Security Council to approve peace enforcement measures. I think if such doesn't happen, the reverberations of failure to save the Syrians from themselves will be of severe consequence for all. Extremism will take a deeper hold, resentment for the International Community's failure to protect Syrians will play out in consequential ways in the future, and sectarianism will solidify more than it already has. The longer this war is allowed to play out, the worse the future consequence.

      JE comments:  Vincent Littrell makes a strong case for outside intervention to "save the Syrians from themselves."  But what would it take to get Russian and Chinese support for such action, which is essential to keep Syria's civil war from leading to a showdown among the major powers?

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  • Why the US Should Take Russia Seriously (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium 01/19/13 8:22 AM)
    I do not write to dispute Istvan Simon's interpretations of many things. (See his post of 18 January.) On almost any question of values you touch, any interpretation of what is cause and what is effect, Istvan and I are 180 degrees apart. So be it. It is for reasons like this that the ultimate objective of Lux, namely to reconcile the irreconcilable is... sadly futile. It is for reasons like this, that mankind ultimately comes to blows.

    However, there are objective issues of fact where discussions can be useful and Lux has its day. And here I ask Istvan to reconsider his estimation of Russia as posing no threat to the United States, as being a mid-sized military power and nothing more. In conventional arms, this is, of course, manifestly true. However, in nuclear arms, it is totally wrong. The strategic stand-off from the days of the Cold War remains in force. The two countries alone possess 95% or more of all nuclear warheads and delivery systems. And despite all the smiles, these systems remain at the ready for launch at any time.

    This is why the US deigns to deal with Putin's Russia at all. Otherwise the two countries have almost no shared economic interests and no grounds for strategic discussions or power sharing. But the fact of nuclear parity makes it essential that the US not act irresponsibly towards Russia, not give clandestine support to seditious minorities, not actively discredit the government by spreading the kind of slanderous and totally unproven allegations about Litvinenko, Politkovskaya, etc., that Istvan Simon tosses about as if they were proven facts, not heighten the siege mentality of the country's leadership by moving NATO forces up to its borders.

    JE comments: A curiosity for Gilbert Doctorow: has he read our colleague Boris Volodarsky's The KGB's Poison Factory? Boris presents a very tight case against Putin in Litvinenko's murder.  It's convinced me.

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    • Why the US Should Take Russia Seriously (Alan Levine, USA 01/20/13 4:23 AM)
      Gilbert Doctorow (19 January) describes himself and Istvan Simon as 180 degrees apart. I find myself between the two of them on US attitudes toward Russia. Like Gilbert I am a realist when it comes to discerning interests, but I share many of Istvan's assessments of the corruption and harm of the Putin regime.

      I wish here to make only two general comments, one on Putin and one on the US attitude toward Russia. On the first point I largely agree with Istvan and disagree with Gilbert. The second is a qualification of one of Gilbert's claims.

      First, Gilbert has written frequently in this forum that there is currently no realistic, better alternative to Putin in Russia. I largely agree with this assessment--but unlike Gilbert, I partly blame Putin for it. JE asked if Putin has been good for Russia. My answer is in many ways yes, and in many ways no. Putin has brought a much-needed stability to Russia and adopted some policies that have contributed to economic growth. He has made many Russians feel proud again. But at the same time he and his group have gone out of their way to undercut every liberal and democratic (with and without Gilbert's quotation marks) alternative to his rule. The limits on television media, the harassment and, indeed, murders, of journalists and liberal activists is in the short-term interests of the ruling party but at the expense of the long-term good of the country, undercutting the possibility of more decent political development. Putin's policies in this regard are like Mubarak's: eliminate all alternatives except for the undesirable. This is short-term shrewd but long-term stupid, and I believe in the future Putin will be much blamed for this in Russia, as Cameron Sawyer has been arguing (persuasively to me) that Putin is already.

      Second, Gilbert asserts that it is only because of Russia's nuclear weapons that the US takes it seriously: "This is why the US deigns to deal with Putin's Russia at all. Otherwise the two countries have almost no shared economic interests and no grounds for strategic discussions or power sharing. But the fact of nuclear parity makes it essential that the US not act irresponsibly towards Russia." This is a huge oversimplification. Of course, Russia's nukes do set a limit on how much the US would be willing to intervene in Russia or places in which Russia stakes an interest, such as Syria. But no one in the US is worried about a Russian nuclear attack. Unlike during the Cold War, there is no plausible scenario for such a thing to happen. Thus, of course Russian nukes limit US policy, but their existence doesn't explain much else.

      The US tries to cooperate with Russia on a host of other issues important to the US where the two countries have fundamentally aligned strong interests that have nothing to do with their nuclear weapons, such as fighting the Islamic extremists in Afghanistan, in which Russia has given the US much help, including transporting supplies and, I believe, weapons, through Russian territory. The US argues similar interests on Iran, and at various times the US has considerably backed down from other of its initiatives, such as the weapon detection systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, in order to try to get Russian cooperation on Iran. My sense is Russia is ambivalent on Iran. It doesn't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but until then it enjoys how much more provoking Iran is to the US than it is to them. I don't want to exaggerate US and Russian shared interests, because I largely agree with Gilbert that there is not a lot of shared economic and strategic overlap of interests. I'm only qualifying his claim that it is nukes alone that leads the US to take Russia seriously. There are many other issues in the world on which the US knows it needs Russia's help--and thus acts accordingly.

      JE comments:  We seem to have forgotten in recent years that Russia and the US have many shared interests, especially in the field of security.  My thanks to Alan Levine for this thoughtful overview.
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      • Why the US Should Take Russia Seriously (Cameron Sawyer, Russia 01/21/13 6:28 AM)

        Gilbert Doctorow argues that Russia should be taken seriously by the US because it is a major nuclear power.

        I think there are other and much better reasons to take Russia seriously. Russia has the ninth largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and the sixth largest economy in the world by PPP. Russia has by far the most dynamic economy among large, fully developed countries, and will soon have the largest economy in Europe. Russia is also a financial powerhouse with the third largest foreign reserves in the world after China and Japan. Russia has the lowest debt of any large economy, and not just the state, but Russian people and companies, too. The Russian consumer market will surpass Germany's as the largest in the Europe this year or, at most, next year.

        So Russia is economically important--Russia is a key market for many companies, and is becoming a key destination for investment, and source for investment.

        Russia's economic importance creates geopolitical importance, much more than its military power does. Russia's economic ties with the rest of the Former Soviet Union and with countries like India, China, Turkey, Malaysia, and Germany ensure that Russia's geopolitical influence will reach far and wide.

        Therefore, of course we have to take Russia seriously. The fact that Russia has a vast nuclear arsenal is not so important--it only means that we would think twice about going to war with Russia, God forbid--something which is hardly imaginable in any case. But Russia's conventional military, while not as large or strong as the Soviet Union's was, is also nothing to sneeze at--Russia's conventional military force, much renewed in the last 10 years, is the second most powerful in the world, after that of the US. Russia's military force will eventually be eclipsed by that of China, naturally, but in the longer run, China's military power will eclipse that of the US, too. That's a bit of a different conversation.

        JE comments:  A question for Cameron Sawyer:  what is the current state of Russian investment in the US?  My uninformed impression is that beyond real estate and a sports franchise or two, it is almost nil.

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