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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
1 April 2023: Fools' day, plus texts and tunes
The arrest in Russia on espionage charges of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich seems set to spark an exodus of Western journalists from Russia. I don’t blame them, or their editors, of course. But as and when that happens, we will come to rely even more on the excellent work being done by independent Russian journalists, of the kind whose work I try to feature on this newsletter — and who will not have foreign governments fighting for their release. Please do read them, and support them if you can.
In addition to the links in this and previous editions of TL;DRussia, I posted a few good names to Twitter on Thursday. Feel free to add you own!
What I’m thinking about
I’m not quite sure how to preface this story, so I’m just going to start at the beginning.
Some time ago — if memory serves, not long after the start of the war — I began getting emails from a gentleman named Kevin Costa. If you are a Russia watcher or even just a political scientist, I imagine you may be in the same boat. The content is largely unobjectionable: links to articles and various goings on, clearly selected to be popular among those who support Ukraine and oppose Russia. Nonetheless, spam being spam, I have tried any number of things to prevent these emails from landing in my inbox, and yet there they are, more or less every day.
And so it was that on the 25th of March I received an email from Mr Costa distributing a link to an open letter penned by a group of economists and other assorted academics taking issue with the geopolitical opining of Jeffrey Sachs. Dr Sachs, they wrote, was either willfully ignorant or willfully obtuse about the nature of the war. They wrote:
In summary, we welcome your interest in Ukraine. However, if your objective is to be helpful and to generate constructive proposals on how to end the war, we believe that this objective is not achieved. Your interventions present a distorted picture of the origins and intentions of the Russian invasion, mix facts and subjective interpretations, and propagate the Kremlin’s narratives. Ukraine is not a geopolitical pawn or a divided nation, Ukraine has the right to determine its own future, Ukraine has not attacked any country since gaining its independence in 1991. There is no justification for the Russian war of aggression. A clear moral compass, respect of international law, and a firm understanding of Ukraine’s history should be the defining principles for any discussions towards a just peace.
Although I am not a signatory to the letter, I endorse that sentiment entirely — but that’s not the reason I’m telling this story.
No, the reason I’m telling this story is that the next day, on the 26th of March, Dr Sachs decided it would be a good idea to hit “reply all”. (Mr Costa, for some reason, chooses not to hide his recipients in the bcc field — a cardinal sin of spammers.) Now, hitting “reply all” to a list of hundreds of people is very rarely a good idea. It’s a particularly bad idea on a Sunday. And it’s an absolutely horrendous idea if you don’t take the time to think about what you wrote.
What Dr Sachs wrote was this:
Many of you will also be interested in a recent paper by Professor Geoffrey Roberts, University College Cork: ‘Now or Never’: The Immediate Origins of Putin’s Preventative War on Ukraine,” in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, December 2022.
That, plus a link to the article and the abstract, was it. For the sake of Dr Sachs, I sincerely hope that no one clicked on the link. No one other than me, that is.
The article, which is well written and actually reasonably engaging, begins (more or less) with the following uncontroversial assertion:
Wars happen for a reason or, rather, a series of reasons. Historians aim to reconstruct the reasoning that leads to war, usually in the form of a chronologically-driven narrative. The circumstance and influences impacting on the thinking and motivations of critical actors will be integral to the explanatory content of the narrative – the explanation of why someone or some people took decisions that resulted in war.
In trying to reconstruct this reasoning, however, the author settles on a strategy that some readers may find, well, less than ideal:
This essay is devoted to the when and why of President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. As far as possible, it refrains from speculation and relies almost entirely on the record of Putin’s public pronouncements during the immediate prewar crisis. That public record is currently the best available evidence of his motivations and calculations.
Whether the corpus of Putin’s public pronouncement is indeed the best available evidence of his motivations and calculations is, of course, debatable. In his defense, Dr Roberts does not ignore that problem. He acknowledges that Putin’s public statements may be incomplete reflections of his inner thoughts. Alas, he does not deal with the possibility that Putin’s statements might be designed to mislead in their entirety. Nor does he account for discrepancies in Putin’s public speech, or between his speech and his actions. In my reading, at least, Dr Roberts emphasizes those of Putin’s statements and actions that support his argument and ignores those that might point in another direction. But my beef is not with Dr Roberts.
I don’t know why Dr Sachs thought that it would be a good idea to send this particular article to a few hundred academics, or why he might expect it to help his cause. The presence of a single confirmatory citation is, in and of itself, not usually sufficient in academic discourse to prove a point. When the citation in question relies entirely on a single source of evidence and fails to subject that evidence to critical analysis — I suspect most of the people on that email chain demand more rigor from their first-year undergraduates than they received last Sunday from the eminent professor.
At this point, I don’t know why I’m surprised by this kind of thing. Watching John Mearsheimer get up in front of a couple hundred political scientists in Montreal and declare that Putin never displayed any intention of regime change in Ukraine — or reading Dr Mearsheimer’s disastrous New Yorker interview with Isaac Chotiner — should have disabused me of the idea that supposedly eminent men are inherently susceptible to intellectual shame. Many, I’m sure, are. Maybe even most. But clearly not all. Or Seymour Hersh, who did genuinely inspire me when I was a cub reporter, think that it’s okay to build a journalistic investigation around a single unnamed source. The common denominator is not simply that all three of these men (and many more like them) should have known better. It’s that, at some point in their careers at least, they did know better. And yet they persist.
I don’t know whether it has always been this way, but the world in which Sachs and Mearsheimer and Hersh move — the world of power and influence and prestige — demands supreme confidence and the air of prowess, but not intellectual discipline. It encourages people to step boldly beyond the boundaries of their true knowledge and understanding — requires them, even, to do so — and rewards them with plaudits and applause for their concision, rather than their precision. It is, in sum, a world that suffers fools gladly.
The joke, I fear, is on us.
What I’m reading
The arrest in Russia on espionage charges of Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich brings two things (at least) in to sharper focus. One is the ever-growing brazenness and brutality of the Russian regime; it has been a long time since Russia has arrested the correspondent of a major Western media outlet, and so yet another rubicon has been crossed (in the wrong direction, of course). The other, however, is phenomenal journalism that is still going on in and around Russia. Both feature prominently in my reading list this week.
Continuing a theme I’ve highlighted repeatedly in this newsletter, Polina Ivanova had a sobering report in Thursday’s Financial Times on the rise of informers in Russia. Her story is replete with people whose opposition to the war is limited entirely to their private lives — and even there is sometimes hard to discern — but who found their lives nonetheless upturned by the need that others around them felt to police the inner lives of their fellow citizens. In a similar vein, Yulia Galkina tracked down the man who turned in a Dozhd reporter to the police — a man by the name of Evgeny Bakalo — and profiled him on Friday for Holod. When he’s not ratting out his compatriots for crimes against ideology, it turns out, Bakalo is volunteering re-education programs for young people living in Russia and occupied Ukraine.
I’ve written before about the increasing prevalence of this kind of thing — of Russians turning on one another in order to project their loyalty. I have also written, however, about the importance for many Russian citizens of horizontal relationships, of the ties they have not with the state, but with one another, and the role that those ties play in helping them cope with hardship and uncertainty. I do not know (indeed, I cannot know) whether the kind of behavior we’re seeing emerges because people feel the need to demonstrate their loyalty vertically to the state, or horizontally to their peers. Either way, however, the outcome will be, as Ivanova writes, a breakdown of trust among ordinary Russians.
Other things that caught my eye this week included:
Hot on the heels of Dossier’s investigation of Prigozhin’s propaganda operations, about which I wrote last week, on Thursday iStories published their own investigation of Vulkan, a shadowy Moscow IT firm that develops online censorship and surveillance software for Russia’s security services. Among other things, authoritarianism turns out to be good for business.
While we’re on the topic of the business of authoritarianism, Meduza had an interesting report on Wednesday on INSOMAR, a small polling Russian company that has evidently gotten big contracts to run surveys in occupied Ukraine. While we have long known that the Kremlin likes to run surveys for its own analytical purposes, Meduza’s report highlights the Kremlin’s growing fondness for fabricating survey results in order to manipulate the public itself.
Also on Wednesday, Verstka published the wrenching story of Olga Mazur, a resident of Kherson, whose son Alexander — a teenager with autism — was among a number of young Ukrainians rounded up by Russian troops before they retreated from Kherson and “evacuated” to Crimea. Mazur managed to get her son back, but the odyssey she endured is not for the faint of heart
Finally, as I’ve written again and again, one reason we need a Ukrainian victory is because we won’t want to live in the world that emerges if Russia prevails. In a massive report, the New York Times shows in detail how Russia’s war in Ukraine and fears that China may take from it the wrong lessons are sparking arms races across the North Pacific — and in so doing, the Times goes a long way to proving my point.
What I’m listening to
This week, of all weeks, there was really only one option.