Discover more from TL;DRussia
TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
18 June 2023: Terrible things, plus texts and tunes
The motto of this newsletter is to deliver “insight and analysis” without “riddles or mysteries” — which is a short way of saying that I don’t generally have a lot of patience for explanations of Russian political, social or other processes that focus on the Russian soul, mentality, psyche, genetic pool or any other such construct.
Right now, however, is a particularly difficult time to make the argument that Russians are, in fact, no different from the rest of humanity, with the obvious exception of the fact that they (mostly) live in Russia. And so it was with some consternation that I watched two of my favorite Russia hands — the journalist Peter Pomerantsev and the anthropologist Jeremy Morris — go to battle this week (although I suspect Peter may not be fully aware of the conflagration).
At issue was a piece Peter published in the Observer, arguing that Russian history and culture had combined to create a “strange lure of death, oblivion and just giving up”. Jeremy, a Russia-focused anthropologist at the University of Arhus, whose access to Russian society even now is more or less unrivaled, retorted in his blog that this kind of reductionist stereotyping of Russians could easily justify policies of internment or mass punishment, such as that seemingly suggested by Czech President Petr Pavel.
Conceptually, ethically and politically, much as I like both authors and consider both to be friends, I’m with Jeremy on this one. There is, in fact, very little we can learn about contemporary society from reading Dostoevsky. In truth, however, I think Peter would also agree and was not meaning to suggest what he may inadvertently have suggested nevertheless. And I’m grateful to him, fraught though his essay may have been, for the reminder that we ought not dismiss culture and history as factors in contemporary politics quite so easily. Which leads me into…
What I’m thinking about
In last week’s newsletter, I mentioned a little Twitter thread I had published in response to Margarita Simonyan’s on-air suggestion that it might be time for Russia to seek a negotiated end to its invasion of Ukraine. The crux of my argument in that thread was as follows:
Russian propaganda — or, more properly, strategic communication — serves three purposes: to disrupt strategic narratives in the West; to maintain constructive ambiguity at home; and, sometimes, to conduct reflexive public opinion research.
Thus, Simonyan’s sudden apparent change of heart, I argued, served to complicate Western calculations about how far Russia was willing to keep fighting, to give some succor to those Russians who would like to see the war end sooner rather than later, and to serve as a kind of trial balloon to gauge public reaction. What her statement was not designed to do, I argued, was to reflect the actual views of the Kremlin or anyone else of genuine influence in Moscow.
I bring this up because I would make the same argument about the essay in Russia in Global Affairs this week by the uber-hawkish Russian foreign policy wonk Sergei Karaganov, who suggested that the only way for Russia to prevent the West from plunging the world into World War III would be to launch a preventive nuclear strike on Ukraine and/or “a number” of European countries. This, he predicted, would “bring Washington to its senses” without provoking a retaliatory strike and thus a global nuclear conflagration. Like Simonyan, I think Karaganov is aiming his words at us and at his compatriots largely for the purposes of provocation; I see no reason to conclude that his essay either reflects or is designed to sway thoughts in the Kremlin itself.
To be clear, I don’t think this means that there is some master manipulator in the Kremlin (or on Staraya Ploshchad, for that matter) who is scripting all of this and giving marching orders to the likes of Simonyan and Karaganov. My sense is that this happens on a much more intuitive, reflexive level. There is nothing in the recent experience of Simonyon, Karaganov or any of the other Russian pundits to suggest that they can have the slightest of policy impact; moreover, they know full well what kinds of messages are welcome and what kinds are not, and what the consequences may be of breaching that line — in terms of their material wealth, if not something more severe. As a result, the kind of calculation that might motivate me if I were writing an op-ed, designed to sway policymakers and the voters to whom they are accountable, is unlikely to make much sense to someone operating at this level in the Russian system.
Working in that kind of a system, I think, encourages people like Karaganov and Simonyan to see communication as inherently strategic, with manipulation being the tool of trade. The absence of any link to genuine policy influence frees them from any sense of responsibility for the consequences of what they say. In place of that responsibility, they perceive an opportunity, and perhaps even a duty, to help the state achieve its aims, and one of those aims is obfuscation. Indeed, Simonyan has herself admitted that many of the messages put out by the Kremlin about the war are designed to make it difficult for the West to discern Moscow’s actual thinking.
On the face of it, this conclusion — particularly when applied to Karaganov’s “let’s-drop-a-nuke” rhetoric — should help most readers sleep better at night. Karaganov’s essay may mean many things, but it certainly does not mean that the Kremlin is planning a nuclear attack (though it doesn’t mean the opposite, either). For better or worse, Kremlin policy will be neither shaped nor announced by pundits on the pages of semi-academic journals, or even on television screens.
I’ll admit, though, that I’m not sleeping too soundly, and the reason is that words do have consequences, even if Karaganov et al don’t believe that to be the case. One of those consequences is that by shifting the landscape of what is sayable and what is unsayable, they gradually shift the landscape of what is thinkable and what is unthinkable, and thus what is possible and what is impossible.
Jeremy Morris, the anthropologist I mentioned earlier in this newsletter, had an excellent piece in openDemocracy back in May about what he called “defensive consolidation” in Russian society, and the way it produces what we interpret as support for the war. He wrote:
They consolidate defensively around ideas that justify or explain the invasion, and allow them to continue their lives in as mundane a way as possible – that it’s the West who is the aggressor, or that Ukrainians are dupes of their own “fascist regime”.
These are not really ideas, but feelings that tap into deep-seated historical processes and unfinished questions about the nature of Russia and, before it, the Soviet state. These include misplaced and inaccurate perceptions of the Soviet order’s benign governance of Ukraine and elsewhere, as well as accusations of imperialist sins by the West while denying Russia’s same sins.
In this, Jeremy’s work resonates with my interpretation of Jade McGlynn’s book Russia’s War, and with my own much more anecdotal evidence, arguments about Ukrainian or Western “fascism” or geopolitics or anything else used to justify the war are less statements of deeply held ideology, and more tools with which many Russians shoo the war itself out of their lives, the way a horse might swat away a fly with it’s tail. Importantly, what Jeremy describes as “defensive consolidation” occurs not in the service of grandiose things like war and power, but in the service of the mundane, order to allow people to compartmentalize the war and to get on with their lives as though nothing extraordinary were happening.
As a result, my first reading of all of this suggested that for ordinary Russians — much like for people like Simonyan and Karaganov — the content of the rhetoric has been much less important than its utility in swatting away the war’s cognitive and emotional nuisances. So long as the rhetoric helps them avoid hard questions, it works. And, to be honest, I still think that’s true. But there is a flip side to this phenomenon that is, as I said, keeping me up at night. Namely, it is that the utility of this rhetoric as a wartime flyswatter depends not just on the ways in which it resonates with the individual, but on the ways in which it resonates in society. Rhetoric that is more broadly resonant is more generally effective, and it helps people feel not only more at ease, but also socially and politically embedded. Thus, the social dialogue matters at least as much as the interior monologue. And Karaganov contributes to that social dialogue.
The consequences of essays like Karaganov’s, then, may be twofold. One has to do, as I said earlier, with shifting the boundaries of the possible. After all, in addition to allowing ordinary Russians to get on with their lives, this “defensive consolidation” also allows the Kremlin to get on with its life, and that means to get on with the war. If that consolidation gives the Kremlin enough of a buffer to accommodate nuclear escalation, that increases — even if only marginally — the likelihood of a nuclear strike. The second consequence has to do with the staying-power of rhetoric. Once a line of thought takes hold and becomes useful both for citizens and the state, it can take on a life of its own, propagating across conversations and fields of policy, and crowding out other, countervailing thoughts. Indeed, if an idea becomes sufficiently useful, it can become very difficult to dislodge.
I’m not saying that I think a discussion of the plausibility or even desirability of a nuclear strike makes such a thing inevitable. In fact, I do not believe that to be the case. But, in the context of contemporary Russian social and political dynamics, well, I worry.
What I’m reading
It was another week with a lot to read, so I’m afraid the bullet points are here to stay.
Sticking with the theme of nuclear war, my CEPA colleague Nicolas Tenzer had an excellent post on his own Substack on Monday, pointing out the challenges Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has posed to the theory and practice of nuclear and convention deterrence;
Still on the same topic, Rose Gottemoeller — the US official who negotiated the New START treaty and then became deputy secretary general of NATO (and was once my boss) — had an important piece in the FT on Thursday, arguing powerfully for renewed efforts to bring Russia back to the strategic arms control negotiating table;
Turning to Ukraine’s slow-burn summer counter-offensive, the best overview yet written, for my money at least, came on Wednesday from Jack Watling at the Royal United Services Institute in London, concisely setting out what we do and don’t know about what Ukraine is and is not trying to achieve;
Staying with the counter-offensive, the New York Times had a sober piece on Saturday delving into the improvements that the Russian military has made to its structure and tactics since the early phases of the war. The piece echoes an analysis published in May by another of my CEPA colleagues, Chels Michta, arguing that Ukraine is not fighting quite the same army it was facing in early 2022;
Still on the front lines, on Friday the BBC Russian Service and Mediazona released the latest of their excellent series on Russian casualties, combining high-quality data journalism with human-interest reporting. This edition paints a picture of the typical summer-2023 Russian casualty, who is considerably older, considerably less experienced and considerably more likely to be an ex-convict than at the start of the war;
On Wednesday, the Times also reported on the growing anxiety in Washington — anxiety that has, as I’ve written before, been around for a number of months now — about the prospects for further funding for Ukraine coming out of Congress. In a nutshell, there is a group of well-positioned Republicans hell-bent on blocking further aid, and neither the White House nor House Speaker Kevin McCarthy seem to have much political capital to throw in their direction;
Turning to Russian politics, two iStories pieces caught my eye this week, including:
on Wednesday, a report on Russia’s rearguard effort to avoid being blacklisted by the global anti-money-laundering watchdog FATF, the consequences of which would impede Russia’s newfound trading relations with India and even China; and
on Thursday, an interview with the Russian political analyst Ekaterina Shulman on the political trajectory of Evgeny Prigozhin.
And finally, turning to Russia’s economy:
Re:Russia published on Tuesday a typically thorough — if not to say encyclopedic — piece by Natalia Zubarevich on the geography of Russia’s war economy; and
on Friday, Meduza had an in-depth report on the recent troubles of the Ruble, which has been on a prolonged slide for more than a month now, weakened by sanctions and the ongoing departure of Western investors and trading partners.
What I’m listening to
I know I’ve posted Shoves & Rope before, but it’s father’s day, so there’s really only one thing for it.