I’m not sure I realized it at the time, but not long after the war began, this newsletter became almost a form of therapy for me — a way of forcing myself to come to terms with sources of discomfort and anxiety. One or two readers have been kind enough to suggest that they have found it therapeutic as well, though I imagine having a seat next to me on the couch may, for many, be somewhat awkward. If you’re in the latter camp, I apologize in advance for this week’s roundup, which is of the self-referential variety. I promise to do better next week!
What I’m thinking about
This was kind of a big week for me on Twitter — which is never really a good thing.
A thread I posted on Monday on the Vladimir Putin-Xi Jinping summit in Moscow went what I think can legitimately be called viral. As of this writing, the first Tweet alone had something like 1.4 million views.
This doesn’t happen to me frequently enough for me to really get used to it. The funny thing about this particular thread, though, was how positive the response was. The idea that the war has weakened Russia strategically, and that this weakening has created an opportunity for China, and that Xi is only too happy to exploit that — that idea clearly makes a lot of people happy.
To be clear, there were a handful of detractors out there, too, arguing that I — clearly a shill for American imperialism — was systematically failing to notice the solidifying of what one commentator called “the post-western alliance”. To be honest, that charge doesn’t bother me in the slightest, and not just because I think I know my own record on American imperialism. I laid out in some detail in that thread the evidence for my argument, which boils down to a lopsided set of promises that deliver a lot to China and not much to Russia. Post-western it may be, but until someone can show me evidence of Beijing’s willingness to make sacrifices for Russia, it doesn’t look much like an alliance.
No, it’s not the critics that bother me: it’s everyone else. I had a similar sense of unease late last week and into the weekend, when a piece I published on the importance of the ICC’s indictment of Putin got a similarly positive (if not quite as viral) response. And a great many of those responses are emotional: many people are agreeing with what I’ve written because it makes them feel good. They can say that Putin is losing, that he’s sold his country short — “mortgaged the Kremlin to China”, as I wrote — and that he will never again be welcome in the West. I’ve helped them believe that, helped them make that point to others, and given them an extra bit of confidence.
The fact that my analysis in these two cases chimes with what I and a lot of other people want to be true does not, of course, invalidate my analysis, any more than writing what people don’t want to hear would automatically make me right. I really don’t think I was cherry-picking the evidence in either case, or purposefully telling people what they wanted to hear — or what I wanted to write. I can’t entirely rule out some degree of subconscious social desirability bias, though, and so the resonance of these two interventions should give me pause, I think.
One way to deal with this is to subject the argument to criticism, and if others don’t critique it, to critique it myself. I can come up with all kinds of potential objections on both fronts: that China and Russia may well have done deals we don’t know about, and thus that there may be aspects to the relationship I’m not seeing, for example; or that the ICC, in taking such a clear line against Putin, may have strained its global legitimacy beyond the breaking point. While I think my own arguments are stronger than those counter-arguments, I have to admit we don’t yet have all the evidence. In the long run, we’ll find out. But also in the long run, we’re all dead — and policy needs to be made right now.
So I’m beginning to think that the better way to deal with this problem — with the danger of dissolving into the morass of wishful thinking — is not to poke holes in my own arguments, but to see where other people take them. Twitter, it turns out, is great for this. There is a disturbingly large number of people who have used my Putin-Xi thread to predict a Chinese annexation of eastern Siberia, or my CEPA piece on the ICC to foretell an imminent coup in Moscow — and those are relatively tame examples. In short, it doesn’t take too long before the limits of my arguments become clearer.
I haven’t spent the time or energy to explain to all of these people why they’re wrong, though perhaps I should. But knowing that my analysis can — and, if it goes viral, likely will — be used to justify arguments with which I would not in my wildest dreams agree should prompt me (and maybe not only me) to think preemptively about the limits of my own thinking.
How to get Twitter to pay attention to caveats — that’s another matter entirely.
What I’m reading
Last weekend, just as the last Weekend Roundup was going live, the Dossier Center — an investigative reporting project supported by Mikhail Khodorkovsky — published a phenomenal investigation into Evgeny Prigozhin’s internal Russian propaganda operations. I spent way too much of the rest of the weekend reading it, and if you haven’t already read it, well, you should. Based on a trove of hacked documents, the investigation describes a massive network of networks, allowing Prigozhin to pursue a multitude of agendas on behalf of a multitude of interests across a multitude of media and platforms. But unlike earlier internal propaganda operations, such as that run by Kristina Potupchik (and described at some length in Putin vs the People, if I may be allowed a self-plug), Prigozhin’s is not a loose confederation of freelancers. Yes, it is rife with fraud and tax evasion, but Prigozhin’s “troll army” is in many senses an army: hierarchically structured, punitively disciplined, obsessively concerned with security.
When you’re done with Dossier’s report on Prigozhin, click over to Svetlana Reiter and Irina Pankratova’s investigation of how the Russian military-industrial holding Rostekh is fighting to get control over influential Telegram channels, published Wednesday in Meduza. Between the two investigations, you (or, at least I) get a picture of a Russian political landscape that is rife with internal conflict, and that still takes public opinion — and the ability to manipulate it — very seriously indeed.
If there’s anything left with your weekend after those two reports, you could do worse than to read last Monday’s report in the Financial Times on the Swiss oil traders who have decamped to Dubai in order to continue profiting from Russian crude — and particularly those less prominent grades of crude that skirt the price caps imposed by the G-7. And then read either Brooke Harrington’s column in the New York Times on Tuesday, or her academic paper co-authored with Ho-Chun Herbert Chang, Feng Fu and Daniel Rockmore, on the structural role of Western intermediaries in enabling Russian kleptocracy — and thus the political unaccountability that allows Putin to pursue such a ruinous war. (If you have the time, I’d recommend reading the latter: for my money, at least, it’s more interesting than the piece in the Times.) I’m not fully convinced, as she and her co-authors argue, that these kleptocratic networks would indeed fall apart if you remove the intermediaries; it seems to me they would be relatively easy to replace with new ones. But if you removed western intermediation as such — whether the offshore moneymen in the Harrington et al work, or the commodity traders in the FT report — the disruption to the Russian political economy would be catastrophic.
In other news, a piece in Monday’s Financial Times on the tribulations of VW in Russia caught my eye. In a nutshell, VW has been struggling to divest its Russian assets but has been blocked by a Russian court, acting on behalf of Oleg Deripaska (the kind of person I would once have referred to as an oligarch). As the FT reports, VW and other Western companies face a problem potentially worse than just a massive write-off: they face their Russian assets being transferred directly to allies of the Kremlin, and thus supporting Putin’s war effort. In reading the piece, I was struck by the contrast to a report the week before about Austria’s Raiffeisenbank, which has proposed a €400 million asset swap with Russia’s Sberbank. Given that Sberbank is both owned by the state and critical to the functioning of the Russian economy as a whole, such a transaction would be a direct contribution to the war effort — exactly the kind of thing VW and others are trying to avoid. It strikes me that Western governments ought to be encouraging companies to be more like VW, and less like Raiffeisen.
What I’m listening to
Serendipity, folks. It’s real.
Last weekend, on a break from reading about Prigozhin, I was lamenting to myself that I hadn’t found much good new music in a while. For lack of anything better to do, I clicked on a link — to a video from an artist I had never heard of before, on which I almost certainly would not have clicked in any other mood — that had shown up in my Facebook feed, put there by Motorco, a music venue in Durham. And now I bring that link to you.
Digging through my backlog of brilliant writing I need to read, and tonight this line just rang out to me in all sorts of meaningful ways: "I have to admit we don’t yet have all the evidence. In the long run, we’ll find out. But also in the long run, we’re all dead — and policy needs to be made right now."