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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
7 January 2023: Intellectual honesty, plus texts and tunes
The call came in at about 3:45pm London time, from a producer at a UK radio station I’m usually happy to talk to.
“Can you talk tomorrow morning?” he asked. “We want to do something about Putin’s health.”
“Um…” I demurred. “I can, I suppose, but the only thing I’m going to say about Putin’s health is that we should really stop talking about Putin’s health.”
“Sounds great,” the producer said. “We’ll do it.”
Mercifully, something shifted in the schedule, and he texted me a few hours later to cancel. I really don’t want to talk about Putin’s health. I’ll admit it, though: after taking a little bit of time off for the holidays, there’s not a whole lot I do want to talk about. I’d much rather ask questions right now, than answer them.
What I’m thinking about
Thank heavens for Barry Posen.
Seriously. As the first working week of 2023 drew to a close, I found myself with tons of stuff on my best — but not a whole lot on my mind. I blame it on a combination of start-of-year bureaucracy and the endlessly fascinating Kevin McCarthy saga. But then Prof Posen came along.1 And so it was that on Friday morning I became the 10,000th person to pontificate on Prof Posen’s piece in this week’s Foreign Affairs.
In that piece, Prof Posen — a distinguished and decorated professor of international relations at MIT — argues that the war appears headed for stalemate, and outright victory is likely to be (a) elusive and (b) costly. In his arithmetic, then, a+b=the necessity of a negotiated solution. He writes:
“If it wanted to, the United States could develop a diplomatic strategy to reduce maximalist thinking in both Ukraine and Russia.”
One problem, as noted by many readers, is that Prof Posen — who waits until the final paragraph of his article to make that recommendation, spending the rest describing the history of the war to date — doesn’t actually have anything to say about what that diplomatic strategy might look like.
But the problem that motivated me on Friday morning was this:
It’s worth unpacking that critique in a little more depth, though.
First, Prof Posen’s phrase — “maximalist thinking in both Russia and Ukraine” — has the effect, intended or otherwise, of equating the objectives of the two sides. If pushed, I’m fairly certain that Prof Posen would not endorse the idea that the absence of an invading army on one’s territory and of missiles raining down on one’s cities is morally or even politically equivalent to the forcible presence of one’s own army on someone else’s territory. And yet that is what his article says: the problem he wants America to help solve is that both Russia and Ukraine want too much.
To that critique, I imagine Prof Posen would reply that of course Ukraine is right to want sovereignty over its territory, and of course that claim is more legitimate than anything that Russia might claim, but the reality — and Prof Posen is a realist — is that Ukraine is unlikely to be able to achieve that aim, or at least is unlikely to be able to achieve it in a reasonable amount of time and at a reasonable cost. Since these are my words in Prof Posen’s imagined mouth and not his own, I’ll leave aside any quibbles about what defines “reasonable”. Fundamentally, what Prof Posen is saying is that if Ukraine keeps fighting for full control of its territory, it is uncertain that it will succeed, but certain that many more people will die. And because that is what I take to be his underlying sentiment, I do approach this (imagined) discussion with respect.
But if what Prof Posen is trying to do is to save lives, then it would behoove him — and others in the realist camp — to dig deeper into two lines of thought in particular: one about Russia, and the other about the US.
As concerns Russia, the implication of Prof Posen’s recommendation is that the bulk of the cajoling will fall on Ukraine; indeed, I doubt that he could suggest anything at this stage that would be likely to entice Moscow to reduce its aims. His evident hope, then, is that if Ukraine signals it is ready to cede, formally or otherwise, part of its territory to Russia, Vladimir Putin might decide that enough is enough and call it a day. The problem with that assumption, however, is that it’s evidence-free. Neither Prof Posen nor John Mearsheimer nor the nice people at the Quincy Institute ever seem to delve into any in-depth analysis of Russian politics or decision-making. Instead, they tend to project abstract assumptions about how states behave, derived from one iteration of international relations theory or another, onto Russia, most of which come down to notions of national security.
Those of us who actually do analyze Russia, however, tend to see a very different picture — one in which the Kremlin is more interested in regime security than national security. As a result, because Putin’s calculations vis-à-vis this war are fundamentally tied to domestic politics rather than international relations, the ability of anybody outside Russia, whether in Washington or Kyiv, to entice him into a deal is vanishingly small. Anything Ukraine or the US were to offer would have to be filtered through Putin’s own subjective judgment regarding his political prospects at home to have any impact on his prosecution of this war or willingness to negotiate — to say nothing of any genuine good faith in such negotiations. That strikes me as an irresponsibly tenuous proposition on which to base the suggestion that Ukraine should make territorial concessions to an invading neighbor.
The second line of thought is this: it is impossible to make an argument that the US should be circumspect in its international relations and entanglements — a generally laudable argument, in my view — and simultaneously argue that the US should “encourage” Ukraine to cede territory and citizens to Russia. Prof Posen and others might argue that while Ukraine is entitled to fight as long as it wants, the US is equally entitled to provide military aid to Ukraine only as long as it wants. That, of course, is true, and it’s because it’s true that Prof Posen’s argument is, in my view, so pernicious. When he says “encourage”, what he really means is “force.” At the end of the day, if Ukrainians want to fight for their territory, the only means of encouragement available to Washington is the threat of ceasing military support. What Prof Posen is really arguing, then, is that the US should hand Ukraine — or a piece of Ukraine — over to Russia.
Why, in Prof Posen’s argument, should the US hand a piece of Ukraine over to Russia? The answer, oddly enough, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Ukraine. Or perhaps that’s not so odd: it is difficult to construct an argument with any kind of legitimacy for forcing a country, subject to an unprovoked and illegal invasion, to cede territory to its invader. And, indeed, Prof Posen doesn’t try. Rather, he suggests that America’s overriding aim should be the preservation of life, and the best way to preserve life is to end the war, and the best way to end the war is to force Ukraine to cede territory.
It’s right there that Prof Posen’s argument fails even on its own terms. What begins as an argument based in a desire to rein in America’s geopolitical ambitions evolves into an argument of breathtaking imperialism: Prof Posen awards to Washington the right to decide how a sovereign country should value the lives, freedom and democratic franchise of its own citizens. Why? On what grounds? Prof Posen doesn’t say.
What I’m reading
If you’re looking for a heterodox viewpoint of genuine intellectual significance — and one that grapples with hard questions about where this war and the world are heading — skip Barry Posen and look up Volodymyr Ishchenko’s recent piece in the New Left Review. In his essay, he worries along multiple fronts that the liberation and “decolonization” of Ukraine may not be going entirely according to plan.
Dr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist at the Free University of Berlin, has a reputation as something of an outsider in contemporary Ukrainian political analysis. Partly, I think, this stems from his methodological and conceptual approaches, grounded in small-m marxist theory. More broadly, though, he has developed, and perhaps enjoys, a reputation as a bit of a provocateur, whether for accusing some Ukrainian politicians of nationalism or, more recently, for suggesting that the Ukrainian military may have a recruitment problem. Regardless, the Ukrainian intellectual landscape is pluralist, and Dr Ishchenko is firmly ensconced atop one of its many hills. Thus, in his NLR essay, Dr Ishchenko highlights two fears: one, that in rejecting one set of colonial impositions, the current government in Kyiv may be too eager to accept a new set of impositions from the West, particularly in the structure and governance of the economy; and a second, that the wartime consolidation is forcing a homogenization of the Ukrainian public space, and thus elevating some voices over others. The overall result, he worries, is the diminution of Ukrainian voices as such, rather than their liberation and genuine decolonization.
I am not enough of a scholar of Ukraine — indeed, I am not any kind of scholar of Ukraine — to pass judgment on Dr Ishchenko’s arguments. Many of the Ukrainian scholars I look to for expertise, including Ola Onuch, Oxana Shevel and Serhiy Kudelia, would, I think, disagree. So I’ll keep reading, and I hope you will, too.
Returning to Russia, Sergey Radchenko had an excellent essay just after Christmas in Engelsberg Ideas, in which he offers a nuanced and complex view of how Russian propaganda has helped dampen any potential anti-war sentiment. In the process, he wades into a roiling argument about why more Russians haven’t protested and he lands, in my view at least, on exactly the right answer: it’s not because Russians are different from us, but because they’re more like us than we’d care to admit.
“Which one of us, exposed to the same circumstances and the same narratives will react differently from how Russians react? Some will. And many Russians do, to. … But the silent majority just drifts along. They are too human to care.”
In that, Sergey’s piece resonated with a report from Moscow by Max Seddon in the Financial Times, in which he found government officials and oligarchs alike trying — and often succeeding — to pretend that this whole thing wasn’t happening, not because they liked it, but because facing it head on was scarier. He wrote:
“One friend likened the experience of living in Moscow to the classic 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where fear and paranoia grip the human protagonists as they struggle to work out which of their friends have been replaced by monsters.”
And Max’s piece, in turn, resonated with a report from the Russian business newspaper Kommersant about the sudden disappearance of financial statistics and economic analysis from the public space. The reasons for this are clear enough: both the government and the corporate sector are trying to make it harder for Western governments to impose and enforce sanctions. I tend to think, though, that there’s more to it than that. I’ve noticed for a few months now that the economic stories appearing in Kommersant and elsewhere tend to have fewer and fewer comments — and I don’t think it’s entirely because there’s less and less to talk about. As best I can tell, there are fewer and fewer people who think that honest analysis is worth the risk.
And the subject of risk brings me back around to the other people in Sergei Radchenko’s piece (implicitly): those Russians who did speak out. Novaya gazeta, the Nobel Prize-winning independent newspaper currently publishing in exile, had an excellent story this week about the growing number of political prisoners languishing in Russian prisons — but this story is different from most of those you will have read, in two respects. One, it focuses on the people, not the numbers, delving into their lives in prison, and the lives of their loved ones on the outside. And two, it isn’t about the people we all know, like Alexei Navalny, Vladimir Kara-Murza or Ilya Yashin. It’s about Aleksandra Skolichenko, who is in prison for replacing price tags in a supermarket with anti-war stickers. It’s about Azat Miftakhov, serving a six-year sentence for breaking the window of a United Russia party office. And it’s about Ilya Shakurskii, one of seven young anti-fascist activists tortured and sentenced to 16 years for “terrorism”.
The numbers of political prisoners, alas, are growing, and it will get harder and harder to remember their names. But one of the clearest messages to come across in the Novaya gazeta article is a message passed down from Soviet times: sometimes the only thing keeping a political prisoner alive — physically and spiritually — is the knowledge that they are not forgotten.
What I’m listening to
Maybe because the weather in England is foul — or maybe because the news just has me in a foul mood — I’ve been on a British Isles post-punk kick for a while. Just before the holidays it was Porridge Radio. Earlier last year it was Yard Act and Wet Leg.
Right now, it’s the Irish-come-to-London band Fontaines D.C., whose April 2022 album Skinty Fia I discovered just before Christmas, and I’ve been hooked — like a lot of other people, evidently — ever since. Yes, I’m eight months behind the times. Sue me.
For clarification: When I’m referring to people I know personally, I tend to use their first name. If I use the surname, with or without an honorific, it’s a safe bet I’ve never met them. That’s certainly true in this case.