Wednesday, August 01, 2018

This war we do not see or understand

We in the United States and Europe are at war with a foreign attacker, whether we have noticed or not. According to Timothy Snyder, historian and author of that masterful account of Central and East Europe's mid-20th century carnage Bloodlands, Putin's Russia is in full attack mode -- and winning. Seems a radical suggestion: there are no snipers on the roofs or goose stepping troops or tanks in the streets. But after all, if we but dare to look, this accords with the evidence which our more serious journalists have revealed and with what the Mueller investigation is diligently assembling. We can see this war, if we choose.

Snyder calls out Russian rulers' war on hope, justice, and potentiality at home and abroad in The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.

Not so long ago, Soviet Russia was an empire that militarily competed with "the West." After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, what is left is a broken, disillusioned and weak kleptocracy ruled by corrupt oligarchs. Russians are a brave and hardy people, very poorly served by a series of deceitful thugs. The economy of this continent-spanning land is about the size of that of Italy. Though the state ostensibly has institutions of law and justice, in fact elections are meaningless and commerce is subject to the whim of those with connections. The current autocrat Vladimir Putin controls almost all media and uses state power to hold on to power. Russia's rulers have adopted a complex theo-fascist nationalist ideology; Snyder explicates this ideology at length, but I will not describe it here. Bullshit remains bullshit, even when it has academic and powerful elaborators and exponents. (Yes, we too in "the West" have our share of bullshit in our culture, but at least ours offers better ideals to aspire too ...)

Because this sad Russia is weak, yet convinced it has a calling to project power, it makes war on perceived enemies not with its missiles and nukes, but though lies and treachery. Snyder describes in detail how, since 2013, Russia has experimented with these weapons in its attempt to peel its Ukrainian neighbor state away from Europe. Here's a summary:

Throughout the war in Ukraine, the Russian leadership engaged in implausible deniability, telling obvious lies and then daring the Western media to seek the facts. [Its soldiers invaded and conquered Crimea; shot down a civilian jet; instigated and carried out war on eastern cities; and all along pretended to its own population that none of this happened and that the Ukrainian government were Nazis. All this intervention goes on till today.] ...factuality was the enemy.

... The underlying logic of the Russian war against Ukraine, Europe and America was strategic relativism. Given native kleptocracy and dependence on commodity exports, Russian state power could not increase, nor Russian technology close the gap with Europe or America. Relative power could however be achieved by weakening others: by invading Ukraine to keep it away from Europe, for example. The concurrent information war was meant to weaken the EU and the United States. What Europeans and Americans had that Russians lacked were integrated trade zones and predictable politics with respected principles of succession. If these could be damaged, Russian losses would be acceptable since enemy losses would be still greater. In strategic relativism, the point is to transform international politics into a negative-sum game, where a skillful player will lose less than everyone else.

In some respects, Russia did lose its war in Ukraine... the frozen conflict was a far cry from the "disintegration" of Ukraine discussed in Russian policy papers .... Ukrainian society was consolidated by the Russian invasion. ...for the first time in Ukrainian history, public opinion became anti-Russian. ...By invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and shooting down MH17, Russia forced the European Union and the United States to respond. ... [Western sanctions] did isolate Russia from its major partners and deepen Russia's economic crisis. Putin pretended that China was an alternative; Beijing exposed Russia's weakness by paying less for Russian hydrocarbons. ... Almost everyone lost in the Russo-Ukrainian war: Russia, the EU, the United States. The only winner was China.

According to Snyder, the war on Ukraine emboldened Putin to intervene more directly against what he sees as the true enemy, the United States. What makes the U.S. such a threat is its semi-functional democracy: if legal regime change can successfully, even if haltingly, carry a society forward under law, it becomes all too evident that Putin's Russian-model plutocracy is doomed to recurrent collapse and failure. And so, Russia's intervention in the 2016 election.

There is nothing inherently Russian about political fiction. ... Other societies can yield to the same form of politics after a shock and a scandal as in Poland, or as a result of inequality and Russian intervention, as in Great Britain and the United States. ...When a presidential candidate from a fictional world appeared in the United States, Ukrainians and Russians noted the familiar pattern, but few on the American Right or the American Left listened. When Moscow brought to bear in the United States the same techniques used in Ukraine, few on the American Right or the American Left noticed. And so the United States was defeated, Trump was elected, the Republican Party was blinded, and the Democratic Party was shocked. Russians supplied the political fiction, but Americans were asking for it.

... Trump's advance to the Oval Office had three stages, each of which depended on American vulnerability and required American cooperation. First, Russians had to transform a failed real estate developer into a recipient of their capital. Second, this failed real estate developer had to portray on American television, a successful businessman. Finally, Russia intervened with purpose and success to support the fictional character "Donald Trump, successful businessman" in the 2017 presidential election. ... From a Russian perspective, Trump was a failure who was rescued and an asset to be used to wreak havoc in American reality. ... Trump the winner was a fiction that would make his country lose.

Snyder knows what happened in 2016 was not solely foreign intervention. If U.S. democracy had not been weakened by our racism, our own economic inequality and our (often justified) cynicism, cyber war and the Republican Trump-bot could not have triumphed. Trump's election was facilitated by Russia, but ultimately our failures are our own. Snyder concludes:

Moscow won a negative-sum game in international politics by helping to turn American domestic politics into a negative-sum game. ... Russian citizens trade the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defense of Russian innocence. ... white Americans trade the prospect of a better future for the vision of a valiant defense of American innocence. Some Americans can be persuaded to live shorter and worse lives, provided they are under the impression, rightly or wrongly, that blacks (or perhaps immigrants or Muslims) suffer still more. ...

...To break the spell, ...we must see ourselves as we are, not on some exceptional path, but in history alongside others. ... we must address our own particular problems, beginning with inequality, with timely public policy. To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflict is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as citizenry rather than groups in conflict. America will have both forms of equality or it will have neither. If it has neither ...American democracy will come to a close.

This book is distressing because it rings true. Go there, if you dare. Choose factuality. Resist and protect much.

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