Look out Europe: the Russian bear is coming
- June 05, 2015
There is a psychological theory called projection which I have often thought can be applied to international relations. Essentially, projection describes a tendency in interpersonal relationships by which individuals project onto others certain characteristics that they fear or hate in themselves. An obvious example might be a sexually-frustrated fundamentalist preacher say, who persecutes others because he imagines that they are thinking about nothing but sex. Another example might an unfaithful or potentially unfaithful spouse who imagines that his/her partner is unfaithful.
Freud thought that the main purpose of this mechanism was defensive: by projecting onto others feelings that you find unacceptable or frightening in yourself you are able to externalise them and defend yourself against them, by imagining that it is someone else, not you that feels them.
Applied to relationships between states, this mechanism may serve a similar purpose. If, for example, one state is preparing to launch an aggressive war against another – something that it knows is morally – and more recently – legally unacceptable – then it is far better to imagine that the state you are attacking harbours aggressive or expansionist intentions towards you. That way your own aggression becomes a ‘defensive’ or ‘preemptive’ reaction that is legitimate and acceptable.
This dynamic has played out many times in history. Napoleon once justified the invasion of Spain as a response to Spanish ‘treachery’, even though the hapless Spanish could not even begin to compete with the dishonest and manipulative manouevres of the French empire. Hitler justified the invasion of Poland as a response to ‘Polish aggression’ after a border incident that he himself arranged. And more recently the United States and Britain invaded Iraq on the grounds of selective and manipulated intelligence that presented Saddam Hussein as a real or potential aggressor who was intent on attacking them
Of course projection in these circumstances isn’t just a question of powerful states trying to legitimize their aggression to themselves. It also has an explicit propaganda purpose: even the most powerful states like to look good to themselves and to the outside world. Liberal democratic states are particularly prone to projection because they so often take their own virtuousness for granted and because, even more than kings and dictators, they need to make any perceived departure from it appear legitimate in the eyes of their own populations.
But the ultimate outcome of this process is always the same: to present a vision of the world in which your own side is essentially pacific and well-intentioned, while your enemies are intent on conquest and even world domination. All these tendencies were present in Chatham House’s paper on ‘ The Russian Challenge’ which came out this week. Produced by The Royal Institute of International Affairs (RUSI), the paper is a classic Russophobic document in the tradition of George Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’.
The paper caused a big splash in the Independent because of its eye-catching warning that NATO and the European Union face potential collapse unless the West defends its ‘principles’ in the face of Russian aggression. It also warned that Russia might use ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ in Ukraine and that therefore the West should take steps to demonstrate to Russia that ‘limited war’ was ‘impossible’.
All of this was what you might expect from a mainstream establishment thinktank that tends to tell the British government what it wants to hear. The report’s authors include Sir Roderic Lyne, former ambassador to Russia, whose post-government jobs include special advisor to BP and JP Morgan Chase, both of which have extensive interests in Iraq – a connection that did not prevent him from becoming a member of the Chilcot Inquiry.
Lyne and his co-authors are broadly in agreement that the West’s failure to respond to ‘ the full implications of Russia’s descent into authoritarian nationalism’ has now brought Europe and Nato to the point when the ‘post-Cold War settlement’ is threatened with disintegration. As always, this is Russia’s fault. While the West has been pacific and naively trusting, Putin has smelt weakness, because this is what Putin and Russia are like.
Far be it from me to present Vladimir Putin as a paragon of democracy. But it is impossible to avoid the reek of hypocrisy and double standards in RUSI’s analysis of Russian behavior and intentions. First of all, there is the question of ‘aggression.’ Since the end of the Cold War the United States and ‘the West’ has fought many more wars than Russia, often with catastrophic consequences. In no case were any of these wars ‘defensive’ except in the most elastic and often meaningless sense of the term.
Such recognition is entirely absent from Lyne’s suggestion that Russia ‘lured Georgia into a short, ugly and ill-judged war’ in 2008. Lyne does not even acknowledge the existence of allegations that it was the Georgian government of Mikhail Saakashvili that lured Russia into war, in the mistaken belief that the West would step in on Georgia’s side.
Any such recognition would detract from Lyne’s depiction of Russia’s determination to be an ‘independent Great power maintaining its geopolitical position on its own terms’ – a desire that supposedly reflects ‘a deep sense of insecurity and a fear that Russia’s interests would be threatened if it lost control of its neighborhood.’
Regardless of what you think of ‘ Great Power’ statecraft or Russia’s wars and interventions in Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, it is worth pointing out that there are few states that don’t regard the states closest to them as their ‘neighborhood’ and which don’t attempt to influence or control them in accordance with their own security interests. This is what the United States has done for more than a century in its Latin American ‘backyard’, most recently in Panama. It’s what the European Union did when it attacked Libya.
Do states have the ‘right’ to subordinate their neighbors to their own interests? No, but most powerful states assume this right anyway, and suggesting that such a goal is the result of of some endemic Russian/Soviet pathology is just self-serving drivel, frankly.
Unlike Russia, the US and the West regard the entire world as their ‘neighborhood’ when it comes to military intervention. American policy documents since the Cold War have made it clear again and again that the US believes that it has the right to wage war or project military power anywhere in the world. One of the essential goals of post-Cold War US military strategy is to prevent the emergence of any regional rival anywhere.
You will never hear an establishment thinktank on either side of the Atlantic question the ‘right’ of the United States to put troops in Uzbekistan, in the Pacific, or Africa or anywhere else, but when Russia frets at the prospect of Nato missiles in Ukraine then it’s just the result of some strange Slavic insecurity, it seems.
Putin may be an authoritarian jerk, but he is not wrong in denouncing a ‘pernicious’ unipolar world and NATO expansion, nor in his condemnation of the ‘barbarity’ in the Middle East that has followed from Western political interventions, nor in citing Kosovo as a justification of supporting independence in South Ossetia or Abkhazia, nor in his suggestion that external forces also helped bring about the uprising/coup in Ukraine. According to Lyne, such suggestions are further evidence of Putin’s ‘deep sense of insecurity’, in which even his language ‘at times verges on the paranoid’ and ‘reveals a defensive mentality.’
Please. In 2003 the US and British governments invaded Iraq on the basis of weapons that it knew it didn’t have, because bug-eyed zealots like Dick Cheney and Tony Blair believed that the ‘calculus of risk’ had changed to the point when military intervention was justified even if there was a ‘one percent chance’ that certain regimes might have WMD. And Putin is the one who’s paranoid?
Lyne says that Putin has ‘painted a picture of Russia as a victim and target of Western attack over the centuries’ in order ‘to justify his authoritarian control and aggressive tactics on Russia’s periphery’ as if this past was nothing but fantasy. Well Russia has been an imperial power, both under the Tsars and the Soviets, but it has also repeatedly been attacked, and these episodes will always influence its approach to security, regardless of whether it’s Putin or someone else who is in power.
Again and again the West has failed to recognize this strategic vulnerability as a driving force in Russian foreign policy, and has preferred to depict Russia as the ancestral enemy, intrinsically aggressive and expansionist and intent onf world domination, and perhaps incapable of behaving ‘rationally’ through some innate ‘oriental’/authoritarian gene which connects the Tsars to Putin.
Thus the paper argues that ‘the prospect of a strategic partnership with Russia, yearned for by many in the West, has become remote in the face of incompatible interests and irreconcilable values’ that include ‘democracy, a law-based state, and personal and political freedom.’
No one would suggest that Putin’s Russia is the embodiment of any of these values, but Europe and its allies have managed to forge strategic partnership with states that are even further from than Russia, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt – or the fascist-permeated government of Ukraine. So Chatham House’s antipathy to Russia suggests a problem of geostrategy rather than ‘values’, and I can’t help feeling that what the West really yearns for is a subordinate vassal rather than a strategic partner.
As for the West’s bleating about its disappointment with Russian democracy, well it should have thought about that when it gleefully oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union into wildcat mafia capitalism. People don’t tend to like democracy when it’s associated bankruptcy and pauperisation and the Russians are no exception. If Putin is popular, there might just be a reason – that he is associated, rightly or wrongly, with a small but nevertheless notable Russian national resurgence.
Yet all Chatham House can do is urge the European Union to turn Ukraine into a test case of its resolve, because failure to do so would ‘deepen instability in Eastern Europe, increase the risk of further Kremlin adventures and diminish the prospects for beneficial change in Russia.’
Yes, ‘benefical change’ in Russia would be good, wouldn’t it? After all we’ve seen so much of it these last fifteen years. So maybe Putin knows that just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not trying to get you. But regardless of whether he does or not, this depressing and one sided analysis is another example of the kind of blinkered, hysterical, looking-through-a-keyhole thinking that is paving the way for a century of permanent war.