According to Reuters, U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti told defense ministers that Russia was seeking, in military parlance, “escalation dominance,” according to people briefed on the discussions.
This is a reasonable assertion. But Britain’s ambassador to NATO Adam Thomson is quoted as saying, “It is obviously trying to signal but it is not clear that we know how to understand those signals.”
Scaparotti’s assertion is reasonable because Putin and his planners, like western planners, gravitate towards formal thought frameworks. But also like western thinkers, the formalities are impositions on instinctive thought patterns. Without the genes of conflict, there would be no conflict. When is the last time you saw two palm trees shooting at each other?
The roots of the current escalation of tensions are memorable. Some Russian speaking knuckle-draggers (apes), took it upon themselves to “rescue” the eastern Russian speaking provinces of Ukraine from the evil Ukrainians of Kiev, whose sins were significant, but not of the mortal variety.
Within Russia, there was widespread support for the knuckle-dragging nationalists leading to a surge of Anschluss sentiment. There was even one supporting preauthored white paper, though the Kremlin denies it was theirs. After some weeks of temporizing, Putin’s choices were difficult: to harness this sentiment in support of his political machine, or oppose it. He apparently judged he was not strong enough to survive the latter course. He saw opportunity as well, but it’s a fine point.
The EU and the U.S. responded with sanctions at which the Russians originally scoffed. Perhaps they thought the Chinese would replace that West. It now appears that the Chinese have noticed two things:
- In contrast to China’s drive against corruption, Putin’s state relies on strategies that, according to the revised Chinese standard of behavior, constitute corruption. Unlike China, Russia is not evolving towards a Confucian version of Plato’s Republic.
- While China is still a place of arbitrary detention, it is still a relatively safe place to do business.
The Fortune article How the KGB (and friends) took over Russia’s economy (Last Updated: September 10, 2008: 8:42 AM EDT ) describes the strong-arming of B.P, for which there is no comparable China story:
Consider the case of BP (BP), which thought its partnership with a group of Russian billionaires, TNK-BP, was a textbook joint venture. Instead, the British oil company finds itself under attack: Its Russia-based employees have been hit with dubious charges of industrial espionage, the CFO of the venture recently stepped down, and the CEO has publicly complained of “sustained harassment of the company and myself” by Russian authorities. Industry analysts believe they’ve seen this scenario before – last year Royal Dutch Shell (RDS-B) was forced to cede control over its Sakhalin oilfield to Russian companies (see “Shell Shakedown”) – and predict BP will eventually pull out in frustration, followed by a state-controlled energy giant taking over the business.
The result of all this, and Russia’s military posturing, is that, among the most advanced countries in world, Russia is a pariah. Vladimir Putin could not have planned this. But from his upbringing, he is susceptible to the notion of cultural superiority. Searching for a new Russian ethos to replace communism, he happened to imagine the solution in a throwback to the time of the Tsars.
What Adam Thomson refers to are not signals, except in a very crude sense, explained best by the telling of an old Soviet joke:
A poor peasant lives with his family in a one-room hut. His only possessions are a horse, a cow, and and a pig. He asks the commissar for permission to add a room to the hut. The commissar orders him, “Take the cow into your hut and live with it!” After a week, the peasant entreats the commissar, “It is even worse with the cow in my small space. May I please enlarge my hut?” The commissar then orders, “Take the pig into your hut and live with it!” After another week, the peasant is going out of his mind. He asks the commissar again, “May I please enlarge my hut a little bit? There is no room to move.” The commissar sternly orders the peasant to take the horse into his hut. After a third week, the peasant has become a raving lunatic, but he gasps out one final request. The commissar replies, “You may take the animals out of your hut.” The peasant throws himself on the ground and cries, “Thank you, thank you!”
By being incredibly nasty, the West will thank the Russians for any kindness that may be forthcoming.
Putin is an intelligent man, but few are the figures of history who successfully crafted a civilization, or even a national culture. The man has overreached. The other day, I had an enjoyable discussion with an intelligent German, who offered two opinions:
- The West mistreated Russia in the Glasnost period.
- Putin is bad, and has to be stopped. Otherwise, he asked, when will it stop?
The German’s two opinions are not contradictory. We can neither blame ourselves for creating a monster, or give ourselves a pass. Neither can we vilify Vladimir Putin for his attempt to found a modern state with a foundation of nothing modern. But the time for admiration is past. The problem is bigger than he is, and I don’t mean it as a denigration. It’s a very big problem.
The error of Putin’s Russia, possibly encouraged by some western actions, is to make the problem of Russia a version of the map-coloring problem. On a political map, how, using a limited number of inks, can the entities be colored so that no two adjacent have the same color? How can Russia’s internal stability be favored by cross-border tensions? The notion that internal stability is favored by neighborly relations is a modern, western notion. Post 2008, it is not a Russian concept.
Adam Thomson, and policy wonks in general, think of the “Russian signals problem” in terms of the SETI decoding of signals of an advanced civilization. But it involves dressing up instinctive behavior with unjustified complexity, when an amoeba might suffice. The Reuters article refers to the Moscow troop concentration:
NATO says its decision to send 4,000 troops, planes, tanks and artillery to former Soviet republics in the Baltics and to Poland next year is a measured response compared to what NATO believes are 330,000 Russian troops amassed near Moscow.
They are around Moscow because that is where they can be seen, reinforcing domestic paranoia, and incidentally, to fend off Chechens, revolutionaries, nationalists, and the like.
Now that Putin’s Russia has converted national survival into a version of the map coloring problem, we’re stuck with a new version of Containment. But Putin won’t live forever. His RS-28 missiles, fueled by very dangerous chemicals, will rust or explode in their silos. Vigilance and patience are justified.
But let’s not try very hard to interpret Russian “signals.” If I were a Russian, I would want the West to believe that they exist. For the meaning, such as it is, refer to the joke.