This is for the particular interest of Russian readers. Your side of the story is omitted, because you know it.
(CNN) Trump administration slaps more sanctions on Russia after Skripal poisonings. Quoting a tweet by Dmitry Polyanskiy, first deputy permanent representative of Russia to the UN [misspellings his],
“The theater of absurd continues. No proofs, no clues, no logic, no presumption of innocense, just highly-liklies. Only one rule: blame everything on Russia, no matter how absurd and fake it is. Let us welcome the United Sanctions of America!”
Polyanskiy’s credibility is zero. For Russia, the court is no longer public opinion. In the West, institutional memory has taken over. Although we don’t have a professional bureaucratic class like France, the 4000+ people who make up the bulk of appointed officials take this oath:
I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.
The Russians may think the new sanctions are another move in the game called diplomacy. This would be one more mistaken perception that clouds Russia’s view of the West. This is no longer about diplomacy; it’s about public safety.
Ever since the Ukraine invasion of February 2014, Russia has been busy demolishing her attractiveness and standing in the West. It’s now considered dangerous to
- Invest money in Russia. (Bill Browder)
- Date a Russian woman.
- Talk to a Russian, unless you are completely out of the loop.
- Have tea with a Russian, lest it be sweetened with polonium (Alexander Litvinenko)
- Pick up a discarded cosmetic bottle, lest it be Russian nerve poison. (Independent) Novichok victim Charlie Rowley accidentally picked up nerve agent in ‘cosmetic bottle’ as present for Dawn Sturgess
- Be a diplomat in a place where a Russian ultrasonic gizmo might fry your brains, such as Cuba.
- Be up for election in a swing district.
This is not small potatoes. If Bill Browder does not live to be a hundred, we will blame the cleverness of Russia. It is the most unbrilliant, perverse PR campaign by Russia that could be imagined. The saber rattling, the poisons, the Syria atrocities… these things are getting to us.
Why the drama? To emphasize that this has escaped the realm of propaganda. The oath-takers are thinking that while it’s still more likely to be struck by lightning than to die of Russian poison, the thought is not absurd. Salisbury has a low density suburban layout. What if the same Novichok release had occurred in Manhattan? Who is to say the poison is not already stored at the Russian mission? Improbable? Who can say? They have shown they are willing to use it.
The Western reaction to a few trivial killings and elections mischief puzzles Russia. How could such a meticulously crafted policy of assassination and subversion provoke such outrage? A quote of the famed mathematician John von Neumann is on point:
“There’s no sense in being precise when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
The Russians think they possess such precise understanding of Western society that they can both manipulate it, and operate within it, without detection. But they don’t know what they’re talking about. It results from the myth that authoritarian societies are swift and nimble, while democracies are slow and clumsy.
Now let’s get formal, and put it in the context of history.
There is something to the Russian myth. Since 2014, Russia’s foreign policy has shown tactical flexibility and surgical precision. It is tempting to call it Putin’s foreign policy. But while Putin makes the ultimate decisions, he is influenced by the society in which he lives, and particularly, the Kremlin inner circle, which is a zoo of ideas about the West, some old, some new, and mostly incorrect. The oldest of the zoo comes right out of Das Kapital, that capitalists are motivated almost exclusively by money. The idea survives in modern Russia as a cynical relic.
There was some truth to this. In the post colonial era, corporations managed to influence the Third World by various means, some illicit, to create favorable environments for enterprise and investment. This worked to at least some extent into the 1960’s, fostering the illusion that foreign capital could thrive almost anywhere, subject to the occasional revolution or expropriation. The multinationals executed their own foreign policies.
In the past 30 years or so, this resolve of capitalism has weakened. The experience of foreign capital in Russia has been harsh. Several trends have been encouraged by this weakening:
- Policy shift: Increased use of economic power as an instrument of foreign policy: sanctions and tariffs, facilitated by domestic economic pressures.
- Policy shift: Only the most carefully controlled trade is compatible with states that exhibit aggressive military postures or diplomatic stances, or conduct subversive or lethal activities against the U.S. or allies.
- In the U.S., some dirigisme, state direction of a free market economy.
- Loss by the multinationals of power to push back against the above.
Let’s recap. We started off with all the reasons why Russians are running their reputation into the ground, from the anecdotal to the momentous. Then we looked at how this is reflected in Western policy changes. This is just a light sketch. You can weave back and forth on this loom. The momentous is quite sensitive to anecdote; the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, a single pistol shot, started World War I.
There are more ideas in the Kremlin zoo. To be continued in a bit.