Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Russia, its own way: imperialism, war and propaganda

No one lives with a thought that one day he will become a witness of the fall (or, what’s worse – a suicide) of his home country, witness its economic destruction, fall of the iron curtain, and the rise of a full-fledged totalitarianism. Seeing civilized life turn into ‘a brutal struggle for power’. Watching the government commit to obscure goals and choose the wrongest methods to achieve them. Seeing the ministry of propaganda establishing a monopoly on truth, banning the freedom of speech (15 years in prison in exchange), and replacing words with their opposite meanings in the best Orwellian traditions.

It’s been a month since the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine – a conflict that can be characterized as nothing less than the apotheosis of all the wrongest mistakes one can envision and dare to execute. The goals are shady, the methods – archaic and unjust. Seems like the planners and executioners of this war made a great job in choosing the most irrational ways to achieve an ephemeral goal, a loosely formulated abstraction impossible to interpret in terms other than poorly executed power politics.

The motive of the Russian invasion is imperial: it clearly aims at restoring the former Soviet Union, Russian Empire or whatever monstrosity one may prefer to pick depending on political preferences (Eurasian Federation?). Joseph Schumpeter defined imperialism as ‘the objectless disposition on the part of a state to unlimited forcible expansion’. Objectless, indeed. Otherwise, what would be the sacral goal of tearing off yet another piece of land for the sake of expanding an already massive 17 million square km territory? Spreading the cultural values of Eurasian civilization? But there’re no such values. Using it to boost the domestic economy? But there’s no economy. Just a black hole surrounded by bloodlands (ah, they call it Heartland and Rimland).

How did the Russian government end up at this bizarre point? Through a weird mix of resentment towards American methods of conducting foreign politics. Through their precise replication. Fixation on schizophrenic theories of geopolitics of the 20th century. Ambition to restore the imperial power. Denying national identity to independent states. A fascinating miscalculation of own strength and misinterpretation of what’s permissible. The inadequacy of propaganda and the failure of ideology. Presenting power politics as an ideological struggle. Abstract and archaic belief into the ‘own way’ without any concrete pillars of what it is, and the misuse of it to justify the economic isolation.

There’s a lot to untangle here.

Why is this war unjust?

The official rhetoric of the Russian government states that the goal of the ‘special military operation’ that started on the 24th of February (calling it a ‘war’ could result in 15 years in prison) is ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. Both terms may sound absurd, but there’re a few very particular reasons why they have been chosen.

Surprisingly enough, the military strategy of the Putin’s government is quite straightforward. Throughout the past 20 years of its rule, the government has never bothered to look at the domestic politics, neglecting it in favor of international affairs. Those ones have been studied well. Currently the Russian government is replicating the same political strategy that the US used to conduct in the past decades: attacking legitimacy of rival states through the criticism of human rights’ abuse and the justification of invasions through the human rights’ violation. Indeed, there’s no doubt that the modern-day military leaders are well familiar with the United Nations conventions in general, and the 2005 ‘Responsibility to Protect’ UN act in particular: in order to justify an invasion of a foreign territory only two causes are generally accepted as legitimate: genocide and the war crimes (including terrorism). US uses the latter, Russia – the former. And here comes the idea of ‘denazification’: Russian propaganda presents a rather mild Ukrainian nationalism as an ethnic cleansing of Russian population (more about the obscure propaganda methods below). The principles of UN provide a pretty efficient tool for presenting offensive wars as defensive.

To make it even worse, states tend to misuse such causes by portraying preventive measures as preemptive. According to the doctrine of just war, only the preemptive use of force is considered legitimate (when the threat is imminent and inevitable – like in the Six-Day War of 1967, where Israel attacked first to prevent a planned Arab intervention). On the opposite, preventive campaigns against an ambiguous threat are always unfair because they can justify pretty much any offensive operation. The very vague ambitions of Ukraine to join NATO in uncertain future are clearly not a cause of direct imminent threat, therefore NATO expansion is not a legitimate reason to start a preemptive war (or ‘demilitarization’ of an independent country).

The military conflict initiated by Russia fails to qualify as just across pretty much all the parameters outlined by the just war doctrine. They generally include the following. The war has to be the method of the last resort, when all diplomatic efforts have failed (Russian government notoriously refused to accept legitimacy of Ukrainian state and didn’t conduct any negotiations since 2014). The war has to have a right intention (imperial ambitions are not a right intention). The war should be directed towards enemy combats, not civilians (well, we’ve seen footage of civilians rescued from destroyed shelters, hospitals and theaters). The war should minimize the harm to civilian property or at least make it proportional to the military advantage (the past month has shown an extremely slow and modest military progress of the Russian army, while the damage done to numerous cities has been disproportional, with some of them being completely erased from the map).

To add even more, the methods are not merely unjust, but rather irrational on their own. Miscalculating own military strength is an obvious failure. Another failure lies in the fact that the politics of irredentism, or having claims on the territories of other independent states, is far from smart when so many other states have claims on your own territory. A few examples include: Poland and Kaliningrad, Japan and Kuril Islands, Georgia and Abkhazia. The full list is much longer.

To sum up, defensive wars can be justified, while offensive ones always lead to failure. If not in the military sense, but as a result of economic isolation of the offender, which in the 21 century equals to suicide.

The ministry of lies

In one of his first speeches right before declaring the war, Putin called the West the ‘Empire of lies’. In fact, this figurative trope was rather hypocritical: the Russian ministry of propaganda, with its monopoly on truth, is a much more overt example of the ministry of lies than anything produced by the US (at least CIA came to accept its failure in Iraq, Afghanistan and other foreign campaigns).

Let’s go through some of the propaganda methods targeted at domestic Russian audience. As already mentioned, the official stance of Russian ministry of Defence is that the Russian army is liberating Ukraine of Nazis, or ‘denazifying’ it. My bet is that this naive rhetoric was designed for a dumber part of the population – as it’s quite easy to fact-check the extent of Ukraine’s ‘nazification’: in the 2019 president elections, the candidate from the radical ultranationalist party (‘Svoboda’) gained 1,6% of votes. Pretty much any country has radical parties in it, but barely any of them gain any substantial popular support. Fun fact: an exception is the neo-Nazi (!) party of Slovakia that currently has almost 10% in the parliament, so perhaps Slovakia is a better candidate for denazification than Ukraine. Was the 2019 election in Ukraine legitimate? Hell yeah, what could be a better proof of legitimacy than election of a former comedian as a president (as Plato warned: don’t overestimate rationality of the democratic crowds). Given a clear evidence of the lack of popular support for nationalist parties in Ukraine, it’s strange to see the Russian intellectual elite propagating the ‘denazification’ rhetoric, which puts a serious doubt on their intellectual integrity.

In fact, what Russian government seems to mean by ‘Nazism’ is any slightest hint of nationalism on the Ukrainian side, or pretty much any attempt to establish, strengthen or protect the national state. This primarily includes the establishment of a national identity, protection of national culture, and national language. Even Arnold Toynbee wrote in 1916 that establishment of a national state is a number-one goal for Ukraine in the future. There’s nothing bad in formulating and defending national interests per se, as long as the rights of minorities are not prosecuted. In case of Ukraine, they clearly weren’t (Russian-speaking president of a Jewish descent would confirm, so would 30% of the Russian-speaking population – here’s an article with some personal stories). Nationalism doesn’t have to contradict liberal democracy – as it was proven by examples of Estonia or Lithuania establishing their national states in 1990-1991, or the break of Czechoslovakia in 1993 driven by the nationalist interests of Slovaks. In fact, nationalism seems to be a rather natural stage of development for Eastern European countries that were long denied their independent identity, and a logical step in their ascent to democracy.

Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that in practice most of the countries leaning towards nationalism don’t look like Hitler’s Germany – they tend to be mostly preoccupied with local languages and linguistic unity of the country, since this is often the only criteria that defines such an arbitrary concept as a nation. For example, an impressive modernization of Turkey under the nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk, one of the most famous examples of a nationalist government in action, mostly consisted in forcing foreigners to speak Turkish in public, renaming foreign toponyms, and… removing any references to Armenia and other unfriendly states from the names of animals (for example, Ovis Armeniana had become an Ovis Orientalis). Well, as long as no one is prosecuted, we cannot deny countries the right to spread their local languages through renaming of… sheep.

On the contrary, what Russia clearly wants from its neighboring states is a total annihilation of national interests in favor of imperial ones. It’s proven by the recent speech of Putin about the ethnic variety of Russian population (‘I am Chechen, Ingush, Tatar…’) in the best traditions of Western left-wing multiculturalist rhetoric, or giving the first ‘Hero of Russian Federation’ medal of 2022 (the highest honorary title in the country) to the officer Gadzhimagomedov who came from Dagestan. Russia is a tolerant and benevolent multi-ethnic country, you see? Under such a perspective, it becomes easy for propaganda to label everything anti-imperialist as radically nationalist, and then substitute a rather neutral concept of nationalism with a hideous label of Nazism.

The haze of war doesn’t help to fight propaganda either. As it’s been fairly noted, any war comes with an immense uncertainty. In his collection of essays ‘The Gulf war did not take place’, Jean Baudrillard claims that events of the Gulf war (that took place between the US and Iraq in the 90s) were so distant and uncertain, and representation of the war by American media was so skewed that it was almost impossible to distinguish phantoms form reality. Which events took place for real and which didn’t, was the war an American assault, or it involved equally strong armies, were the methods just or unjust. The entire war seemed like a simulacrum, unfolding mainly on the pages of local newspapers.

The propaganda takes full advantage of the uncertain nature of war. It’s estimated that up to 5% of all military casualties are the result of a so-called ‘friendly fire’, an attack on allies and friendly troops due to miscalculations, imprecise set-up of equipment, human error, or the lack of coordination. When it’s hard to understand who’s friend and who’s the enemy, it’s even harder to backtrack whose shells and missiles have destroyed the civilian properties. This is why it’s long been the hallmark of Russian propaganda to always blame the enemy for atrocities and destruction of lives and properties of civilians (think of the ill-famous extremist battalion Azov that consists of less than 1,000 people and yet has miraculously destroyed a half of Ukraine, according to Russian media). The objective investigations by third parties that could potentially shed light on the real situation are difficult to conduct. After all, we shouldn’t forget that there’s still no compelling evidence collected to prove who’s guilty of shooting the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 (which resulted in almost 300 casualties). If well-reputed agencies from the entire world couldn’t manage to investigate the accident in 8 years, Russian propaganda has an immense incentive of continuing its course of discourse.

Power and ideology

In absence of any concrete political goals, the ‘special military operation’ initiated by the Russian government could be interpreted solely in terms of the power politics. Realpolitik. Trying to establish another pole of influence and restore the bipolar balance of power of the Cold War.

It seems to me that by coercive control of the nearby territories Russia wants to correct for historical mistakes, and reverse the destiny that haunted all great European empires of the past – by remaining the last of them that won’t fall apart. The ambition to recreate some sort of the Eurasian empire that spans from East to West explains the importance of Ukraine in this pursuit (just as the grandpa Zbigniew Brzezinski devised it). The conflict could be regarded as an attempt to correct for historical injustice: the rise of United States out of historical opportunity, at the moment when the rest of formerly powerful European states got hopelessly weakened.

It’s ironic though that the fall of formerly great European empires was predicated by the two world wars. When it comes to war games, the only winning strategy is not to play. The players, both losers and winners, lose because of the inevitable economic damage that always awaits them in the end. The economic irrationality of war is hard to understate. The result is the loss of wealth, influence and territories – the latter taken by break-away colonies. Putin’s government should therefore be mindful that the aspiration towards imperial greatness is not reconcilable with the economic wastefulness of a long war.

Even in case of immediate military success, the brutal coercion cannot provide for sustainable results in the long-run. As soon as the the fear wanes off and the central power weakens, the periphery will break away, just the way it happened in the former Soviet Union. In the modern world, just as Nietzsche devised, the true power manifests itself not merely through the brutal military force, but by means of more subtle influence though other spheres – for example, in such areas as economics, technology and culture. The well-known soft power of America, China, or Korea that manifests itself in a variety of ways. Through promoting individual freedom, democracy and popular culture. Through supreme economic power. Through technological superiority. Even the early Soviet Union seemed rather appealing to many nearby countries thanks to its clear ideology and the modern tech (who won’t resist the space supremacy?). Even Napoleon and Hitler managed to formulate their own civilizational projects (no matter how questionable) that made people follow them deliberately and without coercion.

It looks especially pathetic when the ongoing military conflict is being interpreted though the ideological lens. Breaking up with everything Western and establishing an abstract and mysterious ‘Russian world’, or the Eurasian civilization. I’m all in favor of the Russian world, whatever it means – if it was only more deliberate and concrete. The strategy to isolate a country (or a number of countries) from the rest of the world, and see if a unique culture emerges, is naive – like shaking a bottle with wood scraps and hope they assemble themselves into a ship. How naive could it be to think that if similar experiments have never succeeded in history of the mankind (just look at Cuba, North Korea, or the history of recent regimes in South America), a similar strategy would miraculously succeed in the current case?

Especially ridiculous is the behavior of the most passionate proponents and defenders of the idea of ‘Eurasian civilization’. Apart from repetition of the same archaic doctrines of geopolitics and outdated theories of the 20th century’s Cold War thinkers, their total lack of ideas what pillars this civilization should be built on is striking. Most of the geopolitical theories are simply too simplistic, myopic and contingent on the former state of the world: the idea of confrontation of Atlanticism vs Eurasianism came from the Cold War power dynamics. The concepts of Heartland and Rimland came from the times before WWI, with continental states struggling for power, and before the major ascent of the US (no one would dare to call territories across the Atlantic as ‘Periphery Islands’ today). Spengler and Huntington, with their multi-civilizational approach towards history, are at least more broader-minded.

If not liberal democracy, then what?

The only thing that the proponents of the Eurasian civilization or the ‘Russian world’ have managed to propose so far is the ‘fourth political theory’, which is supposed to overcome flaws of the three political regimes of the past (communism, fascism and liberalism) and instead of focusing on class, nation or individual as a political subject, focus on… Haideggerian Dasein. Well, that’s an ambitious project indeed. Alas, just as expected, the fourth political theory in its current form is lacking any substance, and formulates itself as merely an ‘invitation for further political thought, analysis and rethinking of the past’.

Practically, the idea of such a broad and vague entity as ‘Eurasian civilization’ manifests itself as everything that is simply the opposite of Western. The idea of resistance against the West might have appeal to some nations, no doubt. But the absence of viable political alternatives to it (that won’t look like fascism, communism or other failed totalitarian regimes) is quite strange. And it becomes even more absurd on the lower granularity level, when we reject the abstract terms and look at their particular constituents.

According to Samuel Huntington, the main pillars of the Western civilization include: pluralism (that for example manifests itself through the plurality of European languages), separation of church and the state, the rule of law, and individualism. If the Russian civilization was to manifest itself as the opposite to the West, that would involve despotism, Orthodox absolutism, replacement of law with brutal force, and prosecution of minorities. Are these the pillars of the Russian world that we really want to defend? Doesn’t seem like any of them would lead to anything resembling authentic Dasein, regardless of what the fourth political theory may claim.

Liberalism is often interpreted as the enemy of traditional values. As an alternative, the Russian civilization apparently sees its mission to enforce the traditional values on the population in a coercive way. Alas, that’s not how it works. In the long run, coercion fails in both international and domestic politics, as soon as the power that maintains it fades. The values, whether political or religious, are supposed to be promoted and supported, not enforced. Otherwise their genuine adoption is impossible to achieve, especially in a society that used to be open (in Karl Popper’s definition) for too long. The minimal devotion of Soviet citizens to the ideas of communism was an example of such attitude.

As the liberal doctrine doesn’t impose any ideological constraints on the population, whether traditional and religious values, or political beliefs, it’s often seen as encouraging citizens not to have any. Which is not the case: under liberalism, the government abstains from telling citizens how to live and which values to have, which however doesn’t imply that they cannot choose such values voluntarily: for example, by devoting one’s life to public service, philosophy of Marxism, or religious studies.

Both liberalism, capitalism and democracy have their flaws, but so far these are the regimes that have brought the most freedom and prosperity to the countries that adopted them in practice. Just like capitalism can be reformed through a better taxation and prevention of the capital concentration, and democracy can be improved through restriction of suffrage by the criteria of education, liberalism can also be adopted to a broad variety of causes without it having to be rejected (the fact that we’ve seen both left- and right-wing interpretations of liberalism only proves its flexibility).

Church, community, spirituality

Let’s contemplate the mysterious idea of the Russian civilization for a bit more – just to prove that there’s nothing behind this concept that could fairly justify the forceful imperial expansion. What exactly can be established as an alternative to the Western values? Traditionally, Russian values have been listed as ‘church, community and spirituality’. Let’s go through each of these to see how weak they’re in practice, and how little relevance they bear to the modern world.

First of all, a number-one flaw of the Western civilization, according to its critics, is often named to be Western individualism. Is the Russian culture, which is supposed to offer some alternative, oriented towards groups of towards individuals? Perhaps, it can be understood best by performing a comparative analysis. One of the societies clearly oriented towards group interests is Japan. In Japan, as Francis Fukuyama writes, ‘an individual derives his status primarily not on the basis of his individual ability or worth, but insofar as he’s a member of one or a series of interlocking groups’. The recognition is given solely to groups, and expelling from a group leads to ‘social ostracism and loss of status’. Can anything close to such group mentality be observed in the modern Russia? Certainly not. It has become especially obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic, when people showed a remarkable resistance to the idea of primacy of the group interest and became sudden proponents of human rights and individual liberties. Moreover, unlike Asian societies, Russian society has Christian roots, therefore it’s built on the feeling of guilt rather than shame (which shifts preoccupation with the group’s opinion to preoccupation with the judgment of God).

Speaking of religion, another distinct feature of the Russian civilization is supposed to be its Orthodoxy, which makes some thinkers identify it as a unique trait giving the Russian culture a special status. It’s claimed that, unlike Protestant or Catholic Churches, Orthodox Church places emphasis on religious community – and not on the individual dialogue with God. Well, if you’ve attended Catholic and Orthodox masses, you must have noticed how Catholicism encourages rational interpretation of the scriptures, with priests reading paragraphs from the Bible and deliberating about their implications in practical life. The Orthodox masses are far from being rational: they involve religious songs, unintelligible prayers, and repetitive body movements that influence attendees not in a cognitive, but in subconscious, almost hypnotic, way. A ritual of group entrancement, no less than that. Even if Orthodox Church placed importance on religious community as opposed to the individual thought, such community would most likely look like a crowd of 70-year old babushkas centered around an obese priest singing prayers in unintelligible voice. Well, that’s definitely a community worth praising as a cornerstone of the national culture. Other thinkers are pointing out the phenomenon of a ‘rural community’ as yet another Russian hallmark. Well, it could have been the case just a century ago, but doesn’t seem relevant today, when 75% of the country’s population lives in the urban areas. We know what could be the result of enforced migration of urban population to the countryside by looking at the historical example of Cambodia under Khmer Rouge.

Apart from community and church, are the values of Russian civilization supposed to be oriented towards spirit, as opposed to the presumably material orientation of the Western culture? Well, such a dichotomy seems to be rather flawed, as the two sides don’t necessarily have to contradict each other. Choosing spirit over material wealth is an excuse historically used by nations that failed to succeed economically (Iranian Revolution and the switch to Islamic fundamentalism were partially explained by that). Only in absence of material constraints can humans have time to contemplate subtler things and focus on literature, poetry or philosophy.

To assess the extent of spiritualistic naïveté, just look at the ideas of Peter Savitsky, the founding father of the Eurasian movement. ‘In opposition to European rationality that views human as a part of economic and jurisdictional spheres, Eurasian worldview ought to be based on the metaphysics of bliss, where religious and philosophical values balance the material ones, while economics and law are subjugated to the ultimate values making every economic and political decision viewed in light of a religious insight.’ If Eurasian civilization ought to merge church and the state, then I’m wondering how efficient religious insight would be in assigning price tags to the goods produced by the domestic economy, and how Orthodox courts are going to function in a technological society of the 21 century.

Better alternatives?

According to Samuel Huntington, Russia has always been a torn country. Its national idea is its own own conflict between East and West. But a conflict per se cannot serve as a convincing ideology, especially the one that may justify imperialism, expansionism, or irredentism.

If the destiny of Russia is to connect East and West, I propose to adopt the best features of both: the openness of modern Western culture and the miraculous industrial growth of Asian economies. I would even justify a transitory economy-oriented authoritarianism – as it doesn’t make sense to have authoritarianism for the sake of nothing. What Russian government seems to do instead is to seek inspiration from Middle East: where the discovery of oil allowed the counties to skip nearly every step of economic modernization and redeem the absence of political freedom by the newly found wealth. Except that Russian population doesn’t get any bit of that wealth.

If Russian government wants to present the country as radically different from the West, it could then aspire to do what Lee Kuan Yew did – by contrasting Singapore against its neighbors and building up ‘a highly effective and non-corrupt government, in addition to a civil service, under a meritocratic system’. Alas, it’s obvious that the government the political foundation of which is based on kleptocracy is unlikely to agree for such reforms.

In the meantime, the war goes on, aimless and objectless, totalitarianism rising, propaganda reaching new levels of frenzy. The black hole is spreading out, void on its flags, words missing in its anthem, its thoughts and ideas – nothing but vacuum. What else letters ‘v’ and ‘z’ were supposed to represent if not void and zero?

However doomed it is, I’m still watching the situation with a malevolent interest. As Petr Chaadayev wrote: ‘We are an exception among people. We belong to those who are not an integral part of humanity but exist only to teach the world some type of great lesson.’

The lesson is not likely to be positive, but the experiment goes on.

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