Monday, 23 February 2015

Wants and Needs

The question on many people's lips is "What does Vladimir Putin want?", but an equally pertinent question is "What does Roman Abramovich want?" Following the incident on the Paris Metro, when a group of Chelsea fans physically and verbally bullied a black commuter, Jose Mourinho said: "I felt ashamed when I found out but these supporters do not represent the club". Chelsea famously backed club captain John Terry, a player found guilty of racial abuse by the FA, who is nothing if not representative. The club clearly did not regard his behaviour as unacceptable, otherwise they would have sacked him, which has led to some fans now claiming that the Metro chant was in support of the player (the song was originally a response to the fans of opposing teams singing "John Terry, you know what you are" when he was cleared of criminal charges, but it has taken on a life of its own since then). Does the club bear some responsibility for that warped logic?

The words used - "We're racist, we're racist; and that's the way we like it, we like it" - are a claim of authenticity: this is our true nature and we are real Chelsea fans. But "real" here does not mean "representative", in the sense that Mourinho uses that word - i.e. typical, rather it suggests that the true essence of the club is racist (among other things) and that this should be defiantly professed in the face of a hostile world, which includes other, less hardcore Chelsea fans. Stamford Bridge was not a noticeably racist crowd until it was targeted by neo-Nazis in the late 70s and early 80s, and I doubt the crowd are different to the general population now. The problem is that while the sieg-heils and ultra-violence have disappeared, the vocal intimidation and general arseholery have been recuperated by private school-educated dicks pretending they're Cockney geezers. What the reported association with UKIP points to is gentrification as much as bigotry. It's toytown racism.

Let us turn from little blue men in Paris to little green men in Eastern Ukraine. A common view is that "Putin wants to be the man that tears up the post-Cold War settlement a victorious NATO imposed on a pitifully weak Russia". This is an interpretation found across the political spectrum. Many on the left buy in to the idea of "national humiliation" and the psychodrama of the leader striving to restore a people's dignity. This trope (which has already infected commentary on Alex Tsipras and Greece) can be traced back via Castro, Chavez and others to Bolivarism, which in turn has its roots in Bonapartism. Not a good precedent, really. The view from the political centre is that the Russian economy is weak and that Putin's strategy of opportunistic adventurism is intended to shore up domestic support. On the right, conservative "realists" see the half-hearted expansion of NATO as a strategic error by the West: the US should either back off and respect Russia's spheres of interest in its "near abroad" or robustly intervene, not fall between two stools.

Underpinning much of this analysis is the assumption of Russia's innate expansionism. The nineteenth century was marked by the fear of the Bear seizing Istanbul and the Bosphorus, becoming the dominant power in the Balkans, and threatening Britain's position in the Middle East and India (they were expansionist, we were just protecting our interests). The twentieth century was marked by Soviet advances in Eastern and Central Europe, the fear of communist insurgencies worldwide, and the ill-advised gamble in Afghanistan. The subsequent "frozen conflicts" of Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are modest in comparison. The question is whether the Eastern Donbass will go the same way, semi-absorbed into Russia's rust-belt, or whether Putin sees it as a lever for greater control: "The evidence so far is that what Russia actually wants is indirect influence over the whole of Ukraine, and for the West to pay for it". A less cynical view is that "If it holds, the Minsk agreement offers Russia a dignified way of accepting Ukraine's post-Soviet emergence as an independent state."

What most of these views share is a close identification of Putin the person with Russia the state actor. The emphasis on "dignity" is also revealing. In geopolitics, the term is routinely applied in relation to countries whose sense of self-esteem is deemed to exceed economic or military capability. The hegemon tends not to worry about dignity, having the reassurance of power, so setbacks (no matter how disastrous) are marginalised as "embarrassments". The extreme form of this conceit is to find dignity in our defeats (John Rambo was just a latterday Mrs Miniver, but with more troubled hair, while American Sniper is Taxi Driver wrapped in the flag and drained of irony). The belief that others are prey to insecurity leads to the idea that Putin is acting like a truculent teenager who isn't sure what he wants, but knows he needs something to boost his ego. The extreme form of this remote psychoanalysis is the suggestion that Putin might have Asperger's syndrome or be a paedophile, which is from the same stable as Hitler's monorchism. This is calculated disrespect, much like Wolfgang Schauble's patronisation of Syriza.

As the corruption of the Putin regime and its failure to reform the post-90s economy has become ever more apparent domestically, it has been increasingly important to control the media. Short of a North Korean strategy of isolation and paranoia, this requires a narrative to explain foreign bias and hostility. The obvious one is national exceptionalism: Russia is unique and blessed by God, the West is jealous and wants to control Russia's resources, our immediate neighbours are unreliable and ungrateful for everything we've done for them in the past, and domestic critics are working for "them". While the Western media tropes frame this as a reversion to Soviet or Tsarist times, the template is actually modern US exceptionalism. The only real difference is the American delusion that "freedom" is a domestic natural resource more abundant than oil. The important point is that this "nationalism" is focused on influence, not territorial expansion. Today, Russia is no more likely to invade Lithuania than the US is to invade Cuba.

Painting Putin as malevolent and manipulative, together with the claim that Russia is using "hybrid" tactics (i.e. "subversion by a number of means, both military and non-military"), is convenient in discrediting domestic critics in the West, recycling the traditional smears of "Moscow gold" and "useful idiots", a charge broad enough to encompass the Front National, Syriza, various NGOs, and campaigners against fracking and TTIP. This continues the binary basis of Western attitudes to Russia, whereby we simultaneously deride them for their backwardness while attributing great powers of state-sanctioned mischief. The Kremlin's soft power is characterised as a "slick operation", much as the Comintern and KGB were in days of yore, while we assume their economy is so fragile and dependent on primary industries that the oil price fall must cause immense damage, unlike the resilient economies of the US and UK (though a minor chord here is the assumption that Scotland is notionally bankrupt).

Though Russia would obviously prefer NATO to stay the other side of Belarus and Ukraine, and to not expand to Georgia, there is no existential fear. Few think that US or German tanks are going to move East any time soon. Similarly, Russia's intentions  in its "near abroad" look modest. Its policy in the Baltic is focused on neutralising any threat to the Kaliningrad enclave and the Baltic Fleet HQ. In the South West, the fraught relations between Russia and Ukraine originate in the division of the Soviet Black Sea fleet in 1997 and the extension of the Sevastopol base lease. The annexation of Crimea can be framed as righting a historic wrong or simple opportunism, however it is better seen as Russia trying to prevent the erosion of its military position rather than revanchism or expanding its sphere of control. The balance of power in the Black Sea has not fundamentally changed since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, and despite its naval base at Tartus in Syria, Russia is in no position to challenge NATO in the Mediterranean. However the conflict in Ukraine pans out, Russia will be no stronger regionally than it was twenty five years ago.

The period since 1989 has been marked by a series of conflicts that arose due to local or regional instability, some occasioned by the dismantling of Communism (e.g. the Balkans), some by the de-escalation of superpower rivalry (e.g. the civil wars in Somalia and Afghanistan in the 90s), and some by superpower proxies stepping out of line (e.g. Iraq). Arguably, the geostrategic retreat of Russia also played a part in enabling the Arab Spring. The US chose not to support clients such as Mubarak to the hilt (ditto France and Ben Ali in Tunisia), and was repaid by a noticeable lack of anti-Americanism among Egypt's revolutionaries, while Gaddafi's isolation clearly emboldened his enemies before NATO's pivotal intervention. From a Russian perspective, its retreat from the world stage has been destabilising (this can be seen in the tone of exasperation in its statements on Syria and US policy). It therefore seems illogical to assume that Russia is motivated by an opposite goal, i.e. to foster instability in Ukraine.

Despite this wider context of retreat, leavened by noisy but relatively low-risk interventions in the "near abroad", Russia has been described by too many in the West in terms that inevitably (and irrelevantly) call to mind Hitler and appeasement: "Today it is an authoritarian state, with expansionist ambitions, that does not consider itself bound by international treaties and norms. To secure his power at home, Putin has decided to test its limits abroad. Whether it is in Ukraine, or elsewhere, one day we will have to stop him." This is absurd. Russia does not intend to ethnically-cleanse Eastern Europe; it does not plan to annex the Baltic states and so trigger a war with NATO that it knows it would lose; it has no intention of jeopardising the capital assets of its oligarchs in the West; and I'm pretty sure Vladimir Putin has two testicles. Russia may want respect on the international stage, and continued influence in Ukraine, but the last thing it needs is another Cold War and persistent impediments to economic growth, let alone a hotter conflict.

I have no evidence that Roman Abramovich is a racist, but nor have I seen any sign that he is actively anti-racist or that he gives a toss about the issue. Chelsea will go through the necessary motions of condemning racism and banning the Paris Metro supporters and others guilty of racist behaviour, and many Chelsea employees will no doubt be sincere in upholding anti-racist practices, but this is ultimately just "protecting the brand". In this, I'm not suggesting that Arsenal or any other club would have finer motives or a cleaner record, merely noting that there is a clear difference for club owners between wants (win trophies, patronise competitors, preen for your peers) and needs (avoid reputational damage, avoid sanctions by the authorities, expand global commercial operations).

The decision to support John Terry was a pragmatic calculation that his value as a playing asset exceeded the brand damage caused by his retention as club captain. In contrast, the little blue men, like the little green men, are expendable. Chelsea will do all the right things for the return-leg with PSG, the fuss will die down, and Terry will get his testimonial in due course. The fighting in Ukraine will rumble on until either the US ships arms to Kiev or Russia winds back its support for the rebels. A political compromise will either redraw the border and accelerate Ukraine into NATO (probably Kiev's preference) or leave it a confederated and bickering buffer (probably Moscow's preference). Putin will be able to turn either outcome to his account. Abramovich will have no comment.


  1. Herbie Kills Children23 February 2015 at 17:33

    I really hate these articles that try to figure out what Putin is all about.

    The real question is why are the USA so belligerent and hypocritical. Why does the USA extend its tentacles to every corner of the globe, why do they bomb first and ask question later?

    I suspect the military/industrial complex necessitates permanent war. I suspect the staggering level of US arms expenditure when compared with everyone else speaks volumes.

    It is a joke to question Russia in this way, especially when the Great Satan is directing events.

    1. America's role as "the world's policeman" is a joint operation of the US state (furthering the interests of its domestic big capital, including the defence industry) and foreign powers. The deal is that the latter provide privileged market access (e.g. TTIP) in return for military cover.

      In other words, America's belligerence is not just down to innate violence but is actively encouraged by its allies and clients elsewhere. It's as much pull as push, and you can see this dynamic in Ukraine and the Baltic now. The hypocrisy is the insistence that the EU be more militarily self-supporting while opening its markets further to US business - i.e. it wants to reduce its cost base and increase profit margins.

      Our impression of actual sentiment in the US is heavily mediated. Isolationism is presented as evidence of dumb-hick right-wingery, with the problems faced by FDR in the 30s regularly cited as evidence. We rarely hear left-of-centre opinion advocating non-intervention, unless it is so manifestly "popular" (as was the case re Vietnam and, eventually, Iraq) that it can't be ignored.

      The reason why Russia will not challenge the US as the global hegemon is that its big capital is primarily extractive rather than productive, so it has no opportunity to develop the mutually-beneficial deals that the US has with the EU and others. Its negotiations with both China and the EU are a sign of weakness and dependency, despite the endless cartoons of Putin turning off the gas pipeline stopcock.

      It suits both Putin and his international "opponents" to build him up as Mr Russia and interpret his comic opera manoeuvrings as a threat to security. He is no more "the special one" than Jose Mourinho.