Last Sunday I went on a Twitter rant about the role of Russian intelligence activities in the 2016 election. To say it has caused a bit of a stir seems to be an understatement. In case you aren’t much of a Twitter user, or as many have indicated, Twitter threads make for awkward reading, you can luxuriate in the horizontal orientation of this Storify: “A Patriot Game Theory”
This “essay” was done as I arrived at a Hunter S. Thompson tribute mood, which, as my regular readers know, is an occasional hazard. I did it in one draft as the moment came to me. For those academics perturbed that I falsely advertised a treatise on game theory as applied to the 2016 election, apologies. For those looking to parse my outburst as if it were finished intelligence ready for a PDB, I remind you that I was just riffing and got on a roll.
Don’t misunderstand me: I have been watching this strategic game play out on the global balance of power for several years now. The situation is clearly at an inflection point probably no less serious than the Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways. I would thus like to explore the Great Game with more of the measured tone and seriousness that it deserves. I’m sure that those who read my “tweetstorm” (or “manthread,” if you will) will have little doubt as to my nationality, my patriotism, and fervent passion to see my country survive the current moment with its interests in tact and with world peace maintained. You must then also have no doubt that I condemn Russia’s continued infiltration and perversion of Western democratic elections, even though I also recognize America’s very similar activities in the past.
But to truly understand how we got here, I think we should, in the style of strategic gamers, put ourselves in Russia’s position. From a perspective of realpolitik, Russia has legitimate interests of national security and economics. Trying to comprehend them, perhaps we can understand how we arrived at the current precipice, perchance to reform the global balance of power without repeating the tragedies of the past.
Putin’s Warning, Unheeded
In 2014, I read the translated text of a speech by Vladimir Putin at the Valdai International Discussion Club. Read it – I beseech you – in its entirety here. In it, Vladimir Putin spoke in public with a clarity, tone, and frankness that is almost always reserved for the most powerful people in a dark room over snifters of brandy, one backbencher each. In it he challenged the wisdom of letting the United States be the leader of the global balance of power.
Let’s ask ourselves, how comfortable are we with this, how safe are we, how happy living in this world, and how fair and rational has it become? Maybe, we have no real reasons to worry, argue and ask awkward questions? Maybe the United States’ exceptional position and the way they are carrying out their leadership really is a blessing for us all, and their meddling in events all around the world is bringing peace, prosperity, progress, growth and democracy, and we should maybe just relax and enjoy it all?
Let me say that this is not the case, absolutely not the case.
A unilateral diktat and imposing one’s own models produces the opposite result. Instead of settling conflicts it leads to their escalation, instead of sovereign and stable states we see the growing spread of chaos, and instead of democracy there is support for a very dubious public ranging from open neo-fascists to Islamic radicals.
As I continued through the text, have no fear, Putin’s own national lens and habitual convenient twisting of facts did not go by unnoticed; all heads of state are dressing up hopes as observations to some degree. And when he speaks of “human rights,” one need only look at the bodies of dead journalists in his country and the abominations of Aleppo to see the real Putin without artifice.
But here was the part that riveted me: he described America’s failures in a way that seemed all-too-objective, expressed exasperation at the situation, and pledged to no longer abide by the current order. He condemned the United States for failing to uphold its promises as a guardian of a peaceful world order, and unlike most of his propaganda, these criticisms were as stinging as they seemed true, at least from a certain point of view.
Basically, Vladimir Putin said, “Look, USA: we’re not provoking you, you’re provoking us, and moreover you are wrecking things and not cleaning up your mess afterward. If you don’t do better, then we should rewire the world order.” Yes, it’s full of some half-truth and tripe and agitprop…but the message was very clear.
Looking back from this current vantage point, we should have had a mix of chills and self-reflection in foreign policy circles.
Putin’s list of American geopolitical failures
By way of preface, I want to say that I do not agree, obviously, with every one of Putin’s assertions. I want to draw attention to the coherence of his policy statement. Basically, as an American I oppose his views, but he’s kinda got a point.
In this historic speech, Putin calls out America’s history of stoking and mismanaging Islamic terror as a lever against Russia, and its impact on national security for multiple nations.
They once sponsored Islamic extremist movements to fight the Soviet Union. Those groups got their battle experience in Afghanistan and later gave birth to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The West if not supported, at least closed its eyes, and, I would say, gave information, political and financial support to international terrorists’ invasion of Russia (we have not forgotten this) and the Central Asian region’s countries. Only after horrific terrorist attacks were committed on US soil itself did the United States wake up to the common threat of terrorism.
There’s no question, America has, in both incompetent and immoral fashion, used the dangerous stuff of fundamentalist insurgencies to achieve its foreign policy goals. And while Zbigniew Brzeziński’s ploy to sucker Russia into its own Vietnam was a brilliant play, America abrogated its moral obligation to the people affected by the aftermath of the Operation. And this abrogation led directly to the infection of the Taliban, creating a base for al Qaeda.
We know what resulted.
Putin called out America’s failure in Iraq:
As for financing sources, today, the money is coming not just from drugs, production of which has increased not just by a few percentage points but many-fold, since the international coalition forces have been present in Afghanistan. You are aware of this. The terrorists are getting money from selling oil too. Oil is produced in territory controlled by the terrorists, who sell it at dumping prices, produce it and transport it. But someone buys this oil, resells it, and makes a profit from it, not thinking about the fact that they are thus financing terrorists who could come sooner or later to their own soil and sow destruction in their own countries.
Where do they get new recruits? In Iraq, after Saddam Hussein was toppled, the state’s institutions, including the army, were left in ruins. We said back then, be very, very careful. You are driving people out into the street, and what will they do there? Don’t forget (rightfully or not) that they were in the leadership of a large regional power, and what are you now turning them into?
What was the result? Tens of thousands of soldiers, officers and former Baath Party activists were turned out into the streets and today have joined the rebels’ ranks. Perhaps this is what explains why the Islamic State group has turned out so effective? In military terms, it is acting very effectively and has some very professional people. Russia warned repeatedly about the dangers of unilateral military actions, intervening in sovereign states’ affairs, and flirting with extremists and radicals. We insisted on having the groups fighting the central Syrian government, above all the Islamic State, included on the lists of terrorist organisations. But did we see any results? We appealed in vain.
We sometimes get the impression that our colleagues and friends are constantly fighting the consequences of their own policies, throw all their effort into addressing the risks they themselves have created, and pay an ever-greater price.
Look, Putin is a master propagandist, but one of the best techniques of such a master is to drop in some undeniably true assessments into a group of doubtful statements, leaving the audience to guess which is which. This is exactly the fruit of incompetent Afghanistan and Iraq policy, and Putin is within his rights as a head of state to point out that these failures were much closer to his sphere of influence than ours.
Speaking of that sphere, when Russia got into a conflict with Georgia, we had a presidential candidate, John McCain, declare that “We Are All Georgians.” Well, no we Americans aren’t. It’s a nice sentiment, to some well-thinking policy analysts, but in terms of national interest, this was, in an objective way, Russia’s geopolitical sphere of influence.
Again, I am speaking from a strict perspective of realpolitik, that inconvenient and influential analysis of geopolitics by which some things are about pure power, not neoliberal platitudes that emanate from large non-governmental organizations in fourteen languages. Some of what Putin said back to America was, crudely, “Yo, this is a local thing, back off.” Much the way America did when Russia sent missiles toward Cuba.
The critique that America has projected power too far and cleaned up too little…well, it’s not incorrect, even if the source of that insight has autocratic and vicious tendencies. When America invaded Mesapotamia badly and allowed chaos to set in, it should have had a Marshall Plan for the countries it just destabilized. From a grand geopolitical standpoint, that chaos can have broad-reaching effects. Perhaps, had there not been a banking crisis in 2008, Obama might have accomplished just that.
Either way, the United States has foreign policy failures that the other members of the global community are objectively entitled to criticize.
And of course, Putin did more than that.
The present moment of crisis
I cannot know the man’s mind, but when I read the speech from Valdai, I thought, there is man declaring a policy. Since you will not make the world order work for more nations, we will change it. A great many of my colleagues looked down their noses and saw idle bluster.
I thought otherwise. While, to be sure, any conflict with Russia would be asymmetrical, those are having great luck in the 21st Century, in case anyone had noticed.
And while their ability to maintain an aircraft carrier group might look laughable, Russia’s strength has always been in the execution of long, complex intelligence operations. From light nudges to position potentially subversive elements, to full-on propaganda, to operations of astounding depth and complexity, most knowledgeable sources will tell you that Russia has been the best at covert operations since the Bolsheviks (ironic meaning: The Majority) took power from a minority position.
Look around at where we are today. A world hegemon has met a sophisticated, asymmetrical adversary and an old nemesis.
From what I see, they tried to tell us they wanted to change the global order. And they seem very much on the threshold of at least some of that goal.
It is what comes next that should concern all geopolitical analysts, and indeed the entire world.
It seems, contra Fukuyama and Baudrillard, we are very much not at the end of history. Let us then push it forward through progressive and sophisticated views of geopolitics that balance security with the expansion of rights for more sovereign peoples – not just for hegemonic nations, global and regional.
While not excusing the slaughter of Syrian civilians, Russia says that’s what this is all about. Perhaps we should meet in Reykjavik for a summit. One hopes that the time for dialogue has not passed us.