Our Man in Havana: Castro

The kill-proof man died yesterday. Age did what a Cuban dictator, Cuban exiles, and CIA ploys never could. Loved and reviled by many, Castro was one of the giants of modern history. A true Cold Warrior, he rubbed shoulders with superpowers. Any Cold War historiography would be incomplete without the thick haze of his cigar smoke permeating the discussion.

Having long languished under the Spanish, at the turn of the 20th century the Cuban Revolution was more or less hijacked by the global Spanish-American War. America played an integral role in the Spanish defeat (somewhere in the chaos the immortal Cuba Libre libation was born) but the American victory precluded a Cuban one. The Monroe Doctrine, manifesting as the Platt Agreement, reared its head and left the young Cuban state hamstrung. Cuban still had some self-determination and there were some elections, but the shadow of the hegemon hung over the island. The United States had become an imperial power, and its economic and political influence could not be understated. Corruption and cronyism pervaded the Cuban state. Power was eventually seized by Fulgencio Batista, one time elected president, who brutally suppressed the Cuban peoples and unabashedly cozied up to the Americans.

Cubans were understandably tired of foreign meddling and dominance, and the time was ripe for revolution. Fidel Castro became their champion. A tall, dark, and handsome lawyer, Castro pushed for a Batista-free Cuba. Waging a difficult guerrilla war, often against impossible odds, Castro somehow managed to pull it off. At first America didn’t know how to treat Castro. Pictures of a trip Castro took to the United States seem to show joy and good will. Eventually though Castro chose to adopt the standard nationalist leader package that Mosadeq had previously subscribed to: land reform. Suddenly American interests, legal or otherwise, were challenged in Cuba. America gradually began to posture itself against Castro; concurrently Castro began to more closely align himself with Communist interests.

I don’t think that it is fair to just view Castro as a Communist. First and foremost he was a nationalist motivated by the cause of Cuban independence, not unlike Ho and Vietnam. Communism was a matter of expedience and security. In a world where Cold War us-them mentalities were becoming entrenched it was dangerous to be in favor of land reform, especially in the U.S. economic and political sphere of influence. Castro was always left leaning; mutual suspicions born of ideology, action, history, and geopolitics meant that relations could only sour. Thus was born the Soviet-Cuban alliance.

Khrushchev dedicates a chapter of his memoirs to the “Caribbsky Crisis.” He writes that at first Fidel was ambivalent towards the USSR, not even bothering with diplomatic relations, perhaps out of fear of attracting US attention too early. Fidel’s brother, Raul, and right-hand man, Che, were committed Communists but Fidel himself was not there yet. Gradually Fidel shifted more and more to the left, increasingly nationalizing industries and promoting socialism, leading many Cubans to leave for Miami. Gradually America got more and more concerned, and the CIA made getting rid of Castro their number 1 priority. The newly impaneled Kennedy was told of an invasion that was originally planned under the Eisenhower administration. Cuban exiles were to invade Cuba with American air support. JFK gave his blessings to this project; meanwhile Cuba was beginning to receive USSR arms. Eventually the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. For Castro and the Soviets it was a tremendous victory. Kennedy did not authorize the use of air power given bad weather, so the invasion was a humiliating and huge US defeat that cast doubt on Kennedy’s presidency.

JFK won in part because he was tough on Communism, and he could not politically afford to let this defeat go by without responding. Castro and Khrushchev became increasingly paranoid; the Soviet Premier was worried that Cuba would have trouble defending from a true invasion since it was sausage-shaped. He was also firmly committed to defend Cuba. A Communist country on the doorstep of the USA was too good to pass up. Castro was a bright spark in the Communist world. Dynamic, handsome, tall, regal, and outspoken, he was a perfect idol for the Communist movement. He was an example of success against Western intervention, and gave hope to third world countries in Latin America and beyond. Khrushchev needed him. Cuba broadcast Soviet power and supremacy. Here was the proof in the pudding that the USSR could outstrip the US. Khrushchev was also looking to cement the USSR’s position in the Communist movement ever since Mao left the Soviet camp. A confrontation with a Cuban setting was inevitable at this point.

So Khrushchev bought oceangoing tankers from Italy, much to NATO’s chagrin, and began to ship arms and troops to Cuba. Wanting to make a statement, and wary of American missiles on his own doorstep in Turkey, Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. He sold his idea to Castro and then plans were underway. Cuba had no direct control over the missiles, the Soviets provided all the supplies and manpower. The Americans finally caught wind of it late in 1962 and decided to take action. Some pressured Kennedy to pursue peace, others wanted blood; fortunately JFK decided to impose a “quarantine” (calling it a blockade would have made it an act of war) and wait to see what the Soviets were going to do. Khrushchev tried to continue installation and run the blockade, but ultimately gave up and negotiated to publicly withdraw the missiles in exchange for secret promises from Kennedy that missiles in Turkey would be disposed of and that Cuban safety was guaranteed.

Khrushchev may have taken a tremendous loss of prestige but he achieved what he set out to do and ultimately considered the Crisis a strategic victory. Unfortunately his colleagues in the Politburo did not agree. Castro was not exactly pleased with the result: he likely did not feel safe without nuclear missiles guarding his country. Ultimately the Soviet commitment to protect Cuba and keep the US out held firm, but Castro could not have foreseen such a result.

People love to look at Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Crisis, but Castro was not a passive party. He was the head of a fledgling nation with his own agenda to take care of. Imagine being in Castro’s position. The superpower 90 miles north wants you dead and the other superpower wants to install nukes in your country to protect you. You accept the nukes but now armageddon is apparently at your doorstep. Regardless of ideology, the Cuban people you love and protect are at ground zero for World War III. Castro walked an interesting middle road. He resisted Che’s radical calls to initiate nuclear conflict to ensure the destruction of capitalism at all costs. He likewise resisted backing down or surrendering, taking the initiative to shoot down a US spy plane, risking WWIII in the process. The conflict was made all the more dangerous by the fact that the Soviet missiles on Cuba were already operational, which Kennedy did not know at the time. Castro may not have gotten his desired outcome of retaining nuclear weapons, but Cuban security was nonetheless somewhat assured.

After the feelings of betrayal subsided (and once Khrushchev was out), Cuba would resume normal relations again with the Soviet Union, receiving support and aid. Castro embodied defiance, sending fighters abroad to bolster the cause of Communism and urging on Latin American nationalism. He became a symbol for nationalists and Communists the world over. Cuba has the distinction of being the only Communist country to achieve some 1st World standards: its education and health care systems are incredible. However, Cuba struggles economically, in part because of a continued US embargo and a loss of Soviet support following the 91′ collapse. Russia continues to remain a friend of Cuba and Obama has tried to reset relations with Cuba, although Trump’s victory leave everything in the air. Cuba does have a difficult human rights record and an apparently corrupt regime continually comes under withering criticism from Cuban exiles.

Watching how Trump approaches Cuba will be interesting. Without Fidel a thaw is possible; Fidel remained firmly anti-US even during the 2015 Obama visit.  Personally I advocate a total thaw on Cuban relations: tourism, economic co-development, and free exchange of ideas will be the surest way to democratize Cuba at this critical point in time. However, America must be wary to approach Cuba on its own terms: forcing Cuba to change or make concessions, as Trump would do, will only continue a legacy of bitterness and resentment. We may have forgotten about Cuba, but they have not forgotten about us. Human rights are the central issue here, for both sides. Will Cuba be willing to improve their standards? Will we be willing to improve ours by disavowing Guantanamo? Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. If rapprochement with Russia is possible then thawing with Cuba is not off the table.

Regardless of how you judge Castro, he was one of history’s giants. Fidel was a smart, capable man with a clear vision, the firm willpower to make it reality, and the charisma to bend a nation and captivate imaginations worldwide. He spread hope. He spread fear. With cigar in hand, he changed the world in his own way. Being the father of a nation is a messy business.


The Trump Thaw

I never really went to bed on Tuesday. I stayed up until 1:30AM watching. Despite all polls, despite a confident Democratic party, despite all of our fears, hopes, and expectations, the stars aligned and the seemingly impossible happen. Well in retrospect it isn’t so unbelievable, but it is still shocking nonetheless. We could go into why Clinton lost for hours. We could spend days trying to figure out what this election means for women, African-Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and so on. Quite frankly, nobody here or abroad knows what is going on. Trump ran a campaign heavy on criticism and light on policy. His real viewpoints and ideologies remain to metastasize. Personally I don’t even think Trump knows what he is doing yet. The election surprised him most of all.

But Russia knows exactly what this all means. Putin was quick to extend congratulations and cooperation. Russia’s ultra-nationalist fringe candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, held a party at the Duma to celebrate. Even Gorbachev was happy at the prospect of a Trump presidency. And why wouldn’t they be? After years of sanctions and Western opposition Russia finally has a reprieve: one of Trump’s few stated, plausible policies is relaxation with Russia.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations have more or less collapsed. Disarmament initiatives, cooperation against terror, and the NATO-Russia council fell apart. Crippling sanctions were placed against Russia by the West, and these have had a substantial impact on the Russian economy. Russia has responded in kind with continued support of Ukrainian separatists, military involvement in Syria, cyber intrigue, and pressure on NATO states. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen to the point where media outlets have been falsely advertising World War III and discussing nuclear preparedness. Many were paranoid about Russian conquest of Ukraine or the Baltic States, two completely unfounded fears.

At the start of this election both the GOP and Democrats were anti-Russian. Hillary wanted to continue Obama’s policies and perhaps create a no-fly zone. Meanwhile the Republicans were calling for greater preparation and increased military presence in Eastern Europe. I remember quite clearly when Ben Carson suggested that he would consider all viable options to stop Russia, including nuclear weapons. This bluster resonated well with  conservative voters who had long criticized Obama’s policy as too soft on Russia, and yet they ultimately chose the softest candidate on Russia, Donald J. Trump. It turns out that Trump’s economic and nativist message mattered more to people than foreign policy.

But now we are faced with an interesting question: can Trump manage to revive relations with Russia? Undoubtedly he wants to, and Putin would certainly be willing to oblige him. But can he actually do this? How far can he go? Here is where everything gets fuzzy. Trump is building his cabinet with many people who were tough on Russia, and the Senate and House are both controlled by the Republican Party who, just a brief while ago, were calling for a harder reaction against Russia. Trump and the Party differ over a number of issues, and this is one of them.

Of course, foreign relations are increasingly the domain of the imperial presidency. Trump has plenty of room to visit with Putin, work out deals, and his word carries a tremendous deal of symbolic weight. Trump is willing to end sanctions and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and he has unlimited opportunities to work towards this effect. I think that the GOP, for all their jingoism towards Russia, will be happy to let Trump heal relations with Russia. It would mean a symbolic break with past policy; why would Republicans pass up a chance to try to bury Obama’s legacy? Russia may become a bargaining chip for other disagreements between Trump and “his” Party, but I think Trump will be able to deliver on his only tangible and realistic policy goal.

Let’s call it: the Trump Thaw. You heard it here first folks. I searched, it seems like people use the words “Trump” and “Thaw” and “Russia” in a sentence but not as I have. Some people say “Trump Thaw” as a phrase to discuss GOP acceptance of Trump. Well that is ok, I have another name picked out if Trump Thaw doesn’t stick. Maybe we could try: Trumptente! Kremelania? Should we give them a power couple name? Is Vladonald catchy enough? Maybe we should move on…

How will the healing process take place? Here is where things get interesting. Trump and Putin are similar in  some ways. I believe they are both masters of symbolic action: read their body language, look at how Putin arrays his foreign policy and reigns over opposition, look at how Trump managed to win an election. Far from Trump being a madman who says anything and everything, I think he has very carefully cultivated and acted out this part. Putin and Trump are also used to negotiating with businessmen: Trump makes deals and Putin took out the oligarchs. So how will these wily cats approach each other? I can imagine Trump going to Putin, although it would be a very powerful statement if Putin set foot on American soil. Regardless, the Thaw will occur, and a meeting will make a profound impact.

Of course, Russia isn’t just happy about immediate direct benefits of a Trump presidency. The Kremlin is also going to benefit from the ripple effect Trump will have on Ukraine, NATO, and the EU.

Regarding Ukraine, this is a massive defeat for them. Ukraine lost its strongest backer when Trump won the election. It was a little sad to see Poroshenko acknowledge the Trump victory by saying that he hopes for cooperation. I do not see this happening. Ukraine may be at the mercy of Russia, again.

NATO, long-standing opponent of Russia in Europe, it also placed at risk by Trump’s election. Trump called for an end to NATO bandwagoning. He was unwilling to enforce Article V (collective defense) unless allies paid their fair share. For some allies this wouldn’t matter, but a significant amount of NATO members do not contribute their due amounts to the alliance, especially since NATO was used by Bush in an attempt to legitimize US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of what to do with NATO is trickier to call. Trump may be able to repair US-Russian relations, but convincing the GOP to abandon a longstanding and important alliance would be far more difficult, especially with the GOP in control of the Senate (our treaty affirming arm) and the House (our budgetary arm). I believe that NATO will remain well-funded by the United States, and we may even see the reconvening and strengthening of the NATO-Russia Counsel and renewed attempts to push NATO “out of area” in the fight against terrorism. NATO members are still paranoid though. Estonia’s pro-Western coalition collapsed following the U.S. election: they had a wide list of issues beforehand but Trump’s victory may have been the death knell. Ironically Estonia was one of the most fervant supporters of NATO and they have paid for their membership in human life and monetary contributions.

How can the US election possibly affect the European Union? Well, setting aside the fact that NATO and the EU are interrelated, the election still has a great deal of salience. Viewed in a broader context, the Trump surprise is the second big step in a Western realignment towards nationalism and populism. Remember months ago when we all thought that Brexit was going to fall flat? We all know how that went, and all the questions that raised for the EU. Now with Trump’s victory these movements are gaining more and more legitimacy. France seems next on the chopping block. Hollande’s regime has self-immolated. The next prospective election of France seems to be a toss-up between former President Sarkozy, a candidate mired in intrigue and corruption, and the face of the ultra-right, Marine Le Pen. Does this seem at all familiar to our election? Well, one detail is off: this time the female candidate is the nationalist. France has never had a female leader, so who knows what might happen. Marine Le Pen’s campaign though is energized by the Trump win-the wind is at her back. If France goes the nativist route it could shock the EU. Russia would like this.

It isn’t hard to see why Putin, Zhirinovsky, and Gorbachev celebrated: Trump’s election is tantamount to a Russian foreign policy coup.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump does and says. Likewise, his apparent nativism and anti-intellectualism is a big turn off. But I have to say that he does understand Russia better than any other candidate. He was the only person saying that Russia does not have designs against Ukraine (beyond the unspoken reality that Ukraine is and will remain in Russia’s sphere), and I can finally see my dream of renewed Russian-U.S. relations aimed at bolstering international security achieved. I can also say with absolute certainty that Putin will remain in power now at least until 2024. Putin likely had his upcoming 2018 election secure, but with the lifting of sanctions, peace with the West, and tangible, legitimized victory in Ukraine he will be riding high as usual (barring any extraordinary circumstances). The more things change…

Red Armies and Paper Tigers: Unpacking Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat”

I love old books, and not just for that quaint, musty smell of vanilla and cigarettes that accompanies them; old books are literally time machines, transporting us into earlier contexts and perspectives. Once the dust of history has settled we can fairly analyze them. How well has the book aged? Was it accurate at the time? Is it relevant in the present? What insights into the future can it give us?

Today we’re going back in time to 1983.  Americans look back on the 80s with tremendous nostalgia. The malaise of Vietnam had worn off, the hazy 70s were behind us, and voters threw their bipartisan approval behind the stone-faced Reagan. Technology and hair size were on the rise. Meanwhile on the other side of the Iron Curtain the Soviet Union was in decay. Misguided spending and the incredible lethargy of Brezhnev and his cadres had led to total stagnation.

The writing was on the wall, although this fact was obscured by a rise in tensions. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sent red flags to the U.S., leading to a vast increase in defense spending. The arms race showed no signed of stopping, and the Europeans trapped between the two superpowers were holding their breath as new medium range missiles were being deployed on their soil. The mood was tense, and the spectre of nuclear war was lingering in the background. Two great armies warily eyed each other, waiting for the order.

Given this background, you can imagine what I expected when I picked up this book at a thrift store.

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I anticipated a gloom-and-doom inflation of the Soviet threat. Thankfully, Andrew Cockburn pleasantly defied all expectations, masterfully employing evidence to not only deflate the Soviet bear but also draw the entire military industrial complex into doubt.

A few words on Andrew Cockburn. From what I gather he is an Irish expat living here in the United States. Cockburn has spent much of his career writing about military and security establishments. Suffice it to say that he is not a friend of militarism or the military industrial complex; he is a tenacious skeptic of official claims and public perceptions. His investigations have followed U.S. foreign policy trends, and he seems to have accommodated well to the fall of the U.S.S.R. by switching to the War on Terror and U.S. hegemony. His writing style varies from straightforward and technical to clever and sometimes even brilliantly descriptive, and he knows exactly when to adjust his style.

Cockburn soundly reveals in the Threat that the Soviet armed forces of the early 1980s were a shambling corpse. Far from Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” the Soviets were almost laughably incompetent and hapless at all levels. Cockburn organizes his book well, starting by summarizing the perceptions both superpowers had of each other and then progressing into an analyses of the individual branches of the Soviet military.

The military of the U.S.S.R. had five branches: the Red Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Air Defense, and Strategic Missile Forces. Each branch is generally staffed by a mandatory draft of young men (who had to serve 2 years in the armed forces, or 3 years if they were in the Navy), who were supplemented by officers. While the U.S.S.R. had an apparent numerical edge, Cockburn shows how these advantages were undercut by the total lack of morale and unity among men. Officers had difficulty in motivating forces, and their desire to earn benefits and promotion led them to ignore or cover up issues. Cockburn smashes the myth that the Soviet Armed Forces were merely a puppet of the Party. The Soviet military was an active player in politics, using a control of information and close ties to leaders to accomplish goals. The Soviet military is not unlike the military industrial complex (MIC) that Ike warned us all about.

Cockburn draws numerous parallels between the Soviet and American military bureaucracies, claiming that both are plagued with corruption, ambition, and the extreme inefficiency that naturally follows bureaucracy. These parallels ultimately feed into his broader thesis, where he accuses both sides of “threat inflation.” The Soviets, he writes, intentionally cultivated deception and mystery in order to force opponents to overestimate their capabilities. This fear of inadequacy (the security dilemma for you neorealists) led to the U.S. bulking up their forces, which in turn prompted the Soviets to made tangible updates to their own military forces (often following the example set by the U.S.). What followed was an arms race mirroring the one that preceded World War I. Ultimately the military industrial complexes of both superpowers assumed the worst about each other and manipulated public fears and policy makers in order to get the requisite resources and deference they wanted. Along the way Cockburn believes that military efficiency was degrading, with each side increasingly relying on unreliable and untested advance technology, which seemed like the logical solution to meeting the threat posed by the other side.

In terms of the individual military branches, the Soviets were clearly lacking. The legendary armour that beat the Nazi machine is plagued by faulty engines and a wide swath of other technical and training issues. Brezhnev’s vast pet project, the Soviet Navy, was mostly just for show. Soviet air power suffered from the same issues of reliability and range. I almost feel like Cockburn is too skeptical at times; he even finds fault with the legendary Mi-24 “Hind” gunships that were made famous by the Soviet-Afghan war. Still I have to commend his approach, he often focuses strictly on details rather than conjecturing about World War III, and the technical issues alone (which exist for both U.S. and U.S.S.R.) are startling. Basically the only weapon systems he does not find fault with are the ever reliable AK-47, the classic T-34, and the user-friendly RPG.

Cockburn’s book reaches full stride in the section on nuclear forces, and he finds tremendous fault with the idea held in both East and West that nuclear war could be won. Nuclear weapons more or less invalidate all other weapons or competition between East and West, although even the assured destruction wrought by ICBMs is up to some debate. Ultimately the uncertainty of how a nuclear war would progress and the imperfect ability of each side to destroy the other’s second strike capacity are enough to ensure continued reliance and expenditure on weapons. It was especially interesting to read the parts dealing with how the Soviets prepped their citizens for doomsday: they seemed to share the dark humour held by many Americans.

Cockburn draws upon a wide swath of sources to reinforce his argument. He relies upon official public statements, interviews with military men and Soviet expats, and Soviet papers such as the official publication of the Soviet armed forces, Red Star. Ultimately I would say that his research is solid, and his conclusions and extrapolations were more or less confirmed once the U.S.S.R. actually fell and their records became available. There are still some inaccuracies to be sure. The Soviet expats obviously left the U.S.S.R. for a reason and are liable to carry bias. The most glaring flaw I found in the book was the claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 1972 (he actually made it to 2013). These seem more like issues with editing and fact checking than anything else, and given the veil of secrecy under which militaries and Communist bureaucracies operate this is no easy task to begin with.

The covers of my copy have something scrawled on them; something about the book being out of date since 1991. I would have to disagree, I think the Threat stands the test of time as a great look at the Soviet and American militaries at a key time. Furthermore, I think the book has caught its second wind with the revival of Russia in recent years. The American military machine (and the Russian one for that matter) are both still in tact, still using their standard ploys to manipulate public opinion and secure a continued role in politics. The American MIC has only grown in size and proportion since finding hegemony and the War on Terror, and their continues to be an inflation of the Russia threat. Politicians here still treat Putin like Hitler for annexing Crimea or taking action in Syria and they try to predict future Russian aggression in the Baltic states. Sometimes they even read Russian tests of missiles as a sign that a nuclear strike is possible: the myth of limited nuclear war is still alive. In many ways it is still business as usual, we even see newfound alarmism about Russian capabilities as Putin plots a course of military updates. The T-14 Armata, a new tank for the cyber age, was rolled out on parade just last year, and nearly all arms of the Armed Forces are up for an upgrade. Still, the harrowing truth is that Russia is under immense economic pressure; spending more on the military at the expense of other areas would be repeating the Soviet mistake. Likewise, is it possible that Russia could have possibly updated its forces and overcome its historic deficiencies? Is the Armata really a supertank?

The book raises some questions as well about the realm of cybersecurity. With apparent Russian hacking aimed at impacting the U.S. election, cyberwarfare looks like the latest and most dire front. The line between hacking and war is still blurry, and this is shaping up to be the next great arms race. There is constant talk of investing in our cybersecurity, and there are even talks of launching cyberattacks of our own (we already retaliated against N. Korea after the Sony incident). Is this worthy or just another example of threat inflation? We will see…

As an aside I should also say that the book appeared to me in terms of ideology and methodology as well. In my own personal studies I am interested in both neorealist and constructivist theories and how they interact. Neorealism dictates that conflict is an inevitable product of international anarchy. Constructivism states that what actually matters is identity forming and interaction between states, with anything being possible. I lean more towards constructivism, but I personally am fascinated by the concept that free social interactions (of the kind constructivism is based on) can lead to realist assumptions. Cockburn explains threat inflation and the security dilemma as a product of perception and uncertainty, so his book entertained the ideological intersections I am interested it.

Andrew Cockburn’s tireless criticism and well grounded cynicism are contagious, and I will certainly be looking into his modern works.

Sochi 2014 and Russian Revival



Ahhhhh…The Good Old Days

The Olympics is a rare example of international good will and cooperation, with countries setting aside their differences to compete on the track field rather than the battlefield. The Summer Olympics in Rio are now in session, accompanied with the standard endless cable broadcasts of the same dozen people swimming in the same rectangular pool. (Personally I prefer the Winter Olympics, largely due to my inexplicable appreciation for ice dancing.)

For all the ideals it represents however, the Olympics have been coming under fire recently, and the games in Rio are only the latest manifestation of this. Underneath a beautiful exotic location and a goal of cooperation is a gritty struggle between globalisation and nationalism. Hosting Olympic games causes an undue financial burden on the host country, something many Brazilians have used to justify protesting the games. The economic aspect is just the tip of the iceberg: other controversies surrounding the Rio games include security, sanitation, and the recent political coup in Brazil. Perhaps we could also mention the haze of Zika-laden mosquitos that threaten to turn Rio into a vector for a deadly virus.

But the Olympics keep on going nonetheless, and should we be surprised? At this point opposition to the Olympics seems token, especially after the extreme controversy surrounding the previous games held in the seaside Russian town of Sochi.

Politics Never Sleeps

It would be naive to believe that the Olympics are divorced from politics. A high-profile international event is going to always be political. Certain Olympics stand out more than others. The 1936 Olympics were used by Germany to try to showcase Nazi “progress.” Throughout the Cold War the games were used to highlight East vs. West.

Russia has had its fair share of infusing politics into the games, and at times it even seems as if they incorporate the games into their political strategy. On Christmas of 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, prompting the West and much of NATO to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics of the following year. Brezhnev was likely pleased when the Soviets swept the games. Later, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the Western games.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the e is not much to report over the next decade or so. The 2008 games in Beijing were put to great use in Russia to launch a quick invasion of Georgia that was swiftly condoned by the international community. Russia’s gambit was as successful as it was unexpected, as the world was too distracted by the Beijing games to furnish a reply to Russia.

After Beijing we had games in Vancouver and London. Then, somehow or other Russia got the green-light to host the 2014 Winter games in Sochi. As usual, this was known some years in advance, but as time went on the IOC’s choice of location came under increasing scrutiny. Why was this?

Putin Prime

After reigning from 1999-2008, Putin took a brief, 4-year, constitutionally required reprieve from the Presidency by handing it to his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. The 1993 Constitution stipulated that a President can only serve 2 terms consecutive terms. It says nothing about total terms, a loophole that Putin exploited in 2012 by re-ascending to the Presidency.

Having won a major constitution victory, and then having re-written the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2024, Putin had just entered his prime. The period from 99-08 was merely prologue. Now Putin had the country, and he could enact his will. Immediately the regime took conservative steps to further entrench its own survival. Civil society came under fire with new laws that harassed and oppressed NGOs and human rights groups. Censorship widened, with bloggers and journalists coming under fire, not to mention Pussy Riot. The state also renewed its ancient ties with the Orthodox Church. Perhaps the laws that got the most scrutiny from the West were those targeting homosexuals, which entrenched the deep Russian antipathy towards homosexuality in stark contrast to the tolerance preached by the West. Meanwhile, the price tag of the games came into question. At approximately $50 billion dollars, these were the most expensive Olympics in history. The price as obviously inflated thanks to the corruption of the Russian state, with contracts being rewarded to many of Putin’s supporters. Despite all this money, the guest rooms for athletes were laughably deficient, with barely functioning toilets. I guess we should also mention the Circassians, a Caucasian people who were displaced from Sochi by the Russian empire. They didn’t get much screen time in the West though.

There were calls to boycott or cancel the games, like those complaints now levied against the Rio games. Much like today, the IOC refused to step down and the games stayed on schedule. Controversy was reaching a fever pitch in 2013, and then Euromaidan happened. Ukraine broke out into civil war as the Russian backed President turned down membership in the European Union. The crisis was reaching a fever pitch by the time the games happened.

Sochi 2014: The neo-Brezhnevite Phoenix

Despite controversy, reproach, and the political collapse of a neighbor, the Sochi games started in February of 2014. While everyone remembered the Beijing opening, which championed the collective values of the state, fewer remember the punk-rock fiddling of Vancouver or the celebration of industrialization in the London games. It seems like even fewer people bothered to watch the Sochi opening, which was a real shame since it had a huge political message.

I have been dying to review the opening ceremony, but I have patiently waited until now to do it:

The games opened up following a young girl as she navigated the Russian alphabet, with various letters and highlights being showcased. Then she appeared in person, and floated among proto-Russian locales and villages, clearly an embracing of early Russian/Siberian life. After an excellent rendition of the Russian national anthem there was the parade of nations. I personally love the parade of nations, and the Russian house music in the background really set the mood. The German team walked out in rainbow outfits, challenging Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies. The Russian team walked out to “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U. For those of you who don’t know, T.A.T.U. is a female duo that used a high school lesbian aesthetic for their marketing. To my knowledge they also performed at the Olympics before the opening, and I find the contrast of anti-gay policy with lesbian fetishization to have an unsettled irony.

After the parade of nations we entered into the main body of the display. A troika brought out the sun, a tribute to Russian pagan beliefs and sun worship. It was followed by colourful onion domes and teapots, clearly representing the ushering in of Orthodox Christianity and the state created by Ivan the Terrible. The young girl from earlier was present in these games, and we were clearly envisioning the situation through her eyes: it had a fanciful and dreamy quality about it. Next we saw a stormy sea with a ship on it, followed by the regimentation of naval officers and the blueprints of Saint Petersburg, paying homage to the glory days of Peter the Great and his Westernization of the country.

Then suddenly elaborately dressed women scurry onto the stage to mingle with the officers, and we enter perhaps the most beautiful of the entire opening ceremony. An elaborate ball room scene with beautiful ballet work and classical music unfolded in front of us. It looked like something out of Tolstoy, and told a story much in the same manner. It followed the romance of a young officer and a beautiful dancer (perhaps this was the young girl from earlier grown up, representing a maturation of Russia?).

A dashing young man who looked a little like Peter the Great (though not as freakishly huge) then took center stage and started dancing in a lovely blue suit. Then suddenly the stage starts to vanish, the lights dim, and a gentle snow begins falling. The nobles seem to be cold and agonized, crowding and moshing and growing frantic as the lighting and music became frenzied. All the nobles die as the stars of the ballet begin to make out, and then the nobles come back, making clock like motions with their arms and sharing one last embrace before being swept aside. At first I thought this would usher in a Napoleonic scene.

I knew after I heard the train noise and saw the red lights though that I was wrong. I had just seen the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Now was the Bolshevik era. Lovely pillars gave way to industrial and farming imagery. Filigree turned into the brash, bold geometry of Malevich. Ornate outfits turned into utilitarian red and black bodysuits as coordinated ballet was abandoned for a robotic, mechanical dance. This was collectivization, Stalinism, and the Five-Year Plan. Georgy Sviridov’s Time Forward! set a hurried, mad tone as the stage below descending into organized chaos. While I was impressed that they were covering the taboo Stalin period, I could tell that there was no love or affection. The people looked pained and indifferent, and some gears even had people inside them, more or less crucified as they were being rolled around.

As quickly as this all appeared, it vanished. Only a small nucleus of workers remained as the lights dimmed and spotlights began to spread throughout the stadium. Suddenly the music stopped and the sounds of war began. The stage turned black and there was a moment of silence, an appropriate nod to the Great Patriotic War.

I am probably getting way off topic though. Really the only part of the open ceremony that means much is the immediate aftermath of the war tribute. The stage came alive again with blueprints and workers. Industrial sounds gave way to Soviet rock-and-roll as the streets below began to bustle with activity. This was the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev period. Young pioneers, workers, pilots, cosmonauts, athletes, even hipsters took the stage to celebrate the great achievements of this period. The seven sisters, Stalinist skyscrapers, unfurled as the famous statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, made its was across the roof. This wasn’t just an homage to the Soviet era, it was nostalgic. Everyone was happy and busy with their lives. Some slight unrest was featured briefly when the traffic cops pushed the hipsters away, but overall the tone and music were carefree. Then the lovers came on stage, proceeding to get married and have children in a clear state endorsement of reproduction (remember, Russia has population issues).

While some may write this portion off as ridiculous (and it was), I think it speaks a great deal of modern Russia character. There is a fundamental longing for the old days of Brezhnev and the prestige of the Soviet empire. Out of every leader, Brezhnev is generally regarded as the most loved since under his reign the Soviet Union reached its apex in terms of power and economy (most forget that Brezhnev’s policies led to later failures). Nostalgia was best represented at the end of the opening show, when the young girl from earlier let go a red balloon, symbolizing the loss of Russian character that occurred in 1991. There was no other historical or significant cultural display after this: this was the political culture portion of the show.

What followed was Olympic formalities, torches, and so on.

I feel like there really hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion regarding the opening ceremony and what it represents, but I think I have a way to tie it all into something meaningful, so standby.

The Putin Doctrine

The Olympics happened. Russia won big. Sochi was competing with Ukraine in the headlines as the conflict waxed. Amidst all the controversy, the games seem to have gone off despite plenty of criticism.

Meanwhile I was on facebook, arguing what these Olympics meant and what would happen with Ukraine. At some point I apparently predicted that Russia would take action after the Olympics, but I had no clue how quickly it would happen. Soon after the Olympics, virtually overnight, Russia annexed Crimea and took it over, validating the annexation with a local referendum and with the claim that they were protecting good Russians. The fighting in Ukraine reached new heights as Russia began to arm Russian speaking separatists. Suddenly all of the criticism and distrust of the Sochi games seemed warranted: Russia was still Russia after all.

After Beijing people were worried about China, although fears have slightly waned since their economy has slowed. After Vancouver nobody talked about Canada, and after London nobody cared about Britain. Sochi was different. After Sochi, Russian foreign policy became front and center. Of course this is due more to the Russian involvement in Ukraine rather than the Olympics themselves, but I hardly think it is a coincidence that the two happened so soon together.

When the red balloon floated away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was badly hurt. The economy was virtually destroyed. Russia’s prestige and power had evaporated. Russia was weak, lacking in promise and barely able to eke out an existence in a world where the United States reigned as the hegemon.

Putin had been working feverishly to get Russia back ever since 1999. He had to rebuild the economy, which he did by nationalising major industries. He had to settle the Chechen conflict and protect his country from terrorism and secession. Putin had to do his best to check the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s neighborhood so as to ensure that Russia still had a say in Eurasia. We could also mention the colour revolutions, which had Putin fretting over the potential for revolutions. From 1999-2008, his job was to rebuild the country. Medvedev continued this goal from 2008-2012 in Putin’s stead.

Then Putin came back, and Russia came back too. Russia was economically stable, and Putin had proven that he could take liberties with the Constitution. Putin used the next two years to consolidate his hold on Russia and slowly began to exert influence on Russia’s neighbors (hence, Euromaidan in Ukraine).

For all intents and purposes, Russia was back. It had risen from the ashes of catastrophe like a phoenix, poised to once again resume great power status. What better way to showcase this than by hosting the most extravagant Olympics in history? Russian power and prestige were on display. By appealing to the great times in Russian history, Russia was reaffirming its historical role as a superpower. Russia’s display in the games were decidedly Russian, showing her unique Eurasian character and culture, especially the language. Finally, by highlighting the Brezhnev era in the final act of the historical presentation, Russia was appealing to its moment of greatest strength. This is what Russia had been in it’s not so distant history, and this is what Russia could be again. Surely there are some differences from the Brezhnev era and some progress, but overall I would say that Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s. At the very least however we must admit that Putin is smarter: he is far more pragmatic, active, and engaged. Brezhnev was not nearly so hands on, nor so competent.

Putin’s foreign policy, which emerged immediately after the Olympics with the annexation of Crimea, is also much better than Brezhnev’s. Brezhnev’s policy was summed up by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in response to the 1968 Prague Spring, the Doctrine gave the Soviets the right to intervene in fraternal socialist countries where socialism was threatened. This gave the Soviet Union dominion over its members and satellites. Putin’s foreign policy arrangement is more precise and opportunistic. His “Putin Doctrine” seems to deal with the protection of Russian nationals and Russian speakers in other countries. It provides the logic for protecting Russia while leaving enough room for Russia to intervene in unruly neighbors like Ukraine.

While he likely didn’t have it planned out very far in advance, once the opportunity presented itself Putin could not help but jump into Crimea soon after the Olympics. Say what you will about Putin, but he knows how to make a presentation. His Olympics succeeded in the face of criticism from the West, and Russian boots remain in Crimea, which holds its breath as Ukraine and Russia warily eye one another. Within only a few weeks in February, Russia had completely re-emerged. Far from being second page news, Putin ensured that Russia would set the tempo in international affairs.

I think most people label Crimea as the turning point, but I think the Olympics in Sochi were a necessary prologue. Sochi set the tone of Russian revivalism. It captured the publics attention, acting as a smoke screen as Ukraine fell into chaos and as Russia prepared for entry into the conflict. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Sochi and Crimea highlight just how powerful Russia has become. Russia is capable of hosting an international event in goods spirits, and then can immediately switch gears to assert its foreign policy on its neighbors almost effortlessly. The rest of the world was still in a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, and suddenly this! Suddenly Russia is alive, dynamic, threatening, and dedicated to its goals again. Here is a state worthy of Peter the Great or Brezhnev’s legacy. Here, suddenly, is a great power.

Sochi 2014 will live in infamy. It was held in an increasingly totalitarian regime where freedoms and civil liberties are undermined. It was a globalised event held in a wild, independent, sovereign state. Unwittingly, the IOC allowed itself to be used to advertise and promote Putin’s Russia. In the end they both got what they wanted. The IOC got successful games. Russia got international recognition. Perhaps this is why people hate the IOC: they are willing to get into bed with anyone who offers one, no matter the costs. In Russia, there were only political costs for the West.

Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, ultimately the Rio games may be more disruptive to the international order than Sochi. Sochi merely made a long-standing fact of history, that is, Russian greatness, an indisputable reality. Rio, on the other hand, stands poised to undermine globalisation, and the threat posed by Zika’s spread could very well be unprecedented.

Whatever you do, don’t write the Olympics off as irrelevant or merely ideological. The Olympics in many ways capture the pulse of the world at any given moment, and they prophesy great change.


Russo-Japanese Relations

I’m going to keep this brief. Russo-Japanese relations are bad. They have been bad for most of the modern era. Russia has long had a foreign, looming presence in East Asia, and Japan was its oldest rival for power in the region.

By the midpoint of the 1800s China became a hot-spot for great power politics. The imperial powers of Europe were eager to batter down the walls to the world’s most lucrative market. Russia, which was consolidating its hold in Siberia at this point in manifest-destiny fashion, had the odd advantage of being adjacent to China and, as such, concentrated on the northeast region known as Manchuria. Japan, which was sewing the seeds of inevitable conquest in Korea, also used Manchuria as its point of entry into China.

Additionally we should briefly mention Sakhalin, a large isle due north of Japan, and the Kuriles, which connect Japan to the Kamchatka peninsula. These islands aren’t particularly valuable but they have changed hands (or have been split) several times throughout history. Currently Russia maintains control over them, which is a massive strain on relations. The Sakhalin and Kurile issue just highlights one of the recurring ironies of Russian history: the country with the most land doesn’t want to give up any.

Relations in the late 1800s were tense, shifting, and unclear. Multipolarity in East Asia required a careful balance-of-power, and yesterday’s friends could easily become tomorrow’s enemies. It was all good sport for the great powers, just so long as China remained subdued and nobody gained the upper hand.

Balance-of-power politics are unstable at best, and it was only inevitable that Japan and Russia would come to blows in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Japan invaded the Russian outpost of Port Arthur and a bitter struggle began. Poor discipline, ailing bureaucracy, and an apathetic Tsar would ultimately contribute to Russian defeats, but the simple undeniable fact was that Japan was truly coming into its own as a great power. Nobody expected an upstart Asian country to defeat one of Europe’s mightiest and oldest powers, but sure enough Japan won. The ultimately humiliation came in the Tsushima Straights, where a Russian force sailed around Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia only to be destroyed by a far superior Japanese Navy. The Navy was the pride of Tsarist Russia, built from nothing by Peter the Great, and its defeat was a crushing blow. Eventually Russia and Japan agreed to a peace brokered by Theodore Roosevelt, with Japan gaining territory in Manchuria and Sakhalin.

Japan fought alongside Britain, France, and Russia in World War I, mostly to grab weak German colonies in China, although this did little to ameliorate Russo-Japanese relations. The abdication of the Tsar and subsequent Revolution only further complicated matters: an opportunistic Japan joined an international coalition in trying to stabilize Russia. The coalition was inconsequential in the unfolding of the Russian Civil War, although it succeeded in deepening Russian mistrust of the outside world and also gave  Japan time to consolidate its holdings in Northeast Asia.

Renouncing imperialism and focusing on intensive inward development, the USSR withdrew from the great power game in China. The devastation of World War I sufficiently weakened other European powers,  leaving Japan as the only major contender in the region. With growing imperial designs and increasing militarism, Japan eventually came to dominate East Asia, conquering parts of China in the 1930s and expanding into Southeast Asia as World War II unfolded.

The Soviets and Japanese did fight a brief war in East Asia in the late 1930s. It was here that Marshal Zhukov earned his mettle. Clearly, hostilities were still alive. However, despite a sour history the USSR and Japan managed to sign a non-aggression pact that held until the very end of WWII. The rationale was simple enough: the Soviets wanted to focus exclusively on Germany while the Japanese wanted to sure up their footing on the mainland while shifting focus to an increasingly tempestuous Pacific. Despite a legacy of hatred and mistrust, and in spite of the fact that the United Nations and Axis were locked in total war, peace held for years.

Once the Allied victory became apparent, Stalin began to plan on breaking the peace. He announced his intentions at the Big Three Conferences, which sought to force a plan for the postwar world. Yalta produced the most substantive framework. The Soviets were to declare war on Japan several months after victory in Europe was secured. For their entry the Soviets were to be rewarded with Sakhalin, the Kuriles, and holdings in Manchuria, among them the warm water Port Arthur. The language explicitly mentions reversing Japanese gains from the Russo-Japanese War: clearly some historical tensions survived the 1917 Revolution. China was conspicuously absent from the Yalta Conference, and they certainly would have objected to the rewarding of land to the Soviets. Keep in mind that such concessions were deemed necessary by Churchill and Roosevelt who both didn’t see the war in Asia coming to a quick ending. This was before the atomic bomb was completed…

In July 1945 the Big Three met in Potsdam. Stalin found himself on uncomfortable terms with the new members of the group. Elections replaced Churchill with Attlee, and the death of Roosevelt saw the arrival of Truman. Stalin must have been disappointed to see the promises of Yalta evaporate. Confident in the power of the bomb and resentful to see the Soviets profit in a theatre where they shed little blood, Soviet involvement in the Asian peace was essentially written out of the Potsdam Declaration. The Americans proceeded to bring the war in Asia to a conclusion by dropping atomic weapons, but Stalin still managed to force his hand. The Soviets broke their peace with Japan in the days between the atomic bombings, and Operation August Storm steamrolled the tired and ill-supplied Japanese garrison in Manchuria. The Soviets pushed deep, managing to reach the 38th parallel that divides modern-day North and South Korea (the division results directly from this Soviet involvement). The USSR also established control over Sakhalin Island. It is feasible to assume that the Soviets may have conducted an invasion of Japan if the war continued, a fear which surely factored into Japan’s decision to surrender.

The USSR used its hold in Manchuria (they retained control of Port Arthur) to give the Chinese Communists the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War, and the subsequent Korean War made East Asia overwhelming Communist. As containment became the modus operandi of US Cold War policy, Japan became a bastion for containing the Soviet-Chinese menace on the mainland, which likely did little to reverse the mutual resentment between the Soviets and Japanese. The Sino-Soviet schism under Khrushchev would once again return East Asia to uncertain multi-polarity. The Soviets and Japanese might have had a mutual interest in containing China, but with the United States-Chinese detente such an alliance never took off.

As abruptly as our story begins, it ends. Russian-Japanese relations remain very cold and haven’t really changed much since the end of the Cold War. Sakhalin and the Kuriles remain a bone of contention, and a compromise remains elusive. Japan remains a steadfast ally of the United States, and Russia’s on-and-off backing of North Korea does nothing to heal relations with Japan. With a potentially rising China and a nuclear North Korea it may be essential for rapprochement to occur if Russia and Japan wish to remain secure in East Asia, and politics may breed strange bedfellows. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Putin recently and the two seem to have struck a conciliatory mood. A Russo-Japanese renewal may occur in the near future, but it remains impossible as long as historical misgivings remain. The disputed status of Sakhalin and the Kuriles has come to embody this long-standing conflict, and I think these islands will be the key factor in any negotiations. If their status remains conflicted any chance of cooperation is likely to be impossible. But if Russia were to cede territory, or if Japan were to let go of claims, then negotiations could be fruitful. Given that these islands were bought with blood, I find any sort of compromise highly unlikely. Japan and Russia will most likely continue to tolerate a frozen peace.

The History and Future of Russian Jews

Russia has a rocky relationship with Judaism. Things may be better than they ever have been, but a dark and unfortunate history weighs heavily on the present. Plagued by anti-Semitism and, at times, direct confrontation, Russian-Israeli relations seem tense at best. Despite this though I sometimes question how solid the American-Israeli alliance is; is it plausible to argue that Israel’s posture may change? Answering this question requires a brief look at the history of Russia, Russian Jews, and the state of Israel. I apologize for doing another fairly general post this time but I have been entertaining ideas of a Russia-Israel partnership all week and I need to get it out of my system.

Russia and Its Jews

A while ago a man called Lenin apparently said that Russia was the “prison house of nations.”

Russia has housed a large Jewish population for much of its history, but this did little to dampen discrimination. For much of Russian history the operative word in Russian-Jewish relations was “pogrom.” The term refers to a sudden violent uprising motivated by ethnic or religious hatred. Jews were often the default victims of such violence. Pogroms occurred throughout Russian history well into the modern era. The regimes in power proved to be enablers, or perhaps accomplices; Tsars simply refused to quell such riots. Radzinsky writes in the Last Tsar that pogroms were regarded as useful by Tsars since they deflected anger away from the regime.

One would think that with the arrival of Communism, anti-Semitism would have fallen by the way side. Was not anti-Semitism just another wedge used to drive apart the working masses? Sartre argued this point in his 1946 book Anti-Semite and Jew, and it is likely that doctrinaire Marxists in the decades prior would have thought along similar lines. While the Bolshevik Revolution may have claimed lofty internationalist goals aimed at doing away with the past order, it did little overall to remedy the tension between Russians and Russian-Jews. Even if the political order changes, history and national culture remain.

The survival of anti-Semitism may also be attributed to Stalin who seems to have harboured a deep mistrust of Jews. Such feelings may have manifested in his persecution of prominent Russian-Jewish revolutionary and rival, Leon Trotsky. Such prejudice reached an apex in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War, which saw Stalin’s paranoia reach new heights. There were open campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitanism” (read: Judaism) at a time when the Cold War was beginning to coalesce. In his memoirs, Khrushchev loves to point out Stalin’s anti-Semitism, perhaps to detract from his own prejudice. He recounts a story of how Stalin’s paranoia led him to exile Molotov’s Jewish wife. Perhaps the most heinous epitome of Stalin’s racism though came at the very end of his life when he accused the Jewish doctors in the Kremlin of being traitors. These accusations, comprising the so-called “Doctor’s Plot,” were thankfully cut short by the death of Stalin in 1953 before they turned into another purge.

The Modern Era: Russia and Israel

For all his prejudices Stalin did have a few things to offer to Jews. The USSR did of course defeat Nazi Germany, and the Red Army liberated most concentration camps and saved countless Jews from potential slaughter. Stalin, who we must remember used to be the Commissar of Nationalities, also oversaw the creation of a Jewish autonomous region in the USSR (it was around Korea), and when Israel hit the international scene the Soviets were the first to grant it official recognition. It may be that Stalin was just trying to push Jews away or encourage emigration, although such decisions seem to be in line with his overall stance on handling the sordid nationalities of the USSR (ironically the USSR would fall apart along national lines, but that is another post).

Regardless of why Stalin may have granted Israel recognition, he must have been disappointed to see that Israel chose the American camp in the Cold War. This would lead to  tensions throughout the Cold War, with the Soviets frequently backing Arab/Palestinian claims (such as in the Suez Crisis) and threatening to enter into several Arab-Israeli conflicts (such as the Six Day War). Israel has long complicated the Soviets ability to play politics in the Middle East. A key example of this can be found in Soviet-Egyptian relations, which started warmly but were eventually cut off once Egypt and Israel brokered peace.

The creation of Israel also created problem within the Soviet Union that would soon become a foreign policy liability. Israel welcomes Jews from all over the world, and many Russian-Jews sought to leave persecution and hostility behind forever by emigrating. The Soviets generally opposed this trend and limited the amount of Jews who could leave, which attracted fierce international criticism. Indeed, this attempt to restrict freedom of movement was one of the main contentions that American conservatives had with detente, and strong American support for Russian-Jews would come to be embodied in the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which hampered trade agreements between the USA and USSR so long as emigration was discouraged. Eventually restrictions lifted, and Jews left in droves, but bitter memories remain.

A Russian-Israeli Axis?

With such a contested history is it even feasible to talk of a Russian-Israeli partnership? Despite hundreds of years of animosity, I believe that it is not impossible. Putin has been generally very positive towards Jews. He framed his meddling in Ukraine in terms of anti-fascism and language, hinting that Russia has an obligation to protect both Jews and Russian speakers. With a massive population from the Russian-Jewish diaspora, Israel is home to many Russian speakers. Could Putin feasibly extend a doctrine of linguistic based protection to cover Israel? Netanyahu, in a recent meeting with Putin, also expressed support for Russia’s involvement in Syria, and the two countries have been working together in this regard.

Russia and Israel may also be increasingly drawn together over feelings of marginalization by the West. Russian-Western relations are obviously strained, but Israel is also experiencing some difficulty with the West over its treatment of Palestinians, particularly in its colonization of the West Bank. Countries like France are increasingly supportive of Palestine over Israel, and at every turn Israel seems to be losing ground in the hearts and minds of its allies. With growing friction from the West, Israel and Russia may turn to each other to reinforce their mutual and individual interests.

But nothing is so simple, and there is still a great deal of contention. Russia’s providing of technology to Iran is unlikely to gain points with Israel. The Russians also continue to provide support to Palestinians, perhaps merely as token resistance to a perceived American stronghold. They gave arms and other support to the PLO and enjoyed generally cool relations. Arafat even attended Brezhnev’s funeral in 1982. Russia may continue to lend support to Palestine or, seeing opportunity, may make a shift towards Israel.

I do not believe that a shift of this magnitude would be very likely however, at least not without Russia dramatically shifting its perspectives on terrorism. Terrorism is an intensely politicized issue, with varying countries distinguishing between “terrorist” and “non-terrorist” simply on the basis of national interest. Russia, for example, does not acknowledge Hezbollah as a terror group while Israel and many in the West do. The reason is obvious: Hezbollah acts as a thorn in the side of one of the United States’ most valuable allies. The same applies to Palestine: Russia is unwilling to criticize Palestine, even if Israel and the United States are wary of increasingly frequent attacks by disgruntled Palestinians. Russia can alter its terror designations at any time, but once again history and political culture remain difficult to change.

Any chance of a Russia-Israel alliance forming is unlikely to occur unless Israel and America get a divorce. Israel’s treatment of Palestine is coming under increasing skepticism in the States, but most Washington politicians remain firmly committed to the alliance and the Israel lobby remains exceptionally powerful and influence. Since both Trump and Clinton have spoken out in support of Israel I think we can count on continued American-Israeli cooperation. Ironically Bernie, himself a Jew, has offered criticism of Israel, but I doubt even he could change our posture. If I know anything about Russian foreign policy I would daresay that it may be more strategically sound for Russia to continue to support Palestine and simply use the USA’s support of Israel as a wedge between America and her allies.

Ultimately a Russian-Israeli pact is unlikely, although there is a conceivable chain of events that may bring it about. It’s still fascinating to theorize on, and the fact that a case can be made for this point stands in sharp contrast to the bitter, bloody history of Russia and its Jews. Politics can still make strange bedfellows.


Holier-Than-Thou: Race, Interventionism, and Russia’s Blame Game

While doing some research into fallacies (on Wikipedia, what else) I came across this…er…quaint Russian phrase…

А у вас негров линчуют

And you are lynching negroes


The term whataboutism (brought into lexicon by Edward Lucas) outlines the Soviet/Russian approach to criticism. When accused of some wrongdoing Russian politicians and propagandists would often try to shift blame on their critics.

While Wikipedia claims the origins of the above quoted phrase lies in political jokes, it serves as a perfect example of whataboutism. When accused of abusing human rights the Soviets would often fire back by targeting America’s Achilles heel: race. The mistreatment of blacks, not to mention women and the poor, in America was a favourite target for Soviet propagandists. This was an excellent strategy for the Soviets, as bringing attention to Jim Crow would certainly have helped to legitimise the early Soviet regime. This tendency only became more pronounced, and more potent, when the Soviets entered into direct competition with the United States in the Cold War, where winning over multi-ethnic third world nations was critical. This tactic gradually lost potency as apartheid in the U.S. was addressed with the Civil Rights movement, and as Soviet abuses became more egregiously mundane. However this tendency to shift blame was not just a passing fad, but rather a tactic that Russia uses, and uses well, in the present day.

We’re not talking about hard power, that is, economic and military muscle, but rather about soft power. The Cold War was not just an icy standoff of nuclear tipped ICBMs, but a living, breathing, warm brawl aimed at winning as many hearts and minds as possible. Hard power may have started the Cold War, but soft power flavoured it and, ultimately, ended it. That is the first lesson here. The second is that domestic politics have a significant effect on international affairs. Domestic policies can completely undermine soft power or grant it tremendous legitimacy.

As we’ve mentioned before, whataboutism was used to legitimize Soviet rule and, later, to compete for international interest. To a great extent this made for an excellent political weapon during the Cold War. It was the West, not Russia, which had engaged in oppressive imperialism well into the middle of the 20th century, and this enabled the Soviet Union to justify its international efforts to promote Communism. Exactly how effective whataboutism was is hard to say, but I suppose that it varied place to place. The Vietnamese, under immediate threat from the French and, later, Americans, (and indirectly from the Chinese) would have been natural allies to the Soviets regardless of rhetoric. Whataboutism was likely more potent in Africa, where Russia could clearly point to the oppression of African Americans in the United States in order to peddle influence (ironically prejudice against Africans exists in Russia just as it does in America).

Even if we limit our view to Africa though the efficacy of whataboutism is questionable. The United States after all still managed to create bastions of influence in Latin America and Africa (sometimes by backing violent coups or dictatorial leaders, which the Soviets would love to point out).I see whataboutism less as a vehicle for foreign policy as more as a useful defense mechanism. It freed the Soviets from the need to justify their own abuses and it put pressure on the West. While the West was eager to condemn Communism as backwards, the Soviets were at least able to level the playing ground by creating doubts about Capitalism. They would have been able to appeal to historically oppressed nationalities and minorities. Overall it seems like whataboutism meshed well with the overall Soviet logic of waging a Cold War by subverting and undermining faith in the West

Taking the Bait: the Helsinke Accords and the Decline of Whataboutism

Jimmy Carter may just be one of our most influential presidents, as Schmitz would agree. He was the first to place great importance on human rights, and he dramatically altered his foreign policy to show this. Ironically though, Carter was fine with expanding detente with the U.S.S.R. despite their human rights violations, something which Reagan and other conservatives were eager to point out. But in retrospect what was Carter supposed to do? The Soviets had agreed to observe human rights before he even came into office.


Yes, in 1975 the Soviets signed an international agreement where they guaranteed human rights within their borders. This agreement, the Helsinke Final Act, may have just been more significant than the arms limitations treaties that Nixon, Carter, and Reagan signed. If we view soft power as key, the unlikely President Ford may have won the Cold War. The Helsinke Final Act gutted the Soviet ability to defend human rights abuses and provided enough traction for grassroots activism to form. Dissidents, among them former atomic bomb designer Sakharov, now had grounds for criticising Communist rule.

Why would Brezhnev, who brutally crushed any attempts at secession and had anti-Communists committed to insane asylums, ever agree to such a treaty? Quite frankly, Brezhnev valued hard power over soft power. He underestimated the impact that promising human rights would have. He also liked the clause of the treaty which legitimised Soviet territorial gains from WWII.

To conclusively prove that the Helsinke Accords marked the decline of Whataboutism would require far more time and space than I have here, but I think I can feasibly make the claim that the Final Act was a part of an overall decline in blame shifting. Brezhnev’s human rights record was already something of a joke, as if his 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring revolt hadn’t made this abundantly clear, and the Soviets were losing traction in the soft power war. At this point the United States had tidied up their own house sufficiently for the Soviets to have trouble pulling the race card. Their was still the issue posed by S. African apartheid of course, which Reagan had defended, but this form of racism was becoming the exception rather than the norm. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 obviously did not help the U.S.S.R.’s image in the soft power wars, and continued abuse of human rights, in clear violation of the Helsinke Accords, only turned Brezhnev’s regime into a laughing stock.

As the U.S.S.R. slipped into crisis in the 80s, Gorbachev sought to repair the Soviet reputation and keep the Soviet state alive. His glasnost reforms gave critics more freedoms to criticize the regime. Some activists were satisfied, but a great deal only wanted greater reforms. Nationalists and/or democracy advocates, among them Boris Yeltsin, would play a significant role in upending the Soviet Union in the period from 88-91.

Iraq, Crimea, Ferguson, and the Revival of Whataboutism

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. left Russia reeling for over a decade. Putin was eventually able to get Russia back on its feet and he put Russia’s foreign policy back online as a force to be reckoned with. If Drezner is to be believed, whataboutism played a significant part in this revival, and it is safe to say that it has returned as a feature of Russian rhetoric.

Many in the West criticize Russia’s treatment of its LGBTQ citizenry (and rightly so), but Russia has been able to gain traction against the West with the recent attention to given to police killings of African Americans in America. Russia has a point, as they had in the past: how can a nation call others out for human rights abuses when their own house is not in order?

But whataboutism has also been used in a far more effective and dangerous manner by Russia. Take for instance the reactions to the seizure of Crimea in 2014. The West cried foul and condemned Russia for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia was able to fire back though, claiming that the United States had no right to talk since it had violated Iraqi sovereignty in the years prior with a unilateral invasion.

As with Cold War era whataboutism I don’t think we should be quick to dismiss this. Many in the West seem to be eager to discount Russia’s claims or undermine their rhetoric. While Russia is by no means justified, it still raises critical issues that are dangerous to ignore. In the 1950s Russia brought attention to the plight of African Americans. In the present, Russia raises question of US hegemony and what limits it might have. But I think  that Russia’s use of whataboutism in this context is more dangerous than it previously has been. Whataboutism isn’t just used as a defense mechanism but rather as a weapon of foreign policy used to justify Russian interventionism. It becomes even more dangerous for the US to answer to when one considers Russian rhetoric claiming that the US destabilized the Middle East, which led to the rise of ISIS. The West has shown cohesion thus far in confronting Russia with sanctions and recriminations, and I think that their is a remarkable and dangerous amount of sycophancy. It is great that the NATO alliance members can actually stand up to Russia, but I feel like by ignoring or dismissing the Russian side of the story we risk crafting a weaker foreign policy.

Whataboutism should not be treated as a joke or a formality that comes in dealing with Russia. Whataboutism should be a call for intensive introspection and an engine for self-improvement. Creating a more harmonious domestic and foreign policy will greatly benefit the West, while granting them more leverage against Russia.

Drezner, Daniel W. “Ferguson, whataboutism, and American soft power.” The Washington Post. 20 August 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/08/20/ferguson-whataboutism-and-american-soft-power/

Lucas, Edward. “Whataboutism.” The Economist. 31 January 2008. http://www.economist.com/node/10598774

Schmitz, David F. The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships. New York: Cambridge, 2006.