2008 12 09
Recently read: A Small Corner of Hell

Posted by in: Books, Russia

Anna Politkovskaya. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya

This is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. When she was assassinated in 2006, all I knew about Politkovskaya was that she was a journalist who covered the recent conflicts in Chechnya. Now that I’ve read A Small Corner of Hell, I can see why she was assassinated, and also why Putin couldn’t even bother to conceal his pleasure that she was no longer around to investigate his savage, inhuman little wars in Chechnya.

Politkovskaya has a keen sense of how the wretched conflicts Chechnya started, and how, once started, they became self-perpetuating with a host of cynical, exploitative generals, warlords, and politicians all profiting from it. In her book you get a decent analysis of how all these pieces fit together. But what you also get are closely rendered portraits of particular people caught in injustices so vicious they stagger the imagination. In the end, I think what makes her book so remarkable is this extraordinary range: from the larger structural view of the conflict right down to particular individuals caught in that nightmarish mess.

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2008 08 10
“less to geostrategic calculations than to . . . Putin’s cold war mentality”

James Traub has an interesting piece in the NYT about the current conflict between Russia and Georgia. But what’s up with this:

Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, thus represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. And this challenge is immensely compounded by Georgia’s fervent aspiration to join NATO, one of Russia’s red lines. Russian officials frequently recall that President Bill Clinton promised Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Europe. Of course NATO is no longer an anti-Soviet alliance, and the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.

And then later on this:

People of all political persuasion now seem to get it about Russia. In “The Return of History and The End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy expert who is advising John McCain, writes of Mr. Putin and his coterie: “Their grand ambition is to undo the post-cold war settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia.” Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”

Is a Russian leader being paranoid and stuck in the past if he fears the eastward expansion of a powerful rival military alliance, after a promise that it won’t happen? It is not at all clear to me that Russia should be sanguine about NATO’s expansion. Does Traub suppose that member nations of NATO will always have the purest intentions when they deal with Russia? Even with the purest intentions, NATO countries are bound to have conflicts with Russia over a number of issues. Is he sure that the fact that they belong to a powerful military alliance will have no influence over their policies? I have a very healthy loathing of Putin and everything he stands for, but I can’t take much pleasure about seeing his concern on this point so arrogantly dismissed.

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2005 03 21

Posted by in: Political issues, Russia

The Executive Summary of Worse Than a War: “Disappearances” in Chechnya—a Crime Against Humanity:

Enforced disappearances in Chechnya are so widespread and systematic that they constitute crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch urges the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to take urgent measures commensurate with the extreme gravity of the phenomenon. It should adopt a resolution condemning enforced disappearances in Chechnya, urging the Russian government to immediately adopt measures to stop the practice and requiring the government to issue an urgent invitation to the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

The conflict in Chechnya, now in its sixth year, is a dire human rights crisis. The Russian government has gone to great lengths to persuade the international community that the situation is steadily “normalizing,” even as in the past year the conflict has shown no sign of abating. Rather, it has increasingly spread to other areas of the Northern Caucasus. Russia contends that its operations in Chechnya are its contribution to the global campaign against terrorism. But the human rights violations Russian forces have committed there, reinforced by the climate of impunity the government has created, have not only brought untold suffering to hundreds of thousands of civilians but also undermined the goal of fighting terrorism.

Chechen fighters have committed unspeakable acts of terrorism in Chechnya and other parts of Russia. RussiaÂ’s federal forces, together with pro-Moscow Chechen forces, have also committed numerous crimes against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention and looting.

But it is their involvement in enforced disappearances that is an enduring feature of the six-year conflict. With between 3,000 and 5,000 “disappeared” since 1999, Russia has the inglorious distinction of being a world leader in enforced disappearances.1 This briefing paper argues that the pattern of enforced disappearances in Chechnya has reached the level of a crime against humanity. It shows that, as part of Russia’s policy of “Chechenization” of the conflict, pro-Moscow Chechen forces have begun to play an increasingly active role in the conflict, gradually replacing federal troops as the main perpetrators of “disappearances” and other human rights violations.2 It reflects forty-three cases of enforced disappearances that occurred in 2004, which Human Rights Watch documented during a two-week research trip to Chechnya in January-February 2005.3 Human Rights Watch has submitted thirty-six of these cases to the Russian government, requesting that it disclose information on the whereabouts or fate of the “disappeared” individuals and hold the perpetrators responsible.4 We have also submitted the cases to the U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, asking that they raise these cases with the Russian government. These cases are appended to this briefing paper.

Read the whole thing here.

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2005 02 25
It’s a start

Posted by in: Political issues, Russia

Good. Let Putin stew on that, the sick fu*k.

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2004 10 31
Russia and Sudan

Passion of the Present calls “bullshit” on Putin:

“Vladmir Putin has signed a decree banning the sale of all weapons to non-government bodies in Sudan, including the Janjaweed armed groups that have been accused by the international community of genocide in the southern province of Darfur.”

Now again, let’s get real. The problem is not that Russia sells small arms to Janjaweed–the problem is that Russia sells MIG jets and heavy arms as well as light to the Sudanese government, who in turn loans and gives them to the Janjaweed–who are in fact “itself” and based on its regular popular militia.

By making this announcement Putin looks like he is helping the crisis–when in fact he is doing nothing to help, and is continuing to keep as a client the genocidal governmenrt of Sudan.

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2004 09 26
Maybe Vladimir Putin *is* our ally

Posted by in: Political issues, Russia

From the Observer:

The man arrested last week for allegedly trying to kill President Vladimir Putin with a car bomb was interrogated by 150 police officers before he died.

Police said he died of a heart attack. The Observer can reveal that the body of Alexander Pumane, 38, from St Petersburg, was so badly beaten that his relatives were unable to identify him.

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2004 09 24
Vladimir Putin is not our ally

Posted by in: Political issues, Russia

Exactly right.

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2004 09 20
Lieven on Islam in Chechnya

I recently finished reading A. Lieven’s Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power. This passage, on p. 357, seems worth mentioning:

For its part, the Russian exaggeration of the political role of religion in contemporary Chechnya is an effort to brand the Chechen separatists as ‘Muslim fundamentalists’. The intention (very close to the propaganda of the French against the FLN during the Algerian War) has generally been threefold: to appeal to Western audiences with the line that the war has been a sort of Western crusade against a common Islamic enemy; to argue that the Chechens are too ‘primitive’ to have developed a modern nationalism and sense of national identity; and to suggest that as simple, primitive people, they have been misled by religious propaganda into acting contrary to their own best interests.

From my own observations, I would say on the contrary that the Chechen struggle of the 1990s has been overwhelmingly a national or nationalist one. In so far as it has taken on a religious colouring, this was mainly because Islam is seen, even by irreligious Chechens, as an integral part of the national tradition and of the nation’s part struggles against Russian domination. As Soviet officers, neither General Dudayev nor Colonel Maskhadov can have previously been regularly practicing Muslims; and even Shamil Basayev, while always a convinced Muslim, did not give me the impression before the war of being a particularly strict one. Islam seems less of a motive force in itself than something which has been adopted both by the Dudayev regime and by individual Chechen fighters as a spiritual clothing for their national struggle.”

That’s from a book published in 1998, which focuses on the first Chechen conflict from 1994-6. A lot can change in the six or so years since it was published. Still, it is a reminder that people who imagine the bogeyman of Al Qaida popping up everywhere as the source of so much trouble in the world miss the fact that radical Islamic extremist groups typically insert themselves into conflicts with a long-prehistory, and causes which often have very little to do with radical Islam. Once they’ve inserted themselves, of course, then everyone is stuck with a big problem. But it’s no help to pretend that if it weren’t for those big, bad Muslim extremists then everything would be going just swimmingly in [fill in the country/region].

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2004 09 05

Posted by in: Political issues, Russia

I’ve been struggling to pull together my thoughts on the massacre in Beslan. In one sense, of course, it is easy. The various elements of the situation seem to fit together into an almost perfect picture of evil: the choice of victims – not just civilians, but children; the lengthy premeditation apparently involved; the sheer scale of it; the pointlessness of the violence; the fact – and I do think this makes some difference – that the killers killed face to face; and so on. But it is one thing to recognize textbook cases of moral depravity, and another to assimilate them. And I confess, I haven’t yet been able to fully absorb the news that one group of human beings coldly planned for months to target a school full of children for reasons which . . . well, for what reasons, exactly? On top of the moral failure, there is surely also a failure of rationality – or rather, one part of the moral failure here is the sheer irrationality of it all.
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A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 09 01
Russia and China in Sudan

Both Russia and China are deeply involved in Sudan, as this piece in the CSM outlines.

I keep returning to the point that the name and shame campaign over Sudan needs to go beyond the Sudanese regime and the Janjaweed. It needs to target countries that are complicit, either actively or passively, in what is happening.

I think that a lot of what presents itself as anti-anti-Americanism is misguided. The U.S. has power and influence unrivalled in the world, is to a certain extent responsive to moral criticism, and is also engaged in some very shady behaviour. A lot of heated criticism is really in order here, especially considering how much good the U.S. also has within its power to bring about. But look, there are times when it is really important to broaden the targets of fierce criticism, and this seems to be one of them. I don’t say the left is silent on this issue, but I wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more noise all the same.

Russia and China are both deeply involved in Sudanese affairs, they both have a lot of leverage over the Sudanese regime, and they both appear ready to use their permanent positions on the Security Council to block serious international pressure on Sudan. They suck, and everyone should say so.

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2004 08 30
Department of Minor Coincidences (Transdniestrian Edition)

Yesterday, on his blog I read about Ben Hammersley’s sudden obsession with Transdniestria, “an obscure post-Soviet semi-State”. A few hours later, I got to a subchapter of the book I’m currently reading (Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power by Anatol Lieven) called “The Transdniestrian Path”.

What is the Transdniestrian Path and what is the point of exploring it in a book about Chechnya? Well, one question about the Chechen conflict is why Russian or Cossack minorities in Chechnya weren’t radicalized and mobilized by the Yeltsin government as an instrument to be used against Chechens. Another question is whether Russian minorities in other ethnically complex regions of the former Soviet Union are ever likely to be radicalized and mobilized in this way. Lieven explains:

Transdniestria in fact represents the closest that Russians (or rather ‘Russian-speakers’) have come to adopting the Serbian option and creating a sort of Republic of Kraina or Bornian Serb Republic – indeed, small numbers of Cossack and other volunteers who came from or had served in Transdniestria actually went to support their ‘Serbian brothers’ in Bosnia, though it is not clear that they actually saw any fighting there. Crimea could have gone in the same direction but did not . . .

The rest of the discussion is an attempt to detail the various reasons that Transdniestria went its own way.

As I’ve said before, Lieven’s book is out of date. And the discussion of Transdniestria is brief enough to disappoint anyone gripped by a Hammersley-strength obsession. Still, a very interesting discussion of an obscure place that probably deserves to be much less obscure.

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2004 08 28
Two Counterinsurgencies

I am very relieved that round two of the Najaf counterinsurgency operation is winding down, and winding down in a way that is less bad than I can imagine.

Meanwhile, while everyone else has been reading about ongoing counterinsurgency operations in Najaf, I’ve been working my way through Anatol Lieven’s superb book, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, which looks at the first round (1994-6) of the crisis in Chechnya. I’m not working with much background knowledge of the Chechen crisis to start with, but Lieven’s book strikes me as remarkably good. Part reporting, part history, part military analysis, part sociology, Lieven’s work aims to understand the causes of the Russian defeat during the first round of the conflict. (The book is seriously out of date, since it was published in 1998. But it’s still very much worth reading.) Highly recommended.

Anyhow, as bad as Iraq is now, if you want to read a story of a real fuck up, Lieven’s book is a fine place to start. Russian incompetence, indifference to human life (both its own soldier’s lives, and the lives of Chechen civilians), indifference to the laws of war, and so on, make the U.S. operation in Iraq so far look like a tightly run humanitarian operation in comparison. Of course, the invasion of Iraq is likely to have more far reaching consequences than Russia’s conflict with Chechnya. Still, the Chechen conflict really was a moral catastrophe, and I can’t help noticing that many of the main perpetrators of the catastrophe never faced any consequences for it.

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2003 11 16

I want to call attention to a little noticed irony in hawkish attitudes towards risk, and to use it to reflect a bit on a taboo in American political debate which has potentially serious consequences.

During the Cold War, hawkish attitudes to the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union were often alarmingly casual. I don’t mean that anyone actually wanted a confrontation. But hawkish rhetoric and strategizing flirted more openly with the risks of nuclear annihilation than many of us were comfortable with – and that includes many of those who supported standing up to the Soviets in all sorts of ways. (This isn’t a point aimed exclusively at Republicans, of course – think of McNamara’s advice to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

It’s worth remembering how serious a risk we were all flirting with. A nuclear exchange would have wiped out life on earth.

Compare this to the threat of terrorism. What is the worst that a terrorist could do? Well, it’s pretty damn awful. In the worst case, a small nuclear device packed in a truck in Midtown Manhattan could kill hundreds of thousands, destroy the American economy, spread sickness and devastation, and render my favourite city in the U.S. uninhabitable. But this is still not as awful as the complete and final destruction of life on earth coldly contemplated by hundreds of pointy-heads in government and Think Tanks for the duration of the Cold War. And although this is a difficult judgment call, I think there’s considerably less risk of a worst case terrorist attack than there was of a nuclear confrontation.

It isn’t being cavalier about terrorism to point this out, since even less than worse case terrorist attacks are awful enough that we ought to be prepared to go very far out of our way to try to prevent them.

And again, I don’t mean that anyone intentionally courted disaster during the Cold War. I mean that the risk of nuclear annihilation was never considered an absolute argument stopper when policymakers were weighing risks of different sorts against one another.

The irony, then, is this: Hawks during the cold war went from excessive risk-taking in the face of a far greater threat, to a total refusal nowadays to countenance any course of action that involves an increased risk – however slight – of further terrorism.

Critics of the current administration have noted that many of the hawks who were gaming intelligence during the Cold War were up to the same old tricks during the build-up to the war on Iraq. And indeed, there is a depressing continuity both in actors and tactics here. But it has eluded critics that the underlying attitude towards risk has been completely reversed: The risk of terrorism is no longer considered a risk to be balanced against other risks in other areas. It is a trump card, a genuine argument stopper. It is now the case that to identify a plausible measure in the War on Terror is automatically to have a decisive reason to act, whatever the other consequences.

Now, perhaps this is more a feature of hawkish rhetoric than hawkish belief. Anyone who is serious about protecting Americans from future terrorist attacks should also be serious about adequate funding for homeland security, and this is not something which the Bush administration or its defenders have been serious about. Still, I have a sense that I’ve put my finger on a real article of faith in the administration and among its supporters. And anyway, it functions as an argument stopper in real political debate, so we might as well treat it as sincere and examine it accordingly.

It might also be objected that the nature of the threat has changed in ways that make this shift in attitudes to risk intelligible. But this overlooks the fact that, for one thing, the risks presented by further terrorism are less serious than the ones contemplated by policymakers and analysts in during the Cold War (What is the best case scenario involving a nuclear exchange?). I think this also overlooks the years of uncertainty during the Cold War about whether, in fact, the Soviets were deterrable. Don’t forget that this was once a very open question, especially over the years as each side postured to try to stare down and unnerve the other. But, more important, this objection misses the main point. The undeterrability of terrorist groups is part of the risk we’re considering. And what I’m comparing is the risk presented by these two very different kinds of adversaries and the attitudes of American policymakers to that risk.

Without our much noticing or debating it, this principle – the one that says that no risk of terrorism is acceptable under any circumstances, and can’t be weighed against any other sort of risk in formulating policy – has hardened into one of the firmest taboos in American political culture. It’s the explicit party line of the hawks, who trumpet it most loudly, but it’s also never been challenged effectively in the mainstream, as far as I know, and this has allowed it to enter the conventional wisdom by default.

Despite this, I think it’s a terrible principle, and one that is bound to mislead Americans. In fact, I think it’s bound to make all of us much less safe given enough time.

Let me explain this by describing one of the consequences of the principle in action. Consider the U.S.’s dealings with Russia. The relationship is complex, with all sorts of trade-offs, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. But one very prominent justification offered for the U.S.’s steadfast refusal to press Russia on Chechnya, or human rights in general, or the failure to respect the rule of law, or for generally behaving like France on the international stage, or for any number of worrying developments, is that Russia is an ally in the war on terror and provides intelligence cooperation on Muslim extremist groups. (And the same considerations apply to China, more or less, mutatis mutandis.)

Well, I’m sure it does, though I’ve not heard many stories of actual cooperation. On balance I rather doubt that the trade is worth it, even on its own terms. Russia’s behaviour in Chechnya has surely done more to inflame radical Muslim sentiment than its intelligence on radical groups could ever compensate for. But set this aside, and assume that the trade makes sense from the point of view of combating terrorism.

Also set aside – just for the moment – the moral question: Is Russian intelligence so good that it’s worth turning a blind eye to the wanton persecution of human beings in Chechnya? Hawks who like to brag about saving Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo might want to chew on that one for a while. It’s a bit deflating to add Chechnya – and the U.S.’s non-response to it – to this supposedly glorious story. Pooty-Poot is a war criminal, and anyone who stares into his beady little eyes and comes away without shuddering is a fool or worse. But let this go for a minute.

The most serious prudential point is that U.S. policies which subordinate the goal of fighting terrorist groups over everything else miss the fact that an increasingly unhealthy Russia is bad for the U.S. (and a lot of other people, like, for example, Russians) for all kinds of reasons quite unrelated to terrorism. Investment, a stable source of oil, a potentially reliable partner, an actor on the global stage which still has considerable influence – all these things are set at risk by the sort of political decay in Russia that the U.S. has so clearly declined to resist since the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

This is a bipartisan criticism, by the way, and a problem in which – just to be clear – there are more factors than an interest in combating terrorism. I think Clinton’s coddling of Yeltsin for quite different reasons played a crucial, and very unfortunate, role in bringing things to this point.

But the War on Terror as an article of unquestioned faith has made things much worse, and now stands firmly in the way of a re-evaluation of the policy. Here, then, is the effect of the taboo: Our politicians (and indeed, most of the chattering class) now lack the vocabulary, and perhaps even the conceptual tools, that would help to evaluate the various risks and balance them sensibly. That’s because balancing them sensibly would require them to seriously consider the possibility that other considerations might, in principle, outweigh the risks posed by terrorism. It might make sense to accept slightly more risk in the War on Terror in order to achieve a more stable Russia, assuming for the moment that helping to bring about a stable Russia actually did require the U.S. to jeopardize a potential source of intelligence on extremist groups. In fact, I think this particular trade off would be worth it. And I live in New York!

Now, part of the solution here would be to try to figure out a way to frame the political debate which doesn’t allow this point to be distorted into the simplistic claim that critics of the assumption are soft on terrorism, and don’t take national security seriously. Perhaps you can figure this out. I’m not sure I can.

It’s important to rethink this mess of intuitions from the start. For the refusal to consider different sorts of trade-offs influences more than just foreign policy. It figures prominently in the debate over civil liberties, for example. People have assumed that Ashcroft and others are acting consistently with past positions when they balance civil liberties against terrorist measures and civil liberties come off worse for it. But in fact we’ve come a very long way from the days of “Better dead than red”. It would be nice to have just a bit more of that spirit back in the right. It would be better to have just a bit more of that spirit back in all of us.

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2003 09 25
[France bashing on the right]

Much of the right has been foaming at the mouth for a year or so now over France. Question: Is there some consistent ideological basis for this, or do these chumps march in lockstep to the martial tunes emenating from the White House?

There’s actually a very easy test to settle this question: Find a country which has behaved in ways that are relevantly similar to France and see whether it comes in for the same kind of abuse in the right wing press. As I’ve said, this isn’t hard to do. Perhaps you’ve even heard of this country. It’s called Russia.

Russia presented as serious an obstacle as France to U.S. policy in the buildup to war, and for many of the same reasons: greed for oil, a fundamental lack of concern about human rights in its foreign policy, and the kind of deep resentment and rivalry that is felt particularly keenly by has-beens. Since then, besides making the odd friendly noise, Russia has been interested in one thing only, which is to drive a very hard bargain with the U.S. for its support on projects that are really to the mutual benefit of both countries. I suppose it makes sense for the U.S. to bribe Russia to curtail assistance to Iran’s nuclear program, for example. But it is beyond me how the U.S. does this without suffering deep resentment. After all, it’s idiotic for Russia to encourage an unstable nuclear power so close to home. Why does it need to be bribed for this kind of thing?

Now suppose that you think the U.S. has good reasons for these policies. Suppose that it actually makes sense to look the other way when it comes to Russia’s authoritarianism or its grotesque human rights abuses in Chechnya. It still doesn’t make any sense for the right wing press – which is free of the diplomatic constraints imposed on the administration – to look the other way. In fact, Russia has all the features that conservative commentators find so maddening about France, and a whole lot of other quite disgusting details thrown in gratis on top.

As long as neo-cons find France’s failure to provide decent air conditioning for its senior citizens less worrying than Russia’s crimes against humanity in Chechnya, or its deteriorating and corrupt economy, I’ll know I don’t have to take their outrage seriously.

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