Streetwise Professor

January 16, 2019

Don’t Bother Me With the Facts! I Have a Narrative I Need to Flog!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 7:20 pm

US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell recently tweeted that the Trump administration had been tougher on Russia than any of its predecessors. The reflexive anti-Trumpers wouldn’t stand for this. Not for a second.

NYT columnist Bret Stephens leaped into the lists to tilt at Ambassador Grenell:

And let’s play no word games about the difference between USSR and “Russia.” Putin’s Russia is the USSR reborn under the exact same management.

That’s what’s called “projection”, Bret, for you are playing word games by transmogrifying Putin’s Russia into the USSR.

Today’s Russia “is the USSR reborn” only in Putin’s wildest dreams. By any objective measure, Russia today pales in comparison to the USSR as a threat to the US (or the West generally). From 1945 through 1991, the Soviets had millions of men and thousands of tanks poised on the borders of western Europe. Today the men do not exist and the tanks are rusting away in storage–and all are hundreds of miles to the east of the Elbe. The Soviet Union had a very credible navy: Russia’s navy is back from the utter decrepitude of the 1990s and early 2000s, but is still a pale shadow of what it was under Admiral Gorshkov. Whereas the Soviet Union posed an extreme conventional threat to the US and the west, Russia poses no threat at all.

Oh, by the way Bret–where is Putin’s Warsaw Pact? Oh, that’s right–they are all Nato members.

The USSR was also a formidable ideological adversary, and its ideology was aggressive and expansionist. Especially prior to the 1980s, the Soviet ideology had substantial international appeal, especially in the Third World. The Cold War was as much intellectual and ideological, as it was military and economic.

Putin tries on new ideologies like a teenage girl tries on new clothes. But his ideological fashion choices are primarily for domestic political effect, and have no appeal outside Russia’s borders. Zero. Zip. This is in large part because most of Putin’s ideologies are nationalist and insular. His embrace of Russian Orthodoxy is a particularly telling in this regard. It only has very limited appeal even within Russia, and none whatsoever outside it.

Russia is not an ideological nation. It is a kleptocratic regime.

Yes, Putin laments the demise of the USSR. But his efforts to rebuild it are pathetic in the extreme. In his nearly 20 years in power, his efforts to reconstitute the USSR have succeeded in reclaiming–wait for it–Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and some rather decrepit bits of Ukraine. These are the offal of the USSR. He is now putting the squeeze on Belarus–but Lukashenko has no desire to go back to the Soviet Union.

And even these “accomplishments” have succeeded primarily in isolating Russia, with one of the consequences being economic stagnation that leaves Russia even further behind the US in the wellsprings of military power. After a brief splurge in defense spending, the realities of Russia’s parlous economic condition have forced Putin to cut back again, and announce new weapons with great fanfare–but not to produce them in meaningful numbers. Potemkin revisited.

In sum, Putin’s Russia is at best a pitiful simulacrum of the USSR. To equate the two, as Stephens does, is beyond farcical.

So after dispensing with Stephens’ sleight-of-hand turning 2019 Russia into 1979 USSR, let’s evaluate Ambassador Grenell’s statement on the merits, administration by administration post-USSR.

The Clinton administration was all in propping up Yeltsin. When Yeltsin shelled the Duma in 1993, Clinton said: “I guess we’ve just got to pull up our socks and back Ol’ Boris again.” When Yeltsin was in grave peril of losing the 1996 election, Clinton said: “I know that means we’ve got to stop short of giving a nominating speech for the guy. But we’ve got to go all the way in helping in every other respect.” (Can anyone say “interfering in an election”? I knew you could.) The Clinton administration also supported Russian policy in Chechnya.

Bush II famously gazed into Putin’s eyes, and his administration got on rather well with Russia. Even the 2008 invasion of Georgia did not trigger a vigorous response.

And Obama. Where to begin? Of course there’s the Reset, complete with Hillary grinning like a buffoon standing next to Lavrov, holding an idiotic button (mislabeled in Russian, no less). Then there was Obama paling around with Medvedev–they were burger buddies, remember? Oh–can’t forget the hot mike statement that Medvedev should tell Vladimir to be patient, as Obama would have more flexibility after the 2012 election. In the 2012 campaign, Obama mocked Romney saying that Russia was a threat.

Given this, it’s not surprising that Putin smelled weakness, and that his peak aggressive phase occurred during the Obama administration.

Obama’s response was 90 percent petulance and condescension about Putin not following the arc of historical progress, and 10 percent rather ineffectual measures.

It is against this standard–not that of Cold Warriors facing an existential threat–that the Trump administration should be measured. And as Grenell said, by this standard Trump has indeed been far more robust. He has provided Ukraine with weapons (which Obama steadfastly refused to do). He has embarked on rebuilding the US military. He has implemented more vigorous sanctions than the Obama administration. And the US military smoked 200+ Russians who tried to throw their weight around against US forces in Syria.

Further, look at other news involving Grenell. The Germans are in apoplexy over Grenell’s threat to sanction any company that cooperated with the Nordstream II pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Europe. Merkel’s party spokeswoman huffed: “The American ambassador operates in a, shall I say, somewhat unusual diplomatic manner. He’s shown that not only through this letter [on Nord Stream 2 sanctions] but also from when he took office.”

And this is not a new thing. Trump has been bashing Nordstream since he took office–and the Germans have been reacting with outrage every time.

Trump’s notorious criticism of Nato is also hardly pro-Russian. His main criticism is that Nato countries–especially Germany–don’t do enough to counter Russia, but expect the US to do it for them.

This is not a hard call. The Trump administration has objectively been far harder on Russia than its predecessors–including most notably its immediate predecessor, whom people like Bret Stephens now lavish praise on. It isn’t even close. To claim that US policy towards the USSR is the appropriate yardstick by with to measure US policy towards the decrepit, dissolute successor state of Russia requires breathtaking intellectual dishonesty. But Bret Stephens is obviously up to the task

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  1. So are you submitting this as an op-Ed to the Times? Or the Journal?

    Comment by Highgamma — January 16, 2019 @ 8:33 pm

  2. “Putin’s Russia is at best a pitiful simulacrum of the USSR”

    True, but the West is also a pitiful simulacrum of the West that defeated the USSR. The Germanic tribes that burned down Rome were probably no match to Carthage militarily, yet Rome was rotten enough to succumb.

    Comment by Ivan — January 16, 2019 @ 10:51 pm

  3. But yes, the “reset” crowd criticizing Trump for not being sufficiently tough on Russia is beyond ironic:

    Comment by Ivan — January 16, 2019 @ 11:14 pm

  4. correct url:

    Comment by Ivan — January 16, 2019 @ 11:18 pm

  5. Yeah, saw that you were responding to a NYT columnist and tuned out. You may be right but facts don’t matter to that crowd. NYT, WaPo, and NPR are all in on #Resistance (to add, Bloomberg and CNN seem to be there as well). If Trump says the sky is blue, they’ll tell you it’s purple. If Trump isn’t tough on Russia, that’s because he’s bought and paid for by Putin. If he is tough on Russia, it’s reckless warmongering. Etc. Boring, but by this point it’s no surprise.

    It makes business sense too. It’s a big crowded media landscape in the digital world and being a straight shooter doesn’t get you far, not does boring fact sell all that well. Might as well cater to – and rile up – the 10% most left-wing side of the population and convince them that by buying the product, you’re fighting rising right wing fascism. Insipid but it’s more or less the Patagonia model applied to politics instead of environmentalism and it’s worked well for Patagonia.

    More interesting question is what happens when 80%+ of the voting electorate can’t even agree on (or get right) basic facts? This seems a recipe for disaster – no one can compromise or get anything done because the base is convinced the other side is the devil incarnate. You seem like a Civil War guy, so the question is if this is the setup leading into that particular catastrophe.

    Comment by Anon — January 16, 2019 @ 11:49 pm

  6. The intellectual dishonesty is necessary, if one is to continue believing the illusion that Putin owns Trump, somehow.

    Off topic: Have you been watching what is happening in the east, re. China, the US navy, the South China Sea, and Taiwan? The Chinese are beginning very seriously to increase the temperature of their rhetoric and their ‘warnings’ to the US, as Admiral Richardson found out when the Chinese essentially told him to leave them free to take Taiwan, when he visited Beijing recently. A recent FT piece also carried the interesting-worrying claim that the Chinese now simply ‘just don’t care’ that the US under Trump is taking a harder line against them – indicating that they think they have the goods now to do as they please. Also concerning is that I think they realise that their economy, such as it is, is a basket case and might not survive the pressure Trump is applying – a recent financial stability publication noted that Chinese financial assets – read ‘debt’ – increased by the gobsmacking amount of US$51 TRILLION over the last four years, obviously all printed to keep the economy afloat. If true, then Xi may play the old card of starting a war somewhere to distract the nation.

    It’s concerning. Even more concerning given the signals that the US navy is sending about its competence – the USS FitsGerald investigation revealed ‘kettle bells and bottles of urine’ on the bridge, what the hell? I’m sure they didn’t teach you that at Annapolis!

    Would be interested in your thoughts. This is going the wrong way fast, I think.

    Comment by Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — January 17, 2019 @ 3:01 am

  7. This take on how Trump has been harder on Russia than his predecessors is pretty thin gruel TBH. His splurge on the military was more about jobs creation and countering the rising threat of China and North Korea, much less (if anything) about Russia. His sanctions were at best half-hearted and primarily instigated due to some US legislative requirement regarding the use of chemical weapons, and as we ‘speak’ being readied for watering down. As for the action in Syria, sheesh if you noted the US forces contacted their Russian counterparts before engaging their countrymen – hardly the actions of two nations facing each other down. Odd you failed to mention the various US cruise missile strikes in Syria, which were widely criticised for their scope and pre-warnings.

    The best which can be said about Trump that he is indifferent to the Russian threat, which may be a good or bad thing.

    At least Obama got under Putin’s skin, like really got under his skin.

    Comment by David Mercer — January 17, 2019 @ 4:19 am

  8. The only way in which Russia is a threat comparable to the USSR is in respect of the Baltics. They’re all NATO members, but in practice, any encroachment onto or occupation of their soil by Russia could not be reversed by NATO. If annexed, they would stay annexed.

    I don’t see the Germans rising to any such challenge. They don’t spend 2% of GDP on defence even if they fiddle the number upwards by including autobahn maintenance as defence spending.

    Non-US NATO would probably be hard pressed to put a division size force together between them.

    Comment by Green as Grass — January 17, 2019 @ 7:26 am

  9. “Non-US NATO would probably be hard pressed to put a division size force together between them.” If the US were happy to continue Intelligence cooperation with the UK then the UK should leave NATO.

    Partly as a thank you to the EU countries for their helpful attitude to Brexit, and partly because we have no vital interest in Latvia, Afghanistan, …….

    Comment by dearieme — January 17, 2019 @ 10:36 am

  10. ” Obama got under Putin’s skin, like really got under his skin.” Riiight.
    Who told you that, Obama?

    Comment by ETat — January 17, 2019 @ 8:19 pm

  11. @ ETat. My bad – they were, of course, bestest buddies. Incidentally have you seen that vid of the formal dinner at the recent G20 doing the rounds on social media, with Trump vainly trying to get Putin’s attention? That’s some seriously weird sh*t. Anyhows the good professor’s blog isn’t the place for this sort of ‘debate’. Ping me on Twitter @distantthud if you want to continue..

    Comment by David Mercer — January 18, 2019 @ 8:26 am

  12. @David

    “At least Obama got under Putin’s skin”

    I sincerely hope that your next “debate” will include a couch and a mental health professional. Have a great day.

    Comment by Minibar_Mike — January 18, 2019 @ 10:25 am

  13. “[…] Trump vainly trying to get Putin’s attention”
    And that, of course, signifies…nothing!

    Thanks for the invite – but I don’t have Twitter account (as I deplore fascist authoritarian platforms – same for FB). Instead, here’s allaverdy to you – and a self plug! – showing who really is on Russian payroll, with photo evidence.

    Comment by ETat — January 18, 2019 @ 3:51 pm

  14. Hi, Craig. Apologies if i should now this or I am missing something, But how do i subscribe to your blog?

    There doesnt seem to be any link on the website. I signed up and cant seem to find the optin there either.

    I would like to get your new posts emailed to me.


    Comment by rashaad — January 19, 2019 @ 8:54 am

  15. Where intellectual dishonesty is concerned, even the NYT will have a hard time competing with the German establishment. Just look at this:

    MOSCOW/KIEV (Reuters) – German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Friday urged both Russia and Ukraine to de-escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine…

    I wonder if Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is taught as a masterpiece in the German diplomatic schools. They surely are trying hard to emulate it.

    Comment by Ivan — January 19, 2019 @ 3:08 pm

  16. @Ivan–Don’t even get me started on the Germans. They want to make it look like they are being tough on the Russians, but when push comes to shove, the only thing that matters is the €€€€€.

    Comment by cpirrong — January 20, 2019 @ 8:10 pm

  17. The tone of your article is truly puzzling. While Bret’s article is alarmist, your response appears to be one that is equally partisan and biased. I’m unsure if you are being a contrarian for the sake of being contrarian, or if you truly believe in your conclusion.

    You say “The Trump administration has objectively been far harder on Russia than its predecessors”. Then, you go on to cite Nordstream II as your only example? Isn’t it likely that he’s probably opposing the pipeline to sell US shale/natgas to the Europeans? If the Nordstream objection is supposed a show of strength against Russia, what would you say about the administration’s decision to leave Syria and create a power vacuum for Putin and his cronies? Wouldn’t that be a show of weakness? Romney was right in 2012, and continues to be right today: Russia is, and will be, the US’s greatest geopolitical on the world stage in the near term. They are punching above their weight given their emaciated economy, and are certainly more adept at waging warfare on newer battlegrounds like the internet.

    Comment by diogenes of arkansas — February 4, 2019 @ 11:51 pm

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