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Russian Sanctions and Soviet Ghosts

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

A friend asked me to weight in on the response of Russian Prime Minister Medvedev to the signing by President Trump of the Russia sanctions bill passed by Congress.  A translation of Medvedev’s remarks today:

“The US President’s signing of the package of new sanctions against Russia will have a few consequences. First, it ends hopes for improving our relations with the new US administration. Second, it is a declaration of a full-fledged economic war on Russia. Third, the Trump administration has shown its total weakness by handing over executive power to Congress in the most humiliating way. This changes the power balance in US political circles.

What does it mean for them? The US establishment fully outwitted Trump; the President is not happy about the new sanctions, yet he could not but sign the bill. The issue of new sanctions came about, primarily, as another way to knock Trump down a peg. New steps are to come, and they will ultimately aim to remove him from power. A non-systemic player has to be removed. Meanwhile, the interests of the US business community are all but ignored, with politics chosen over a pragmatic approach. Anti-Russian hysteria has become a key part of both US foreign policy (which has occurred many times) and domestic policy (which is a novelty).

The sanctions regime has been codified and will remain in effect for decades unless a miracle happens. This legislation is going to be harsher than the Jackson-Vanik amendment as it is overarching and cannot be lifted by a special presidential order without Congress’ approval. Thus, relations between Russia and the United States are going to be extremely tense regardless of Congress’ makeup and regardless of who is president. Lengthy arguments in international bodies and courts are ahead, as well as rising international tensions and refusal to settle major international issues.

What does it mean for us? We will steadily continue our work on developing the economy and social sector, take efforts to substitute imports, and solve major national tasks, relying mostly on ourselves. We have learned to do so in the past few years, in conditions of almost closed financial markets as well as foreign investors’ and creditors’ fear of investing in Russia upon penalty of sanctions against third parties and countries. To some extent, this has even been to our advantage, although sanctions are meaningless overall. We will cope.”

My short take on this is that we are all watching a gambler or manipulator (President Putin not Medvedev) who has overplayed his hand and is now flailing about, trying to stir the pot a little, because they don’t have a follow up play.

Longer take: I find the reference to Jackson-Vanik extremely interesting. Far more than the crude effort to push Trump’s buttons or the lack of understanding on how our constitutional machinery works and agitprop spin.

Most Americans have forgotten Jackson-Vanik and the refusenik issue but Russians of Putin’s generation have not and it means something very different to them than to us. The reference to Jackson-Vanik is aimed less at us than their domestic audience and I find that quite telling. I certainly would not have used it if I were in their shoes. It would be like Xi exclaiming that some action by the US was an “unequal treaty“.

Here’s the significance in my view. During early Détente, the Soviet side had the objective of leveraging better relations with the US to improve the Soviet economy. Brezhnev personally valued this outcome as a way to have both guns and butter. There were Soviet internal political drivers at work too in that Brezhnev was using Detente and the material rewards that would flow from it, to elbow aside Kosygin and Podgorny in the politburo and become the de facto leader of the USSR. And Nixon and Kissinger obliged, having the theory that a combination of trade, aid, American credibility, linkage, arms control, the China card and such could tame the Soviet bear and split the Soviet bloc while easing US problems in Vietnam. So in this time period you had incongruities like the rabidly anti-Communist Bill Casey, then Nixon’s head of the Import-Export Bank, defending credits, loans and various deals with Communist countries in Congressional testimony.

Well, Congressional Democrats led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson began putting sticks in the spokes of Nixon’s wheel, culminating in Jackson-Vanik in 1974. The Soviets reacted with rage out of all proportion to the actual value of the US-Soviet trade at the time, protesting this law was a violation of Soviet sovereignty; more to the point, Jackson-Vanik terminated the prospect of any future spigots of American cash that Brezhnev intended to use to increase consumer goods or reform moribund Soviet agriculture. Furthermore, it wounded Soviet prestige by essentially denying the equality between the Superpowers that Brezhnev and company were fairly desperate to trumpet on the world stage.

While there was an effort to sustain Detente through the Ford administration it was winding down and it collapsed entirely under President Carter as Soviet foreign policy became increasingly aggressive and adventurous in the Third World. The Soviets saw Jackson-Vanik as a turning point in relations with America and complained bitterly about the law ever after. In retrospect, you could trace the American pressure that nudged the USSR toward collapse in 1991 back to Jackson-Vanik; and whether Russian nationalists see the law as part of the vast Western conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union or not ( many would) it is certainly seen as an example of our hostility. These events were part of Vladimir Putin’s formative experience in acquiring his chekist-siloviki worldview when he was a law student already in the KGB recruit track.

So given the vulnerability of the export based, relatively small Russian economy their reaction today strikes me as bluster and empty bravado. They really can’t win a serious economic confrontation with the West ( which these sanctions are not) and they know it. There’s some panicky, sky is falling, undercurrents here. The danger is that Putin’s regime if handled poorly may attempt to compensate, as did Brezhnev’s USSR, with small, foreign adventures. Russia can’t really afford this either – not sustained combat operations over months against a new semi serious conventional opponent, but subversion, terrorism and little green men paramilitaries are cheap

Twice lucky, or thrice? On dodging nuclear fireballs

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — two Russian secular saints — and an Australian ]
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It seems we’ve been lucky twice —

saved-twice

Read their two stories, and weep.

**

27 October 1962

Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war

If you were born before 27 October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon.

The captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that the depth charges were non-lethal “practice” rounds intended as warning shots to force the B-59 to surface. The Beale was joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more explosives. The exhausted Savitsky assumed that his submarine was doomed and that world war three had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.

If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would quickly have spread from sea to land. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out “economic targets”, a euphemism for civilian populations – more than half the UK population would have died. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – a doomsday scenario that echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung – would have hurled 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets, including ones in non-belligerent states such as Albania and China. [ .. ]

The decision not to start world war three was not taken in the Kremlin or the White House, but in the sweltering control room of a submarine. The launch of the B-59’s nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers aboard. Arkhipov was alone in refusing permission. It is certain that Arkhipov’s reputation was a key factor in the control room debate. The previous year the young officer had exposed himself to severe radiation in order to save a submarine with an overheating reactor.

**

September 26, 1983

The Man Who Saved the World by Doing Absolutely Nothing

It was September 26, 1983. Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was on duty at Serpukhov-15, a secret bunker outside Moscow. His job: to monitor Oko, the Soviet Union’s early-warning system for nuclear attack. And then to pass along any alerts to his superiors. It was just after midnight when the alarm bells began sounding. One of the system’s satellites had detected that the United States had launched five ballistic missiles. And they were heading toward the USSR. Electronic maps flashed; bells screamed; reports streamed in. A back-lit red screen flashed the word ‘LAUNCH.'”

That the U.S. would be lobbing missiles toward its Soviet counterpart would not, of course, have been out of the question at that particular point in human history. Three weeks earlier, Russians had shot down a South Korean airliner that had wandered into Soviet air space. NATO had responded with a show of military exercises. The Cold War, even in the early ’80s, continued apace; the threat of nuclear engagement still hovered over the stretch of land and sea that fell between Washington and Moscow.

Petrov, however, had a hunch — “a funny feeling in my gut,” he would later recall — that the alarm ringing through the bunker was a false one. It was an intuition that was based on common sense: The alarm indicated that only five missiles were headed toward the USSR. Had the U.S. actually been launching a nuclear attack, however, Petrov figured, it would be extensive — much more, certainly, than five. Soviet ground radar, meanwhile, had failed to pick up corroborative evidence of incoming missiles — even after several minutes had elapsed. The larger matter, however, was that Petrov didn’t fully trust the accuracy of the Soviet technology when it came to bomb-detection. He would later describe the alert system as “raw.”

But what would you do? You’re alone in a bunker, and alarms are screaming, and lights are flashing, and you have your training, and you have your intuition, and you have two choices: follow protocol or trust your gut. Either way, the world is counting on you to make the right call.

Petrov trusted himself. He reported the satellite’s detection to his superiors — but, crucially, as a false alarm. And then, as Wired puts it, “he hoped to hell he was right.”

He was, of course. The U.S. had not attacked the Soviets. It was a false alarm. One that, had it not been treated as such, may have prompted a retaliatory nuclear attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies. Which would have then prompted … well, you can guess what it would have prompted.

**

Oh, and the Australian. I came by this topic via an article about this man, Professor Des Bell:

des-ball

A strategist with books — he’s the sort of chap this blog thrives on! And he, too, seems to have saved us from a fiery furnace of our own devising:

Des Ball: the man who saved the world

THAT America could launch a limited nuclear strike against Russia was a fashionable belief in US strategic theory of the 1970s. Policymakers thought that if Cold War tensions boiled over, they could hit selected Soviet targets in a way that controlled further escalation and forced Moscow to back down.

It took the iconoclastic Australian security scholar Des Ball to point out that the theory was bunkum. In his influential essays of the early 1980s, Ball argued that reasoned strategic theory was likely to go out the window once the missiles started flying.

Among the first targets would be the other side’s command and control centres – its eyes and ears. Once blinded, a superpower – consisting of real people responding with human instincts – would not distinguish a ”controlled” strike from a full-scale attack and would retaliate with everything it had.

Thrice lucky? I prefer to call it grace.

Cold War and Political Fire: Speculation on the State of Sinology

Monday, June 8th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

China HandJohn Paton Davies 

Our newest ZP team member, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage blog has reposted two very thoughtful essays on the Chinese strategic tradition and its interpretation that can be found in modern Sinology. They are excellent and I encourage you to read them in full.
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In his second post, T. Greer raises many questions regarding the state of Sinology, as well as topics for future investigation yet unexplored that would represent in equivalent fields, the fundamentals. Given that China represents not just a nation-state and a potential near-peer competitor of the U.S. but thousands of years of a great civilization, it is remarkable that the professional community of Western Sinologists is so small. The number of USG employees with the highest level of conversational fluency in Chinese who are neither native speakers nor children of immigrants would probably not fill a greyhound bus.
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Why is the state of Sinology relatively parlous?

I think the poor state of Sinology is traceable primarily, albeit far from exclusively, to the Cold War for two reasons:

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First, Mao’s tumultuous, totalitarian rule cut off access to Chinese sources and China to Western scholars for roughly a generation and a half. This in itself, coming on the heels of almost forty years of revolution, warlordism, foreign invasion and civil war, was enough to cripple the field. Without access to in-country experience, archival sources and foreign counterparts, an academic field begins to die.  Furthermore, Mao’s tyrannical isolation of mainland China was  far more severe than the limited access for Western scholars of Russian history and journalists imposed by the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin, in contrast to Mao, was partially a great Russian chauvinist and the Soviet dictator demanded  certain aspects of Russian history, culture and the reigns of particular Tsars be celebrated alongside the Marxist pantheon . Mao’s feelings towards traditional Chinese culture were much more hostile and ideologically extreme.  Stalin’s worst abuses of Russian history in demolishing a historic Tsarist cathedral for a never-built, gigantic Soviet labyrinthe pale next to the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution .

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Secondly, the fate of “the China hands” like John Paton Davies and the “Who Lost China” debate during McCarthyism rendered Sinology politically radioactive in America. It is true that many of the China hands like Davies combined a realistic strategic assessment of Kuomintang/Chiang Kai-shek shortcomings with politically naive or wishful thinking about Mao and the Communists, but the field was dealt a blow from which it never recovered in American universities. Davies was not a Communist or even a leftist (though some China Hands were fellow travelers) but that nuance was lost on the public  in a period that saw in swift succession Alger Hiss, the Berlin blockade, the the Fall of China, the Soviet A-Bomb, Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and the Korean War. It seemed at the time that the Roosevelt administration had been infiltrated with Soviet spies and fellow travelers (largely because it had been) and in that atmosphere of Red-baiting, Davies was subsequently scapegoated, smeared and fired.  This McCarthyite political cloud over Sinology was curiously juxtaposed with the simultaneous robust funding of studies of the USSR, Russian culture and the training of Slavic linguists in the 1950’s to 1991 by the USG. For academics, going into Sinology could become a professional dead end and carried (at least in the early fifties) an odor of disloyalty.

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There are certainly other and more contemporary reasons for American  Sinology being more of an esoteric field than it deserves, to which someone else with expertise can address but all fields need to attract talent and funding and until Nixon’s “China opening”, American Sinologists struggled against the political current.

Of dualities, contradictions and the nonduality II

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — notes towards a pattern language of conflict and conflict resolution: bridging divides in Baghdad 2013, Netherlands 1888 and the Germanies 1961 ]
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I’ll be collecting examples of “dualities and the non-dual” here, because they give us a chance to consider the pattern that underlies “conflict and conflict resolution” and much else besides. This post picks up on an earlier post on the same topic: I’ll begin with three tweets that came across my bows this last week…

First, a vivid glimpse of sectarianism in today’s Iraq:

Second: sectarianism in the Netherlands, 1888:

And last, unexpected but charming, the divided Berlin of 1961:

It’s obvious once you think about it — thought we don’t always remember, such is the mind’s propensity to distinguish, divide, and argue from just one half of the whole — that human nature embraces both conflict and conflict resolution.

On Eric Hobsbawm

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012

I was going to comment on the death of the famed historian who was the Soviet Union’s most venerable and shameless apologist, but I was beaten to it in a brilliant piece by British blogger and fellow Chicago Boyz member, Helen Szamuely:

A great Communist crime denier dies

On my way to and from Manchester yesterday and today I read Anne Applebaum’s latest book Iron Curtain about the subjugation of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956. Ms Applebaum’s knowledge and understanding of the European Union is not quite what it ought to be, given that she usually appears in the guise of one of our leading political commentators but she does know the history of Communism and what it did to the countries and peoples who, for various reasons, found themselves under its rule. The first few chapters describe in some detail the brutality, violence, whole scale looting and widespread rapine that marked the Red Army’s route across Eastern and Central Europe, regardless of whether they were in enemy or friendly countries, with soldiers or civilians, men or women, adults or children, friend or foe. And then came the NKVD and the organized violence and looting. How many people know, for instance, that several of the Nazi camps, Auschwitz and Buchenwald included, were reopened by the Soviets for their own purposes? Not a few of the people they imprisoned there had been liberated only a few weeks previously.

As I was reading this horrible tale I got a text message from somebody who saw on the news that Professor Eric Hobsbawm, the best known apologist for Stalin and denier of Communist crimes, has died. We are entering a period of unrestrained mourning for this man who has on various occasions been described as the greatest living historian and one of the most influential ones. Sadly, the last part of it is true. He has been influential.

While Holocaust deniers are rightly excoriated Professor Hobsbawm has been treated in life and will be in death with the greatest adulation. Channel 4 lists some of the misguided souls who are pronouncing sorrowfully on the demise of this supposedly great man and asks rather disingenuously whether he was an apologist for tyranny.

Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he was….

Read the rest here.

 


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