[* “Fucking morons”]
Even diplomats speak the truth now and then. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov famously reminded us all last August.
We can still ask if Western analytical responses 18 months into Putin’s revanchist acting out deserve a similar declaration. Our 2012-2015 record is decidedly mixed.
First, regarding Maidan, we covered here already the initial mistakes among Brussels (and national EU member states), Kiev, Moscow and Washington. The complexity is far beyond mono-causal (and inaccurate) assignments of historical culpability.
Second, the West largely failed to appreciate the proximate cause of today’s environment: continuity in Russian structural revanchism from 2005-2014. Medvedev interregnum aside, by 2013 the pattern and trajectory of today’s Russia should have been abundantly clear. Western tunnel vision focus on the Middle East as defining national security dulled decision makers and two generations of analysts. And still does.
Finally, the West even in 2015 still tries to avoid recognizing Ukrainian (and others’) agency. The current White House’s immersion in perception management explains some of it. European stunted maturity and psychological implosion under austerity and refugee crises even more. Ukrainian tendency to blame external others for their self-inflicted difficulties compounds the problem.
So where to begin an appraisal? At the formal national institutional level, intelligence product cycles underestimated Russian reactions (Crimea/off ramps, the August 2014 formal military intervention, the January 2015 military offensive, Syria) and overestimated Russian capacity as events unfolded. Misreading the obviously failing “Russian Spring” in April/May 2014 as it happened or Putin’s various military posturings, including nuclear, cases in point. The analytical shortcomings and causes are far deeper than missing Putin’s Syria gambit.
Perhaps the biggest issue confronting the West remains psychological. Both analysts and policy makers have no experience actually confronting revanchism. Putin aggressively improvised within a vague, emotional (and thus irrational by definition) framework of Russian defiance of the international order. His acting to vandalize consensual ‘normality’ simply was and remains beyond the policy and analytical majority’s imagination: Merkel’s famous “he lives in a private world”. That disparity remains Putin’s strongest ally.
Policy elites and nations who embody the international status quo naturally find it easier to hope for a return to normalcy. 2014’s talk of “off ramps”, etc. are not far removed from London’s failed efforts to induce Italy, Japan and then Germany to return to international ‘normality’ after 1929. Western sanctions in 2014 marked a small departure from pure passivity but by their nature assume revanchism is a temporary aberration.
Purposeful strategic action to defend and buttress the current international order is not defined solely by typical Neocon policy options of mindless bellicosity. Yet yearning for the status quo often conflates the two. Creating a straw man argument of Neocon recklessness or the passive rebuttal is intellectually dishonest and strategically foolish. It’s no surprise to learn that Susan Rice and others around Obama do precisely that in internal debates.
Assessing Russia’s overall strategic direction after 2012 should not have been that difficult. Even today, Russia is not close to the Soviet Counter Intelligence State target. For example, on the most fundamental macro level, understanding the Russian economy and re-armament implications presented few obstacles. Certainly not when compared to the challenges Herb Levine or Gertrude Schroeder et. al faced estimating and modeling the Soviet economy and defense burdens. Similarly, Putin’s ideological path to 2014 manifested in 2005, years before Munich in 2007 and continued after.
Putin’s personalized rule, especially after 2012, presents different challenges to be sure. His improvisational decision making is opaque to and a surprise for even senior most Russians. Overall, however, Russia and Putin’s regime offer infinitely more openness. Putin and his innermost circle actually telegraphed much of current Russian action. Specific decisions given Putin’s closed circle will be difficult to penetrate. Anticipating and preparing for possible courses of action, however, shouldn’t be. Western analytical shortcomings deserve to be held to a far more rigorous standard. Policy makers will face their own audit at the ballot box.
Formal intelligence product cycle output and policy maker mindsets may have shortcomings (and successes as well). Unofficial institutions (think tanks, advocacy centers, web sites, etc.) and personal policy entrepreneurs, however, are particularly uneven. Regardless of preferred analytical frame, the unofficial output is mostly (and remarkably) unimpressive. Even prosumers interested in Russian affairs may find sorting through it all hopelessly Sisyphean.
More than ever we see confirmation that the Russian (nee Soviet) affairs community isn’t a self-regulating profession like law or medicine. There are no bars to pass to gain a license. Nor are there formal (or informal) sanctions for negligent (or worse) analytical malpractice. And it shows.
Until the end of the Cold War, unofficial institutions obeyed some informal regulation via education credentialism or professional output. Generally accepted distinctions between analysis and advocacy remained. The field often attracted its portion of a generation’s ‘best and brightest’. As the field shrunk from 1993 through 2012 the lack of funding and career opportunities imposed a certain ersatz discipline but created new problems. The difference in human capital/talent cohort is striking.
Putin’s crisis is the first to unfold with that diminished environment in our era of ubiquitous social media. While we tend to focus on Russia’s (failed) infowar, we have waged our own infowar on ourselves in a way. There are no real innocents. Unsurprisingly, the difference between an analyst and a pundit, between analysis and advocacy today is largely lost. To paraphrase Milton Friedman, “We’re all (self-promoting) pundits now.”
Re Lavrov’s comment and the observations, supra, the Stiftung isn’t any different, of course. Here or in the real world. We are all in this together to quote Harry Tuttle, the terrorist plumber from Terry Gilliam’s movie “Brazil”.
What do you think? Who has done the best overall job?