Play Russian Apologist Bingo!

We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Apologists for Russian aggression, lies and even lunatic screeds are everywhere. They will do about anything to defend Kremlin propaganda. From the infamous “Whataboutism” to change the subject or claiming that Ukrainian’s tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 (never mind the fact Putin was in South America), all their greatest hits are hit. Play, won’t you?

Russia, Bingo, Propaganda

Can you spot all the Kremlin apologists’ tricks?

Putin’s New Style Of War Careens Off Course In Ukraine

Ukraine is dealing a strong setback to Putin’s allegedly novel model and doctrine of 21st century irregular war. Not because Ukrainian forces rout Russians and their allies in Ukraine and now control 2/3 of the Donbass.

Putin, Ukraine, ATO, Donetsk, Luhansk, MH17, War

Russia’s ‘new’ model of war escaped Moscow’s control. Putin understands it conceivably could evolve into a political threat inside Russia and even the faintest whispers of revolution. The regime could ignite war in Ukraine but not control its perceived domestic political impact on Putin’s authority.

We finally see the limits of Putin’s escalation. He will not risk even the perception of challenge to his authority. Of course, he still plays to win in Ukraine at some level. Ukraine will bear the brunt of his malice for years. And his global revanchism is unchanged.

Meanwhile, he refuses frantic demands in Moscow and from Russians fighting in Ukraine to commit formal Russian troops. Lavrov now calls for “a quick resolution” of the crisis. And Russian state controlled media is banishing Ukraine from the front pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda and changing tone, depicting Putin as face-saving “humanitarian” rather than war lord.

His personal, emotional obsession with revanchism remains. He still yearns to tear down the international order and gain his psychological revenge on Americans for the Soviet Union’s demise and his modest height (5′ 6″).

Putin is taking a walk because he no longer could control the nationalism and overt fascism he courted and stoked in through April 2014. Various ideologues surrounding Putin and their movements have always had more independence than most in the West understood.

By early May, Russia faced major strategic decisions about escalation, politics, potentially non-trivial sanctions and end games. A focal point – upcoming Ukrainian elections. Seeking to forestall the West, Putin agreed there would be no independent referendum by the so-called Donetsk Peoples’ Republic.

Russian nationalists and fascists howled at Putin’s betrayal. This tweet about an intercepted call from a Russian fascist is just one small glimpse.

Russian Fascist Outrage

Russian fascists ignored Putin. Further intercepted calls revealed them colluding together with Chechen warlord Kadyrov and Duma representatives to stage appearances on Russian television to force Putin’s hand, including demands to introduce the GRU-backed Chechen Vostok Battalion troops.

Despite Putin’s international assurances, Russian ultra-nationalists and fascists held their absurd and comically flawed referendum anyway. Putin faced the worst of all worlds: embarrassment. Was he in control? If so, why was he ignored? If he was in charge by lying internationally, why did he bungle the referendum? If he wasn’t in charge, who is?

Putin’s improvisation continued to falter as Ukraine normalized through elections and international recognition. Her anti-terror operation (ATO) began to gain traction in late May and June against separatists despite ill-considered truces.

Putin saw his domestic position notionally deteriorate still further. Dugin, for example, openly questioned whether Putin would ascend to holy “Sovereign” (mystical claptrap) and invade Ukraine or follow internal traitors, hesitate, and diminish merely as Lt. Colonel Putin.

Disappointed Russian ultra-nationalists and fascists grew in number and overt challenge to Putin personally. Others blamed Girkin, self-appointed Russian military leader in Ukraine, for retreating from the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. Dugin blamed Russia’s losing on a “6th Column” in Moscow. These pro-Putin officials apparently hate Russia. The general anti-Putin sentiment simmering and potentially growing.

Battle of Bodies

Putin agreed to allow the Chechens’ Vostok Battalion to enter Donetsk eventually. But he held back the Russian Army itself. Surprisingly, the Ukrainians shot up the elite Vostok Battalion around the Donestk airport. Moscow refused to acknowledge the numerous dead or the unexpected defeat.

Nationalists in Donetsk resorted to working with the hated independent media to document the bodies sent back to Russia in refrigerated trucks. Putinist media, print and television, denied coverage or images.

Nationalists wanted to use video and images of the casualties to spark further escalation and incite racial hatred. The Putin regime’s news blackout left them isolated and furious. Perversely, Russian fascists and ultra-nationalists resorted to using Russian opposition newspapers and liberal Echo Moskvyi radio/web site to show Russians harrowing pictures of the Vostok deceased.

Matters only got worse. Furious that Putin equivocated and refused to invade Ukraine fully, Russians independently began fund raising for Novorossiya, Girkin and Russian irregulars via their Live Journal webpages, etc. One outraged Russian ultra-nationalist whose page was closed for fundraising created the Twitter hashtag #введивойскасука [send in the troops, bitch (Putin)].

Monies raised from such efforts would be minimal. Politically, however, this step represents absolutely forbidden self-organization that could threaten the regime. After 2012 if not before, Putin views NGOs or other non-state organizations as mostly illegitimate, if not illegal foreign agents. Moscow can not allow nationalists to self-organize on the Internet and fund-raise using popular emotionalism while criticizing Putin.

Putin lost control of his own narrative. His AgitProp of hate created self-empowered actors. Consider these tweets from the head of Russia Today. They only hint at the 24 hour a day, non-stop hate storm Putin puked on the willing Russian people.

Armenian Russia Today Kremlin Shill


Which shows the limits of Putin’s alleged new model of war. Once nationalist race rage is ignited, the only truly safe political course is continued escalation. Blowback can’t be controlled on this blunt scale. Moscow is so worried about blowback Russian border guards are reportedly shooting Russians and their allies trying to flee Ukraine back into Russia.

Putin’s revanchism and his role assigned to Ukraine will play out over years. As of this writing, however, Russia’s Ukraine campaign must rank a net strategic failure.

In some ways, Ukraine represented the best environment to test Russia’s war fighting. Russian failure — to date — is noteworthy because Moscow assaulted a particularly fragile state. Ukrainian national identity even before Maidan was tenuous. Ukrainians historically never shared Russian imperial fantasies and related resentments.

If by February 2014, Ukraine largely was a failed state politically and economically, she is unified now with an electoral political legitimacy beyond Russian aspirations. Ukraine receives more economic, technical and military aid than before. Ukrainians also boast a new ethos and sense of self, with a deep hostility to Russia. Russia pulled off a trifecta of fail.

The GRU and FSB took on a tiny, ill-equpped army never prepared for operations in the east against an assumed friend, Russia. Kiev’s army still lacks basic equipment because of corruption, cronyism and Russian penetration. Likewise, the Russians began this campaign largely owning Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU. It still must be regarded as compromised.

Russians also could exploit uniquely deep linguistic, cultural and business ties across Ukraine, especially in the East. Russia’s chosen venue for Novorossiya and war, the Donbass region, historically has been mafia-directed/crime ridden, governed by a local oligarch, not Kiev, and the home turf of Putin crony, deposed former president Yanukovich.

And yet, as of early July, Putin and Russia are in retreat. And they feel it. Russians can be expected to study events of February-July 2014 for lessons learned. We’ll offer some thoughts on that in the future. The Baltics can expect a different look based on the stumble in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s struggle for independence and reform is just beginning. Putin and Russia’s necessity to subvert and ruin her progress is existential: a prosperous Ukraine following even moderately in Poland’s steps is a permanent rebuke to Putinism and Russia herself. Apart from Russian revanchist fantasies.

Tactically, Russians and their allies control still the major cities of Donetsk and Luhansk in the South East. Moscow has many tools besides gas as economic levers. Russia is already hyping the dislocation costs of reform and adhering to European standards for useful resentment. Ukraine also remains the only economical way for Moscow to supply Crimea. Each day will be a test of Ukraine’s will and sovereignty.

Newly elected Ukrainian President Poroshenko can look forward to a challenging tenure. Our challenge? Putin’s revanchist war likely will last decades.

UPDATE: Putin convened a Kremlin Security Council meeting on Sovereign And Territorial Defense. He rejected calls from Ultra-nationalists and Fascists for purges and radicalization, stating Russia could defend herself against US and NATO schemes, without them. He also ignored calls for formal military escalation in Ukraine.

Pro-Novorossiya nationalists and fascists condemned Putin immediately as weak. Some mocked Putin as lesser than a Soviet restorationist but just a mere merchant. http://sputnikipogrom.com/russia/16535/trade-federation/

Meanwhile, fascist and neo-fascist Russian entities are back vigorously trying to fund-raise for Girkin et al. in Donbas as the ATO finally begins to close the pocket. See, e.g., http://interbrigada.org/ (Russian) Note the call to ‘entrepreneurs’ in the defense sector to donate military equipment.

Russia Loses Again in Ukraine, Keeps Raising The Ante

Putin keeps gambling. His first, impulsive attack on Ukraine in February 2014 netted him Crimea and 80% approval ratings. He’s stumbled since.

Russia failed to replicate the unopposed Crimean takeover in Ukraine’s Southeast from March-April. Moscow then threatened formal army invasion. That only solidified an improbable Ukrainian nationalism, creating a prohibitive cost. Ukrainians’ vote for Europeanist President Porochenko is another blow. Yet Putin keeps doubling down on escalation, even if formal invasion isn’t on the table for now.

Putin and Russia Go Backwards

Nihilist Nostalgia

Putin’s goals lie beyond Ukraine. He seeks to alter fundamentally the global balance of power and pull down the liberal democratic order. It’s ambitious for a $2 trillion economy confronting a combined West of $32 trillion. Russia’s 2020 defense re-armament program tops $90 billion a year, against $1 trillion combined in the West.

Invading Ukraine in 2014 revealed Putin’s plans and techniques 5-7 years early. That’s the good news. Putin so far keeps testing his improvisation against a disorganized Western alliance. Why not keep doubling down?

The Status Quo Then And Now

Russia’s attack on Ukraine, while blatant, disorients the status-quo Western mindset. Russian aircraft also create provocations in international airspace and diplomatic initiatives unfold to create Russian versions of credit ratings agencies or add Argentina to the BRICs. The scale is ambitious.

Putinist ideologue and State Duma advisor Alexander Dugin repeats that “anyone who supports the liberal democratic international order is our enemy”.

This is revanche on an unprecedented scale. One can debate how much Dugin and similar figures such as Markov or Prokhanov, etc. influence Putin or are used by him for domestic theater. Russian actions and Putin’s speech, such as “NovoRussia” to describe eastern Ukraine, reflect their ideas.

A status quo political and social culture historically won’t proactively resist initial revanche. Revanchist powers typically enjoy great latitude to dictate the pace and timing of aggression. By definition, a status quo culture will interpret any revanchist pause as a plausible, welcome return to normative behavior. Widespread European relief that Putin chose not to invade Ukraine formally while pursuing aggression by different means a case in point.

Why are status quo cultures in 2014 still ill-equipped to respond? Simple monocausal explanations such as ‘decadence’, etc. are insufficient. A major factor is inability to understand the power of wounded emotion. True from today’s Moscow to Berlin, Rome or Tokyo, emotions and internal psychological trauma engendered a political narrative based on slights, rage and exaltation of action on racial or nationalist sentiment.

To casual outside observers, the emotional and psychological component is incoherent, comical and inconsistent. Lack of connective awareness renders ‘objective’ negotiation with revanchism unsuccessful and often self-defeating. Objectivity and triumph of reason are themselves toxic concepts, laden with disconnected values such as process. Process and reason can never ameliorate (successfully) fundamentally ‘irrational’ emotion and belief. The revanchist’s pre-imagined end state of triumph and restored lost status rejects a prioi shared systemic values. Revanchism inherently demands a nihilistic acting out.

Status quo mindsets therefore routinely fail ultimately because they lack imagination. First, to see the emotional animus’ ferocity. Second, to anticipate nihilism’s goal to tearing down the established order for revenge.

‘We will win in the end over Ukraine because we’ve got the better argument that offers a better life for the future.’ Barack H. Obama

Consider Putin’s February 2014 attack on Ukraine. Obama and Kerry, exemplars of status quo ‘objective’ mind set, publically offered Russia ‘off ramps’ and other objective, de-escalation verbalisms. Merkel eventually said Russia would face more sanctions if Moscow interfered with Ukraine’s May 2014 elections. Russia did and to this date faces no new sanctions. Yet many in the West claim sanctions threats averted formal invasion. “Putin blinked!” declares Thomas Friedman, et al.

Putin did pull back some troops. Moscow’s military faced structural and organizational constraints of its own. For example, in April 2014 annual contracts on Russian conscripts expired. Rotating troops from the border would be essential anyway. New replacement equivalent conscripts still many months away. POL and logistics forward deployed also generated significant costs and bottlenecks.

Withrawal waited days until Moscow could simultaneously deploy the GRU-controlled (formally MVD) ‘Vostok Battalion’ of Russians, Chechens and Ossetians into Donetsk, Ukraine. They join thousands of new irregular volunteers flowing in from Russia who attack Ukrainian border guard posts in open, pitched gun fights. The status quo mind set calls this actual escalation ‘a blink’.

Confrontation Roller Coaster

Putin’s revanchism poses a long term challenge over years. We will see phases of confrontation and seeming de-escalation. The overarching emotional goals, however, will remain unchanged while the regime remains in power.

Italy’s war against Ethiopia (Abyssinia) followed this pattern. Formal war began in October 1935. Italy pre-occupied the victorious WWI Allies and the League of Nations with years of negotiations. By 1935, Britain belatedly realized Mussolini had no intention of functioning within agreements. Mussolini had escalated minor tensions with Ethiopia over the years into international crises, testing the Versailles Powers. He then lowered tensions, waited and then re-escalated.

When Mussolini started war he faced little danger. He broke Western morale. The Corporal saw this and went into the Rhineland less than 6 months later. Putin understands the status quo psychological temperature. His long calls to Obama and Merkel during the initial phase of Ukraine’s crisis had little to do with actual solutions. He sought an emotional read of his opponents.

Beyond Ukraine, Putin does face limits, mostly from China. His much scrutinized trip to Beijing for a gas deal underscores their differences and shared interests.

First, China carefully hasn’t put all its eggs in Putin’s revanchist cart. Beijing’s own narrative is about becoming the next status quo metropole. Irredentism – for now – is not part of Chinese foreign policy. Chinese official public support for Crimea is muted.

Second, China’s own revanchist narratives also compel its own acting out and escalation. Chinese provocations rile nearly all regional powers from Japan to ASEAN. And Russia herself lacks a real Asian strategy beyond using Asia to give Europe the bird.

Chinese factions have different approaches to Putin’s offered alliance. Beijing supports Putin but on their terms. The gas negotiations showed this difference explicitly. Beijing knows Moscow has no other place to go, allowing her to demand and get massive Russian concessions on price, Chinese investment penetration of Siberia, etc. Russia’s global humiliation will be remembered in Moscow. Meanwhile, China explores individual Putin initiatives like creating their own ratings agencies, joint naval exercises and other symbolic (for now) systemic attacks.

Russia’s Game Inside The West: Fear & Loathing In The Mirror

Russia created a significant apparatus to infiltrate domestic Western political and media audiences. One component is technical.(See, e.g. Russian troll farm exposed). Reportedly, Russia spent spent $100 million on the Internet component already. Another is political subversion. Moscow’s aim is to manipulate both Western ‘Left’ [sic] and Right internally to clash, undermining liberal democratic legitimacy. (See generally, Dugin’s various writings on the Russian “Fourth Way’ which rejects liberal democracy, Western socialism and Western fascism for an ersatz Russian fascism).

Political substance in Western countries, per Dugin quote at the beginning above, is unimportant. Fostering cynicism and division, replicating French societal paralysis in the 1930s, for example, is the game. Europe only now, slowly, wakes up to this danger. Moscow nurtures Pro-Putin fascist parties in Hungary, Bulgaria, UK, France, etc. Le Pen gleefully is out of 1930s Paris. Dugin, the Putin ideologue noted supra, recently received a fete in Vienna by Austrian Rightists, who hailed Putin as savior.

Russia’s American inroads use less direct means. Besides The Nation’s Katrina and Stephen Cohen show, Russia’s propaganda uses the Kremlin-sponsored Russia Today and systematic bot and infiltration campaigns to dominate Reddit, Twitter, blog and news sites. Russia cultivates relationships by providing broad platform and net traffic support for issue silos such as feminism, privacy, religion and the 99% critique.

It works. The ground is fertile. Probably the most troubling societal phenomena is Millennials’ pernicious and snarky relativism. And the effect often subliminal. For example, an’American feminism’ pundit such as Naomi Wolf pushes Kremlin-sponsored talking points on Ukraine to her broad audience. Such commingling of Russia Today video, blogs and tweets can be seen in conversations from American conservatives and progressives, self-declared anarchists and so-called socialists. All in service of critiques of liberal democracy to which they attach the prefix “neo” (neo-liberalism a hoary favorite).

Moscow’s Rightist outreach traffics in stoked racial animosities, manipulation of presumed ‘moral values’ resentments. A key exploit is fanning American chronic mood swings between over engagement abroad and isolationism. Conversations among the American Right about direct money from Moscow – so far – largely are kept offshore, discussing international initiatives to oppose womans’ rights, gay rights, etc. By contrast, Russian money is more evident in domestic European politics.

It’s the old Russian/Soviet game from the 1917-1940s with naive elements of the Western Left. Moscow’s new, prematurely revealed info-war apparat shows more overt success than earlier Soviet efforts.

So we have work cut out. Pauses and periodic de-escalations aside, Putin will keep pushing his overarching goal. It’s his emotional make-up and profoundly useful domestically. China’s current tacit, less fullsome support should not be assumed perpetually.

Let’s not be like generations before us. Let’s imagine what Putin wants to do. And stop him together.

Ukraine At War Spring 2014

Putin‘s war of aggression in Eastern Ukraine failed its original purpose: to replicate Crimea’s easy capture and herald the so-called “Russian Spring.” Putun must now play for time and bank on his ability to improvise better than Western passivity and derail the May national elections.

Ukraine, Putin, Russia, Sloviansk

The initial operation featured 100 Spetsnaz GRU special forces officers leading pre-identified networks of pro-Moscow forces in Eastern Ukraine. Joined by Russian citizens (“tourists”) flooding into Ukraine, the FSB and GRU operatives used the social smart phone app Zello, Twitter and other means to direct and rally ‘spontaneous’ pro-Moscow support. GRU intercepted calls reveal they were taking direction from Moscow-based PR agencies.

Stage one was to seize key Eastern cities such as Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk like in Crimea. Once secured, the Russians planned to spread west and south, backed by the threat of Russian military forces across the border. The plan didn’t work.

Ukrainians surprised Moscow by their resistance or passivity. Despite Moscow offering up to $100 a day to join a pro-Russian protest, no crowd ever topped 4,000 anywhere – in cities with a million or more population. Most crowds were pitifully small. More disappointing to Russia, Yanukovich’s old Party of the Regions, the main political force in Eastern Ukraine, largely supported a unified Ukraine with conditions. Some oligarchs also played a double or triple game with their patronage networks and private militias. Local police frequently were bought off, but local populations still remained inert.

Moscow used the Geneva negotiations to buy time. The Crimea model failed. But Moscow lacked reliable local cadres to pretend to be the face of an ‘authentic’ Ukrainian protest against Kiev.

In the new strategy, the GRU no longer hid its hand. Russians operated openly after taking over government buildings in Sloviansk and Donetsk, etc. Moscow discarded its hoped for partner in the Party of Regions. Russia is recruiting and activating more radical elements in the East, Ukrainians (and transplanted Russians) who despise not only Kiev, but the entire kleptocracy of oligarchs, Party of Regions, local government, etc. Organized crime in the East is also a natural partner, preferring lawlessness and disorder to a successful Kiev stabilization.

This new approach is a revolutionary step. Moscow not only is rejecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but its existing institutional base – from political parties to local governance. Even pro-Moscow figures such as Kharkov’s mayor Kernes are abused as traitors and enemies. Eventually Kernes was shot and denounced in pro-Russia social media. Moscow is trying to build a new mass, radical political movement on the fly.

Russia is having difficulties. The new model still depends on direct Russian control. The new political facades of local ‘separatists’ follow orders. For example, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the self-proclaimed mayor of Sloviansk, takes orders from a Russian officer from Crimea, “Strelkov”. Strelkov, identified as 44 year old GRU reserve officer Igor Girkin, was a principal military advisor in seizing Crimea. He entered Ukraine on February 26, 2014. Gurkin/Strelkov has been caught ordering Ponomarev, to dispose bodies of a murdered local council man who supported Ukraine and a young college student. A third corpse has been found in the same location. For his part, Gurkin/Strelkov now boasts to media that over 50% of his forces are from Russia.

Still, Russia needs more time. It must consolidate actual control of a few key cities beyond a few government buildings. Government and media buildings will allow Moscow to frustrate the May national referendum. But real work remains to create on the fly its above-mentioned new mass nihilist movement.


Ukrainian efforts to dislodge Russian efforts to improvise and consolidate their position in the East alarm Moscow. Russia understands their fragile hold – controlling a few buildings in cities of several hundred thousand or million. Russia threatens military to intimidate Kiev into abandoning their ragged “anti-terror operations”. Moscow also seeks to humiliate and demoralize Ukrainian SBU and MVD troops as well.

We don’t believe Moscow wants to invade Ukraine. First, the 40,000 troops on the border are the bulk of her rapid deployment force. Since their formation several years ago, they were designed to intervene, ‘win’ and leave – initially for post American Central Asia. The Russians have little or no training in occupation. Second, the force density required to secure Eastern Ukraine is easily 300-400% greater than 40,000, and would be there in combat or occupation for a sustained period of time. And finally, Moscow does not have the logistics and troop rotation to keep that force on the Ukrainian border at a permanent high operational tempo.

On the other hand, Ukrainian capacity to plan, deploy and execute operations is clearly very poor. Some of that is due to penetration by the Russians. Estimates are that over 30% of Ukraine’s SBU security services were on Moscow’s payroll. The MVD and military’s limits are also similarly clear. Local police are almost totally unreliable, bought off by the Russians, local oligarchs or intimidated.

While calls to arm Ukraine strike an emotional chord with some in the West, their fundamental institutional problems won’t be solved by new weapons. In fact, the weapons would likely end up in Moscow’s hands. Intelligence sharing poses the same problem. Plus, besides technical and overhead means, we don’t have alot to offer. Brennan’s visit to Kiev we believe driven by the fact CIA (and others) is essentially blind (or scrambling to become less blind).

Ukraine and Moscow are in a race to reconstitute a reliable political and military force to claim the East. They are both improvising. The Russians are learning. It remains to be seen how Kiev acts on the lessons learned to date.

Putin’s Revanchist Crimean Gamble After Sochi

Putin Attacks Ukraine

1. an advocate or supporter of a political policy of revanche, especially in order to seek vengeance for a previous military defeat.
2. of or pertaining to a political policy of revanche;
3. of or pertaining to revanchists or revanchism.

Sometime between February 21st and February 22nd, Vladimir Putin decided to violate the settled international order. By all evidence, like Andropov and Ustinov over Afghanistan in Dec. 1979, his rump war cabinet was insular: FSB Chairman Bortnikov, Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and very few others.

He started a war of aggression on Ukraine and against the Western international system. He chose war for both internal and external reasons. He gambles that he can improvise more skillfully than Western coalitions. Any Western pressure he judges will not be much or last long. He can also use pressure for internal consolidation ala his speech denouncing internal opposition as a “5th column”. So far his assumptions aren’t markedly off.

Why War, Why Now?

Ukraine’s Maidan in February 2013 toppled a key pillar of Putin’s foreign policy, luring Ukraine into his orbit with $15 billion in loans. Maidan also halted Putin’s effort to transform Ukrainian President Yanukovich into a Putinist authoritarian.

Far worse, however, was Maidan’s challenge to Putin’s domestic legitimacy. Berkut and Yanukovich’s rout ignited a firestorm in Russian state media. Soon Russians began circulating images of burning tires in Russian cities on the Internet as pro-Maidan support. Maidan’s power over Russian imagination can be seen in how Russian FSB/GRU troops and ‘militas’ ritually and deliberately re-enacted Maidan’s iconic imagery in reverse. Putin’s regime largely rests on controlling Russian media and its messaging. Crushing Maidan’s narrative became a matter of perceived regime survival, and remained the Alpha and Omega for initial invasion AgitProp goals.

Putin did act impulsively. He used an off the shelf plan to seize Crimea that almost certainly was a long standing Russian contingency should Ukraine ever join NATO. He deliberately excluded his Ministry (Minister) of Foreign Affairs. Later he famously refused to take Lavrov’s phone call from London. Tactical impulsiveness doesn’t mean Putin lacks a long term conceptual goal. Putin does have an ideology which he’s promoted within ruling circles by assigning specific books to read. When Angela Merkle and Madeleine Albright say “Putin lives in his own world” what they’re saying is “Putin isn’t following our own preconceptions”. It’s an alarming lack of understanding.

What Does Putin Want?

Putin’s goal is to rebuild a Slavic civilization as equal and eventually dominant opponent to the West. His rejection isn’t merely post-Soviet bitterness but as spiritual and racial superior. Perhaps fanciful. He promotes murky (even incoherent) Slavic ideologies drenched in mysticism. Collectively, they are a mishmash and do not spell out a coherent strategic plan. Yet that pastiche arguably forms a generalized North Star under which he improvises or makes isolated tactical decisions. His self-pitying speeches about Russia’s past slights and grievances he writes himself. They’re from the heart. They’re also manipulative red meat for his new nationalism.

Western leaders don’t grasp that Putin’s aims are beyond just ‘re-inventing the Soviet Union’ with his Custom’s Union. His long term ambition is far more profound from his point of view. His proposed Union “from Lisbon to Vladivostok” – in his own words – repeats Slavic ideologues’ calls for a Slavic Eurasia “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. *He’s* not talking about a EU 2.0 even if he knows others will think so. Here’s an English version of the vision from Dugin, a Putin-favored Slavic ideologue.

Putin’s public rejection of the West in Crimea may have been premature. But that was always his intent. True, he talks often about BRICs as an alternative geopolitical home. Or even just China. These tactical adjustments always support the longer term goal of civilizational independence and rejecting the West.

The West mistakes what he does for what he is. For example, many who’ve dealt with him in purely transactional terms proclaim he’s a pragmatist. Others assert he’s merely profoundly cynical. Putin and his then-new propaganda chief Volodin in 2012 concocted a ersatz nationalism seen in today’s Russian chauvinism, new patriotism and racism. Many interpret it all as a ploy to crush domestic dissent after protests greeted his 2012 re-election. Or to distract Russians from the economic circumstances. Both may be true and still miss the larger point. Putin’s 2012 return marked a broad range of personnel changes and programs that align with his long term renewal concept. Sometimes ‘good’ politics also coincides with good policy (from his point of view).

Then again, Russians misrepresent Putin, too. Journalist Anton Krasovsky:

“People say that Putin doesn’t care what the west thinks; that’s nonsense. He does care, and he doesn’t understand the hatred towards him from the West, which he feels has no basis. In Sochi, he organised what he saw as an incredible Olympics and people still criticised him for it. It’s partly a generational and civilisational thing. He wishes he could go back to the era when he could just drink wine and have fun with Berlusconi. He just doesn’t understand why people criticise him so much.

We assert his specific actions should be evaluated within the above framework. Many mock Sochi as economically nonsensical. For Putin, revitalizing Russian nationalism on a global scale and wedding it to him is priceless. Sochi was always about Russian self-esteem. The international audiences being props for the acting out. Crimea and what is to come are further extensions. His domestic approval ratings authentically may be almost 80%.

History shows that revanchist regimes are unusually popular while successful. And remain so while the regime can point to further successes or threats. The psychology of grievance and its relief forge strong ties between ruled and ruler. The Corporal only began to lose public support in 1943. In April 1945 estimates are that 10% of the population still proclaimed allegiance. Others elsewhere had longer runs. The Soviet regime continued for a decade after Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’ became undeniable.

Will Putin manufacture more conflict? Not necessarily. He hopes the West caves early and returns to business as usual. Should we deploy a new containment, he will test it with provocations and overtures. His challenge then is managing discontent should economic sluggishness endure. Putin’s family suffered tragedy during Leningrad’s siege. He and others will believe Russian capacity to endure privation far greater than the West’s.

Sanctions won’t convince Putin to change course. He will use Western pressure to strengthen his domestic position. Putin has already demonstrated he believes the Russian economy is subordinate to his goals. Some regime figures call for using Western sanctions as pretext to assist the State to direct re-building non-existent domestic manufacturing. (At best, a modern oligarchical corrupt NEP). Foreign pressure also assists cracking down on potentially independent actors, whether oligarchs with foreign exposure or what’s left of the so-called ‘liberal opposition’. Putin’s invasion bought him substantial but not infinite time to weather Russia’s from 1.2% economic growth – or lower.

Now consider the conceptual gap among Obama, the West and Putin. Who’s surprised Putin ignored Obama and Kerry’s public “off ramp” offerings?

Who’s To Blame? And What’s Next?

Mistakes were made by all sides: Europe, Kiev, Moscow and the U.S. Their magnitude unforeseen because parties did not fully grasp the agenda and priorities of the other.

The EU Americans generally don’t understand the EU well. We tend to confuse the Brussels permanent apparat or European Parliament with the actual member country governments. For years Brussels’ EU bureaucracy pursued their imperative for EU expansion via meetings, agreements and other symbolic formalities. As the EU moved farther East it seemed its actions were unconnected with actual member country support. Ukraine underscores the disconnect. Many member countries opposed Ukrainian overtures or key players like Germany indifferent. The EU merely flirted with a nation of blatant core Russian interest and sensitivities.

In November 2013, the EU and Ukraine’s then-President Yanukovich met to sign a Partnership Agreement in Vilnius. His signature was to culminate years of laborious conversations. Yanukovich promised Ukrainians many times he would sign. He balked at the last minute. The EU, lacking focused member state support, couldn’t offer Yanukovich or Ukraine, a failed State, anything tangible – no money, no aid. Just words and sentiment.

Putin by contrast offered Kiev $15 billion in hard cash loans and gas discounts. Contingent on Yanukovich walking away in Vilnius. Putin played traditional hard ball politics and won “cleanly” by putting his wallet where his mouth was. When Yanukovich walked, outraged students flocked to Kiev in protest and ignited Maidan’s drama.

Europeans were as surprised as anyone by Maiden and Ukrainian protesters’ EU flags and face paint. (Who wears EU flags in Europe?) The EU and Europe didn’t understand flirtation with Ukraine could have such consequences. The EU belatedly promised 11 billion euro to Kiev after Putin invaded. Had it done so at Vilnius almost everything since would have been different. The EU’s suitability or even competence as a geo-political actor must be in fundamental question.

Moscow Russian mistakes are less understandable even before invasion. Beating the EU for Yanukovich’s allegiance a classic game of Great Power politics. Yet Maidan surprised Moscow, too. Russian FSB and SVR penetration of Ukraine’s institutions deep. Millions of Russians and Ukrainians are intermarried, watch each others television and even the languages are not far apart. Yet Moscow completely misread the volatile political situation. Worse, Moscow continued to rely on Yanukovich to execute its ill-fated Maidan crackdown – even when his unsuitability (from Moscow’s point of view) obvious to all.

Sochi’s revelries and obligations doubtlessly hampered Putin’s focus. What intelligence and MFA reports made it back to Moscow accurately? Did Putin received timely warnings? Ukraine showcases a strategic failure of the Russian intelligence product cycle. Failure could be in collection, analysis or users’ misuse or disregard. We suspect it was the later two. Primakov years ago conceded that Soviet and then Russian intelligence lacked any meaningful independent analytical function. Soviet ideology precluded independent voices. He vowed to build it. Given the inclusion of FSB Chairman Bortnikov in Putin’s war cabinet, access to Putin isn’t the issue. If “Putin doesn’t have all the informaton”, Primakov’s diagnosis remains true under Putin’s nationalism, too.

In the end, Putin chose impulsive attack. Could he have waited? Ukraine 2004, Libya, Egypt, etc. show that bottom-driven protest movements rarely succeed as actual governing forces. Movements usually disintegrate or become corrupt themselves. Had he waited for Maidan’s likely collapse, this “rational” Putin could have renewed the $15 billion pledge as Big Brother savior. Putin would gain all of Ukraine. If Maidan unexpectedly formed a working government, the ‘rational’ Putin still could have waited. He would encourage Ukraine to have soft ties to West, clarify no NATO, and wait for the EU to bail out Kiev and modernize her economy. When she was rebuilt, he could have then courted a healthier and better run Kiev.

Such a ‘rational’ calculus suggests Putin won’t likely attack Southeastern Ukraine or the East. Regardless how the scenario plays out (including a full Ukraine occupation, etc.) Putin ironically would be the one putting NATO on his borders.

He couldn’t wait. As we noted. Maidan’s overthrow of a neighboring authoritarian regime too threatening to his domestic position. Regarding further operations in Ukraine, the jury is out. He’s still evaluating Western responses. Putin the improviser doesn’t believe he’s met strong Western resistance yet. Plus, the West should not underestimate the emotional, cultural and ideological factors underscoring uniting Ukrainians, including Kiev’s role as ‘cradle’ to and origin for Rus (modern Russia). We don’t think he will try a full scale assault on Kiev because the Russian army is in poor operational shape (Crimea a GRU Spetnaz and FSB operation mostly). More likely he will probe or push more limited objectives like a land bridge to Crimea.

Putin temporarily set back his own goal of Slavic unification. Kiev renounced participating in his Customs Union. As of today – Crimea is Putin’s strategic defeat. Euphorics in Moscow compare Crimea to victory in Berlin. Yet that mood will not last forever. Putin the improviser will be looking for ways to win back Kiev and turn defeat into victory. The West should support Ukraine as a geopolitical glacis with deep, visible economic and other assistance (modulating IMF obsession with clinical austerity). An enduring pro-Western, reformed Kiev (not necessarily in NATO) will be a monument to Putin’s impulsiveness. And a model for future Russians to see and embrace.

Ukraine Yanukovich’s mistakes are well documented.

U.S. Again we see the “lead from behind” problem. The U.S. misjudged encouraging the EU as Western proxy flirt with Kiev. First, as noted, because of EU foreign policy competence issues. Secondly, the U.S. accurately perceived years ago its visibility would provoke Moscow. That should have been a wake up call about the policy’s essential soundness. Initial U.S. visibility might have triggered tensions or even a crisis with Moscow at the outset. Or shut the venture down. That early clarity at a smaller and manageable scale far better than stumbling into war.

The U.S. response should be on two levels. Russia isn’t a Soviet Union superpower. Russia’s own military experts’ believe power projection is limited to ‘local conflicts’. Regional and global operations are not options for now. The economy isn’t a major world player beyond natural resources. And Russia lacks a global, universal ideological appeal like the Soviets. Russia’s threat doesn’t warrant a second world-wide American Cold War militarization.

We need a new kind of containment. It will be more complicated than before. Russia is more integrated in European economies than 1947-1991. Ideologically, we need to be blunt about his authoritarian regime and expose its corruption. We need to re-affirm commitment to liberal democracy as a superior society even with our obvious room for improvements. We should avoid the temptation to allow Putin to define our agenda and distract from larger U.S. global priorities or opportunities. Joining Putin in his dark Manichean agenda a mistake.

Economically, sanctions are fine for initial salvos. They will not force a change in behavior. But over time they will bite. Overt, immediate economic assistance to Ukraine is essential. Ukrainians must see benefit rejecting Putinism even if work and sacrifice are required to reach them. Other countries in Eastern Europe need assistance as well. Specific, tangible economic assistance is the best inoculation against Russian adventurism. Lessening European energy dependence of Russian gas is a test of resolve. Canceling the South Stream Russian gas pipeline would be a clear first signal signal.

Militarily, increased, visible U.S. and NATO presence in Eastern Europe should begin yesterday. There is no need to return to Cold War force levels, aggressiveness and associated tensions. The U.S. also should encourage regional military cross ties among countries in Eastern Europe. We believe reconsidering BMD in Europe is appropriate as well.

NATO also should re-evaluate doctrine and force posture to address Russian interior lines of communication and maskirovka. NATO chain of command must be reformed to allow swift operational response. This would allow NATO to counter Russian ability to alter ground truth before coalitions like NATO can react. Russian invasions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and now Crimea illustrate how much importance Russians place on their faster decision cycle.

Likely Just Round One

We believe this is a new protracted conflict. Putin will probe Western reaction and coalition cohesion with new tests and provocations but not necessarily immediately. Putin and Russia signaled disdain for the settled international order in Crimea. Future actions will expand on this demarcation in new and especially psychological dimensions. Putin’s agenda will be tear down or damage the Western international position – or its perception.

Most actions won’t be military or even paramilitary. The West should expect Russia, for example, to seek BRIC alternatives to Western institutions. Chinese reluctance to embrace Putin in public on his challenge to Western international norms will likely change. Covert and overt cooperation should be expected. Other states will use tensions to further their own geostrategic purpurposes. Russia will look for strategic surprise or stage managed perceptions of creeping inevitability.

This really isn’t the Cold War again. In some ways it may be more difficult. Confronting revanchism in Europe is a challenge not seen for over 75 years. Pundits often use the word. It’s vital that its implications are truly absorbed.

Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Ukraine, much in the news, is essentially a failed (failing?) state. Yet everyone wants to have a dance with her. Who will be on the card?

The EU still seeks an association agreement after Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s last minute rejection at the altar. He faced severe Russian coercion and is inherently pre-disposed to Moscow and Putin’s neo-Soviet “Customs Union”. After pro-EU riots broke out in Kiev, the Russians declared it all pre-planned foreign manipulation.

Ukraine’s economy is a wreck. Its contraction during the 2008-09 global economic crisis the highest percent in the world. Its leading export is commodity steel. Yanukovich’s government has no love for economic reforms as demanded by the IMF as a precondition to financial support. Ukraine’s government is almost as dysfunctional as Washington. Yanukovich’s political position in parliament hangs by a thread. Demographically, Ukraine is also a quasi-basket case.


NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

One of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s cruelest feats? Forcing some of his fiercest critics (us) again to defend American self-interest and the role and purpose of intelligence. Despite NSA’s (and the Community’s) wanton, flagrant contempt for both. If Neocons were America’s malignant Id at her moment of apogee, then as Nemesis follows Hubris, they ushered in her over soon decline. NSA and the Community, engorged on national security self-entitlement, scuttled behind as ever-present shadow.

We get no pleasure writing that. Nor seeing so much needless and perhaps irretrievable ruin in Snowden’s aftermath. Much of it gleefully celebrated by those who care nothing for American interests, privacy or otherwise. It takes a big man to bring down an epoch in American and global history, they say. So why are Alexander and Snowden perfectly, coevally so small?

Crushed Like A Spent Can Of Diet Coke

The seemingly ancient preceding post here about Obama’s first NSA-focused press conference reads quaintly now. We see in stark relief the cost of this Administration’s (typical) passivity. That’s not to excuse or diminish NSA’s stunning, profoundly stupid (and so totally unnecessary) transgressive acts. But we all should be clear about one distinction – intolerance for NSA’s transgressions is not embracing others’ attempt to exploit political fallout to see America diminished.


Infographic – Pussy Riot Around The World

Because we do not always get the infographics we need, but what we deserve. Or something like that.

We tried to put Pussy Riot, Putin and the West in the juxtapose most familiar to a meme addled society. We think it captures the moment in Russia and the West. Clicking on the image below will produce the full size graphic. Feel free to make suggestions or comments for improvements. We can, as they say, ‘iterate this’ to reflect our consensus.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Trial, Twitter

Pussy Riot Shows Putin Misreads Politics

Putin must be wondering how did it all go so wrong? So fast?

First, demonstrators marred his moment returning to overt power. Putin even cried a bit. Former Finance Minister Kudrin and others broke ranks and seek his overthrow.

Lately, he’s blamed for inept responses to massive flooding and failed rocket launches. Putin’s presidency is now so volatile there’s open speculation how soon he’s trying to oust Medvedev as Prime Minister. Or whether he can control elite factions anymore. Three young women punk rockers as international superstars just rubs it in.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Madonna

Putin Is An Analog Guy

Putin and his collective instrumental base show a political deaf ear and marked clumsiness since his return as president. It’s a common mistake to attribute everything to Putin himself. As we wrote before in the link above, Putinism operationally (as opposed to substantively) is about preserving his role as arbiter.

Within the wider personal and institutional factions, much occurs without him. Either by ‘working towards’ him by anticipating what Putin might want, or operating more broadly, with the ‘better to seek forgiveness than permission’. Corruption is a vital currency. Putin’s long delay announcing his new government underscores the fractious nature of this political ecosystem – and his essential role as arbiter.

So when Putin does act, it is often in broad measures, trying to set systemic guidance by dramatic example. In the past, these actions were carefully choreographed in exquisite detail by Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s former young eminence grise who famously turned Putin into an action figure. Surkov is gone. Asute Russia observers suggest Putin misses Surkov’s shrewd ear to the ground.


Putin After The Elections

About the only surprise from yesterday’s Russian elections are Putin’s tears savoring his long predicted victory. Putin’s victory speech was erratic. If he tried to stage emotion, it backfired.

Famous blogger Alexei Navalny named Monday’s protest “Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears” based on the title of an Oscar-winning Soviet melodrama. Ironic use of Putin’s tears fills the Russian Internet from Twitter to Snob.ru. (Putin says the tears came from the wind).

Watch Medvedev introduce the man who took the re-election he wanted so badly himself. Medvedev veers between the manic and awkward unhappiness. 30 seconds into Putin’s speech Medvedev fittingly all but disappears before our eyes.

So what does Putin do next?