The diplomatic confrontation between Russian and Britain is hitting a boiling point. In response to the expulsions, Russia said they were “russophobic,” ‘immoral,” and part of “a carefully choreographed action” that could result in a political backlash. Nevertheless, Mikhail Kamynin, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, reiterated Russia’s willingness to cooperate with Britain in the Litvinenko case.
That doesn’t mean that Russia is going to sit idle. Alexander Grushko was quoted in the Guardian saying that Russia will give their response soon adding that whatever it will berespo1 Russian-British business ties will be kept in mind. Russia’s Resources Minister, Yuri Trutnev, told reporters that “I don’t think it makes sense to impose restrictions that would affect the investment climate, because that would be very expensive, including for Britain.” He’s right and the Guardian concurs. There is no way Russian or British elites are going to pump this crisis up far enough so it starts hitting their wallets. For what? Justice? Lugovoi? Pride? There are limits to pride and they usually begin and end with one’s pocket book. As Marsellus Wallace said in Pulp Fiction, “Fuck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps.”
Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the crisis will be free of all sorts of historical imagery and comparisons. The Guardian declared that “Cold War Diplomacy is Back as UK Expels Spies” but failed to explain the connection. The Daily Telegraph stated that Britain’s actions hark back to the “depths of the Cold War” when Russian and Britain engaged in tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions in 1985. The article then proceeds to recount the 1985 crisis to suggest continuity.
Russia also pulled out some historical arrows from its rhetorical quiver. One Kremlin adviser, Sergei Markov said that Britain was behaving in an “imperial” manner. Vladimir Zhirinovsky dug deep into the history books saying that Britain’s machinations can be spotted not only in the Crimean War, which Russia lost against Britain, but also in Alexander II’s assassination, and the Russo-Japanese War. Zhiri is always good for a laugh. I’m surprised he didn’t bring up the 1927 war scare over Britain’s proposal to give Germany Danzig and the Polish Corridor in the Western powers efforts to redraw the Eastern European map. Just for fun, if historical allusions must be made, I think that revisiting the “Great Game” of the 19th century is the most promising and often neglected because of the Cold War’s continued hegemony of historical memory.
Andrei Lugovoi has also responded to Norberto Andrade’s claims that he was distracted the night of Litvinenko’s poisoning. Lugovoi called Andrade’s statements “laughable” and either “a lie or stupidity.”
Lie maybe, stupidity, well, that certainly can’t be applied to Mr. Andrade alone. It’s clear that both Britain and Russia are skipping hand in hand down Stupid Lane quite gaily.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
It was Dmitri Medvedev’s coming out party to the other leaders of the G-8. It seems that he didn’t fail to impress. Bush called him a “smart guy,” which should apply to pretty much everyone when next to the outgoing American President. Medvedev stood his ground with Britain’s Gordon Brown when the latter raised the TNK-BP dispute, the closing of British Council offices, and, of course, that old dead horse Litvinenko. Though it appears that the handlers of the British PM and the Russian President want to put on a good public face. One source told reporters that “neither Brown nor Medvedev wanted to wrap up the talks.” They just wouldn’t shut up after the two got acquainted and shared their global visions. Or perhaps the tabs of Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin were more the topic of discussion than the issues that keep Russia and Britain at a cool distance. I can’t imagine that things like Zimbabwe, Middle East peace, and Iran holding either party’s attention for too long. I mean, talk about boring.
Apparently boring is exactly the word to describe this year’s G8. At least this is what Kommersant‘s correspondent Anderi Kolesnikov thinks. The Japanese hosts certainly impressed with their solar cars, bowing politeness, and automatic handshakes. The only real faux pas was the little press room allotted to journalists. Kolesnikov writes,
In the little press center, where the journalists who come 35 km. from the big one at the Hotel Windsor wait for hours in underground corridors near the kitchens, which smell of fried fish in the mornings and chocolate at night, there is not a single television screen. The summit, which is broadcast live to monitors in the big press center and the hotel, is shrunk to the size of a handkerchief at the small press center and you feel the time slipping away. So the hell with it.
That said, Kolesnikov biggest complaint was with the G8 leaders themselves. “It was boring with them. They were bored with one another. That much was clear from the big smiles they put on every time they got in front of television cameras. It was clear from their final documents; it was clear from their press conferences.” I can only imagine how all those plastic smiles would get old after a few hours.
Nothing showed the utter ennui of the whole conference than one of Japanese PM Fukuda’s press conferences.
The apotheosis was one of Fukuda’s press conferences, which didn’t last more than a quarter hour. At some point, the translator even stopped translating. Either he fell asleep or he simply understood that it was pointless because no one was listening.
Medvedev’s real show of muscle was when he was asked about the US-Czech missle agreement. “It doesn’t suit us,” Medvedev responded. “We will not raise hysterics, but we will think up responsive measures and seek an adequate response.” The Financial Times quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official response, which promised to react “not through diplomatic but through military-technical methods.” I sure “military-technical methods” are exactly what the Cold Warriors in both Russia and the US are hoping and praying for.
Perhaps the most revealing moment was a question from a Japanese reporter to Medvedev. Well, it actually wasn’t a question but more an introduction to one. The reporter began with telling the Russian Prez “Welcome to Japan.” Medvedev was set to fly back to Moscow right after his press conference.
A welcome just as you’re leaving. I guess that really sums things up.
By Sean — 10 years ago
The Ossetians are slowly creeping into view, though the articles highlighting their history, plight, and desire for self-determination are still relegated to the journalistic periphery. One article to recenter the Ossetian (and also Abkhaz) problem is Donald Rayfield’s “The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation” on OpenDemocracy.net. Rayfield opens with a point that I made a few days ago. Namely,
Much of the media reporting of the “short and nasty war” has been strong and detailed, with a good dose of scepticism in questioning the tendentious (and often downright mendacious) versions of events relayed by Russian and Georgians spokespersons alike. This is in contrast to the lack of attention among commentators to the essential task of exploring the roots of the conflict; indeed, a lot of the opinion-flood persists in ignoring completely the local and regional factors in favour of an instant resort to high geopolitics, as if South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which lie at the heart of what has happened – do not in themselves even exist. [Emphasis mine]
When the Ossetians and Abkhazians at the center, the answer to the problem is clear: recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s right of self-determination, whether that be independence or integration into Russia.
To get there, however, Rayfield suggests that the Georgians come to grip with the idea that losing South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not the end of the world.
Sadly, rationality and nationalism rarely mix well. When he came to power in 2003, Saakashvili put taming Georgia’s separatist regions at the center of his populist nationalism. It didn’t take him long to begin putting pressure on both Ossetia and Akhazia to comply. Under the auspicious of “decriminalizing” both regions of smuggling, corruption, and gang-like rule, Saakashvili ordered his navy to down all foreign ships (i.e. Russian) heading for Abkhazia and replaced his border police with US-trained Georgian troops, who quickly began trading small arms fire with Ossetian militias. As the New York Times‘ C. J. Chivers noted in August 2004, critics were already saying that Saakashvili’s antics were “showing his inexperience and flirting with war.” One wonders where such criticism in the Western press is now.
Or as Mark Ames says in his most recent article in the Nation,
At the root of this conflict is a clash of two twentieth-century guiding principles in international relations. Georgia, backed by the West, is claiming its right as a sovereign nation to control the territory within its borders, a guiding principle since World War II. The Ossetians are claiming their right to self-determination, a guiding principle since World War I.
These two guiding concepts for international relations–national sovereignty and the right to self-determination–are locked in a zero-sum battle in Georgia. Sometimes, the West takes the side of national sovereignty, as it is in the current war; other times, it sides with self-determination and redrawing of national borders, such as with Kosovo.
In that 1999 war, the United States led a nearly three-month bombing campaign of Serbia in order to rescue a beleaguered minority, the Albanians, and carve out a new nation. Self-determination trumped national sovereignty, over the objections of Russia, China and numerous other countries.
Why, Russians and Ossetians (not to mention separatist Abkhazians in Georgia’s western region) ask, should the same principle not be applied to them?
It should but it’s not. What the Ossentians, Abkhazians and Russians have gotten in response is the worse chest pounding, slander, and great power blustering from the United States. The best example of this is Bush’s feeble attempt at continued relevancy by spouting tired rhetoric about how “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century.” “Only Russia can decide whether it will now put itself back on the path of responsible nations or continue to pursue a policy that promises only confrontation and isolation,” he continued. Russia’s response? Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said the Americans had to chose between have a “real partnership” with Russia or a virtual one with Georgia.
The funny thing is that so much of this conflict has simply existed on the virtual plane. How people saw the war was skillfully crafted by their specific culture industry. Each side, whether it be the Russian or the Western press created its own villains, victims, historical parallels, and defense of grand historical ideas. The South Ossetian war was as much, if not more, about narrative than it was about bullets and bombs. The universal opinion is that Russia lost this war of narratives. Yasha Levine put it best in his analysis on the Exiled.
Even the most cursory look at this conflict shows that Georgia’s attack was an almost perfect textbook example of how modern warfare should be fought on the information front. The Georgians showed an amazing grasp of Info Ops concepts, pulling off counterpropaganda, launching disinformation campaigns and manipulating media perceptions as if they did this type of thing every day.
Oh, the Russians tried to do their part, too. But it still isn’t clear if they didn’t give a shit about what the world thought or just failed miserably. Either way, it was bad news for the Kremlin. Despite a military victory, they are going to have a heard time getting the world to go along with their plans for post-war Georgia. All because they failed to win over the hearts and minds of the world community. The Georgians knew the importance of a well-defined information war strategy. That’s because Georgia has had ample training by the masters of this art: America and Israel.
Saakashvili turned out to be a master at manipulating American narcissism. Perhaps his time at Columbia Law School taught him that Americans only react to codes. For example, in his “exclusive” interview with CNN on August 8, Saakashvili repeatedly said he loved freedom and democracy:
“We are right now suffering because we want to be free and we want to be a democracy multi-ethnic democracy that belongs to all ethnic groups and that’s exactly what’s happening there. So, basically, I have to – I mean, it’s not about Georgia anymore, it’s about America, its values. You know, I went to two U.S. universities. I always taught that these values were also those of my own. We have held them not because we love America although I do love America, but because we love freedom. And the point here is that I also taught that America also stands up for those free-loving nations and supports them.”
“We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack.”
His 13 August interview on CNN, he laid the freedom on even thicker. He said the word “free” or “freedom” seven times. He also dropped “democracy” seven times. Perhaps this is why people like CNN’s Glenn Beck are so apt to believe after talking with Saakashvili for 30 minutes that “This is for America. This is for NATO. This is for Bush” was written on the Russian bombs falling on Georgia. Beck is an utter boob. And Saakashvili, well, he should get a fucking Oscar.
One can tell how effective freedom and democracy rhetoric is just by looking how American politicians deploy it themselves. If you can make the conflict about America, its people, and its values, the public will respond. This is why John McCain told a crowd in Pennsylvania that “Today, we are all Georgians.” This is why In Colorado, he said that he wanted to avoid any armed conflict with Russia, “but,” he emphasized, “we have to stand up for freedom and democracy as we did in the darkest days.”
McCain’s blustering has paid off politically. The New York Times, in an application of the “Rolled up sleeves theory,” noted that McCain displayed his “foreign policy credentials,” while Barack Obama “seemed to fade from the scene while on his secluded vacation.” Now American liberals are scrambling out of fear that McCain’s get tough on Russia stance will give him a bump in the polls.
But the narcissism on display is not simply relegated to Bush, McCain, or the American voter as such. American liberals, who pride themselves on seeing through the smoke and mirrors of the propaganda state, are no less myopic. Once upon a time, national self-determination was a principle of the American liberal left. National liberation movements were mark of internationalism and solidarity.
Now those days are long gone and anti-imperialism has faded from the American liberal doxa. Now, they are probably the most egregiously narcissistic bunch that are so steeped in their own “it’s all about me” mentality. They call for the better management of empire rather than its ultimate dismantle. But what do you expect from liberalism? The South Ossetian War can’t be about well, the Ossetians and the Abkhazians (Who are they anyway?). Their struggles, desires, and agency doesn’t just has to, they must be a metynom for a much wider issue: American hegemony? Oil? Iran? McCain-Obama? Make your pick. Because, if the South Ossetians and Abkhazians can’t be molded into a reflection of one of a liberal cause, they might as well not exist. To not do this would require American liberals to actually realize that there is a world out there that isn’t a simple reflection of their values and concerns.
Instead, the South Ossetian and Abkhazian right of self-determination is erased in favor of some grand scheme of American Empire. Take for example, the Nation‘s Robert Sheer’s speculation that the Georgian War was some kind of neocon conspiracy, an October Surprise to influence the American Presidential Election. The logic is beautiful in its simplicity. Randy Scheunemann is McCain’s senior foreign policy adviser. He previously served as a lobbyist for the Georgian government. Scheunemann is also a neocon who championed the invasion of Iraq. Connect the dots people. Sheer does
There are telltale signs that he played a similar role in the recent Georgia flare-up. How else to explain the folly of his close friend and former employer, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, in ordering an invasion of the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which clearly was expected to produce a Russian counter-reaction. It is inconceivable that Saakashvili would have triggered this dangerous escalation without some assurance from influential Americans he trusted, like Scheunemann, that the United States would have his back.
Why did the US want a Russian counteraction? American needs a new enemy. A good enemy. Not one that hides in caves, blows himself up, and wreaks havoc in failed states with no targets. There’s nothing photogenic in all that. Perhaps this is why all the war on terror films have fallen so flat in the box office. Perhaps this is why there is no Rambo for this war. Even liberals need a simple, flat binaried world of “us” and “US” to make their unfettered political way in an otherwise complex world.
So for Sheer, the Georgia Crisis has been about us from the very get go. Or if you listen to Michael Klare, it’s “South Ossetia: It’s the oil, stupid.” Or if you really want a duesy, read Frank Shaeffer, who says that Russia actions in Georgia “is the slow-motion counterattack of the Orthodox world against the West’s latest crusade. Georgia is just a symbol for the counter-punch to the modern version of the West’s sack of Constantinople in 1204.” What? He’s kidding right? The fact that Georgia is also an Orthodox country (he admits this) doesn’t seem to matter.
Clearly, South Ossetian and Abkhazian bodies don’t matter unless they are used as canvas for sketching out larger and more sinister political designs. Someone should have done the decent thing and sent them the memo. No matter, the cultural industry and its managers will write them in as necessary. Or not.
By Sean — 11 years ago
Washington Profile has an interesting interview with Professor David Foglesong about his book The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’: The Crusade for a ‘Free Russia’ since 1881. I reviewed Foglesong’s book here a few months ago. Below are a few excerpts from the interview that I found interesting and pertinent to understanding where America’s “dark double” stands in the present:
Washington Profile: If we talk about the broader hope of the U.S. reshaping Russia, the United States has had a special mission throughout its history to bring democracy or enlightenment to the world, but you seem to suggest that Russia became America’s special project and as you put it, America’s dark twin. Why is this the case? Why Russia?
David Foglesong: There have been a lot of other countries that have played the role of a foil for American national identity at different moments in time, either as the demonic opposite of the United States or as an object of the American mission. For example, the idea of Christianizing and civilizing China was very important for affirmation of American philanthropic ideals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I would argue that Russia is not unique in that respect, but Russia has more persistently over a longer period of time been seen as both an object of the American mission and the opposite of American ideals and virtues. Why is that? I think that a set of attitudes that we first see in the late 19th century and early 20th century help to explain that. First, the idea that Russia is, despite the differences in the political system and despite the different histories, fundamentally like the United States and is destined to follow in its footsteps. The usual reasons that are pointed to are first, vast size, that Russia occupies a huge continental expanse just as the United States by the end of the 19th century, occupies a huge continental expanse. That supposedly contributes to an expansive personality of the people. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis comes into circulation after 1893 with the idea that the frontier has been central to the shaping of an American democratic, egalitarian, individualist ethos and the idea comes into circulation that Russia is like the United States in having had a frontier experience. I think ideas like that are important in the presumption that Russia is like America and is destined to become more like America.
Two other factors are race and religion. Russians are explicitly defined as white, even though there are people who have ambivalence about that. I think the dominant understanding, and the dominant view of the crusaders for a free Russia like George Kennan, is that the Russians are white; sometimes they use the term “Aryan” to describe the Russians. That fits into an outlook that the Russians more than Asian peoples are fit to follow an American path to democracy and to a modern economy and to Christianity. There’s a great deal of enthusiasm among missionaries for the conversion of Russians because the idea is that they are nominally Christian. There is contempt for the Russian Orthodox Church as a corrupt, degenerate, backwards, superstitious form of Christianity, but nonetheless the argument goes that the ground has been prepared for the full Christianization of Russia by this background of almost 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia.
If we look at the current situation, you have said the rhetoric from the presidential candidates is unproductive. Has the United States learned anything from these historical experiences?
I think that some within the Bush administration, it seems to me particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have been more realistic, more moderate in their approaches. Not that they have abandoned all hope of encouraging political reform, but they don’t expect the United States to have extraordinary leverage over developments in Russia. They don’t expect overnight transformations and they also don’t veer to the opposite extreme of saying that Putin is reverting back to being a Stalin-like tyrant.
I do think this is somewhat encouraging. What’s disturbing is that you find in American political circles and in American journalistic circles an almost compulsive tendency to demonize figures in Russia that they hold responsible for Russia not becoming just like the United States. I think journalists assume that it is a good thing for there to be checks and balances in a political system, that you should have opposition parties. They assume on the basis of American experience that Russia should be like that and if it is not then it’s something pathological and terribly wrong.
Russia’s historical experience is quite different from America’s historical experience. Division of power doesn’t necessarily have a positive connotation for many Russians. Experiences of times with a division of power, whether it’s between Yeltsin and the parliament in the early 1990s or between the Provisional Government and the Soviet in 1917 are not necessarily positive in Russian historical memory. I think that some recent developments have been regrettable and unfortunate but there is a sort of impulse among American journalists and politicians in a very simplistic way to judge developments in Russian by American standards which may not be appropriate.
Do you see a difference between whether a Democrat or Republican becomes the next U.S. president in term of foreign policy towards Russia?
What I have read so far in the newspapers is not at all encouraging to me. In a piece I wrote for the History News Network a couple of weeks ago I expressed some worry about the direction already of the rhetoric in the political campaign: with McCain’s remarks about Putin, with Hillary Clinton’s really awful remark about Putin not having a soul, and even with Obama’s recent remarks. There is too much of a tendency to use Russia as a political football, to use Russia as foil, as a whipping boy, as a scapegoat. I think it’s really shortsighted to think that in the political campaign Americans can say all sorts of things about Russia’s leaders and not expect it to have reverberations down the road in American – Russian relations. This reminds me of the way that Vice-President George H. W. Bush told Gorbachev in 1987: I’m going to say lots of terrible things about the Soviet Union during the 1988 political campaign but you should just forget about it because it’s just politics.
Do you see any way to break out of this cycle with a new president coming in?
The way I look at it there doesn’t seem to be a broad mass resonance in American society to this kind of demagogic appeal from political candidates. I think in earlier phases when politicians and non-governmental crusaders for Russian freedom like the first George Kennan went out on the lecture circuit and denounced tsarist tyranny they were able to evoke a wider, more enthusiastic popular response. I don’t sense that degree of popular resonance for the kind of rhetoric we’re seeing nowadays.
If you look at the popular reaction to Time Magazine’s making Putin “Man of the Year,” a number of the remarks put on Time’s website were troubling. Americans were saying Putin is evil, how dare you put Putin on the cover, let’s all get together and burn our copies of Time magazine. However, I don’t sense that this is a very widespread popular demonization of Russia, in part because the United States has so many other problems on its plate.
I also think that there has been some sobering up of the expectations that it is in America’s power to reshape Russia in America’s image. I can’t foresee what might happen five years down the road if there are some unfortunate developments in Russia, and if Americans have the ability to focus more on Russia as opposed to the problems of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the U.S. domestic economy. The situation could change. For now, I don’t sense that the demagoguery about Putin not having a soul and about looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing only KGB is evoking a broad popular response.
How do Americans, not politicians, view Russia today? What do they most misunderstand about Russia?
I think there are really varied attitudes towards Russia among different elements of the American population. I think that there are people who are involved in the growing trade with Russia who are aware of some promising developments in the Russian economy beyond just the export of fossil fuels, and I think that many of the people in business are inclined not to veer to the two extremes of either expecting overnight democracy along American lines or feeling that there is a regression to Stalinist tyranny.
I do think that among journalists and among some politicians there are the habits and impulses of the past. The New York Times recently suggested it was necessary to revert back to the style of the 1970s, when Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were among the dissidents that we supported and we amplified their voices. I think there are people in American journalistic circles, especially editorial writers for the Washington Post, who have an emotional impulse to condemn Russia for backsliding on democracy and to overstate the potential menace to the outside world from Russia. Although there have been some troubling developments in Putin’s Russia, such American journalists tend to exaggerate them, to lack historical perspective, and to have unrealistic expectations about the extent of American influence on Russia.
Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say what ordinary Americans think about Russia; I think it’s a complicated and varied picture.