In the West the view of Russia and Russians is often lived through a host of memes. Memes by their nature of course are bereft of any nuance or complexities, they are simple frameworks that given omnipresent exposure allow for the formation of entrenched beliefs. The result of these memes is that most people in Berlin, London or New York hare great sympathy towards the poor Russian people that have been manipulated by the nefarious state propaganda of the Kremlin. We ask ourselves: how can the Russians be so easily misled?
We may even ponder how Russian civil society can be freed from the oppressive machinations of the Russian state and contrast Russia’s misfortune with the situation in the West, which we consider our light filled beacon of freedom, democracy and truth. Given recent historical events it may seem ludicrous to many of the world’s citizens that the West as a block is a benign power, devoid of geopolitical interests; but to a captive audience in the NATO states it is just impossible to argue otherwise: NATO is the force of good. The rest is evil.
It may be asked, how the application of double standards regarding the actions of Saudi or Iran can go unnoticed; how the conflicts in Libya and Iraq can be so easily forgotten; or the continued oppressive actions of the US ally Israel; but if there is one thing the west does well, than that is PR. The conflict in Ukraine provides another prime example. The general public in the transatlantic space is precluded from obtaining balanced information; there is no public consciousness regarding the internal displacement of citizens from the Donbass over the last 8 years. There is not even any public comprehension of the Minsk accords, therefore no ability to ascertain those laws passed in the Rada were in contravention of what was supposed to be a peace agreement. Even the recent admission by Merkel that the accords were not taken seriously in the western capitals is something that does not compute that Poroshenko had already made this point; and Russian security concerns are dismissed as mere disinformation. Imagine the inability to see that Russia security concerns are born of the catastrophic world wars or the battles with Napoleon. Despite the historical creation of buffer states in Europe, the forced neutrality of some or even the conceptual framework established Yalta agreement, all this again is lost on the Western citizen.
Was it not pragmatic in 2014 when Putin suggested a neutral Ukraine, one which could trade freely with both the EU and the Eurasian Union? Was that pragmatism not revisited in the Minsk accords, the recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for some autonomy for the Donbass region? Was conflict preferable to this solution, one we can deem fair given East Ukraine’s demographics. Why would you expect the Western public to consider such issues, when it’s enough to accept for twenty years a simple meme depicting Putin as evil. This explanation, repeated long enough, not only entrenches the concept deep in the individual’s psyche, but then acts as a bulwark against any potential questioning of the established narrative. With the neurocognitive pathway established in the entire western audience, the individual is neatly conditioned to assume that every event is explicitly Putin’s fault, just at the mere mention of his name.
But what of the experts? Those sitting in London or at Langley on the Russia desks? Are they too not beholden to the same forms of socialisation? Certainly when one is brought up in a society, one absorbs the key narratives and attitudes that play a role in the formation of what are supposedly a sovereign individual’s opinions. Here it is worth considering there is clearly little autonomy when almost everyone repeats without questioning the same points. Where the expert however derives his mastery is in his access to information and his training.
An insight into this training can be obtained by reading how US intelligence analysts are taught to view the world, how they are taught to use models to overcome their prejudices, how the are instructed to analyse competing hypotheses by which to test their theories and how they should eliminate faulty theories by challenging them with testing arguments, as opposed to simply building up the first good idea that comes along. The idea is to promote biased free critical thinking, in a manner similar to that employed by western health professionals when using reflective models (see Gibbs, Kolb etc).
Essential reading in this regard is Heuer’s Psychology of intelligence analysis. In his book he presents the modus operandi that US analysts apply when accessing international events; it goes without saying that an analyst working on a specific nation is aware of the internal dynamics, as well as the geopolitical risk factors from which a country defines a sense of self. From this it becomes clear how both the military and political structures of a nation evolve. In other words the US analyst as a starting point is aware of the geopolitical realities which face a given country. So with regards to making an analysis of competing hypothesis, what does the US analyst see?
Here we see a traditional Russian concern for security, a principal reason why Russia had always expressed opposition to the expansion of NATO. Something inherently understood by Merkel who following the Bucharest summit of 2008 in which the Transatlantic organisation indicated it would absorb both the Ukraine and Georgia, likened the policy to a declaration of war on Russia. Yet while we recognise Russian opposition to any military alliance encroaching upon its boarders, we are able to discern a historical respect and tolerance for neutral states. Indeed neutral states have even been welcomed, be that Finland, Austria of the cold war era or Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan in the post-soviet space. What is more, we are able to ascertain the creation of Mongolia as a buffer state on the northern Chinese border. Moreover, we are able to ascertain that this sensitivity to the catastrophic events of the past, namely the great patriotic war, the Crimean war, the devastation incited by the Mongol hordes and the invasion following the communist revolution of 1917.
Beyond this historical context, the analyst is able to view events through the prism of historical comparisons. Here Heuer is explicit in describing the aims of this method, that is to enable an “analyst to seek understanding of current events by comparing them with historical precedents in the same country” before adding “thus analysts reason that the same forces are at work, that the outcome of the present situation is likely to be similar to the outcome of the historical situation, or that a certain policy is required in order to avoid the same outcome as in the past”.
From this we can clearly extract three historical analogies, they are Transnistria, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Here the Russian position was not conflict, but the freezing of ethnic tensions and conflict, in fact the Russian position with regards to the Donbass was more beneficial to Ukraine than the previous scenarios are in Moldova and Georgia, then the position made clear from Moscow from 2015 was one where Ukrainian territorial integrity would be respected. More disturbing is the realisation that any Western intelligence analysts would naturally be aware of the comparisons, but were told to ensure a different outcome, that outcome invariable implies war.
In juxtaposition with these Russian arguments, we may test the established western hypotheses. Firstly, Putin wants to re-establish the USSR. Although this argument is widely expressed in public opinion, it’s unlikely this argument carries any weight in the intelligence community. After all it should be well known that this argument is a mere spurious reinterpretation of a speech Putin gave in 2005, in which if anything he reiterated Russia’s new role in the world, insisting that there was no going back. It’s a position that Putin has reiterated on numerous occasions. Equally the conflict in Ukraine was initiated with a force that was clearly never intended to occupy the whole of Ukraine. To believe that the conflict in Ukraine is about the reestablishment of the USSR would be to ignore another historical precedent, one in which Russian conflict in the post-soviet space only takes place against a backdrop of NATO or EU attempts to pull certain nations from Russia’s orbit. We are then left with the simple Putin is bad meme. In this sense, the Western analyst understands that Putin operates according to the principles of realpolitik, with all its implication. The Putin-is-bad argument is so churlish that it needs no further comment.
The above leads us therefore to question what is driving the western stance on the Ukraine conflict from a policy point of view. Key insights are provided by the Rand report that openly talks about overextending Russia. It’s a strategy that hawks in both Kiev and the US applied, which in effect gave Russia little option, but to embroil itself in a war. Key was arming the Ukrainian state to such a degree that it destabilised any semblance of balance that had been established in the Donbass. Additionally it pushed the security spiral to such an extent that Russia was given no choice, that was backed up by laws compelling the Ukrainian state to take back the Crimea by force. Reasoning here is all confirmed by the Ukrainian advisor Oleksii Arestovich, who in an interview openly called for war with Russia in 2022. But the strategic crux of the matter from the American viewpoint is an insistence on maintaining a unipolar world with the USA as hegemon. This also explains the periodic containment strategies that have been imposed on Russia with increasing rigour over the last 15 years.
The core issue is an inability of the West to create a new pan European security arrangement following the collapse of the USSR. Here the initial plan was to create a greater Europe in which Russia would not only share in the security apparatus, but would also share in the common institutions. In this sense it is worth remembering that Putin was the Russian leader most open to the west, until it became clear there were only dead ends to any Russian reproachment with the west. As opposed to Poland and Romania, the Russian federation was too big and too rich in resources and labour to be allowed access to the rest of Europe. Russian growth through assimilation with Europe would have swiftly converted Russia into a peer competitor once more of the USA and also allowing it to dominate the Eurasian heartland. Rather the US sought to isolate and move a military alliance against the country.
For the USA it was not enough that the USSR disintegrated, Russia alone by its sheer size and potential is a threat. In this sense, Russians should not for one second doubt the true nature of US policy, irrespective of the social myths, that emanate from the wider populations of the western states. US policy is geostrategic in orientation, not values driven as the open discourse suggests. Considering the true nature of this stance, Russians should take seriously all the attempts at breaking up their nation.