Archive for March, 2022

Ten days to go and I’m feeling unsettled, indeed anxious. Since this campaign began—whenever one wants to date that—it has been a foregone conclusion that Emmanuel Macron would win a second term on April 24th, easily defeating Marine Le Pen, and certainly Eric Zemmour if he somehow made it to the 2nd round. There was a Valérie Pécresse boomlet after she unexpectedly won the LR primary in December—and with her looking to pose a serious threat to Macron if she overtook Marine LP and Zemmour to qualify for the run-off—but that was short-lived. And with Macron’s poll numbers spiking after Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine, his re-election looked to be a done deal. On March 14th I did an hour-and-fifteen-minute phone interview on the election with the Paris correspondent of the Australian newspaper The Age, and of the ten words of mine that made it into the article that appeared five days later was me asserting that “Macron’s gonna win this thing.” When I saw that line I winced, as I would have said no such thing had I been interviewed at that moment.

The fact is, Macron does not have this thing locked up. He remains the favorite but there is a very real possibility that Marine Le Pen—his very likely April 24th opponent—could win, as one may see in yesterday’s Elabe poll above. We’ve never seen a mere five point spread between Macron and MLP—and the poll is not an outlier, as IFOP is presently showing a 53-47 EM-MLP 2nd round outcome. Smart commentators are sounding the alarm, e.g. Thomas Legrand—one of the two best political analysts in the French broadcast media—who matter-of-factly observed in his France Inter editorial on Tuesday that “Marine Le Pen can win this presidential election,” and with this Tuesday’s segment of France 5’s (excellent) late evening talk show ‘C ce soir’—which will surely be terminated in the nightmarish event that Mme Le Pen comes to power (as France Inter likely will too, BTW)—taking up the theme, “2022: the year of the extreme right’s victory?” And now the other best political analyst, Jean-Michel Aphatie, has titled his LCI commentary this evening, “yes, Le Pen can win.”

There has been a change in the race over the past two weeks, as Ukraine has settled in as a routine daily news story and with the media now focusing primarily on the election campaign. Through most of the winter, Le Pen, Zemmour, and Pécresse were all bunched together in the mid-high teens in the polls, with any of them a plausible second-place finisher on April 10th. But then Zemmour started to drop into the low teens and was followed by Pécresse, who has run a truly bad campaign, adopting the far right, lepeniste rhetoric on the “four I” issues (immigration, identity, insécurité, Islam), which is what the LR base wants to hear, while striving to stave off defections by moderately conservative LR voters—not to mention high-profile LR politicos—to Macron, who is now firmly anchored on the center-right. The impossible triangulation. I attended Pécresse’s February 13th rally at the Zénith (I was in the overflow hall nearby), which was already seen as her make-or-break moment; and she broke it. It was a dud, on both form (amateurish production values) and substance (again, the impossible triangulation, and by one who is not a great orator to begin with). She’ll be lucky to finish in fourth place on April 10th.

As for Zemmour, if I were conspiracy theory-minded I would wonder if his candidacy weren’t a ruse to make Marine Le Pen look moderate, as that is precisely what he has done. His pathological rhetoric on the “four Is” is so virulent and extreme that it makes even Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National of the 1990s—when the FN was at its most demonized—look almost moderate by comparison. In the political history of modern France, Zemmour is simply off the map on these issues for a candidate with his notoriety and ability to pull in the crowds (30 to 40,000 at the Trocadéro last Sunday). And as the most Putinophile of the Russia-supporting/apologizing candidates, his poll numbers took a hit with the Russian invasion and his initial objection to France welcoming Ukrainian refugees. Even hardcore Zemmour fans don’t have a problem with refugees or migrants if they’re white and Christian. Until the third week of February I was opining that with Macron reelected and Le Pen and Pécresse having bitten the dust, Zemmour would be well-placed to reconstitute the extreme and hard right—”la droite nationale“—into a bloc and assume its leadership going forward to 2027. I’m less confident in that prediction now.

Marine Le Pen no longer has to worry about being overtaken by Zemmour or Pécresse. There is a consensus across the board that she has led a smart, effective campaign and largely succeeded in “dedemonizing” herself and her renamed Rassemblement National. With Zemmour the lightening rod on the issue, Marine has downplayed immigration, even taking pains to repeat that while she is opposed to “Islamism,” she has nothing against Islam as a religion, whereas Zemmour incessantly equates the two. And in appropriating the RN’s more middle class/bourgeois voters—and adopting an economically libéral (smaller state, lower taxes) rhetoric as a consequence—Zemmour has done MLP a favor of sorts in enabling her to focus her message on the couches populaires, i.e. the middling and working classes (and former Gilets Jaunes among them), notably on the cost of living issue—by far the nº 1 for French voters at the moment—and promise active state intervention to protect her voters’—actual and potential—standard of living at a time of rising inflation and now war in Europe. She has been accused by more than one of sounding like a leftist, and with Zemmour calling her an “economic socialist,” though which will hardly discourage his bourgeois libéral supporters from voting for her against Macron in the 2nd round—but which may well encourage a sizable number of Macron-hating Jean-Luc Mélenchon voters to also go for her on April 24th. As for MLP’s longtime Putinophilia, she’s been avoiding the subject, hoping that it will go down the memory hole, and her supporters don’t care in any case.

Marine LP has also succeeded in softening her personal image, posting photos on Instagram of her with her cats, showing her emotional side, and even tearing up on live television when speaking of her father. De quoi faire pleurer dans les chaumières. And, as it happens, she attracts the second highest level of “sympathie” among the twelve presidential candidates in the latest Ipsos presidential baromètre (Macron is first; poor Anne Hidalgo is dead last).

If Marine Le Pen is closing the gap with Emmanuel Macron, it is also due to the latter’s campaign, or absence of one. With Ukraine and France’s presidency of the Council of the European Union as an alibi, Macron has kept his campaigning to a minimum, adopting much the same posture as President de Gaulle did in the 1965 presidential election. Jupiter above the fray. But Macron is no de Gaulle, loin s’en faut, and rather lacks the charismatic hold that the latter had over a large number of Frenchmen and women. He also lacks a political party worthy of the name—to call La République en Marche an empty shell would be an understatement—or surrogates who are not second-rate hacks (e.g. Christophe Castaner, Richard Ferrand). And then there’s Macron’s congenital arrogance and seeming inability to connect with “ordinary people,” or lording it over them when he tries to, which one sees time and again when he goes out to meet les vrais gens. One of the questions asked in the Ipsos presidential poll is if the candidate “understands the problems of people like yourself.” Macron is at 27%, with Marine LP topping it at 46%.

As for a rationale for his reelection, Macron has yet to provide one, though profiting from his post-Ukraine spike in the polls—and assuming that reelection was in the bag—he suddenly pulled socially regressive measures out of a hat, notably raising the retirement age to 65 and suggesting that a work requirement might be introduced for beneficiaries of the RSA. His overall economic record hasn’t been too bad, it should be said—though my friend Guillaume Duval would beg to differ—and unemployment has indeed fallen. Fortunately for Macron, most people have forgotten the inept management of the Coronavirus pandemic during its first year.

A new, potentially crippling scandal for Macron has erupted over the past week, involving the McKinsey consulting firm. Not a good moment for an affaire d’État.

The one thing that could save us from a potentially calamitous Macron-Le Pen face-off is an admittedly unlikely, though not impossible, late surge into second place by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, whose polling numbers have been inching upwards into the mid teens. My detestation of JLM is well known, though I have been hoping for him to overtake MLP, to both spare us the dreaded rematch—and the dangers that that involves—and offer the electorate a real left-right debate, which Macron does not at all want to have, as not only is JLM a redoubtable debater but Macron would be forced to clearly situate himself on the right. No more en même temps. Macron would win reelection handily—personally speaking, I would certainly vote blanc or nul in such a contest—but at least the left would go into the June legislative elections in a stronger position.

The moderate left candidates Yannick Jadot (ecologist) and Anne Hidalgo (PS) absolutely do not want Mélenchon to make it to the 2nd round, though, as not only do they despise him but argue that such an outcome, regardless of the inevitable Mélenchon defeat, would accord him and his party, La France Insoumise, the leading role in the post-election rebuilding of the left. Guillaume Duval, who, comme moi, will be voting for Jadot on April 10th, concurs with this view, further contending that a landslide Macron victory would comfort the latter in his neoliberal agenda. Perhaps. I’ll have more to say about the candidates of the left next week.

Back to Marine Le Pen. It cannot be emphasized enough that despite her largely successful public “dedemonization” and softer, friendlier image, she has fundamentally not changed. On the “four I” issues, Europe, Russia/Putin, and just about everything else, she and her party are fundamentally no different from what they were five or ten years ago. Marine Le Pen and the RN remain on the extreme right. A Le Pen victory on April 24th would be an unmitigated disaster for France and Europe. I will spell out why after April 10th.

Read Full Post »

[update below]

Everyone has seen the images of Mariupol. Watching this drone film reminded me of one I posted of Homs, in Syria, six years ago. While the regime of Bashar al-Assad played its part in the destruction of that city, it was primarily the œuvre of Russian aerial bombing.

And then there was Aleppo, of course. If you want to watch footage of Russian bombers at work there, targeting apartment buildings and hospitals, the powerful documentary For Sama is a must. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

Deliberately bombing civilians and strafing hospitals is not a recent Russian military innovation, as one reads in these pages of a book on the 1939-40 Soviet invasion of Finland.

PBS’s Frontline had a report last week, Putin’s Road to War, which aired on ARTE the other day as Poutine, l’équation guerrière. The story it recounts will be familiar to those who have seen their share of documentaries on the Russian dictator, though is worth an hour of one’s time. Particularly worth one’s time IMO is Frontline’s 45-minute interview—excerpted in the report—with the excellent Julia Ioffe, which may be watched here.

Another excellent analyst of Russia—and Eastern Europe more generally—and whom I’ll read anything by, is the Vienna-based Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, who is interviewed in Spiegel International, “‘Putin lives in historic analogies and metaphors’.”

For those who have any interest in what is being said these days on the American left, New York magazine’s Eric Levitz—by whom, like I.Krastev, I’ll read anything—has a useful run-down, “The left has half-baked answers on Ukraine.” Hardly a surprise.

Campists and wishy-washy gauchistes would do well to read and ponder UK-based Polish journalist Zosia Brom’s scathing, salutary requisitoire, “Fuck leftist westplaining.”

As for the other side of the political spectrum, check out the enquête in New Lines Magazine by journalists Holger Roonemaa, Martin Laine, and Michael Weiss, “Russia backs Europe’s far right: Emails and documents show just how closely Italian, French, German and Austrian politicians coordinate with Moscow.”

Journalist Tom Stevenson has a lengthy report from Ukraine in the April 7th issue of the LRB, “Things fall from the sky.” In the current March 24th issue he has a review essay, “First recourse for rebels,” in which he writes about the unique nature of US sanctions and their evolution into the “weapon of first resort” in American foreign policy.

The question of sanctions is a tricky one, as I am pretty consistently opposed to them, for the simple reason that they rarely advance their objective, which is to change regime behavior, if not to bring down the sanctioned regime altogether. It is now a commonplace to observe that comprehensive economic sanctions achieve little apart from immiserating the population at large while perversely reinforcing the rouge regime. And it stands to reason that it will be likewise with Russia, however much the war criminal Putin and his gangster regime need to be punished.

On the matter of Russia sanctions, I was looking through the smart website Eurointelligence—directed by the smart and invariably interesting Wolfgang Münchau—whose content is usually paywalled but wasn’t today. Münchau is what in French is called an empêcheur de tourner en rond: a party-pooper who disabuses the wishful thinking of people like myself (e.g. on Brexit’s inevitability after the referendum). Here are a couple of his recent cold shower posts on Russia sanctions.

9 March 2022

De-westernising Russia: the politics

Yesterday’s news was that MacDonalds, a totem of US culture, will temporarily close its restaurants in Russia. Visa and Mastercard already left, as did many western fashion brands Russians got so used to. Foreign correspondents left. Outside Russia, western companies will think twice before doing business with Russia today. Russians are encouraged to settle their debt with western creditors in much-depreciated roubles, a quid-pro-quo response to the central bank freeze of Russian reserves. What if the war in Ukraine, as painful and violent as it is, is only the catalyst for a much bigger operation: the de-westernisation of the Russian society?

The war in Ukraine is not only fought militarily. Vladimir Putin was justifying the invasion, which is officially called a special military operation, as a denazification exercise. The rouble payback encouragement is reminiscent of what Hjalmar Schacht, Adolf Hitler’s central banker did with reparations payments. There are eerie parallels with the pre-world war two era. We may ridicule this now, but the Nazi invocation has a psychological impact that could soon grow to have its own life. It taps into old resentments and memories, and fosters a war mentality. It prepares people for the sacrifices that are necessary to emerge victorious out of this.

Our sanctions may help Putin spin this narrative further. Russia can survive, and even thrive, isolated from the west. Economically, politically and socially, it has enough resources to do so in the long run. Our sanctions allows Putin to sever the links with our economies and seek new alliances. It allowed him to impose emergency laws at home, and to purge the opposition. He already controls most of the information flow and the narratives of the war. Most Russians are unaware that a war is already happening in Ukraine and that Russia is the aggressor. The media portrays the military operation as a response to Ukrainian and western aggression.

In his endeavour to increase Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin will demand from his people that they stand united behind him. Already there are 700 university directors, even from renowned universities, pledging allegiance to Putin’s so-called military operation in Ukraine. This will go down all the way through every sector: military, media, business and academia. We are reminded of the coup against Recep Tayip Erdogan in 2016, which was used as a pretext to purge opponents and Nato-friendly personnel in the military and universities. We would not be astonished if Putin’s regime has similar lists.

Increasing the sphere of influence internally and externally is what Putin is after. We may think that our sanctions and boycotts will hurt him as he stands isolated from the west. But it strengthens his power with all those who are on his side. Syria is already in his debt and supports him politically and physically, including with soldiers for urban warfare. Then there are historic allies such as Cuba and South Africa. There is Venezuela. And there is China, which is looking at how to play this new economic opportunity to its advantage. Then there is India calibrating a neutral position, while Israel and Turkey are both eager to mediate in this war. Autocrats in the Middle East are on stand by mode. Then there are tactical moves like the one in Saudi Arabia, which refused the US request to increase its oil production, securing higher oil prices that comes to benefit Russia. What unites those autocratic leaders in the Middle East/North Africa region is an anti-US sentiment and a desire to end or at least curtail US dominance.

The image of power Putin portrays to the world is one that endures sacrifices to reach its long term goal. And this in stark contrast to the squeamishness of the west, where every bump in the road is cushioned with a recovery or resilience fund from governments, and where neighbouring European countries fret about whether they will be next in line for Russian aggression. We will see only much later how this image of power can be maintained by action. And how this mix of threats and seduction works on other nations. But there is no doubt that it will stand in sharp contrast to the narratives of the west.

Identity building is what he is after, and his legacy in the history book. This is what Samuel Ramani, an expert on Russian foreign policy at St Anthony’s college in Oxford, identified as the main driver behind Putin’s invasion in Ukraine. A long-term goal that justifies short-term sacrifices. The war in Ukraine allows Putin to showcase Moscow’s control over its sphere of influence, willingness to combat socially accepted threats, and feeds into popular conceptions of Russian strength, says Ramani. Different to similar moves in the past, Putin appeals to his core supporters, and not the broader public. If this is what Putin is after, it will not be sanctions or diplomacy of the west that will change his mind. Only a rift inside Russian elites that threatens his regime could bring him to recalibrate, even if only temporarily.

And this:

17 March 2022

Seen and unseen economic consequences

Russia may only be the size of the combined Belgian and Dutch economies, but what complacent GDP comparisons always underestimate are the network effects. Remember that Creditanstalt and Lehman Brothers were not particularly large banks before they set off global financial crises.

We have already noted that Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s largest exporters of wheat, on which the Middle East and Africa have become reliant. Egypt gets 80% of its wheat from the two countries. We saw a report in the BBC yesterday that the famous English national dish of fish and chips is now becoming more scarce, and more expensive, because Russia has been one of the biggest exporters of white fish. Our supply chain networks in the late stage of globalisation have become so interwoven that our economies were not resilient to a pandemic and a minor war.

Perhaps even worse are the yet-unseen effects of the sanctions. Russia is one of the world’s largest exporters of chemicals used in fertilisers. The disappearance of Russian chemicals from global markets could have severe implications for world harvests. We are already hearing of farmers in Europe not willing to grow their fields because of exploding fertiliser costs.

The IMF weighed in yesterday with a warning about three effects: the first is another round of price increases for energy and foods. The second is a supply shock for the global economy, and especially for poorer countries; and the third is a regional shock for economies in Ukraine’s immediate neighbourhood.

The IMF also picked up on an issue we have been highlighting in the past few days: the financial fallout from western sanctions. It sees a potential shift in the international economic order in the long run, as international payment systems become fragmented and member states rethink where they hold their national reserves. After the west froze Russia’s foreign reserves, other countries will consider whether their reserves are safe too.

So we are dealing with a short term shock and a long-term shift. We are not sure that those who imposed the economic sanctions thought this through.

In Münchau’s vein, the latest column by the FT’s Edward Luce likewise rains on the parade: “The west is rash to assume the world is on its side over Ukraine: It runs the risk of mistaking a local consensus on Russian aggression for a global one.”

Parting company with somber assessments à la Münchau and Luce is a Pollyannaish March 10th column by Francis Fukuyama on the American Purpose website, “Preparing for defeat,” which is to say, it’s Russia that should be preparing for this. Fukuyama may have misfired on the end of history but let’s hope he’s right on this one.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Eliot A. Cohen in The Atlantic (March 28) says “Don’t let up now: The West must do what it takes to help Ukraine prevail.” Right.

Anne Applebaum, also in The Atlantic (March 22), asserts that “Ukraine must win: Ukrainians and the world’s democratic powers must work toward the only acceptable endgame.” Tout à fait.

Author and journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, writing from Kyiv in The Washington Post (March 24), informs readers that “Ukrainians don’t see Russia’s war crimes as an invitation to negotiate.”

In this vein, Benjamin Wittes has a Twitter thread (March 29) in which he explains why he finds it “really maddening when Westerners speak about a ‘negotiated’ solution to the Ukraine war.”

Seriously, how can fruitful negotiations be carried out with such a bad faith actor as Vladimir Putin?

Read Full Post »

The Évian Accords + 60

Today is the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire in Algeria mandated in the Évian Accords signed the day before by the French government and the Algerian FLN’s Tunis-based provisional government, formally ending the 7½-year Algerian war of independence and setting the heretofore crown jewel of the French colonial empire on the road to independence 15 weeks later. To mark the occasion, University of Virginia emeritus professor William B. Quandt—a top political science specialist of Algeria since the 1960s—has gathered several short essays and interviews on the Accords, plus links to other resources, and posted them together on the Just World Educational website. Great initiative.

Cambridge University historian Arthur Asseraf has a nice Twitter thread on the Accords. And France Inter had a nice interview on the subject with CNRS historian Malika Rahal, who has just published a major work on Algeria in 1962. If you have a half hour to spare, France 24 English had a debate yesterday, “Algeria 60 years on,” with academic specialists Todd Shepard and Meryem Belkaïd, former French diplomat André de Bussy, and filmmaker-journalist Dorothée Myriam Kellou.

If it grabs you to set aside a few hours and delve into the history of the Algerian war, a five-part 1984 documentary that first aired on Britain’s Channel 4 is available on YouTube: episode 1, episode 2, episode 3, episode 4, episode 5. I watched it on VHS some three decades back and remember it being very good, so recommended it recently to Adam Shatz, who knows the subject and is presently immersed in it for a book he’s writing. After binge-watching all five episodes, he pronounced the documentary to be “truly great.” And if Adam says that’s what it is, then that’s what it is.

Read Full Post »

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

A presidential election is happening in France in three-and-a-half weeks—which is to say, the campaign is now in the home stretch—but one would hardly know it from the daily news coverage, dominated as it is by Ukraine and the actions of Russia’s Hitlerian dictator. E.g. my favorite public affairs talk shows, the excellent C ce soir and C dans l’air (both on France 5), have devoted exactly one segment each to domestic French politics over the past three weeks. We’ve been hearing more about Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskyy than any of the French presidential candidates apart from Emmanuel Macron—and even then—and for good reason obviously.

The Ukraine war has had another consequence for the French presidential campaign, which is to make a Macron victory in the second round—which was already an overwhelming likelihood—a quasi certainty. Marine Le Pen, as it looks today, is the favorite to face off against Macron on April 24th—though a late surge into second place by Jean-Luc Mélenchon is not an impossibility (and personally speaking, I’m hoping for this)—thereby offering French voters the rematch that no one wants, though this time of a candidate of the right—which is objectively where Macron is now situated—versus extreme right, and with Macron winning, though with a narrower margin than in 2017. There will thus be no veritable debate over the really important issues facing France—as Marine LP is not capable of this—and only negative choices for so many voters (I will, along with millions, be holding my nose in casting my ballot for him in the second round).

I had intended to spend this month and next entirely focused on France but, thanks to Vladimir Putin, that plan went out the window. I will indeed have posts on the election but, for now, my attention is mainly on the lands of the former USSR. So instead of going to a movie last Saturday night, I opted to watch Putin’s entire hour-and-a-half speech broadcast (in two parts) on February 21st and 24th (here and here), which was, in effect, his declaration of war on Ukraine—and on the West. If you want to know how the man thinks—and why we are headed for, at the very best, a Cold War far more frigid than the last one—then do take the time to watch the speech (if you can’t bring yourself to do that, you may read the analyses by the NYT’s Max Fisher here and here). There is, to say the least, no possibility of compromise, let alone peaceful coexistence, with Putin and his regime. For the first time in my life, I can say that we—democratically-minded persons with a liberal sensibility—have a truly dangerous enemy in power in a truly powerful state.

If one seeks further insight into Mr. Putin’s Weltanschauung, take ten minutes to listen to this 2016 BBC interview with Aleksandr Dugin, who has been called “Putin’s favorite philosopher” and even “Putin’s brain.” If one is not familiar with Dugin—and one really should be, as he’s a pretty important and influential intellectual and thinker, and not just in Russia (Eric Zemmour and Stephen Bannon are certainly fans)—here are a few articles and papers from the websites of Stanford University’s The Europe Center, the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center, The Conversation, and The Jewish Chronicle. Pure unadulterated fascism.

If you have an hour to spare and want to be both informed and entertained, watch the 2019 debate between Dugin and Bernard-Henri Lévy. Talk about a clash of diametrically opposed world-views. Never have I had such warm sentiments for BHL.

Must-listen podcast discussions from the past week: Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, and Fiona Hill, all with Ezra Klein; and Stephen Kotkin with David Remnick. Also, from a couple of weeks ago, the conversation with Yuval Noah Harari, Timothy Snyder, and Anne Applebaum. You will learn things listening to any one of these.

For those out there who are still flogging the dead horse of NATO expansion—of insisting that this was at the origin of Putin’s action—political scientists Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel (of McGill and Tufts, respectively) drive the nail into the coffin with a piece cross-posted in Just Security and Slate, “Putin’s war was never actually about NATO expansion.” One notes that the leading insister of the NATO canard, the overrated John Mearsheimer, is doubling down, as is his wont, on his insistence, witnessed by his guest essay in The Economist, which is but an updated version of his now famous 2015 lecture on the subject, which has been watched by millions (I was personally unimpressed). Much more interesting than anything the U of Chicago IR realist has to say is Adam Tooze’s piece in the New Statesman, “John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism.”

Those of the Mearsheimer bent—plus many who are not—are advocating formal neutrality for Ukraine, akin to that of Finland during the Cold War. On what “Finlandization” actually meant for the Finns was the subject of a full-page tribune in Le Monde dated March 7th by the Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen, “‘Pour la Russie, l’idéal serait de finlandiser toute l’Europe, et pas seulement l’Ukraine’” (For Russia, the ideal would be to Finlandize all of Europe, not just Ukraine). Here’s the beginning (in English via Google Translate—the French version itself being a translation from Finnish—and edited by me):

In the 1970s, when Swedish television broadcast One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on the novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962), Finland cut off the transmitters in the Aland archipelago so that citizens could not watch this film, which was forbidden in our country. Indeed, our cinematographic committee had refused the authorization visa to this drama which spoke of the penal camps of the USSR. Reason: “anti-Sovietism”.

The Gulag Archipelago [published in 1973] was to suffer the same fate. The president and the prime minister opposed its publication, and the Finnish publishing house of the Nobel laureate obediently acquiesced. To circumvent censorship, the first part of the text was published in Sweden. Distribution was not easy in Finland, where the book was banned from libraries and bookstores.

A few years later, my Estonian mother arrived in Finland by marriage and I was born in a country which had retained its independence, but where “Finlandization” exercised its influence everywhere. This concept invented in West Germany means submission to the will of the powerful neighbor, Finland being then the only Western country held so severely in the iron fist of the USSR.

The influence concerned not only foreign policy but also defense, the economy, the media, art and science. It was undesirable for academic research to poke its nose into a Soviet economy in a catastrophic state, and it was best to avoid topics considered anti-Soviet so as not to jeopardize career prospects. When the customs directorate found that Soviet tuna contained three times more mercury than the authorized limit, it was decided that the rapporteur had interpreted the value “too theoretically”. Similarly, the maritime affairs directorate changed its regulations when the Teboil company, owned by the USSR, put on sale boats that did not pass safety tests.

Our textbooks made us believe that Estonia had joined the happy Soviet family of its own free will, because the educational system followed the historiographical line of the USSR. All of this was based on the Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed in 1948 between the Soviet Union and Finland, and our education directorate was no exception. While the problems affecting the United States had their place in geography books, no negative adjective was ever associated with the Soviet Union.

But it was in the cultural sector that the USSR received unconditional praise. The armistice of 1944 guaranteeing the free activity of the communists, their ideology had no difficulty in spreading in the artistic and educational spheres. Actors who did not sing in unison with the communist line did not land roles.

In Estonia, all this is difficult to imagine: there, under the Soviet occupation, citizens had no choice but to live under dictatorial laws. Finland, on the other hand, was an independent western democracy where leaders were freely elected. Moreover, Finlandization did not need laws: activities contrary to the ambient climate were stifled spontaneously, without any censorship or sanction on the part of the authorities. (…)

If neutrality for Ukraine means this, it won’t fly. Not a chance if Ukraine remains a sovereign state.

The March 2022 issue of Esprit has an excellent article by Jean-François Bouthors, “La vraie nature de l’humiliation russe.” It begins (again, via Google Translate, with a little more editing):

Since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, all commentaries are in agreement in condemning Vladimir Putin. But an unfortunate refrain persists, which is that of the humiliation of Russia by the West and of NATO provocations against it. It is continually repeated by those who had already opposed the sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of the secessionist rebellion in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk; and we can see today how insufficient these sanctions were. This rhetoric of humiliation is not only repeated today by the Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen and Thierry Mariani, by Éric Zemmour, who saw Putin as a true political genius, as by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but it has also been for the past eight years by a part of the French political class, including Philippe de Villiers, François Fillon – who cashed in on it, as it were, by working for big Russian hydrocarbon companies until the war triggered by Putin rendered his position untenable – and, last but not least, Hubert Védrine, who has nonetheless been well-placed to know the veritable situation.

That the Russians have experienced geopolitical and national trauma is obvious. While they were convinced of being the geopolitical equal of the United States, they started to witness the loss of the satellite countries of Central Europe, beginning with the birth of the first free trade union in the entire Eastern bloc, Solidarność, in August 1980. The attempt to quash this peaceful uprising of the Polish population by the imposition of martial law by General Jaruzelski in December 1981 quickly showed its limits. There was no longer any question of Moscow crushing the aspiration of the Poles to regain control of their destiny, as it had done in Budapest in 1956 and in Prague in 1968.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to initiate reforms (perestroika), of which the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 had just shown the dramatic necessity – something that the highest Soviet authorities had been aware of since 1983, by the report by sociologist Tatiana Zaslavskaïa commissioned by Yuri Andropov, when the latter was the boss of the KGB – created a domino effect. While in Russia, an “independent” press opened sensitive files and, in the streets and even on television, people began to speak freely, encouraged by the policy of glasnost, the Central European regimes wavered. A roundtable organized in Poland with the dissident opposition led to the holding of elections, which, while not entirely democratic, could not prevent an electoral landslide and the constitution of a government dominated by activists of Solidarność. In the aftermath, Hungary opened a breach in the Iron Curtain, which was to destabilize the hardline East German regime of Erich Honecker, from which his compatriots fled en masse until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Czechoslovakia fell, then Romania, and so on.

Mikhail Gorbachev and a part of the KGB were not for nothing in this unraveling: for the Soviet leader, it was a matter of weakening the political opposition to his reforms. But his manifest weakness simultaneously nourished other desires, even other appetites. In the Soviet Republics there were hints of autonomy and even independence in the Baltic countries, in Georgia, in Ukraine, in the Caucasus, in Moldova… A painful past came to the fore and sought freedom from the tutelage of Moscow, i.e. from the tutelary authority that was held, in practice, essentially by Russians. In Russia itself, through the figure of Boris Yeltsin, there also arose an aspiration to not simply be Soviets, but to rediscover an older identity. The result was the Belovej agreement (Treaty of Minsk), after the failure of the putsch of August 1991, an agreement concluded on December 8, 1991, between the presidents of the Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian republics: Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislaw Shuchkievich proclaimed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and effectively deposed Mikhail Gorbachev.

In eleven years, the Soviet empire had come apart. It was sinking on its own. The power of the “great Soviet nation”, whose propaganda had never ceased to sing its glories until the end of the 1980s, was reduced to nothing. No shot had been fired, except by Soviet soldiers against Soviet citizens in Republics which had expressed an aspiration to independence… Westerners had almost nothing to do with it and, to tell the truth, they could hardly believe their eyes. They themselves were destabilized by the immediate consequences, as we saw with François Mitterrand regarding the reunification of Germany. (…)

If Russia has felt humiliated as a nation over the past three decades, she only has to look in the mirror.

There have been a number of reports on how Russians are being informed—or, rather, disinformed—by their media (see in particular the podcast with Masha Gessen on this). And then there’s Russian propaganda aimed at foreigners. À propos, the NYT has a report dated March 12th, “What it was like to work for Russian state television: Until RT America ended abruptly, life as a journalist there was ‘actually so normal.'” As it happens, the deputy editor in chief of RT, who is cited in the piece, was a student of mine in 2003, during her semester abroad in Paris (she was a sophomore at George Washington University, majoring in international affairs and economics). She’s bicultural Russian-American—born in Moscow, emigrated to the US at a young age with one of her parents—and was a delightful young woman and very smart (she got an A in the course). We liked one another (her student evaluation of me was stellar, which I know for a fact), reconnecting several years later on Facebook, exchanging comments and friendly, if sometimes contradictory, messages there and on AWAV (as she was in Moscow and at RT). She accepted criticism of Russia but then at one point, in 2014, got very upset at one of my more virulent anti-Russian AWAV posts and the communication ceased. I regretted that but it was probably inevitable. One thing I remember her saying in 2003 was that she thought that democracy and capitalism were great for America but not for Russia, as these weren’t compatible with the Russian mentality. I note that she maintains her fine (apolitical) WordPress blog, Home & Away, which may be found toward the end of the blogroll. Great pics of Moscow.

À suivre.

UPDATE: Michael Walker and Aaron Bastani of the left-leaning Novara Media YouTube channel have a useful 30-minute explainer (March 13) on “The Azov Battalion & Ukraine’s Far Right.” On the general subject, do read Cathy Young in The Bulwark (February 18), “Smear and loathing: A close look at accusations of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.”

2nd UPDATE: Another explainer on the Azov battalion is offered by the Ukrainian Centre for Civil Liberties (March 4), “Euromaidan SOS: honest answers to the most common questions about AZOV in the West.”

3rd UPDATE: Another article by Cathy Young (April 13), in The Bulwark, and a useful one, is on “What really happened in Ukraine in 2014—and since then: A close look at the lies and distortions from Russia apologists and propagandists about the roots of the Ukraine war.”

4th UPDATE: Yet another article by Cathy Young in The Bulwark (April 27): “The bizarre Russian prophet rumored to have Putin’s ear: Aleksandr Dugin hates America and is obsessed with Nazis, the occult, and the end times.”

Read Full Post »

Paris, Place de la République, 5 March 2022 (photo by Arun)

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below]

Friends and family have been asking me for my thoughts on the subject we’re all riveted to and for recommendations of good articles I’ve come across. There’s so much of the latter that I can barely keep up (and including the voluminous output in French). Anything by Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill, and Tom Nichols, to name just a few usual suspects off the top of my head, is clearly worth one’s time. There have been a number of very informative Twitter threads over the past week, notably by former Russian foreign minister (1990-96) Andrei V. Kozyrev and an unnamed FSB officer whose analysis of the current situation in Russia has been translated by Igor Sushko. See as well the threads by specialists (academic and think tank) Thomas de Waal, Ruth Deyermond, Olga Chyzh, and Klaus Richter.

A couple of articles by friends: one on the Institute of Art and Ideas website, “How we got Putin so wrong: Taking Putin at his word,” by Stathis N. Kalyvas, who is Gladstone Professor of Government and fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford, and one of the most brilliant social scientists I know; the other in The Intercept, “Don’t be a tankie: How the left should respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” by Roane Carey, former managing editor of The Nation. As suggested by the lede, “[t]hose who don’t stand in solidarity with the oppressed cannot call themselves leftists,” the target audience of Roane’s piece is left-leaning readers. As it happens, Roane’s salutary POV on the subject looks to be out of line with that of his former employer, as one reads in this Medium post, “The Nation and Putin, revisited,” by Philip Green, Smith College emeritus professor of government and decades-long member of The Nation’s editorial board, but from which he got canned for his POV on Russia-Ukraine.

Dear friend Adam Shatz has forwarded me a piece in New Left Review, “The Russia problem,” by veteran Italian leftist journalist-writer Marco d’Eramo, which, Adam says, has an interesting set of reflections. He’s right about that, though I’m not on the same page with Signore d’Eramo on every last point, e.g. on his holding the NATO expansion at least partly responsible for the genesis of the current crisis. This is a refrain on the left, not to mention on the right and center too, and which, as it happens, was the subject of an exchange I had on Facebook this past weekend with the well-known Algerian political theorist and public intellectual Lahouari Addi, emeritus professor at Sciences Po-Lyon and whom I’ve known for many years (and whose work influenced my own on Algeria in the 1990s), who is very active on FB and with a large following of Algerians. The exchange, which was in French, was prompted by an interview with Noam Chomsky that he approvingly posted (translated on a French website). Here’s the exchange (lightly edited) in English (merci Google Translate).

LAHOUARI: Noam Chomsky, one of the leading intellectuals of the American left, is interviewed in Truthout on the crisis in Ukraine.

ARUN: I find Edwy Plenel’s (excellent) tribune in Mediapart, “Contre l’impérialisme russe, pour un sursaut internationaliste,” more relevant.

LAHOUARI: I find Plenel’s tribune relevant but I was surprised that it did not give the necessary importance to the extension of NATO. Putin is indefensible but it is not NATO that will stop him.

ARUN: On NATO expansion, to set the record straight, this is a red herring and that can in no way explain Putin’s invasion. First, on the initial expansion, whatever the wisdom of it, that horse left the barn 20-25 years ago. It’s a done deal and that, moreover, poses no offensive military threat to Russia. In this respect, even during the Cold War the US NATO troop deployment never posed an offensive threat to the Soviet Union or its Warsaw Pact protectorates. NATO’s posture was purely defensive (whereas the Soviet Union’s was indeed offensive). Second, Ukrainian (and Georgian) membership, despite the Bucharest declaration and whatever Bush and Obama may have said, was/is not on the agenda. It was never going to happen – as, among other things, France and Germany would veto it (and the US was finally not for it either) – which Putin knows full well. What was/is alarming to him is the prospect of Ukraine eventually becoming a candidate member of the EU. This is what poses a threat to his atavistic geopolitical ambitions in Russia’s near abroad.

LAHOUARI: After the collapse of the USSR, NATO should have been dissolved, or at least not sought to expand to the east. The Americans and the Europeans want to extend NATO to the borders of Russia and this is a monumental mistake. They give Putin the pretext to invade Ukraine. In international relations, security is sometimes a feeling, a perception. The powers must not give the other the feeling of threat. There have never been official statements from the Americans and Europeans that they do not accept Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO. On the contrary, they say that a sovereign country has the right to choose its military alliances. Knowing that it is a point of friction, sometimes they let doubt and ambiguities hover. The main victims in this affair are the Ukrainians. Today, they are being massacred by the army of Putin (who is a cynical dictator), and the Americans and the Europeans, instead of going to war to protect them, they send them money and weapons. It’s not sufficient. And why does NATO not declare war on Russia? This is because American and European public opinion – and this is a positive aspect of democracy – will not accept a world war on the grounds of Ukraine joining NATO. Talking about the Ukrainian crisis without talking about NATO is simply superficial. Peace will not be guaranteed by NATO; it will be guaranteed by international law and by the UN, which must be given an authority that it does not have.

ARUN: A few points. First, NATO did not dissolve itself at the end of the Cold War for the simple reason that not a single one of its members wished to do this, and certainly not the Europeans among them, who had been protected by the American nuclear umbrella for four decades and unanimously wanted this protection to continue. In this respect, the Soviet Union/Russian Federation remained a nuclear power after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and with more nuclear warheads than the United States, and in the early 1990s there was no predicting how Russia would evolve politically: if she would become a friendly liberal democracy (unlikely) or a fascistic revanchist dictatorship (which was more likely and is, alas, how things turned out). If NATO had dissolved, European states would have had to dramatically increase their military budgets, and at the expense of social spending – which none wanted to do – and with a reunified Germany no doubt seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, which no other European country would have wished to see (and certainly not France!). The continued existence of NATO and the American umbrella has, it must be said, been greatly beneficial to the Europeans.

Secondly, it is inexact to assert that it was NATO which sought to expand to the east. In point of fact, it was the former Soviet-occupied states – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and then the Baltic states etc – which eagerly sought membership in NATO, not the contrary. Whether or not the expansion was the wise thing to do – and I believe that it was, in view of Putin’s actions – it was not undertaken to threaten Russia. And on Ukraine joining NATO – a bad idea, in my view – this was never going to happen, as I mentioned last time.

As for peace being guaranteed by “international law” and the UN: as Putin, borrowing from comrade Stalin, would ask, how many divisions do they have?

LAHOUARI: Okay, it was not NATO that sought to expand, but it accepted the requests of the Baltic countries and other eastern countries. Did it have to accept them? I see that you agree that Ukraine’s membership is a bad idea, which is the essence of our exchange and we agree. As for Putin, who is the epitome of cynicism and brutality in politics, let us hope that the Russians will get him out and not the military threat. If you haven’t already, see my article published in Liberté on this subject.

ARUN: Happily the Baltic states are in NATO, as this will inshallah dissuade Putin from invading them. But if they weren’t NATO members, I would fear the worst if I were Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian.

On the subject, the excellent University of Washington political theory professor, Jamie Mayerfeld, has an excellent essay cross-posted yesterday on two websites, “NATO, Putin, and Ukraine,” which pretty much settles the matter, and lays waste in the process to overrated IR realists like John Mearsheimer.

On the IR realist crowd and its fellow travelers, The New Republic has a pertinent piece by political scientists Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz, “The American pundits who can’t resist ‘Westsplaining’ Ukraine: John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk.”

In this vein, don’t miss the piece in The Bulwark by Russian-American writer Cathy Young, “Putin’s bogus blame-NATO excuse: The foolishness of accusing the West of practically forcing Russia to invade Ukraine.” Likewise with Eliot A. Cohen’s in The Atlantic, “Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man: Why did so many observers misjudge Putin and Zelensky?”

À suivre, évidemment.

UPDATE: Ukrainian anthropologist Volodymyr Artiukh, in an interview with Bulgarian sociologist Jana Tsoneva, “[e]xplains why the Russian invasion shouldn’t have been a surprise: Vladimir Putin uses the language of ‘demilitarization’ to pursue an aggressive imperial policy against Ukraine.” The lede: “In an interview for Jacobin, a Ukrainian socialist explains the falseness of the Kremlin’s pretexts — and why the war could drag on for years.”

2nd UPDATE: From The Guardian: “20 of the best films to help understand what’s happening in Ukraine: Documentaries and fiction features that contextualise the unfolding horrors in the former Soviet republic, as chosen by researchers at Ukraine’s Dovzhenko national film centre in Kyiv.”

3rd UPDATE: Anne Applebaum published an article in December 2015 in Commentary that is well worth (re)reading: “Russia and the Great Forgetting: If you don’t know your history, you can’t understand what Vladimir Putin is up to.”

4th UPDATE: On taking Putin at his word (subtitle of Stathis Kalyvas’s article linked to above), see the article by Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” dated 12 July 2021.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: