Squandering Its Way to Superpowerdom

“Squandering”: Did the US Secretary of State Grasp the Russian Approach to Budget Spending?
The Kremlin Accused the State Department of Tactlessness and Unprofessionalism, Yet Pompeo’s Remarks Were on the Mark
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
December 13, 2018

padrino.jpgVenezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino gives his thumb up as he sits on the cockpit of a Russian Tupolev Tu-160 strategic long-range heavy supersonic bomber after it landed at Maiquetia International Airport, north of Caracas, on December 10, 2018. Courtesy of Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Russian’s decision to send strategic bombers on a junket to an airport near Caracas elicited a curious reaction from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who publicly expressed his pity for Russian taxpapers, whose money the Kremlin, habitually disregarding the costs, has been spending on its geopolitical moves.

“The Russian and Venezuelan people should see this for what it is: two corrupt governments squandering public funds, and squelching liberty and freedom while their people suffer,” Pompeo wrote.

The Russian Foreign Ministry responded by calling Pompeo’s statement “utterly unprofessional” and even “villainous.” Pompeo’s remarks, which the Kremlin, in turn, dubbed “inappropriate” and “undiplomatic,” were apparently really lacking in nuance: the hardships of Russians, fortunately, cannot yet be compared with the suffering of Venezuelans. But, hand on heart, was Pompeo so wrong when he talked about the losses to the Russian federal budget and lack of oversight?

Russian society has an extremely vague notion about how much the Kremlin’s expansionism has ultimately cost the country. According to calculations made by IHS Jane’s at the outset of Russia’s operations in Syria in autumn 2015, Russia could have been spending as much as $4 million a day. Later, the Yabloko Democratic Party, which is not seated in the Russian parliament, estimated the Kremlin had spent a total of 108–140 billion rubles [between $1.6 and $2.1 billion] on Syria. A more accurate assessment would be difficult to make. Experts doubt that anyone, including the Finance Ministry, keeps tabs on such expenditures. Thus, nobody knows the real cost of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, argues the Gaidar Institute’s Military Economics Laboratory.

The budget’s fading transparency has been a trend in recent years. In 2016, secret and top-secret allocations accounted for 22% of total federal budget expenditures, a record for the entire post-Soviet period, and much higher than secret allocations in comparable countries, according to RANEPA’s March 2015 report on the Russian economy.

Quite naturally, this state of affairs has not improved the quality of the state’s financial decisions. In terms of effective state spending, Russia ranked nineteenth in a new rating of twenty-five countries, compiled by the Higher School of Economics using data from the World Bank and OECD. Since they are not priorities for the current regime, problems with child mortality and life expectancy were among the reasons Russia ranked so low in the survey: the government spends more on the army than on healthcare—4.3% of GDP versus 3.8% of GDP, respectively. In these circumstances, the chances the Kremlin’s strategic projects in the Middle East and Africa (e.g., the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Mozambique) will be decently funded are always much greater than the national healthcare project, which stipulated increased government spending on cancer treatment. The government nixed the plan over summer.

Since it remains largely Soviet in spirit, Russia’s foreign policy has been categorically blind to history’s lessons. The Soviet Union’s exorbitant geopolitical ambitions and support for fringe regimes around the world left the country with a legacy of mostly toxic multi-billion-dollar debts. The process of writing them off has been disguised as a form of international charity or, speaking diplomatically, official development assistance (ODA). According to RANEPA, writing off the debts of developing countries accounted for 35% of all such “international aid” last year or $425 million. It has been the Russian government’s usual way of doing business. Previously, the Russian government wrote off the debts of Nicaragua ($6.3 billion), Iraq ($21.5 billion), North Korea ($10.9 billion), Syria ($9.8 billion), Afghanistan ($11 billion), and Cuba ($29 billion), among other countries. Venezuela risks joining this sad list. Over the past twelve years, Russia has invested a total of $17 billion in the country.

Russia’s Expenditures on Official Development Assistance (Excluding Humanitarian Aid), 2005–2017, in Millions of Dollars. Sources: OECD, Russian Finance Ministry. Courtesy of Republic

Since it was paid for by the Russian federal budget, which has been running a deficit for the last seven years, Russian officials probably did not see the transatlantic flight of its strategic bombers as too expensive. On the contrary, they saw it as a flashy display of Russia’s military prowess and proof of its influence in the region. However, the government of Nicolás Maduro signed off on the stunt. Subject to growing pressure from creditors and an angry, desperate population, it lives day by day. In all likelihood, it will soon collapse, leaving behind a mountain of unpaid bills and unfulfilled obligations to its allies. If this is the case, can we evaluate the Russian government’s action better than the tactless Mike Pompeo did? Probably not.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Andrei Kolesnikov: Hooked on Militarism?

new hope“New Hope. All drug addicts quit using. Some manage to do it while alive.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Where Militaristic Infantilism Leads
Society’s Losing Its Fear of War Is More Dangerous Than What Happens in the Absence of an Anti-War Movement
Andrei Kolesnikov
Vedomosti
November 28, 2018

The “polite people” in the Russian military have taken to ramming ships, shedding their politesse. A military coming out has happened. Either so-called hybrid war has become more hybridized in terms of the variety of its methods or it has become more like good old-fashioned war, involving actual armed clashes. Politically, Russia has become not merely toxic but hypertoxic. A premonition of war prevails among more timid folks, although the footage of the ramming at sea, as painless and triumphal as a military parade on Red Square or a football match (“Crush him!”), still make military operations appear unscary and toylike. We will carry the day in any case, sans victims and blood (ours, that is), as in a cartoon by Putin.

This militaristic infantilism—the loss of the fear of war, the loss of the idea that war is terrible—is the worst outcome of our country’s daily intoxication with the thought of its own greatness for several years running. The army is greatly respected nowadays. People need to trust someone, and the armed forces have bypassed another institution, the presidency, in trustworthiness ratings.

Does this mean Russians are ready for a real war? To put it more plainly, are Russian parents willing to let their eighteen-year-old boys be called up to fight Ukrainian boys just like them? Does anyone understand what they would be fighting for? Is it really all about cementing the nation, “Crimea is ours!” and the personal ambitions of several high-ranking figures in the Russian establishment?

Since 2012, Russia’s collective identity has been built on negative foundations, on awakened resentment, which had been dozing, but had no thought of waking up. The plan has worked quite well. This resentment, however, is verbal and fictitous. Public opinion supported “coal miners” and “tractor drivers” verbally. In Syria, the official army and private military companies fought, or so Russians imagined, at their own risk. The proxy war with the US has gone very far at times, but in the summer of 2018 it did not stop the majority of Russians from abruptly improving their attitude [sic] to the States and the west in general.

But suddenly there is the threat of a real war. On the other side of the border, in the country [i.e., Ukraine] that the Russian imperialist mind never really considered sovereign, a mobilization is underway and martial law has been declared. Is this reality capable of changing popular opinion and rousing Russian civil society, which has a lot going for it except an anti-war movement? No, because so far the war has not been regarded as real.

Identification with the military is the last bullet in the Russian regime’s gun, but it is a blank or, rather, a prop. Exploiting what Russians regard as sacred—i.e., privatization of the memory of the Great Patriotic War [WWII] by a particular group—is a tool that is still in play, but militarism as such has lost its power to mobilize and consolidate Russians. If “German POWs” are marched around Novgorod on January 20, 2019, in an absurd attempt to reenact the NKVD’s Operation Grand Waltz, and on January 29, a military parade is held in St. Petersburg to mark the latest anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, it will not raise Putin’s approval rating from 66% to 80%. Those days are gone. So, the props have been dropped in favor of direct action in the Kerch Strait, but its power to mobilize people is not at all obvious.

You can cynically throw the ashes of those who perished in the Siege of Leningrad to stoke the furnace of fading ratings as much as you want. You can march people dressed up as German POWs round Novgorod as much as you like. When, however, pollsters ask Russians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four what countries they regard as role models, they list Germany, China, and the US. This is not because young Russians are unpatriotic, but because not everything comes to down to the top brass feeding on the poisonous corpse of the Stalinist past. The present day, progress, and visions for the future matter, too.

Can we do it again? We cannot. Nor is there any reason to do it. Infantilized by the regime, Russian society’s maturation will be measured by the numbers of people who are convinced that we cannot and should not do it again.

Andrei Kolesnikov is program director at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Die in Battle and Go to Valhalla”

DSCN3949Russian public opinion? Photo by the Russian Reader

I don’t trust Russian public opinion polls, but the Putin regime, which rigs elections and otherwise tries to every manifestation of public life it does not astroturf itself, has increasingly relied on such wildly dubious methods to monitor the success of its propaganda machine, especially, television, in shaping hearts and minds. So, it must have noticed that a few of the elections it rigged did not go as planned this past autumn, and that Putin’s spurious approval ratings have dropped.

The regime’s response? Ram a few Ukrainian boats in the Kerch Strait to whip up patriotic fervor. It worked in 2014, so maybe it will work again in 2018.

Since there is pointedly no Russian anti-war movement to mobilize public opinion and actual people against any military aggression by the Kremlin, it is hard to say how the Kremlin will fare in the polls after the Kerch gambit. Maybe Putin’s wholly ersatz popularity will nominally shoot up a few dozen points as “Russians” “express” “their” “outrage” over Kyiv’s nonexistent military agression. Maybe, unaccountably, TV viewers will suddenly see through the nonstop war dance that has undoubtedly erupted on all Russian news channels and drop Putin’s rating another few points.

What definitely won’t happen is that millions of Russians will take to the streets to demand the resignation of a would-be president for life whose reign has been marked by military aggression and “patriotic” manipulation of public sentiment since day one.

There were one or two largish protests in Moscow against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine at the very start of that glorious campaign, and that was that. There has never been even a middling protest against Putin’s decisive use of military force against innocent Syrians opposed to the butcher Assad. And on an issue that should have been a cakewalk for the opposition, the so-called pension reform (i.e., raising the retirement age precipitously to save money for military spending), the vast majority of Russians decided to get upset, if they did get upset, in the comfort of their homes, watching the FIFA World Cup on TV, rather than bravinngthe balmy weather that prevailed all over Russia this past summer and showing the government how angry they were.

But popular demonstrations are never just a matter of public sentiment. They are also a matter of political organization. And while nearly all opposition forces in Russia did at least make the attempt to get people into the streets this past summer to oppose the pension reform, they would never risk whatever political capital they had to call for anti-war marches and protest rallies.

Maybe they would be surprised by the turnout if they did call for such protests and put their hearts and souls into organizing them, but that is not going to happen for the simple reason that the unacknowledged, apparently invisible bull in the china shop—Russian imperialism—informs the Russian liberal and leftist “anti-Putinist” views of the world as much it does Putin’s view of the world. {TRR}

Aliyah

aliyah

Canadian professional wrestler Aliyah. Photo courtesy of WWE

It’s really unpleasant to discover that, for no apparent reason and unbeknownst to you, you have been unfriended long ago by someone you really did think of as a friend,

The funny thing is that, two years ago, I translated a dozen or so pages of essays and other documents this particular friend needed for their Fulbright application. I did all of this work literally overnight, with almost no advanced warning.

The friend didn’t think to offer me any money or anything else for my work, but when they did, in fact, get the Fulbright, they suddenly popped up again to ask for free English lessons.

Since I haven’t heard word one from them since then, I assume they and their family stayed in the States.

What happened to the film I had been helping them make for several years is for me to wonder alone about, too.

This is a lesson I should have learned the hard way when A.S. and I held what proved to be a truly savage and unpleasant “solidarity evening” for our old friend the artist B. in 2008 after he was deported from Brexitland, where he had applied, quite sincerely and on impeccable legal grounds, for asylum as a gay man whose life was threatened in his home country.

All three of us were roundly denouced by the rather odd audience in attendance at the erstwhile artists squat Pushkinskaya 10 (now a municipally subsidized arts center) for advocating the international human rights approach to asylum seeking.

The thing to do, we were told in no uncertain terms, was to trick your way into the promised land of your choice by hook or by crook, not to openly apply for asylum and get mixed up with the allegedly politically dodgy types (i.e., anarchists and other No Borders activists) who support asylum seekers in other countries.

Meanwhile, my wife’s cousin M., who up until a few months ago showed no interest in their late grandfather and his Jewishness, has suddenly decided to make Aliyah. The only problem is that his cousin, my wife, is the only living member of the family who knows anything about their grandfather, his Jewishness, and Jewishness in general, and who has kept anything she could pertaining to her grandfather’s life, because she loved him, and because she finds her fascinating multi-ethnic family’s history fascinating.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that politics in Israel has been badly skewed  to the hard right by the huge influx of “Russian Jews” who emotionally, religiously, philosophically, and technically speaking had about as much business making Aliyah as I, a third-generation Scandinavian American, would have.

Naturally, since they have no real business being there or, rather, since they know they fudged their way into the country, they are even more resentful of the Palestinians, the natives brutally shunted aside to make room for their illegitimate millions.

This has been borne out by Likud’s strangehold on power in alliance with Avgidor Lieberman and the other radical right politicians heavily supported by immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The only way out of this impasse is to declare Zionism a “triumphant failure” that did the job it set out to do when circumstances for Jews in the world were desperate. Now that they are much less desperate, Zionism, like “communism” in its own time, can phase itself out, giving way to a single Israeli-Palestinian state where everyone would learn Arabic and Hebrew at school, and to which anyone in the world would be eligible to immigrate if they chose to do it.

Of course, it would be a big mess, but it would also be a lot of fun to the current US tax payer-subsidized disgrace in Israel-Palestine.

But what to do about the alleged right of Russians to immigrate anywhere they choose by any means necessary when, in their majority, they themselves refuse to acknowledge the same rights for non-Russians? Spend enough time in these parts and you will realize that really large numbers of Russians do think quite sincerely and distressingly that Muslim, Asian, and African riffraff should not be allowed to live in their precious spiritual homelands of North America, Western Europe, and Israel, and certainly not in their beloved-and-hated Motherland itself.

I have no cheeky pie-in-the-sky solution to this racist silliness. I do know, though, that it had something to do (minus the racism) with why I lost a real friend. {TRR}

It Was a Joke

rostovpapaRussians do not swallow the regime’s propaganda hook, line and sinker, argues Ivan Mikirtumov, but use it to guide their public behavior. Photo by the Russian Reader

Why the Russian President Made Fun of Russian Propaganda
Ivan Mikirtumov
Vedomosti
October 22, 2018

Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club on October 18, Vladimir Putin told his audience the punchline of what would later emerge as a “funny” joke about nuclear war.

“As martyrs, we will go to heaven, and they will simply croak, because they won’t even have time to repent,” said Putin.

Judging by the overall reaction, the joke has been a success.

The genre of the humorous anecdote, including the political anecdote, was typical of the Soviet period, that is, of a communist dictatorship in the midst of the Cold War. Unlike texts and drawings, anecdotes were an oral genre and, therefore, were relatively harmless to disseminate. The technical difficulties of proving someone had told a joke made it a less than reliable tool for snitching on other people. This sometimes had to do with the content. If you wanted to inform on someone who had told you a joke about Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, the KGB, the Politburo, etc., then likely as not you would have had to quote in writing what you had heard or, at any rate, admit you knew the joke. Under certain circumstances, however, this knowledge could be used against you.

In post-Stalinist times, people were rarely punished for telling jokes. Jokes were widespread in Soviet culture, achieving exceptional heights of wit and observation. Jokes could be used to track public opinion, since they reflected society’s critical self-consciousness. Jokes were a form of feedback, but by virtue of its unique incompetence the Soviet regime ignored them, too.

Everything dangerous, hostile, evil, harmful, stupid, and meaningless is made into a figure of fun when it fails and falls through. People do not laugh at things that are huge and horrible until they are rendered pitiful, proven weak, and shown to be a sham. Stalin gave people little occasion to laugh, because he rarely failed, but the leaders of the late-Soviet period and the entire Soviet system were perfect targets for jokes and other species of ridicule. It is said Brezhnev was smart enough to laugh at jokes about himself, but it was not something he did publicly.

Putin told his audience the punchline of a joke whose opening line we can imagine as an oral exam question at the General Staff Academy, a question asked by the examiner in a room adorned with framed photographs of the commander-in-chief and the Russian Orthodox patriarch.

“Tell me, how will the outcome of a nuclear war differ for Russians and people in western countries?

Why is it that Putin’s answer to this imaginary question might seem funny? What was he ridiculing?

Mentioning heaven, martyrdom, and repentance in a military context in Russia, a country in which cynicism has reigned supreme, is tantamount to a direct attack on official religiosity, as instilled by the regime, a religiosity that has become dreadfully tiresome to everyone. The notion Russians will go to heaven wholesale, whether they believe in God or not, whether they are religious believers of any denomination at all, and whether they are vicious or virtuous, is tantamount to a scathing parody of religious beliefs.

Nuclear war is the business of the military. It thus transpires souls are saved and people canonized as martyrs at the behest of the Russian army’s top brass. With Putin in charge of it, heaven promises to be something like an army barracks, so the entire satire on martyrdom and salvation was performed as a “humorous shtick” of the sort favored by Russia’s siloviki.

What do generals have to say about the soul’s salvation? They say what they are supposed to say, as they gaze at the patriarch’s framed photograph on the wall.

Recently, General Zolotov and the two heroic Russian tourists who took a trip to Salisbury this past March found themselves in the limelight nearly at the same time. We can easily imagine these men holding forth on heaven, martyrdom, and repentance. Putin’s joke was clearly a sendup of the symbiosis between state-imposed religiosity and militarism, a crucial concept in current Russian agitprop.

It is short step from a joke like this to jokes about Orthodox secret policemen, monarchist communists, sovereign democracy, the Kiev “junta,” the US State Department’s vials and cookies, and ritual murders, performed by Jews, of course, on Orthodox babies (and the tsar’s entire family in the bargain), and so on. During the years of Putin’s rule, a whole Mont Blanc of drivel has sprung up, and whole hosts of freaks have come out of the woodwork. It is simply amazing there are still so few jokes about Putin and Putinism in circulation, but now, I imagine, things will kick off, since the main character in these jokes has taken the bull by the horns.

This does not mean, of course, that, by artfully telling his joke, Putin meant to take the piss out of himself and his regime. We are dealing here with the long-familiar militarist bravado summed up by the saying “Broads will give birth to new soldiers,” with the teenage frivolity typical of the siloviki, a frivolity they enjoy acting out.

“We’ll wipe the floor with them,” as they would say.

If, however, Putin was publicly ridiculing the concept behind current state propaganda, we are confronted with a bad joke, a bad joke told to the selfsame ordinary Russians who are targets of the propaganda so ridiculed, while the guy who made the cute joke is the same guy who presides over production of this propaganda and benefits from it.

The rules of the genre have been violated, for now it is the audience, the public that has been ridiculed. Clearly, Russia’s ruling elite despises the people it attempts to manipulate, and the propagandists sometimes laugh themselves silly backstage after they have concocted a particularly nimble con.

I don’t think Russians are gulled by the Kremlin’s propaganda. Rather, they register the messages transmitted to them by the regime as signals telling them what to say and do in certain circumstances. This lovely consensus is destroyed when the concept underpinning the propaganda has been publicly turned into a laughingstock, because people who have been pretending in recent years that they take it seriously find themselves in an awkward situation. They have lost face, having themselves been made ludicrous.

How, then, do they answer the question as to why they played along with the regime in its efforts to gull them? The only plausible explanation for this behavior is shameful thoughtlessness, fear, and impotence, things to which no one wants to admit.

Ivan Mikirtumov is a visiting lecturer at the European University in St. Petersburg. Translated by the Russian Reader