Two big errors about Russia

2 Jul

Wars are irruptions of brutal reality into fantasy and the Ukraine war is laying bare the empty complacency at the root of the West’s view of Russia. It’s going to be a cold hungry winter in Europe and in parts of America. Can’t blame Putin forever.

… why is Putin still there? It surely couldn’t be that he is the very popular and respected elected head of state – to suggest that would be to call into question three decades of US and EU think tankery …

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Well I had my moment of joy with Good luck to you, Leo Grande. Now it’s back to my day job of charting the ugliness of a world run by and for the criminally insane. The other day an old school chum now in Cyprus sent me a link to the Good Morning Britain interview featuring ex Formula One boss Bernie Eccleston’s remark – instantly branded “bizarre” – that Vladimir Putin is a ‘first-class and sensible person’ and that he, Bernie, would ‘take a bullet for him’.

In the unquestioning wisdom of the West, subject to what I insist is “the most extensive, the most sophisticated and the most multidimensional propaganda system in history“, calling Mr Putin a sensible person is akin to saying Rolf Harris would make an ideal foster parent. It is de rigeur – for intellectuals with left leanings no less than the bar room sages down at the Dog & Drainpipe – to deem the Russian President the devil incarnate.

It is further assumed, by that same broad church, that the Russian people are brainwashed and bullied – without it every occurring to said broad church that so cosy a belief might itself be a product of brainwashing. When all is said and done, brainwashing works best on folk who pride themselves on an independent mindedness underwritten by critical thinking skills …

You can’t tell idiots they are idiots because they are idiots.

Andrei Martyanov

… and who cherish the delightful notion that their political opinions – like their behaviour in the market place – were arrived at by carefully weighing the evidence.

I replied to my Old Firparnian pal:

I must say, while I’m not sure I’d stop a bullet for him, whenever I see Mr Putin do interviews or speeches, the man never fails to impress. Can’t help but think one of the reasons Westerners get near zero access to the man unedited is that he shows up our lot – not just the Bojos and Trusses but the Macrons, Lagards and Stoltenbergs – for the clowns and pompous philistines they truly are.

Same goes for Sergey Lavrov and their impressive press handler, Maria Zhakarova.

The next day I came across this short Moon of Alabama piece of June 23:

Two big errors about Russia

Helmholtz Smith 1

US and Western policy towards Russia is founded on two serious errors. (A considerable understatement, of course – the past thirty years show that conventional Western ideas of Russia are almost completely wrong.)

But these two are endlessly repeated and, no matter how many times they are proven wrong, they remain the foundational assumptions of the West’s attempts to change or control Russia.

First is the idea that the Russian economy is feeble, unbalanced and dependent on income from the West. The second is that Putin is the chief of a band of thieves who, if made to feel pain, will get rid of him. Sanctions will collapse the first and bring the pain to cause the second. (Another delusion is that once Putin goes, everything will be to the West’s liking – but I did say there was a multitude of misconceptions.)

First let’s consider Russia’s economy. Op-eds that say that the Russian economy is the size of Texas or Belgium or Luxembourg or whatever simply translate rubles into dollars and gallop to their preassigned conclusion. They never ask how big the space program of the country Russia is compared to is, or how many nuclear submarines it makes, or new subway stations, airports or bridges it opens, or whether that country makes all kinds of airplanes and trucks, or how much food it grows and exports or anything else that actually measures a real economy.

As soon as they did, of course, they would see that the Russian economy is much bigger than the puerile ruble-dollar comparison suggests. And, a slightly closer look would reveal that Russia’s economy is almost self-sufficient. But the West carries on confident that Russia is a “gas station with nuclear weapons” and its feeble economy can be easily collapsed. RAND based a whole strategy on “Russia’s greatest vulnerability… is its economy, which is comparatively small and highly dependent on energy exports

They persist in the face of all experience to the contrary. The EU cut food exports to Russia to, I suppose, bring people out into the streets protesting the disappearance of exotic cheese (remember Masha Gessen’s heartbreak about my little cheese?) Russia responded intelligently and is now self-sufficient in food and Europe has lost that market. Biden was going to reduce the ruble to rubble but Moscow effortlessly countered him and the ruble is now tied to energy – one of the strongest foundations a currency can have.

And still the sanctions pile on. But it’s educational – now we know a lot more about what potash is used for and where it comes from. And neon – who knew that was important? Rare earths! Beer bottles! Moscow is only just now starting to counter-sanction and the world is discovering that Russia is a major producer of a lot of important things and if you sanction them, you will find yourself running short of lots of things you’d never heard of. (You’d think anyone who owned an atlas would be able to figure out that a country as large as Russia must be a big producer of most resources).

Biden can blame Putin all he likes, but sanctioning energy and potash is a certain way to drive up prices all round. Biden used to think that Russia had “nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else“. Maybe the people running Russia are better at thinking things out and seeing reality than we thought they were. (Yet another mistaken Western assumption – what is there in the last twenty years that suggests we’re smarter than they are?)

The idea that Russia is a big criminal conspiracy and Putin is the Boss of Bosses is the foundation of the personal sanctions strategy. So-and-so is deemed “close to Putin”, whatever that means, and he’s prevented from going to Paris to buy cheese and his yacht is stolen confiscated. Angry, he sits down with the other capos and decides it’s time the Boss was found face down in a bowl of kasha and blood. The think tankers tell us that Putin is the Chief Thief holding onto power by spreading the loot around, fake elections and making critics disappear. (By the way, wasn’t he supposed to have tried to kill Navalny, where’s the oped savant explaining why he’s still alive?)

All elections in Russia are fake, all opinion polls are fake, all media is controlled by the Kremlin, the underbosses are hurting so why is Putin still there? It surely couldn’t be that he is the very popular and respected elected head of state – to suggest that would be to call into question three decades of US and EU think tankery. Therefore he must be just one more sanction away from being whacked out. And so more names – all “close to Putin” – are added to more lists. But nothing changes.

These two errors run on and on. Russia is now the most sanctioned country ever and Western politicians still think another round of “tough sanctions” will do the job. But the more sanctions it survives, the more sanction-proof Russia becomes.

Wars are irruptions of brutal reality into fantasy and the Ukraine war is laying bare the empty complacency at the root of the West’s view of Russia. It’s going to be a cold hungry winter in Europe and in parts of America. Can’t blame Putin forever.

But the depressing truth is that minds are rarely changed, you have to change the man. How much longer will the West’s leaders outlast their repeated failures?

* * *

  1. If you’re intrigued by the author’s choice of pseudonym, see this encycopedia2 entry.

15 Replies to “Two big errors about Russia

  1. Probably one of the best arguments against various far-fetched conspiracy theories is the constant and long established stupidity of the collective western world. There’s a long litany, from stupid and failed aggression (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.), enormous sums spent on armaments and corresponding dearth of spending on essential infrastructure and social structure (US roads, bridges, public health), bombastic pronouncements with no back-up (NATO, EU, especially currently), so called ‘leaders who have little capability to lead but are ‘popular, (Trump, Biden, Johnston, Stollenberg, Ursula von der Leyen), the almost complete gullibility of the public when fed propaganda. This list could probably be continued for a whole articles length. Under-estimation of Russia is just the latest example of this widespread idiocy and pig-headedness.

    Currently we are experiencing airport chaos, erratic food supplies in supermarkets and shortages of workers. The latest scientific report on climate change and how to avert it has been gutted by the western politicos. Last point – we would need 2.5 Earths for us all to live as Europeans do (although the self-inflicted lack of gas and oil will help that – but not our living standards). Things are going to go downhill fast from now on – if you want your children to survive, send them to Russia or China!

    • The drivers of stupidity and undignified behaviour in Western leaders, most marked over the past forty years, are powerful. Those who truly rule the West do not lack brainpower. Rather, I see two things at work.

      One, their cynicism makes them stupid. Humans have a hard wired need to think well of ourselves. The villain who delights in evil doesn’t exist outside James Bond fantasy. When people with status and power do bad things – tell lies, say, or make venal decisions which cause needless suffering – they have to resolve the resultant cognitive dissonance. The mental acrobatics they must undertake to do so is what makes idiots even of people with strong reasoning powers when these are paired with weak morals and, again, that human need to feel worthy.

      Two, the US ruling class is divided over many things, of which the most important for decades has been whether Russia and China should be confronted together, or one after the other. You’d think that a no-brainer but anyone with eyes open – a small constituency I grant you – can see that the former view has prevailed. Why? Because everyone in deep state and ‘blob’ is stupid? Nope, because – and you can see the same thing playing out in large corporations – the agendas of the different players and local bosses cancel out one another. I could write the book on “the stupid organisation”. It would have nothing to do with the intellectual calibre of its human agents, but with a whole decidedly less than the sum of its parts.

      • “You’d think that a no-brainer but anyone with eyes open”

        Yes, but the no-brainer would in fact be to co-operate with both China and Russia, which would give prosperity to everyone. The basic lunacy of the US elites – or whatever they are – is to think that they can still dominate the whole world using force, subversion etc.

        This seems to be a constant mind set of those in power, going back to at least ancient Athens and Sparta (and presumably before). My explanation is that those driven to power are in fact, mostly psychopaths.

        Anyone not a psychopath can see that co-operation leads to gains for the majority – a ‘no brainer’ for a preferred outcome. However, this almost never happens. Polis, nation-states, ‘democratic’ nations, empires, etc all seem to lead to competetive warmaking. The lunatics are in fact in charge of the asylum.

        • The lunatics are in fact in charge of the asylum.

          Yes. When I began this blog in 2015 I was much more cautious about how I expressed my views (which have in any case evolved further leftwards as the intervening years piled up evidence). I didn’t eschew “ruling class” entirely but carefully rationed my use of it since the term, though entirely accurate, marks out those who use it as “extremists” who on that count needn’t be heard however much evidence they produce.

          I still needed some descriptor, however, and wasn’t happy with the bland “establishment”. I coined “the criminally insane” as an expedient substitute; a placeholder while I found something better.

          But seven years on, though I’ve stopped worrying about alienating credulous liberals by calling a spade a spade and a ruling class a ruling class, it seems I struck gold with that “placeholder”. Half blind, I’d blundered into a powerful truth. Those who rule us are indeed criminally insane .

  2. Excellent Phil.

    I may not be a fan of Putin the bare chested egotist riding his pet grizzly bear, I can’t help put aside such activities when he speaks as a head of state. The same can be said of Sergei Lavrov and Zakharova – both intelligent, reasoned thinkers who have the ability to speak concisely and with dignity so lacking in most of our assinine political clowns.

    The article says it all really. I have studied all kinds of available information on Russia from so many sources and yet none of it is known by virtually anyone you meet believing themselves to be informed because they read tawdry rags or watch the telly!
    Now that China is in 1st place in the PPPGDP and Russia is equal fifth with Germany, you’d think someone with a grain of real intelligence would see the empty rhetoric of denunciation for what it really is – pathetic self serving propaganda, but no, they are too far gone to save.

    We really are going to get a lot poorer and as our standard of living continues to deteriorate, Russia’s will improve, will those who consider themselves “woke” and informed be able to put 2+2 together?

    I very much doubt it.

    • Apropos the question in your penultimate paragraph, I doubt it too. We’re up against the power of narrative here – in “the most extensive, sophisticated and multidimensional propaganda system in history“ – to trump oceans of evidence at every turn.

      Or as Andrei Martyanov put it, “you can’t tell idiots they are idiots because they are idiots”.

      The idiocies I speak of are neither innate nor necessarily permanent. I have to hold onto the possibility that some can be coaxed out of their blinkered worldview. But until that epiphany occurs, complacent somnolence holds sway: most of all over those who “know” they are well informed because they have degrees and doctorates and read the Guardian!

    • Yes, Russia and China seem to have dodged the psychopath trap. I ‘m not sure how driven to power Putin or Xi are. Putin would seem to have got where he is as much through chance as desire. Xi I’m not so sure about. But their distinguishing feature is that both are realists. They don’t believe their own propaganda, only verified facts. This is in sharp contrast to the likes of Johnston, Biden, von der Leyen, et al., who are purveyors of vacuous egotistical and suicidal puffery. It seems that Toynbee may have been right.

      • Yes, I forgot to mention Von der Leyen – in a class of her own, and such delightful ancestry!

        I forgot too to mention Xi Jinping, whose gravitas also impresses. With him too we have to go round the houses to get access uncut. Never fails to amaze me how academics can lecture (literally) on the need for critical thinking and evidence based conclusions – only to forget all they know and come out with such certainty on the manifest shortcomings of a Putin or Xi, or for that matter a Kim, without a shred of hard evidence. Should their students try the same they’d get a flat fail!

        You lost me with the Toynbee ref. I assume you meant Arnold, not grand daughter Polly.

        • Arnold, yes. Although I think I actually meant Spengler – ‘Decline of the West’ – (but I have to admit i’ve only skimmed it). I got confused, and I blame J.G. Ballard, who referenced them both in one of his stories.

          Polly is almost never right, and only in the most anodyne way.

          • It’s 40 years or so since I skimmed Spengler. I’ll probably read him more thoroughly some time in the future, but he seems to have been a bit of a right-wing nutter, if I can be so disrespectful to the great icon. Interesting but thoroughly misguided might be the tentative verdict.

      • “Yes, Russia and China seem to have dodged the psychopath trap.”

        An observation which reminded me of this observation in an RT Op-Ed piece not so long back:

        https://www.rt.com/op-ed/532235-afghanistan-empire-narrative-collapse/

        (Referenced incident here: https://www.rt.com/op-ed/531994-afghanistan-disaster-look-away/ )

        “the US political establishment got so used to creating its own reality and imposing it through media and entertainment, upon its own citizens as well as on foreigners, that it simply doesn’t know what to do when confronted with people on whom this trick doesn’t work – in this case, the Taliban.

        This sort of thinking was on display last week when a prominent “security expert” advised her colleagues to look away from the images from Afghanistan to avoid getting triggered or traumatized – as if what was happening would somehow stop or vanish if they just averted their gaze.

        Nebojsa Malic: RT op-ed. 16/08/2021.

        Keep taking the Red Pill Jams.

  3. “Now that China is in 1st place in the PPPGDP and Russia is equal fifth with Germany, you’d think someone with a grain of real intelligence would see the empty rhetoric of denunciation for what it really is – pathetic self serving propaganda, but no, they are too far gone to save…”

    Susan did you see this comment at MoA today? The poster refers to a study by a French economist which re-revaluates the stats you cite:

    https://youtube.com/watch?v=ssked06Nj28…

    “.. the service sector is today vastly overvalued in the world compared with the industrial sector and commodities.”

    He says that when you adjust for this Russia’s economy is vastly bigger than Germany’s. His estimate is that Russia represents in fact maybe “5% or 6% of the world’s economy”, almost double the size it’s normally estimated at on a PPP basis (statista.com/statistics/271…) This is a fascinating way to look at it and it rings very true.

    This crisis is making us realize that we used to take manufacturing, the industry and commodities for granted, i.e. an antiquated side of the economy compared to shiny new “services”. What we’re going through is leading us to a huge rethink. This will undoubtedly make us conclude that what we used to view as antiquated is much more valuable than we thought.

    Ironically this will force a revaluation of the Russian economy that’s very much in their favor.

    It’s also very interesting to revalue China’s economy through that lens. If we look at the Chinese economy simply based on exchange rates, it is a $17.7 trillion economy to the U.S.’s $23 trillion. However, if we just look at it on a PPP basis we realize it is already an almost $27 trillion economy. This means China’s economy is already close to 20% larger than the U.S.’s:

    “Let’s also revalue it by assuming that the service sector holds much less value than previously thought. The service sector is about 54.5% of China’s GDP (investopedia.com/articles/inves…) which is even less than in Russia (at 56.27%: statista.com/statistics/271…).

    This means that if we roughly apply Sapir’s ratio for Russia to China, we’re in fact looking at the Chinese economy being probably about 30% of the world’s economy on a PPP basis instead of the 18% it’s currently estimated at (statista.com/statistics/270…)!

    All in all, this means that China and Russia’s economies combined are in fact likely about 35% of the world’s economy when taking PPP into account as well as compensating for the over-valuation of the service sector.

    The service sector accounts for roughly 77% of the U.S. economy (statista.com/statistics/270…) and 70% of the EU’s economy. This means that conversely, the U.S. and EU’s economies are probably overvalued today. Consequently, while we used to think that the US + the EU make up about 30% of the world’s economy on a PPP basis (statista.com/statistics/270… and statista.com/statistics/253…) this is probably vastly overvalued since their service sector is such an important share of their economies.

    To conclude all this might end up making us realize that the Chinese + Russian economies combined are in fact far larger than those of the West.
    “Maybe as much as 40% larger if we assume US + EU is in fact maybe just 25% of the world’s economy vs 35% for China + Russia…”
    .

    • I’ve just skim read the Sapir piece and will look more closely at it, and others in the same vein, as soon as time allows.

      What I see already, however, is another instance of the massive contradictions within the capitalist mode of production. Since capital must chase the highest profits, it has flowed north to southwards in its monopoly and rentier forms, while profits flowed in the reverse direction. This has been underpinned by armed might, and by the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, cemented after the seventies OPEC crisis by the petrodollar system. So long as these underpinnings held, western imperialism could send manufacturing to the sweatshops of Asia while Mrs Thatcher began the destruction – continued by Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, May and The Clown – of British industry in favour of making London the financial hub of the world.

      Both underpinnings have been weakened by America overplaying its hand in the brief post 1990 ‘unipolar’ world, and accelerated by the Ukraine war. Every effort to weaken Russia has instead served to strengthen (a) her and (b) her ties with China. (Never mind the bareback horse riding poppycock. The more potent metaphor is of Mr Putin’s judo using the enemy’s strength against him.)

      If people would spend less time reading the drivel put out by Guardian, BBC, Economist, CNN etc – and more the work of real economists like Michael Hudson – they might wake up to how seriously the West is in decline. And to how dangerously crazy this makes the lead imperialism.

      (Sorry: a tad garbled. I hope the gist is more or less clear.)

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