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11 November 2017


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Babak Makkinejad

Monotheism does not require a "spiritual absolute", only a unitary theory of substance and either a doctrine of causation or a doctrine of purpose.
The Doctrine of the Fall is an empirical principle based on observation of present and past human societies. It is not a theory.

David Habakkuk

Colonel Lang,

That sums up what I have come to think very well, broadly speaking. Certainly, your account of your experiences with Russian diplomats and intelligence people in the Middle East matches what I found from my very much more limited and indirect knowledge. A big difference, however, was that in Soviet times, people had to talk and write, much of the time, in that awful ‘language of wood’, the Marxist-Leninist ‘Volapuk’ – which isn’t true any longer.

Going back to the history of the ‘Thirties, a further irony is that another my father’s mentors, as a young man, was the head of his college, Montagu Butler – who was the father of one of the arch-appeasers, R.A. Butler, and himself a convinced supporter of Chamberlain’s line. None of this was surprising, because the elder Butler, and his brother were ‘old India hands’ – both had been governors of Indian provinces.

This is not simply irrelevant, because the post-war notion that ‘appeasement’ is inherently cowardly and stupid is actually simply wrong. Quite rightly, the Butlers were were strongly committed to the ‘appeasement’ of Indian nationalism, and thought that Churchill’s approach was likely to turn a difficult but manageable situation into an utter catastrophe.

There was nothing inherently rational in reading European realities in the same terms – indeed with any other German leader than Hitler, including other Nazis, like Goebbels and Goering, Chamberlain’s strategy would probably have worked.

As to both Hitler and Stalin, the evidence about their actual agendas was inherently ambiguous. The central failure of the Chamberlain government was a reluctance to question their preconceptions, and think in a hard-headed manner about how one could find out ways of judging what was reality, what pretence.

(Ironically, sometimes indirect means will do it – some of the people who had the best grasp of what was going on, not simply in Berlin but in Moscow, were in the Abwehr and Auswärtiges Amt, and information from both could be tapped, as it was by Sir Robert Vansittart and MI5. Also, one needs historical context – had more been known about the agendas of Ludendorff and the German High Command in the latter stages of World War I, they might have made better sense of ‘Mein Kampf.’)

As to the influence of exiles from Eastern Europe. Ironically, some of the people I have found most useful over the years have had precisely this background. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, a kind of inverse correlation between general intellectual grasp and influence appears to have developed.

Unfortunately, when I heard General-Mayor Larionov talking about Svechin, I had not come across a paper published the previous year by Dr Jacob W. Kipp, of what was then the Soviet Army Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, entitled ‘Mass, Mobility, And The Red Army's Road To Operational Art 1918-1936.’

(See http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/documents/redopart.htm .)

This piece – which I think genuinely brilliant – provided a context which made all kinds of things make better sense. It located arguments about collectivisation which I had read about in Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Bukharin in the framework of debates about military strategy, in which the repudiation of Svechin’s complex reading of Clausewitz in favour of Tukhachevsky’s simplistic one was central.

This I think is of continuing relevance, because the conduct of the war in Syria seems to me very much in the spirit of Svechin’s reading of Clausewitz: a sophisticated integration of military and non-military dimensions, and a careful weighing of when it appropriate to shift from ‘attrition’ to ‘destruction.’

As regards the analysts who had influence, however, the attempts to apply highly abstract theorising to issues of nuclear strategy, in which the Wolhstetters played a central role, were supplemented by the interpretations of Russian writings by Richard Pipes et al. So inappropriate abstraction was compounded by bad history reflecting a certain kind of traumatised Jewish Russophobia.

What all these people failed to grasp was that an unintended consequence of ‘flexible response’ was actually to trigger a shift on the Russian side back to conventional warfighting strategies, which was reinforced when their analysts concluded definitively – and contrary to what Pipes argued – that it was impossible to ‘win’ a nuclear war, even in the most minimal sense.

It was in large measure as a ‘consequential error’ that people like Robert Gates completely misunderstood what the kind of changes that Larionov and people like him were championing were about.

Another example of this inverse correlation between ability and influence is provided by the Lieven brothers. With a perspective informed by their complex ancestry, as descendants of Baltic German servants of the Tsars and Catholic Irish servants of the Raj, both Anatol and Dominic are among the very best British writers on international affairs.

In any rational world, the former would be the principal foreign affairs columnist for a leading British newspaper, the latter regularly consulted by the FCO.

As it happens, both brothers were at this year’s Valdai Conference. The report from Anatol in the ‘National Interest’ having touched on the question of whether necessary economic reforms are either likely or indeed possible under the Putin ‘sistema’, pointed out the utter irrelevance of most Western threat scenarios.

(See http://nationalinterest.org/print/feature/here-what-i-saw-the-valdai-club-conference-22963?page=2 .)

Reporting on his discussions there, and confirming what he has long said and I have long thought, Anatol Lieven argued that the long-term goal of the Russian élite remains good relations with Germany, and the fact that they do not believe a cooperative relationship with Merkel is possible has not changed this.

Glossing his thoughts with mine: Precisely the fact that the Russians have been in essence forced into rebuilding their military capabilities, and reliance on nuclear weapons, makes it all the more obvious that absolutely the last thing they will want to do is anything which would make Germans feel they were a potential military threat.

Putting military pressure on the Baltics or Poland would inevitably do this, for absolutely zero gain. In so doing, it would greatly increase the chances of all Russia’s eggs ending up, as it were, in the Chinese basket . And it might also make Germans think they needed to reconstruct their own military power.

(Putting the point another way: The Russians need to combine as it were showing they can be tigers to the Anglo-Saxon powers, with reassuring the Germans and French that they really only want to be pussycats.)

The younger Lieven went on to make another very interesting observation. Most of the discussion at the conference, he pointed out, was not about Russian-Western relations, but instead ‘climate change, social inequality, technological change, genetic engineering, globalization, migration and national identity.’ On migration, he suggested, the ‘existing Brussels elites’ showed ‘complete witlessness’: which is also my view.

And he then wrote:

‘As a number of participants (including myself) pointed out, compared with these existential threats to existing states, the issues currently dividing Russia and the West are likely to seem to the historians of the future (if there are any) so minor as to be almost insignificant. One hundred years from now, our descendants are likely to look back on disputes over Crimea, the Donbas and Syria with the same combination of incomprehension and contempt with which we regard the European elites who went to war over geopolitical issues in 1914. They, too, failed to see that the real threats to their comfortable, civilized world came from within their own societies.’

As it happens, a short paper by Anatol’s elder brother Dominic, summarising the conclusions of his recent book explaining precisely how this happened, was presented at the conference. It is a book into which I have only so far dipped, but it is clearly a very brilliant work, in large measure precisely because of its author’s émigré background (also, his grasp of the centrality of military history to general history.)

(See http://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/revolution-war-and-empire/ .)

Back in July, meanwhile, the Aspen Forum hosted a discussion entitled ‘Active Measures: The Kremlin Plan to Beat the West Without Firing a Shot’, with Evelyn Farkas, and Julia Ioffe. At the outset, Jim Sciutto asked Ned Price, who is apparently ‘Former Senior Assistant to President Obama’, ‘to play the role of Sergey Kislyak today, which he has agreed.’

(See http://aspensecurityforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Active-Measures_The-Kremlin-Plan-to-Beat-the-West-without-Firing-a-Shot.pdf .)

If Kislyak did not want to attend, it would have been perfectly possible to find credible people who could have put a Russian perspective. Instead, protected from any actual encounter with alternative views, we were treated to helpings of utter drivel, reflecting a culture of ‘empowered victimhood’ which is, unfortunately, not uncommon among former victims of the Russian and Soviet states and their descendants. None of this is at all surprising, but it makes it more difficult to have policy rooted in the realities of the present rather than an often dubious readings of the past.

English Outsider

1. Reflexive control? Is this related to what we now see called "nudge" economics or nudge politics? Or another term for manipulation of public opinion by disinformation or straight propaganda?

2. Might I also ask whether two things are in fact being discussed here? 1, The routine cyber warfare described above & 2, specific Russian attempts to influence the US elections, either by hacking or by social media.

The article and succeeding comments are just amazing. Put it straight into the NYT and it would be worth buying. A lot of the discussion beyond me but I'd like to get the basics straight. That's why I've ventured to put those questions.

On the "deep state" I do believe "Pacifica Advocata's" view, given a little while ago, can be the only correct one. There is no underlying strategy amongst our elites. No NWO project. Just a more or less random series of interactions of interest groups. Some, like the foreign policy establishment, into enough group think and consensual activity to justify the Colonel's collective description of them as the "Borg", but most just doing their own thing because whatever their thing is it's what they believe in, or it's what they're used to, or it pays. Release those interest groups from the last vestiges of democratic control, add a dose of cargo cult economics, and they fall into the "it just happened" pattern we see at the moment. That's not a deep state. It's a deep shambles.

Non-linear stuff, or what used to be called chaos theory. We've fallen into an unhealthy stasis at present as the various sets of forces have resolved into the current pattern. As DH calls it, our Brezhnev era. In the days when computers could be programmed by the amateur I used to play around with all that sometimes. Watching the patterns stay solid while you changed the variables, sometimes for a surprisingly long time, until just one little adjustment too many and the screen would dissolve into random dots again.

Wiki does an article on it and on the related field of catastrophe theory. Most of that's beyond me too. But it can be misleading. All the doom merchants are waiting for the butterfly flapping its wings somewhere that's going to lead to a re-alignment. Maybe. Looking at where we are now I suspect the butterfly is going to be redundant and it's going to be a damned great hurricane that'll do the job. I have a vision of grey men in suits somewhere in the depths of the Central Banks frantically running around like hamsters on a wheel to keep their bit stable. Hope they succeed there, at least. A lot of people seem to be quite attached to their pensions and savings.

On the Russian stuff I heard the BBC reporting on the morning news (8 AM, "Today" on Radio 4, please be aware that this programme may damage your health) that Mrs May has taken another routine bash at the Russians. I found two things interesting. She's very worried about the Russians corrupting our Democracy. Bloody silly - we've done that already so the Russians can take a hike if they think they can improve on our efforts - but it does show she's out of step with Trump. Big surprise.

Secondly, in the list of Russian crimes she forgets to mention MH17. I thought that was possibly interesting as well.


David Habakkuk

I was speaking of Soviet days. I have had little to do with Russians since I left the government. The conclusions I reached about Soviets were the result of seeking them out in the course of my work for the US Government. As you say they spoke in a strangely constipated way as though they were always afraid of revealing too much to foreign people and to each other. But, after a while the person underneath the self protective shell could be understood. pl


your comments are very informative, and they are not easy to read, just like reading for example Hegel, but ultimately very gratifying to understand after careful re-reading. But , comments like yours make SST a future resource for historians. Thank you.


Department of Homeland Security aka Ministry of Pots and Kettles

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