The Russian Game

“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Lord Palmerston

I’d like to take a few minutes out of the all-Biden-all-the-time coverage here and focus on the ongoing dismemberment of the Republic of Georgia by Russia. The purpose is not to dwell on that tragedy and the daily decreasing chances that the Georgia of three weeks ago will reemerge and the utterly flaccid response of the United States and the European Union but to look at the broad sweep of geopolitics.

The situation, as I see it, is less one of August 1914 than one of October 1938. While war is unlikely in the near term, I think that unless the Georgian crisis is satisfactorily resolved (by that I mean a return to status quo ante) then a limited war with Russia over Ukraine or the Baltic States becomes a real eventuality in the next few years.

The danger resides in the fact that Russia and the United States are approaching the problem from diametrically opposed paradigms which renders the motivations of each side unclear and increases the chances of a fundamental misunderstanding of motive evolving into war. As a point of departure I’ll use an article by the pseudonymous Spengler of the East Asia Times called Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess which lays out the Russophile case as well as I’ve seen it made.

Let’s start with a misconception in Spengler’s premise:

The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards. A deadly miscommunication arises from this asymmetry. The Russians cannot believe that the Americans are as stupid as they look, and conclude that Washington wants to destroy them. That is what the informed Russian public believes, judging from last week’s postings on web forums, including this writer’s own.

Clever does not equal smart or astute. And American politicians aren’t stupid. This argument goes hand in hand with the Democrat meme of Bush being stupid while they are smart but have to deal with the cognitive dissonance of getting their collective butt handed to them at every turn. If Russians are clever and we are stupid why did the Soviet Union cease to exist? Why are we leading the G8 while Russia is there as a sop to its pride?

There is no doubt that politics in Russia is a blood sport but at the same time there is no proof that this type of environment produces much more that a highly developed and extremely feral survival instinct. Granted Russian politicians have the ability to actually kill you but it doesn’t tend to produce politicians who are any more adept at playing for the long term than our system. I would argue just the opposite.

Spengler sees Russia’s run at Georgia as not only logical and predictable but justifiable and an action that we should support.

Russia is a dying state. Abortions are endemic, 130 abortions for every 100 live births,, with the average Russian woman having 2.4 abortions and ultimately being rendered sterile through scarring. The real rate of HIV/AIDS, if known, would rival that of sub-Saharan Africa. Drug addiction and alcoholism are national pasttimes. It is the only industrialized nation where the life expectancy continues to drop,, and Nick Eberstadt has said to put this is context one must consider that German and Soviet life expectancy continued to increase during 1939-1945.

It probably has reached the point where European Russians cannot recover no matter what action they take domestically.

Under Putin, the Russian government introduced an ambitious natalist program to encourage Russian women to have children. As he warned in his 2006 state of the union address, “You know that our country’s population is declining by an average of almost 700,000 people a year. We have raised this issue on many occasions but have for the most part done very little to address it … First, we need to lower the death rate. Second, we need an effective migration policy. And third, we need to increase the birth rate.”

Russia’s birth rate has risen slightly during the past several years, perhaps in response to Putin’s natalism, but demographers observe that the number of Russian women of childbearing age is about to fall off a cliff. No matter how much the birth rate improves, the sharp fall in the number of prospective mothers will depress the number of births. UN forecasts show the number of Russians aged 20-29 falling from 25 million today to only 10 million by 2040.

Russia, in other words, has passed the point of no return in terms of fertility. Although roughly four-fifths of the population of the Russian Federation is considered ethnic Russians, fertility is much higher among the Muslim minorities in Central Asia. Some demographers predict a Muslim majority in Russia by 2040, and by mid-century at the latest.

This is where Russian interest in the “near abroad” comes in. The “near abroad” holds millions of Russians who, somehow when they are beyond the grasp of the clever politicians in Moscow, procreate.

Part of Russia’s response is to encourage migration of Russians left outside the borders of the federation after the collapse of communism in 1991. An estimated 6.5 million Russians from the former Soviet Union now work in Russia as undocumented aliens, and a new law will regularize their status. Only 20,000 Russian “compatriots” living abroad, however, have applied for immigration to the federation under a new law designed to draw Russians back.

That leaves the 9.5 million citizens of Belarus, a relic of the Soviet era that persists in a semi-formal union with the Russian Federation, as well as the Russians of the Western Ukraine and Kazakhstan. More than 15 million ethnic Russians reside in those three countries, and they represent a critical strategic resource.

And Russia has been fairly liberal in creating Russian citizens in their neighbors by granting citizenship to basically anyone who asks.

In Spengler’s view we need to simply let Russia have its way because it is in our long term benefit to do so:

The place to avert tragedy is in Ukraine. Russia will not permit Ukraine to drift to the West. Whether a country that never had an independent national existence prior to the collapse of communism should become the poster-child for national self-determination is a different question. The West has two choices: draw a line in the sand around Ukraine, or trade it to the Russians for something more important.

My proposal is simple: Russia’s help in containing nuclear proliferation and terrorism in the Middle East is of infinitely greater import to the West than the dubious self-determination of Ukraine. The West should do its best to pretend that the “Orange” revolution of 2004 and 2005 never happened, and secure Russia’s assistance in the Iranian nuclear issue as well as energy security in return for an understanding of Russia’s existential requirements in the near abroad. Anyone who thinks this sounds cynical should spend a week in Kiev.

But just because Russia wants to do something it doesn’t necessarily follow that what they want to do is right, wise, productive, or helps out anyone but Russia–or even truly helps out Russia. A foreign policy that has essentially become a Tartar slave raid writ large is hardly something we should be associated with or turn a blind eye to regardless of how righteous Putin thinks the act is.

Incredibly, in Spengler’s view we have brought this on ourselves by betraying, of all people, Vladimir Putin.

On the night of November 22, 2004, then-Russian president – now premier – Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding “Orange” revolution in Ukraine. “They lied to me,” Putin said bitterly of the United States. “I’ll never trust them again.” The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine. They underestimate the stupidity of the West.

If this account is true it simply demonstrates that Putin has managed to raise self delusion to an art form. Of all the major powers, the United States is probably the most transparent in its goals and objectives. People who don’t know what we will do in a particular set of circumstances simply aren’t paying attention. The fact that the Russians were shocked by our support of either the Orange or Rose Revolutions gives the lie to the notion that their politicians are clever. Even a pathetic internationalist like Jimmy Carter, or GHW Bush, would have been flayed alive, figuratively, if they had not supported a popular revolution that replaced a corrupt, Russian dominated kleptocracy with at least the chance of a Western leaning democracy. You don’t have to have a PhD from Princeton to figure that out.

According to Spengler, and I would agree, the danger is that we are playing fundamentally different games:

Think of it this way: Russia is playing chess, while the Americans are playing Monopoly. What Americans understand by “war games” is exactly what occurs on the board of the Parker Brothers’ pastime. The board game Monopoly is won by placing as many hotels as possible on squares of the playing board. Substitute military bases, and you have the sum of American strategic thinking.

America’s idea of winning a strategic game is to accumulate the most chips on the board: bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, a pipeline in Georgia, a “moderate Muslim” government with a big North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Kosovo, missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, and so forth. But this is not a strategy; it is only a game score.

Chess players think in terms of interaction of pieces: everything on the periphery combines to control the center of the board and prepare an eventual attack against the opponent’s king. The Russians simply cannot absorb the fact that America has no strategic intentions: it simply adds up the value of the individual pieces on the board. It is as stupid as that. But there is another difference: the Americans are playing chess for career and perceived advantage. Russia is playing for its life, like Ingmar Bergman’s crusader in The Seventh Seal.

Here is where Spengler goes wrong. First, he assumes chess is the actual game being played and therefore skill at chess is dispositive of something. Secondly, he denigrates our actions by saying we’re playing Monopoly. We aren’t. We’re playng poker.

Unlike chess, poker has multiple players acting independently — you only need enough cash to buy in. Every hand is a potential winner or loser depending on the skill of the player and luck. There is an ebb and flow to the game, you can suffer setbacks because you are playing for the long haul.

This brings me back to the quote by Lord Palmerston. Our permanent national interest lies in free peoples and free markets. If there was one thing that 9/11 proved it was that stability based on totalitarian regimes controlling their populations is a fatal mirage. Our interests to not lie with a dying Russia snapping up ethnic Russians on the off chance that it may buy some time for another totalitarian regime. Our interests are not now, nor can they be, congruent with what the current regime in Russia perceives as its national interests. We may not kill each other over the difference but we cannot enter into a “strategic alliance” with them that brings us any benefit.

Simply put our strategic interests vis a vis Iran will not be furthered through Russia’s good offices. Our strategic interests there probably require several hundred heads on pikes being paraded through the streets of Tehran. Russia is simply not going to assist in that.

A couple of final observations on geopolitics as poker.

Russia’s disappointment, according to Spengler, in not getting their desired “strategic alliance” is explicable only in the context of someone has never played poker. You learn a lot about a man’s character at a poker table. What we have learned about the Russians is that they are simply not a reliable partner under any circumstances. From their unilateral decision to involve themselves in Kosovo, to their providing Saddam Hussein with advisors in air defense and unconventional warfare on the eve of the Iraq War, to their supremely unhelpful actions in regards to Iranian nuclear weapons, to their recent actions in Georgia and threats against Poland they have demonstrated that their basic objectives and worldview is simply incompatible with that of the United States. When one looks at their demographic nosedive, one has to ask why a poker player would want an alliance with someone who doesn’t know how to play and is obviously going to be out of the game in a few hands.

The game also has rules and social expectations. No matter how good you are at playing the other players may be reluctant to let a real asshat have a seat at the table. That’s why Bobby Fisher played chess and not poker. The corollary to that is cheaters get their ass kicked. Right now Putin is playing the role of the loudmouthed drunk who has been trying to hide cards and short the ante. The rest of the players have been ignoring him because he’s doing no real harm. But they are starting to loose their sense of humor.