Dissent Of The Day

A reader writes:

What surpises me most about your Russia coverage is how terribly biased it is. Although your coverage of the Middle East, for example, is quite evenhanded and features voices from left, right, center, and everywhere in between (i.e. those such as Glen Greenwald that elude easy categorization) your coverage of Russia consists almost solely of thinly researched and highly emotive missives from the wack-job right. Leon Aron is a proud and unapologetic member of an intellectual school (i.e. neoconservatism) which has been disastrously wrong about pretty much everything over the past decade. After getting Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Israel so horrifically wrong, why would you expect the that the neocons would get Russia right?

In fact, the neocons Russia "analysis" has many of the same flaws which marred their analysis of the Middle East and led to the ongoing disaster in Iraq. These flaws include:

1) a pervasive discounting of structural factors  (all of the post-Soviet countries are in a really rough economic state right now, Latvia's GDP is on pace to shrink by 20% this year and Ukraine is inches away from bankrupcy! Listening to the neocons, you'd think Russia is having a uniquely hard time. In fact, if you look at the data it's coping pretty well for the region)

2) a corresponding overemphasis of personal factors (the idea that Putin is the problem, and that, somehow, Nemtsov would have solved everything had Yeltsin made him kleptocrat-in-chief. Russia is still deeply deformed from the Soviet disaster, and virtually any serious scholar (and, given his embarassingly sycophantic biography of Yeltsin, Aron is not a serious scholar) recognizes that Putin is significantly more progressive, particularly on economics, than the median Russian)

3) a tendency to glorify totally obscure and extremely unpopular pro-Western  "liberals" and paint them as saviors of the country (i.e. the absurd campaign to make Garry Kasparov the next Lech Walesa. Kasparov is such a fringe figure that him becoming president of Russia would be something like Gary Busey becoming the next president of the United States, it simply isn't going to happen)

4) flat-out-lies, such as the idea that Russia started the war in Georgia (this point isn't even debatable, whether Georgia was goaded into starting the war is a different matter)

5) an unwillingness to recognize the distinctness of a region's cultural, literary, and religious heritage (Russians, for better or worse are not "just like us." They're not aliens, but they come from a very different background. Neocons refuse to believe this, and insist on seeing Russia as an America-like country that has had some tough luck)

You can probably see that these all have clear parallels in the neocon view of the Middle East, with Saddam filling in for 2, Chalabi for number 3, and the mystical Al-Qaeda-Iraq connection for 4.

This is not to make Putin out to be some poor misunderstood "victim," for he is anything but that. However most of your writing seems to be suffused with an understanding that, in any given country, radical change is almost never possible and that, when it is possible, it is almost never desirable. Russia has had a deeply dysfunctional and resource-dependent economy for as long as anyone can remember, and its current extreme over reliance on oil and gas goes back to at least the 1960's. Why would you expect this to change in the span of 8 years? Could more have been done during the "unique" (though considering how quickly oil prices have rebounded to over $70 a barrel it remains to be seen whether the high energy prices of 2007-2008 were really all that unique) period of the 2000's? Perhaps.

But look at "pro-Western" and "democratic" Ukraine. What did they base their economic growth on? Computers? Electronics? Consumer durables? No, steel. Why did they do this? Because they are nefarious and evil? No, they did it for the same banal reasons that the Russians have focused on oil, gas, and metals: because they had a lot of Soviet-built excess capacity that could quickly and cheaply be brought back online if the prevailing market conditions made it profitable to do so. It's actually quite odd to see a cheerleader for capitalism such as Leon Aron suggest that Russian companies avoid doing what they are good at in order to suceed in what they "should" be good at.

Look, I'm not a Putin acolyte, but the neocons have tried to write Russia out of history before only to be very rudely surprised. Russia is, in may ways, still a rather nasty country, but I would think that conseratives such as yourself would recognize the very real differences between a performance-based dictatorship such as Putin's (a type of regime which we have had no qualms about supporting back in the day) and the ideology-based totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. Russia today has to worry about all sorts of thigns (stock indices, exchange rates, interest rates, capital flows) that the Soviet Union simply didn't. If you siphon out the rhetoric, the Russian leadership has behaved extremely rationally and conseratively. In viewing the Russian leadership's banal and predictable pursuit of self-interest as evidence of ideologically-induced madness, the neocons are making the same mistake with Russia that they do with virtually every other country.