Meme War Does Not A Rising Power Make

russian-octopus

A Japanese take on the Russian Empire before the Russo-Japanese War.

Yes, I know, Fidel Castro died today. In many ways he was the ultimate trickster-figure of 20th Century International Relations and so it deserves mentioning on this blog. You will, no doubt, find many articles on him and his legacy today and in the near future so I feel no need to interrupt the upload of this post as it was originally conceived. Anyway:

From alleged interference in the U.S. election to  the obvious Russian preference for Donald Trump, Russia has factored more into American politics this year than at any point since the Cold War. It is kind of interesting that this is so now, as never before (excluding the Yeltsin era) has Russia been weaker compared to the United States. Sanctions imposed following the de facto invasion of Eastern Ukraine have been surprisingly effective against an economic model largely based on a few core resources and some oligarchs squatting-no doubt in track suits-upon the decaying remnants of once impressive Soviet infrastructure networks. The Democratic Party in particular seems to have absorbed fully the ghost of Joe McCarthy in its desperate attempts to fob off blame for its own abysmal performance. Whether their claims have merit or not (we simply do not yet know for sure), it is apparent that Russia is regarded as such a threat by segments of the American political class that a sane discussion on many foreign affairs is simply impossible to have with them. This also goes for many EUphoric chattering classes in the European Union, who above all fear the future of providing their own defense and having to play political hardball divorced from the Kantian platitudes they now internalize as part of their fundamental values.

Regardless of what Russia might have done in the election, and with cyber-espionage in general, I view these fears as massively exaggerated for a variety of reasons. In addition to the above-mentioned sorry state of Russia from an internal perspective, what we are really seeing here is the panic shown by people in America when they are forced to confront new and different tactics. Russia can no longer rely on ideological appeal or overwhelming conventional military power as it once did, so it has become a pioneer in two other fields, cyber warfare and faddish propaganda. It resembles less the Soviet Union than it does a type of meme-culture hipster who stays ‘ahead’ of the time by being on the avant-guard of witty if substance-free internet commentary. Kind of like an edgier version of J.K. Rowling’s twitter feed or a late night comedy show. Russia is merely the pioneer. Soon, every nation with technological capacity will be doing this. Already, the internet is a place of more disinformation than quality facts. This is why I always recommend that people stick to books, on the ground independent journalism, and academic and/or peer reviewed articles as the primary source of information in their lives. So much of the rest is really just rumor-mongering among various cliquish fads who live the postmodern dream of being able to construct their own hermetically sealed realities.

With less to lose than most powerful nations, Russia seeks to undermine consensus in established alliance networks. It cannot, however, fill the vacuum itself if successful, merely make others more insecure. Even with a chummy presidency in Trump, changing the head of the executive branch does not change America’s core interests or place at the top of the world stage. Trump will likely work with Putin in Syria-a position I have argued the U.S. should adopt for years. More dangerously, he might sell out eastern Ukraine for the sake of not caring about it/good relations with Russia. That would not be a position I would endorse as wise, but it still would not compromise fundamental U.S. interests. The real threat is the break up of the E.U., and even this would still not increase Russia’s influence in overall terms on the continent if Germany, France, and Britain (and a few likely others such as Poland) hung together in a defensive alliance. It is precisely to wound any such solidarity that Russia supports far right movements in western European nations. But, as with Trump, such people will (if victorious) inherit state apparatuses with certain interests that will prevent them from simply compromising their long term interest regarding other powers. The possible exception to this in a worst case scenario is France. Geography means France is not directly threatened by Russia and a powerful eastern ally against the center has often been the objective of historic French foreign policy. The Ottoman Empire was their ally in the renaissance and the Russians after the unification of Germany. This makes France the key to any issues of keeping western Europe stable and out of the Russian orbit, which means this is more a question for the E.U. itself than it is of Russia or America. If western nations can offer something positive rather than the simple Neo-McCarthyite rhetoric and complacent ‘stay the course’ talking points that the Democratic Party in America or the Remain campaign in Britain engaged in, the edgy hipster propaganda of Russia could actually be counteracted.

Perhaps the most important aspect of all of this, and the one most likely to somehow be *shocking news* to your average European liberal, is that Russia’s position in Europe is now no longer its sole concern. The temporary alliance of Russia and China simply cannot last forever as the Chinese make massive inroads of economic and political capital into once Russian dominated Central Asia. While Russian aid still tends to outstrip Chinese, and its military presence is very strong-particularly in Tajikistan-Chinese investments and trade have become the largest single potential factor in the region’s future. Something only likely to increase as the once bullish Kazakhstan begins to contract and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan continue to economically deteriorate. Uzbekistan, the most powerful and independent of the regional states, has long since courted China as a counter-balance to Russia. Only Kyrgyzstan seems firm in resisting Chinese expansion, something which could change. Also important is Russia’s reliance on being an arms exporter. It has no larger single-state market than India. India and China are basically guaranteed rivals due to Chinese chumminess with Pakistan and long simmering territorial disputes. Therefore, unless Moscow is willing to basically surrender many of its dominant diplomatic positions in Central Asia and weaken its relationship in India, it will simply not be able to become a hegemonic power in Europe, much less the world. Even the current (and quite clever) Moscow-Ankara detente is a short term arrangement that overlooked widely divergent objectives to the countries involved-particularly in the Caucuses.

None of this is to say that Russia has not carved out an interesting and potentially exploitable niche for itself-it certainly has. But it is one of many major powers in the world system. Its tactical innovations may be shocking to some now but as with all tactics they can be copied and refined. The overall geopolitical context from which Moscow operates remains, for now, unchanged. What we should perhaps be more concerned with is that other nation’s leadership might copy its internal method of rule by appeal to romantic nationalism, and that ball is entirely in the court of each countries’ domestic politics rather than a neckbearded self-proclaimed expert in Meme War in a St Petersburg basement. It is domestic elites seeing value in the model of the oligarch-mafia state that is the real threat, not the fact that inevitably someone was going to weaponize the internet’s habit of indulging the confirmation bias of low-information voters.

 

 

 

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