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An amoral solution to Russia’s existential crisis

A few days ago, the venerable Glenn Reynolds linked to an article published in the Asia Times titled Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess. The article, written by pseudonymous columnist Spengler, is something of an interesting read, as it offers up a comprehensively explained and intriguing motive for the former superpower’s recent machinations in Georgia.

Many Western commentators ascribe the recent Russian belligerence to a newly acquired military ability able to act upon the yearning of its current leadership which is trying to recapture the glory days of Soviet power. A good dollop of credible force applied carefully should make Russia’s tiny neighbours wake up to the fact that they are kissing the wrong butt. Spengler contends that the truth is rather less vainglorious; Russia’s recent adventures represent moves in a long-term game in which the country’s very survival is at stake.

After all, it is – as any moderately informed individual knows – facing what present-day figures predict to be a near total demographic collapse in the coming years. Russia is, says Spengler, exercising a grand strategy to eventually absorb the Russians and other ethnic populations living in the nations in its so-called “near abroad”, declaring them all Russian and thus halting the country’s disastrous population decline. This will also ensure the minority status of the Muslim population in Russia (the only ones who are breeding) and, lo and behold, win the survival of the nation in the eyes of those pulling the levers in the Kremlin. It is an insightful alternative analysis of what is driving the crisis in Georgia – not groundbreakingly so, as I am certain a number of Samizdata contributors and commenters could have provided us with much the same explanation – but nevertheless well worth consideration. Beyond this, however, the article is boneheaded. Of course, the reader immediately perceives the author’s withering contempt of American foreign policy – and the refined superiority of that of the Russians – just by reading the title of the article: (simple) Americans play (the simple game of) Monopoly, while (cerebral) Russians (that most cerebral of games) chess. This metaphor is rather silly and falls apart quite easily after examining the facts, however one must delve into the article to fully comprehend just how ridiculous Mr Spengler’s representation of the tensions in Russia’s “near abroad” is. One also has the added bonus of marvelling at the astonishingly amoral and historically myopic remedy Spengler proposes to pacify the unfolding crisis. All in good time. Firstly, let us have a poke and a prod at the myth of the Russian leader as über genius that Spengler somewhat artlessly constructs:

The fact is that all Russian politicians are clever. The stupid ones are all dead. By contrast, America in its complacency promotes dullards

This is rank hyperbole, especially the bit about all the stupid Russian politicians being dead. Certainly, there were periods of significant attrition in post-Soviet society, when the present crimina – sorry, commercial – elite was establishing itself by expropriating the wealth of the fallen Soviet Union. And no one is denying that the undoubtedly highly intelligent Putin has sidelined those politicians (perhaps even some smart ones, as well as the dumb) who sought to stymie his consolidation of autocratic power. But Mr Spengler suggests that Putin, his former masters and his subordinates had all their vanquished, lesser rivals put to the sword! Of course, there are most probably politicians who met with a sticky end and just happened to oppose Putin and his new political order. It would also not surprise me that, even after the reign of the country’s most notorious butcher ended, the odd political obstacle in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia suffered an untimely demise at the hands of an unidentifiable but highly lethal aggressor. However, Spengel makes it sound as though Stalin has taken leave from the absolute depths of hell, where he is undoubtedly residing, to again sweep through Russia’s political class, this time weeding out the dim-witted as opposed to the Trotskyites. This is a misleading assertion deployed to convince the reader that the sinister, Darwinian ruthlessness of the current Russian leadership will undoubtedly overcome its clueless and ham-fisted American opponent.

No doubt that plays well in certain circles, where a good spot of America-bashing never goes unappreciated. Et tu, Mr Spengler? I mean, we have seen some folk question the intelligence of American foreign policy, only to rather spectacularly eat their words when events did not turn out as predicted. Consider when Ronald Reagan – widely derided as stupid, even in the present – saw through the accepted wisdom of the day and outmanoeuvred the Soviet Union, supposedly primed and optimised by socialism’s best technocrats, but all in vain. The anticlimax of its demise was thunderously louder than its feeble implosion. Bringing the rotting hulk of the Soviet state down also rather impudently snuffed out the inspiration of countless highly intelligent folk who no doubt considered (and consider) themselves to be easily the intellectual superior of that improbable President; a man who was fit for little more than making Bedtime for Bonzo sequels, a man who would have been better advised to leave the business of statecraft to a more suitable candidate, such as his predecessor. One would think that when the US won the Cold War so decisively, the Spenglers of this world might have started to realise that just because they cannot perceive a coherent strategy behind American action, the Pavlovian assumption that one does not exist may be inaccurate. But no, our fearless columnist insists on toeing the ever-popular “doltish, clueless America blundering about on the world stage” line:

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.

And that is all there is to it, folks. American “hard power” foreign policy stripped naked; its writhing, muscular, unfocused imbecility revealed. All right, enough of the sarcasm. I concede that I do not have an exhaustive knowledge of declared US foreign policy imperatives, and I am the first to admit that my interpretations as to why a base is built here and not there should not be considered authoritative by any means. Still, I am fairly confident that there’s rather more to it than the “hotels on squares” Monopoly metaphor offered above. Spengler interprets US base building in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, along with the encirclement of Russia by pro-Western neighbours as the US clumsily and unnecessarily creating a potentially dangerous strategic opponent. My interpretation is that the US considers that Russia could credibly develop into a strategic threat to the US in the long term, regardless of whether the US turns a blind eye to Russian aggression in its region, thus it builds bases and cultivates alliances along Russia’s border.

No doubt, Spengler would consider the above a ridiculous notion. Russia and the US are so far away from each other. There is no reason for any strategic enmity if each country stays out of the other’s way. I am not sure. Geopolitical realities have a habit of shifting over time. More importantly, it is not as though Russia doesn’t have form when it comes to aggressing against others near to, and far from, its borders. What happened after the Americans, the British and the rest of the Allies helped the Soviet Union eliminate the hideous bedfellow that initially enabled the Soviets to devour Poland, before rather inconveniently metamorphosing into the motherland’s most memorable Great Existential Threat? But that was then, and this is now. So let us examine the soothing balm Spengler prescribes to salve all that nasty chafing and inflammation between the US and Russia, so that the latter’s present-day Great Existential Threat can be solved, to the overwhelming benefit of all. Oh, except for the Ukrainians, who will henceforth be known as Russians, if Mr Spengler has his way:

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.

Well, I am back from my week in Kiev and I did not manage to find your argument, which was sadly absent in your article, Mr Spengler. What is one supposed to discover in Kiev that would destroy that country’s sovereign rights and make Russian conquest acceptable? Why is Ukraine’s self-determination “dubious”? I agree that Russian cooperation over Iran and energy supplies would indeed be a valuable prize, but then again, so is the credibility of a US security guarantee. Hard to make alliances without it, and in this circumstance there can only be one choice.

Anyway, for the sake of argument, let us take Spengler’s advice and give Russia a free hand in its “near abroad”. The US sees the light and throws its allies in the region under a bus. Russia takes much of its former empire back, thus defusing – or more likely deferring – the population time bomb by the forcible “Russofication” of the people living in the former nations that made up the newly annexed “near abroad”. Think of it as lebensraum, although the raum is not of such great importance this time around, more so the untermench living on it (well, they must be untermench in the eyes of the Russians if it’s acceptable to steal their country). Of course, dear old Greater Mother Russia will still be a lousy place to live for most, yet its leaders will be too busy gobbling up other countries to do anything about that. Let us tease this out a little more. The factors that fuel the Russian population’s dramatic David Copperfield impersonation will continue to make themselves felt, but with a vengeance – what with the huge influx of war-ravaged, miserable, press-ganged “Russians” and their no doubt limitless appreciation of their new nationality. I see no reason why the population will not go into freefall again. Never mind, Russia will have some fresh new neighbours to impose its “existential requirements” upon when these resurface.

Another troubling gap in Spengler’s argument is that he does not attempt to explain his assumption that Russia has an absolute right to conquer its neighbours and assimilate the citizens of these countries to avert its impending population collapse, beyond sneering at their recent sovereignty and the quality of their democracies. These largely ad hominem remarks, which he does not bother to expand upon, have not convinced me as to why Russia should be allowed to destroy another nation to repair its own, especially considering that Russia is wholly responsible for its present misfortunes. The prevailing deep malaise that compels millions of Russian women to abort their unborn children rather than bring them into the world, men to drink themselves into the grave several decades too soon and refugees to get the hell out by any way they can is clearly – tch, what is that term so beloved of the American left? Ah, yes, blowback – from a seventy year long experiment with the most disastrous and destructive political system the world has seen thus far. Not only did the Russian leaders force their people to endure this nightmarish, mass-murdering tyranny; they also foisted it onto millions in many in other countries and tried to impose it upon all the world’s people. Of course, the Russian communists eventually failed, thanks largely to the superior productive power of the vastly more moral alternative; a random network of free individuals making choices voluntarily in a market, but the toxic remnants evidently still remain in Russian society. This is unfortunate for the Russians. However, I am struggling to comprehend why on earth the US, the world capital of the enormously powerful system that slew the Soviet monster, should compromise its morals and throw its allies to the wolves to save Russia from demographic destruction that the nation brought upon itself.

Spengler makes some interesting points in his article, but ultimately his justification of Russia’s designs upon its neighbours is morally bankrupt, and the solution he has devised for the West to undertake to reduce the tension between them and the Russians while Russia “solves” the problem it has brought upon itself is unconscionable, too. This is further emphasised by his inability to perceive the evil inherent in a government willing to invade its neighbours and forcibly assimilate the people living there, along with the enormous loss of innocent life that such action would invariably entail. He detects no threat from those willing to wield power in such a manner – they are so far away!

But hang on; after the dust has settled and all the involuntary new Russians have been minted, where do the country’s conquering leaders look then? We have been down this road with the Russians before. Spengler may well have correctly identified the motive driving Vladimir Putin to want to force the now-sovereign countries that used to make up the Soviet Union into submission. However, he is dead wrong in suggesting that the US should simply turn a blind eye to such warlike behaviour, because it could never affect them. We can see the folly of this assumption from recent history. Moreover, instead of justifying Putin’s naked aggression (and the subsequent reconquest of lost Soviet territory) as the only way for Russia to survive the life-or-death struggle Spengler describes, why not recommend that the Russian leader abandons his intention to devour his neighbours and starts to concentrate on making his country a better place to live? A place where women choose to give birth to their babies and raise them into adulthood, rather than terminating them at the first sign of pregnancy. A place where middle-aged men do not die in droves from alcohol poisoning because they don’t need to drink bottles of vodka every day to escape from a poisonous reality and its unrelenting assault on them. A country that folks from abroad choose to migrate to, as opposed to the local inhabitants doing the reverse. It should be made explicitly clear to Vladimir Putin that this is the one and only way he can turn around his country’s dire demographic predicament, and thus save it. He may not do so at the expense of another. If the US did elect to draw and maintain that line in the sand, then I assert that it is a moral and pragmatic decision to contain a demonstrably dangerous nation led by a warmonger that, if left unchecked and allowed to prosper, could certainly represent a threat to the US in the future.

And if that is Monopoly the US is playing, I’m a monkey’s uncle.

21 comments to An amoral solution to Russia’s existential crisis

  • Rob

    The Left has been desperate to throw Israel to the wolves just to save their own skin for a few more years – now Georgia and the Ukraine are also apparently on the lupine menu.

    It also looks like Soviet-worship hasn’t been entirely eradicated by the embarassing and total failure of the Soviet Union two decades ago.

  • Gabriel

    First, truly first rate article.

    Secondly, I’m somewhat confused about something, which perhaps someone with relevant knowledge can help me with. I’m fine with ascribing most of Russia’s malaise to the after-effects of Communism, but something doesn’t quite compute when it comes to Russia’s astoudingly high abortion rates. I’m not aware that this is particularly characteristic of other ex-Communist countries or peoples, with the notable exception of the Serbs.

    The obvious common thread between the two, aside from their Communist past, is Orthodox Christianity, but I can’t imagine that any of the Patriarchs take a substantially different view from the Pope on the matter. Yet Poles, Croatians, Bosnians, Kosovars etc. are baby factories and Serbs and Russians, as Perry put it, make Gemany et al. look like a stud farm. So what gives?

  • Absolutely top notch piece James.

    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 thing that is so depressing about this is that it so echoes the Cold War. Sacrificing the Baltic States/East Timor/Namibia/countless other places (in various ways) in return for bigger things is realpolitik necessity. Except that in virtually all cases it wasn’t and it didn’t achieve much other than betraying people who should have been our friends. That it has taken us little more than fifteen years to get us back to seemingly the same position is rather appalling.

  • ClockworkOrange

    >> but something doesn’t quite compute when it comes to Russia’s astoudingly high abortion rates

    It’s quite simple. Abortion in Soviet times was considered a form of birth control among large segment of population – since the soviet-made condoms were both in a very short supply and of very poor quality (never mind other birth control products, such as pill which were practically unheard of).

    Availability of abortion on demand + lack of decent birth-control = high abortion rates.

    My guess that this cultural paradigm (abortion as method of birth control) will take some time to regress, as both medical services and birth control methods become better and more widely available to general population.

  • ClockworkOrange

    >> Yet Poles, Croatians, Bosnians, Kosovars etc. are baby factories

    Oh forgot to add – don’t know about the rest, but Poles are in the bottom 5 European countries (yes, even below Russia) as far as birth rates are concerned:

    Poland – Birth rate: 10.20 births/1,000 population (2007 est.)

    Russia – Birth rate: 11.28 births/1,000 population (2007)

    So, not so much a “baby factory” …

  • It is not just amoral, it is idiotic even from a utilitarian perspective for all the reasons James lays out. Great article.

  • Gabriel

    Ahh, I had assumed otherwise because of the the high rate of Polish emigration. Having checked, it appears that low fertility rates are characteristic of the whole ex-eastern block.
    I’m not mad keen on the source, but this would seem to confirm the point. Abrtion rates are also high in non European ex- and sort of ex- Communists states. (Quite horrifying actually, did you know that the average Vietnamese woman has 2.5 abortions?). Croatia, Slovakia, Czech Rep. and some central Asian countries have lower rates than the U.S. though, but not by much.

    So my only remaining question is why are the Muslim populations of these regions so different?


    Gabriel, my advice: Go and live there for couple of years. Then you will understand…. I know, I’ve lived there for the best part of my life…

  • voluble

    There is a difference between intelligence and wisdom. Ronald Reagan, and I would argue, George Bush are wise. Putin is intelligent. All that means is that he can figure out a clever way to do the wrong thing. It is usually better to do the right thing poorly than to do the wrong thing brilliantly. Add to that the fact that the US does most things very well indeed and you see why her opponents on the left with their emphasis on intellectualism almost always end up collapsing in such a spectacular fashion.

    It is kind of like James’ analysis. It is sufficient to say that allowing a totalitarian country like Russia to consume its neighbors is wrong and can only end badly if it is allowed to continue. You can add several paragraphs of spiffy details but those are only necessary for the “intellectuals” in the crowd who are somewhat slower on the uptake.

  • Kevin B

    Whilst the foreign policy games of the big powers are far too complex to be likened to either chess or monopoly, monopoly comes much closer to the real world than chess.

    Chess is a game of logic with a restricted number of moves and with formalised opening gambits. A computer can examine all the available moves for many turns ahead to such an extent that computers regularly beat Chess Grand Masters.

    Monopoly at least has an element of random chance – the throw of the dice – and has four opponents each seeking what they see as their own advantage, sometimes co-operating with each other and sometimes fighting each other.

    If they could add in an element of treachery from one’s own side, it would be even nearer to real life politics. (Though still not very near.)

  • DFE

    The Orthodox churches are at least as fervently against abortion as is the Catholic church. The only trouble is, the church has limited influence on the younger people for whom abortion is more than a theoretical issue.

    IMO, there are two broad reasons for the low Russian birthrate. The first is common to most of Eastern Europe: life in the former communist countries remains drab and unrewarding. Especially in Russia (the only one where I have person experience), living conditions are overcrowded and drab. When you live in a two room apartment with in-laws, and organized childcare is almost non-existent, and women are expected to work- raising even one child is a challenge. Not one of the Russians my age or younger whom I know have more than one child.
    Next- factor in the general European collapse of religion (ok, Christian only) and trust in the government to provide all. The government will take care of you in your old age. There is no moral underpinnings for or reason to have children. Why bother?

    What is causing the spectacular Russian demographic collapse though, is not just the low birth rate. It’s that combined with the high death rate. I am constantly surprised by the number of “who died” comments when my Russian spouse discusses childhoold friends and acquantances.

  • Trofim

    Gabriel: So my only remaining question is why are the Muslim populations of these regions so different?

    Could it be anything to do with this?

    The Koran: 2:223. Your wives are as a tilth unto you; so approach your tilth when or how ye will; but do some good act for your souls beforehand; and fear God, and know that ye are to meet Him (in the Hereafter), and give (these) good tidings to those who believe.

  • Ivan


    So my only remaining question is why are the Muslim populations of these regions so different?

    You’re not exactly correct on this point either. I don’t have any hard data about the demographics of Bosnian Muslims (a.k.a. Bosniaks), who are on average as secularized as European Christian populations, possibly even more so than Catholic Poles or Croatians, but being from Bosnia myself, I can guarantee that they don’t have particularly high birth rates. I couldn’t find the breakdown of Bosnian birth rates across ethnicities, but the overall Bosnan birth rate is very low, about 9 births per thousand, and Bosniaks accout for about 50% of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina these days. And don’t let the newspaper stories about the growth of Wahhabi fundamentalism in Bosnia give you the wrong impression. Yes, it is a problem, but the percentage of Bosnian Muslims affected by these imported, Saudi-financed fundamentalists is minuscule, certainly far from sufficient to have a noticeable effect on the overall demographics of the country.

    As for the other Muslim populations in the ex-Communist Balkans, the only significant ones I can think of are Sandzak Muslims (who inhabit a region in Serbia that borders with Bosnia), Albanians in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Macedonia, and Turks in Bulgaria.

    Albanians have high birth rates simply because, to put it bluntly, Albania and especially Kosovo are quite primitive traditionalist societies where making lots of kids is still a social requirement. In fact, only something like 65-70% of Albanians are Muslims, and I don’t think they have any higher birth rates than the rest. I can’t find any hard data about Sandzak Muslims, but as far as I know, their birth rates are higher than those of Serbs, though not spectacularly so. Again, it’s probably just because it’s a relatively backward region of Serbia that’s running a bit late in its demographic transition. Finally, Bulgarian Turks do have much higher birth rates than Christian Bulgarians, similar to Albanians vs. Serbs in Kosovo. I don’t know much about them, but the situation in Bulgaria is probably the closest to your idea of “Muslim populations [being] so different”.

  • veryretired

    Thank you for a very interesting article.

    What I find most fascinating about this entire issue is the assumption that the problem belongs to the US, and the non-existence of any significant involvement by the EU.

    Wasn’t the whole point of its creation the development of a 3rd power to offset the bi-polar, or mono-polar, or whatever polar situatiuon that was supposed to be such an important aspect of the world’s power equation?

    Why does anyone think the US would again put itself in the front lines to resolve what is essentially another European civil war?

    If you are listening for the bugle calls of the approaching cavalry riding to the rescue, I’m afraid you will be badly disappointed. Been there, done that. Not coming this time. Good luck.

  • I’m trying to think of the last time I heard someone use the phrase “monkey’s uncle” appropriately.

    Off to split bottle of vodka with the family before bed.

  • Gabriel

    Ivan. Thanks for further confirmation that my general impressions of Eastern Europe bare rather less relation to reality than I would have liked. In my defence, though, I was taking my cue on that point from the article

    This will also ensure the minority status of the Muslim population in Russia (the only ones who are breeding)

  • tdh

    I no longer recall her name, and Google is of little help, but there was a secessionist politician successfully assassinated in St. Petersburg perhaps a decade ago. Putin had the temerity to visit her political companion, wounded in the same attack and to make a promise to the effect that everything would turn out all right. I haven’t heard anything about the perpetrators’ having been caught.

    Putin managed to cut off the bulk of the private funding of opposition politicians via, er, criminal prosecution. I suppose this spared them their lives.

    Who has been, um, luckier than Putin to have had so many critics and/or witnesses die? The Clintons?

    Putin, despite his perhaps unwitting long-term destruction of the Russian people, is able to make short-term gains against naive and ruinously effete opposition. Reagan was right about the Bushes.

    About two generations after the Persian Wars, Athens engaged in offensive military action in support of its hegemony. Its delegation to Sparta demonstrated hubris rather than firmness, making the case for its opposition, rightly or wrongly. It is not clear that Sparta had expansionist aims, but prosperity and past glory were ultimately of no help to Athens in that war. The stakes were and are high.

  • tdh: what did Reagan say about the Bushes?

  • Kim du Toit

    Of course, the advantage to having hotels on all the properties is that the other players are eventually bankrupted as they try to compete.

    Take that maxim and apply it to everything (not just geography), and you have the American mindset.

    It’s called “competition”, and we love it.

  • Nate

    Kevin B:

    I got a bit of a giggle out of that, too. I completely agree — although chess can be a computationally complex game, it’s completely deterministic, atomic moves, and includes no elements of uncertainty, etc. Not exactly a good fit for describing the real world, IMHO.

  • tdh

    I can’t find the Reagan quote on the Bushes, and it might have been indirect, from Nancy, but it was something to the effect that they weren’t first-rate, that you wouldn’t want to invite them to dine with you (or some other social expression of the thought). I thought I remembered the phrase “parlor people” but that doesn’t seem to be it.