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The ‘Tony Soprano’ theory of Russian geopolitics

Much has been written about what underpins the current war in Ukraine; how Russian revanchism is driven by Russkiy Mir ideology, the concept of the ‘Russian World’. This means all parts of what was the Russian Empire must once again be ruled from Moscow (the ‘New Rome’) for Russia to be spiritually and politically whole. It is very much like Nazi notions of “Germany is anywhere there are Germans” with a bit of lebensraum theory thrown in as well.

What makes the Russkiy Mir concept a bit more ‘inclusive’ than the Nazi version of Herrenvolk versus Untermensch, is the insistence that Russia also includes people who are said to be Russified, such as Chechens, Georgians, Moldavians, Buryats, Yakuts etc. etc…and of course all Ukrainians. If you read RIA Novosti (aimed at Russians) rather than Russia Today (aimed at foreign useful idiots), these are the official state narratives proffered day after day.

And the notion that is driving or at least justifying Russian aggression is true.

But there is another way to see this, not so much an alternative but rather a very complimentary perspective. Even if “Russkiy Mir” as both context and meta-context internally justifies Russian actions to Russians, is this the real driver pushing Putin and his supporters at the highest levels of Russia’s establishment? The push certainly isn’t “Ukraine trying to join NATO” (which Germany made clear it would always veto), the “Nazi government in Kyiv” hilarity or assorted biolab absurdities, but rather the ‘Tony Soprano’ theory of Russian geopolitics (Tony Soprano being a fictional mafia boss from the American TV show The Sopranos).

I have seen many people suggest forms of this but Matt Steinglass provides one version that is useful and succinct even if I think it is not entirely right:

In the Sopranos analogy, a business, let’s say a chain of groceries, at the edge of his territory decided they were going to stop paying protection and start trusting the police.

Tony Soprano obviously cannot tolerate this. It’s not just the loss of revenue: it’s that letting it go unpunished tells everybody else who’s paying him protection money that they can leave, too. So Tony decides to hit the groceries, take out the owner and ensure a more pliable one is installed, to send a message to anybody else who might get ideas.

Unfortunately it turns out the grocery clerks are packing shotguns and Tony’s soldiers, who were overconfident, get shot up and retreat. Now Tony has worse problems: he’s lost the grocery chain and he looks weak. Yet he may have inflicted enough damage that his other businesses hesitate to leave; who needs the trouble? Similarly, Ukraine’s economy has shrunk by a third.

Anyway, the point is that if you think about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an old-fashioned attempt at territorial conquest, it makes no sense. States don’t gain power by conquering territory anymore, this isn’t the 18th or 19th century. But if you think of it as a mob hit to intimidate states from exiting the protection racket that delivers corrupt rent streams to Russia’s ruling kleptocrats, then it at least made sense–until Ukraine fought back.

It is demonstrably untrue that aspirations for territorial conquest are a thing of the past (see China often stated threats towards Taiwan), but Steinglass’ analogy stands nevertheless. Certainly Ukrainians who understand Russia far better than most Russians understand Ukraine have been making this kind of ‘gangster’ analogy for quite some time. However, too many people in the West have been mesmerised by Russia Today narratives and ingrained Americocentric delusions to look at this from a more local perspective.

34 comments to The ‘Tony Soprano’ theory of Russian geopolitics

  • One of the things that made Robert Jackson (head of the US prosecution team at Nuremberg) rather poor at his job was that his relevant experience was of prosecuting US gangsters – people who know they were gangsters and did not have an ideology, let alone one they would argue for in court. Jackson therefore proved weak against Goering, not just from the handicap of a rather silly ideological theory of his own about nazism, but because he was unprepared to handle Goering’s ideological self-belief in the virtues of his crimes. (The British prosecution team, by contrast, did much better at rattling Goering, because they concentrated on specifics, and prepared much better.)

    Like Perry, I think Matt Steinglass’ presentation of the gangster idea is succinct (and useful to be aware of), but not the whole story. The Mafia’s founding ideology dates from the 1280’s, part of the politics of the Sicilian Vespers, and it became a mere, utterly-unqualified racket (cosa nostra, ‘our thing’) long, long, long ago. By contrast, as well as Putin’s very real February intent to conquer the Ukraine that Perry reminds us of, the pan-Slavist / Russkiy Mir / whatever-you-want-to-call-it ideology that Putin-and-etc. returned to / reinvented after the discarding of communism was a living ideology in Russian elites before 1917.

    The quote in the post correctly reminds us of another Putin interest in not letting the Ukraine go. But they are not nearly as uninvested in their ideology as true pure simple gangsters. The revenue streams are not the only reason they do not want the idea of greater Russia to be humiliated.

  • mkent

    There can be more than one reason to do something, so looking for the one true reason Russia invaded Ukraine is bound to come up short.

    I think the Russkiy Mir ideology perfectly explains the political motive for the invasion, capturing the resource-rich eastern Ukraine along with its Black Sea hydrocarbon deposits explains the economic motive, and the concept of “defensible borders” explains the military motive. A Russian border from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Bothnia in the northwest, from the Baltic Sea across Poland to the Carpathian Mountains in the west, and from the Carpathians to the Black Sea in the southwest would be far more defensible all other things being equal than the border Russia has now.

    Where I think the gangster motive comes in is, given what’s happened since February, why hasn’t Putin cried uncle and retreated? Surely the benefits listed above aren’t worth the 50,000 dead soldiers, 1,000 lost artillery pieces, 2,000 lost tanks, 3,000 spent missiles, 4,000 lost armored vehicles, and $400 billion in lost foreign reserves. Why not retreat before it gets that bad and live to fight another day?

    I think Putin really did believe the Ukrainians would welcome him as a liberator. When the opposite happened, he felt “dissed” (disrespected), and that’s one thing he can’t abide. A jailhouse gangster will pay any price to avenge being dissed, and so Putin is in it until the end regardless of price. What that means in a nuclear world is distressing to contemplate.

  • Kirk

    While I think there’s some validity to the idea of viewing modern Russia as a criminal enterprise, I also feel that such an idea is incomplete.

    There’s a very strong thread of what I can only borrow terms from psychology to describe, and say that there is an incredible (to most Westerners) amount of something that’s very close to a clinically described case of paranoid schizophrenic narcissism which is deeply rooted in the Russian psyche. You can see a lot of the same things in Serbian psychological responses to the world around them, which tends to explain why Russians and Serbians feel such great affinity for each other.

    I grew up on the fringe of expat Yugoslavia here in the US. The sheer magnificent scale of the average Serbian’s conspiratorial belief system has got to be seen and experienced to be believed. Everything is interpreted through the lens of paranoia and “…the world is out to get us…”, filtered by extremely persuasive and entirely seductive logic, if you start to entertain anything at all that they’re saying. Fellow Yugoslavs of a different ethnic persuasion would roll their eyes and just go along with it, knowing that the more that you argued, the more deeply entrenched in the argument that the Serb would get, and the more confused you’d become, eventually realizing that at some point, the Serb had begun arguing for your initial position and you were arguing his. Marxism and the Serbian mind were made for each other, I’m telling you: The dialectic is a natural fit, argument for argument’s sake.

    Now, I say all that in order to illuminate a facet of all this that helps understanding of Russian and Serbian behavior over the last thirty-plus years. It doesn’t make sense to anyone that, instead of buckling down and trying to fix what decades of communist damage did to their nation and economy, that instead Russia would focus on “Russia Stronk” and actively go out of their way to antagonize natural allies in the West. Why’d they do that? What rational operator would have looked at the world situation in 1991, and decided to follow the course of Russia?

    Well, that’s the damn problem: We’re thinking in terms of “rational”. They manifestly are not, as a society or nation. The Russian worldview is colored by collective myth and sheer imaginative paranoia, requiring them to have a vast outside enemy/conspiracy in order for them to keep getting up every morning and going about their diminished lives. It’s an amazing thing; if you stop and listen to the rhetoric, you wind up wondering why they haven’t collapsed into suicidal despondent depression, if they actually believe all that BS about the various conspiracies they come up with to explain the world. Instead, they draw strength from it, motivation, and they go on with it all, continually projecting this bizarre and fundamentally irrational worldview on everything around them, templating the behavior of others in the light of such ideas.

    Bluntly put, both the Serbians and the Russians have been gaslighting themselves for generations. And, it’s not even really consistent or logical gaslighting, either; that line about believing “six impossible things” from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland? Your typical Russian or Serbian paranoiac delusional can believe six impossible and mutually contradictory things within the same sentence, at any time of the day, let alone before breakfast.

    This factor, coupled with everything else? Yeah; you’re no longer in the Western frame of reference, when considering Russian or Serbian actions. They genuinely believe, at some level, that the Ukrainians are Nazis. That’s how they get through the day; raw belief. Marxism and Communism were a perfect fit for both national psyches, because it substitutes a secular belief pattern for rational and pragmatic thought. There’s a reason the Russians stuck with Communism for so long, even against their own best interests and observed reality around them. If you ever sat down and talked with one of the “true believer” types, back before the Wall came down, you’d rapidly come to realize that you weren’t talking rational economics or politics with someone who looked at the world around them rationally and then pragmatically acted on those observations. Instead, they substituted their “created reality” for everything, and there was a very strong element of persecution and delusion in all of that. If you ever wondered why the Soviets stuck so many dissidents into the mental hospitals, it’s because they very literally thought those people were mentally ill, simply because they didn’t partake in or share the same consensual reality space that the rest of the Soviet Union’s inmates did. When you’re the one-eyed man in the nation of the blind, you’re not special; you’re deviant, and will be treated as such.

    It’s not every Russian or Serb that’s like this, but there are enough that you have to extrapolate out and account for it when dealing with them as a group. You can’t avoid it, once you see it; talking to them is like talking to a blind person who is trying to tell you all they know about the quality of “color” in your world of the seeing.

    So, yeah… Criminal conspiracy can explain a lot, but… That ain’t all there is to it. The patently weird sh*t you hear (and, there’s no other appropriate word, aside from other scatological terminology…) from Russia, like the trained assassin mosquitoes? That’s not atypical; that’s how they think. And, the really weird thing is that they can simultaneously tell you some BS like that, act on it as though it were true, and then at the same time/place, effectively demonstrate that they really, truly don’t fully buy into the BS even as they’re acting on it.

    It’s a society-wide sociological and psychological syndrome, one that you can observe in other nations like Nazi Germany, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Mao’s China. Unlike those other situations, the difference is that it’s so deeply embedded in the Russian psyche that what’s usually a single-generation paroxysm of irrationality is instead a century-long self-reinforcing system of delusion. Look at how seamlessly the Russian oppressed went from “If only the Little Father knew (said “Little Father” being the Tsar…)…” whenever they were getting screwed by the system or it’s apparatchiks to “If only Stalin knew…” It’s the same set of delusions about the world, carried on down through the ages and massively different sets of oppressors. The typical Russian mind simply cannot operate in a space that contradicts any of those fantastic ideas, like “The Tsar loves me and is looking out for me…” and “Communism works…”

  • Steven R

    I don’t know how many people behind the Iron Curtain or in Nazi Germany actually accepted and believed policies and propaganda as literally true versus most of them just accepting that was the hand they were dealt, going along to get along, and just trying to live the best they could. Everyone knew crossing the wrong person who was connected could have disastrous consequences, so they just did what they were told. The secret police (KGB or Gestapo) say this guy is clearly insane and you’re a psychiatrist and know he isn’t? Treat him for his insanity anyway because if you don’t their attention will turn to you.

    Obviously there were true believers in both regimes, but for everyone else it was a shared misery but what can you do?

    I suspect it was like that, and will be like that, in every police state that has ever existed.

    It is interesting that the two big forms of tyranny of the 20th century took away the one thing that seemed to help the masses: religion. It was fine to suffer in this life if you know you’ll be rewarded in the next. Communism and the Nazis did away with that concept as much as they could. Even though Elizabeth I ran a police state (the Rainbow Portrait with subtle eyes and ears all over her dress reminder everyone that Walsingham and friends saw and heard all), she at least didn’t deny Catholics their faith, even if they were repressed. All she required was that they be loyal Englishmen. Lenin required that to be a good Communist, one had to actively kill God.

  • Paul from Canada

    Kirk is right about the paranoia. I have worked with and socialized with many Serbs over the years, and there is always one in the group. One guy I worked closely with (and rather liked), was convinced!, convinced!, that the Yugoslav civil war and breakup was all the work of the German government.

    The Russians behave in some ways like Imperial Germany in WWI. They decide to do things for “realpolitic” reasons, and the end justifies the means. They announce that they plan on commencing unrestricted submarine warfare, or ignoring a particular neatrality, and, since they announced it, it is OK despite being completely illegal. Russia beleives it has the right to hegemony over its neighbours, so as long as they think so, it must be true. Doesn’t matter what the neighbours think, their opinion, and international law don’t count.

    Up here in Canada, we have a rather large part of the population being of Ukrainian extraction. There was a big wave of recruited East European immigration in the 19th century when we were opening up the west. There are plenty of Ukrainian churches, cultural centres, kids’ summer camps and so on. I have never met any of them who thought of themselves as anything but Ukrainian, and to suggest they might be Russian was far, far worse than calling a Kiwi an Aussie…

    Russian insistance that Ukraine is part of greater Russian would be like the US insisting Canada is a natural part of the continental US, speaks the same language with a similar accent and so using force to unite the two countries is totally justified.

    Not sure if everyone has seen it, but I highly recommend the lecture given by the Ex-Finnish Colonel of intelligence who teaches at a Finnish university. If you search youtube with a phrase like Finish Colonel explains the Russian mindset or something like that, you should be a ble to find it. There are also transcripts and other interviews on the internet. I will try and link one of them.


  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Niall writes: By contrast, as well as Putin’s very real February intent to conquer the Ukraine that Perry reminds us of, the pan-Slavist / Russkiy Mir / whatever-you-want-to-call-it ideology that Putin-and-etc. returned to / reinvented after the discarding of communism was a living ideology in Russian elites before 1917.

    Absolutely. I think for Putin – who as far as I know never succumbed to communist ideology, whatever his other many failings – this is what Russia is about, not about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” or so forth. Nature abhors a vacuum. Russia doesn’t have a Western tradition of liberal individualism, and remember, had serfdom as recently as 1860. So Russia has for centuries had this mix of “blood and soil” nationalism, mixed with a heavy dose of Orthodox Christianity, a sort of veneration for hierarchy, and so on. It has had its virtues – the family is often highly important – but it is obviously a culture that is ill-equipped to deal with when certain places choose to break free, as Ukraine has done. (I know I am painting with a broad brush – Russia in the late 19th/very early 20th had some flowering of a more liberal culture, often among those of Jewish descent.)

    The mafia point is a good one. The acts of violence, the sheer nastiness and pettiness, are features, not bugs, of the Putin mindset. He wants to be a sort of Millwall or Leeds of geopolitics: “No-one likes us, and we don’t care.”)

    For non-Brits, are football teams famed or feared for a certain brutality of their fans and hard-edged style of play.

  • Jacob

    Explaining Russia away as mere gangsters (Toni Sopranos) is terribly simplistic, superficial and wrong.
    It’s a different mentality, different culture, different traditions, different history. You must do much more, go much deeper, to understand these. You can’t dismiss them just with the word ‘gangsters”.

  • Jacob

    Not that the British, for example, didn’t have their own taste for empire in the good old days. (And I’m not an anti-imperialist progressive… I think the British empire did a lot of good… ).

  • NickM

    Excellent OP and even better comments. My (English) wife is a graduate in Russian (BA – Leeds, MA – Westminster) and is a professional translator. She has lived in Russia (Moscow and St Petersburg). She has a very similar take on the Russian mindset as folks here. It is a bizarre combo of a serious victim complex with the idea that Russia is the only hope for humankind. Kirk is spot-on. It is like a national mental illness. JP is also right that Putin’s Russia has decided that being universally hated is almost a badge of honour.

  • bobby b

    It always struck me as a paranoia born of “never again.” Most such paranoia-based places seem to have a history of being brutally treated for a long time. If they’re hated, at least it means they exist and have agency.

  • Mr Ed

    I wondered if this post was a serious post or was posted simply to troll Jacob. And then I saw this:

    Explaining Russia away as mere gangsters (Toni Sopranos) is terribly simplistic, superficial and wrong.
    It’s a different mentality, different culture, different traditions, different history.

    The post is not about explaining ‘Russia’ but its government’s actions.

    If it is contended that there is a different mentality in Russia, this appears to be a stab at what Ludwig von Mises termed ‘racial polylogism’, the notion that race (or nationality/ethnicity) determines thought, which was a keystone of NSDAP ideology, as opposed to Marxian ‘class-based polylogism’.

    Different traditions? Well, if putting Polonium in tea is a ‘tradition’, I suppose so.

    I would like to hear a rebuttal of the OP’s points, not them being brushed away without explanation.

  • Paul Marks

    Unlike the People’s Republic of China, which still officially clings to the Marxist religious faith in theory (even though it has rejected its economics since 1978), Putin’s Russia is not Marxist – his regime may pretend to have a world-view, but really it is bandit or “Mafia” politics – Mr Putin is indeed a crime boss, a vicious crime boss – but nothing more (unlike the rulers of the People’s Republic of China who may reject the economics of “Lenin” and co, but still insist that they are Marxists out to spread the “noble” doctrines of Marxism to the rest of the planet – i.e., in practice, have the PRC dominate the world).

    China has close to twice the manufacturing output of the United States – so it is indeed a real threat to the world, whereas Mr Putin is indeed a jumped up Tony Soprano – with no real doctrines to spread, and no great manufacturing strength (in the end it is manufacturing that matters – not City of London or Wall Street Credit Bubbles).

    But as for the idea of what Russia is – I do not agree with the post. I have explained my disagreement before, there is no need to repeat all that again.

  • Kirk

    Couple of things to point out that usually get lost in the narrative when people discuss “Russia”. Russians supposedly have “a right to be paranoid”, given their history. Hmmm.

    Let’s unpack that, just a bit, shall we?

    Specifically, why is it that Russia is constantly invaded and abused? You deal with a woman who keeps getting the crap kicked out of her by multiple partners, you begin to ask yourself “Why does this keep happening to her…?” Reality is, more than a few women constantly seek out partners that abuse them, and having been rescued from one such relationship, they’ll often go out looking for another one that offers the same “benefit” of periodic beatings and constant abuse. Not every abused woman does this, but there are enough that it’s a noticeable trait. Much like horses that run back into burning barns they’ve just been rescued from…

    What’s that got to do with Russia, you ask? Wellllllll… Let us consider the facts: Napoleon invaded Russia. So did Germany, in WWI and WWII. Why? Why’d the British, the French, and the Turks all feel like they had to gang up on Russia in the Crimean War?

    Could it be because Russia itself brought those nasty things on?

    Consider the Napoleonic Wars. What’d Alexander do, to trip Napoleon’s triggers? Oh, yeah; that’s right, he demanded that Napoleon leave Prussia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. After getting himself involved in Western Europe, he decided to keep on keeping on with Catherine the Great’s policies of expansion.

    So, far from it being a case of poor widdle innocent Russia getting beaten up by the big, bad conqueror, it was more like a falling out between a couple of gangsters. Alexander I didn’t like the cut he was getting, so he wanted more. Napoleon decided to settle his hash, and of course, the average peasant types between Moscow and Paris were left holding the bags.

    Russian revisionism casts that whole thing as though they were pure victims. Do remember that, as you read accounts written from the Russian perspective. No acknowledgment that they had anything at all to do with it happening. It was just some outsiders coming to give Russia a hard time.

    Crimean War? Much the same. Russia wanted empire, and to play the Great Game. Everyone else just wanted stability.

    WWI? Hmmmm… Who stirred that up, again? Why, yes… It was the Russian intelligence services playing games with Serbian nationalists that got Franz Ferdinand and his wife brutally murdered on the streets of Sarajevo. Then, they played games with the mobilization, which I have to admit rightfully provoked the Germans to do what they did… Russian claims of victimization fall flat, when you consider how much they had to do with actually starting that whole war. That Nicholas II and his family wound up murdered in a basement somewhere in Siberia is only karmic.

    WWII? Oh, dear… Lemme see if I can do this justice: Having decided to share and share alike in the Baltics and Poland, the Russians (now cosplaying as internationalist communists…) decide to support Hitler’s drive westwards. The Battle of France in 1940 would have looked a hell of a lot different, had Hitler had to go without all the resources Stalin lavished on his ally; not to mention, if Hitler had had to keep troops on the new eastern frontiers in Poland, which thanks to Stalin, he did not.

    Again, the blowback on all that? Karmic. Of course, the Russians refuse to recognize that, in any way. For them, WWII starts on day one of Barbarossa, not the day that Stalin decided to back Hitler’s ploys and all the rest of his half-ass empire-building.

    So… In answer to that BS about “Russia is justifiably paranoid…”? I have this to say: They ought to be paranoid about meddling in other people’s affairs. They don’t seem to be either all that smart about it, or possess the slightest amount of skill at doing it, either.

  • Steven R

    I have this to say: They ought to be paranoid about meddling in other people’s affairs. They don’t seem to be either all that smart about it, or possess the slightest amount of skill at doing it, either.

    They are pretty good at that whole get a Spanish guy to bury an ice axe in some guy’s head in Mexico City thing though. Credit where credit is due.

  • Explaining Russia away as mere gangsters (Toni Sopranos) is terribly simplistic, superficial and wrong.

    Indeed, which is why I don’t. They do think and act like gangsters, but there is more to it than just that, which is why whilst I like Steinglass’ analogy, I only take it so far and describe said analogy as complimentary rather than a complete explanation. Literal gangsters doesn’t need an ideology to justify their actions. The Russian state on the other hand does.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Mafia stories should not be viewed just as mafia stories, but as illustrations of the Machiavellian mentality.

  • bobby b

    ” . . . the notion that race (or nationality/ethnicity) determines thought . . . “

    Your parenthetical does some heavy lifting here.

  • Broadening/rephrasing Kirk’s analogy, I’d say someone may not in fact want to be kicked around as such, yet have habits (drug addiction, living consistently above their income, paranoia, …) that increase the risk they’ll end up living in that social context. The actual history may include an instance of bad luck, but in a context that makes bad luck dangerous, because margins have been pared.

    For example, Stalin distrusted everyone – except Hitler. This (as Hannah Arendt explains) demonstrates the relative sanity of his mental processes within their limits. He knew he was dangerous to Russians in senior positions, Russians with any hint of power, so he quite rationally suspected them. He knew he did not mean harm to Hitler so he did not suspect him. Therefore he helped Hitler conquer northern Europe, then Western Europe, then south-eastern Europe, after which he found himself alone on the continent of Europe with Hitler. He did not desire, still less intend, the subsequent attack, but his habits of thought made him act in ways that made it likely, and then made it liklier. A single foolish miscalculation – the assumption that WWII would be like WWI, with Germany impaled on a French western front – precipitated Stalin into a situation where, his earlier decisions having been wrong, his later ones were wronger.

  • NickM

    bobby b,
    That ain’t agency. Agency would be getting over the horrors, moving on and building a better culture and society. Russia hasn’t done that. Putin yearns for the “greatness” of the Tsars and the Soviet Union. He is on record as stating the collapse of the SU was the greatest tragedy of the C20th and he is quite popular over this view. My view is that the creation of the SU was arguably the greatest tragedy of the C20th but then I’m not a Russian kleptocrat.

  • Paul Marks

    Contrary to some of the comments above – Russian politics is, not is not, like Mafia politics (although NOT in the way the post implies), it is nothing to do with holding down an Empire (Russia is not an Empire, it is a very large nation) and everything to do with a gang leader, Mr Putin, ruling by force and fear. Mr Putin destroyed dissenting media and much of the rest of the Civil Society that was emerging under President Yeltsin.

    The great folly of the Yeltsin years was to follow Western advice on fiat money and credit bubble banking – Westerners do not grasp just how much Russians suffered by following that advice, but Westerners are going to find out over the next few years, as they undergo the same suffering. For example, about 95% of the “gold” traded on the complex markets of the West (futures, derivatives and so on) does-not-exist. Generally speaking, Western markets now are as fake as Russian markets were in the 1990s – for example the American economy is terrible (weak manufacturing and a savings rate of about 3% of income – which is that of a subsistence “hand to mouth” economy, not an advanced society) – yet the American stock market keeps rising, because it is a POLITICAL “market” dominated by the Federal Reserve and a handful of banks and corporations (Black Rock, State Street, Vanguard….), the modern West has no connection to free market capitalism. The economic system in Western countries such as the United States is a POLITICAL one. The Western “markets” (gold market, stock market, whatever….) fundamentally fake. As we watched in the United Kingdom – with how “the markets” (including currency markets) ignored vast government spending, and denounced small tax reductions. The political objective of “get rid of Liz Truss” being the goal of “the markets” – i.e. of the few vast corporations (backed by the Central Banks) who are “the markets” now. Again, free market capitalism and the modern West are utterly different things.

    Unlike the Chinese dictatorship, which is still Marxist in its politics (although not in its economics) – Mr Putin’s regime has no real ideology, it is just a gangster regime – and that makes it unstable.

    Mr Putin needs victories, even just conflicts, in order to distract attention from the hollowness of his own regime.

    Sadly, the regimes in the West are also hollow.

  • Mary Contrary

    Matt Steinglass wrote:

    Anyway, the point is that if you think about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an old-fashioned attempt at territorial conquest, it makes no sense. States don’t gain power by conquering territory anymore, this isn’t the 18th or 19th century.

    The whole “mobster theory of Russia” hinges on that casual dismissal. I think it’s a bit too blasé to carry the weight it is bearing.

    Who says States don’t gain power by conquering territory anymore? Perhaps Putin doesn’t agree with this. After all, he conquered Crimea.

    And I’m not sure I agree with it either. This reeks of the kind of received wisdom that nobody challenges because it’s so obviously wrong.

    I am reminded of the scene in Starship Troopers where the Veteran/schoolteacher critiques the idea that ‘Violence never solves anything’. “Tell that to the Carthaginians”, he said. “States don’t increase their power by conquering territory any more”, you say? Tell it to the Crimeans. Or the Tibetans. Or the Iraqis.

    Well, State conquest of useful territory does increase their power, when they achieve it successfully. Securing access to the Black Sea and a land route to Crimea, and cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov, would all increase Russian power. Denying this is nonsense. Russia has coveted warm water ports for enough centuries that this is motive enough.

    The idea the obvious motive must be dismissed seems attractive simply because it allows us to call Putin a gangster. That itself should be a signal you’re being rhetorically seduced. Which is silly: calling Putin the tyrant he is should be dishonour enough.

  • Steph Houghtonz

    I saw that painting at the Metropolitian Saturday. The Tudor exibit.:-)

  • Jacob

    The post is not about explaining ‘Russia’ but its government’s actions.
    Same thing. Why does Russia have the governments it has?
    While the Communist regime never had the support of many Russians, Putin’s regime seems to have such support.

  • Jacob

    Mr Putin’s regime has no real ideology, it is just a gangster regime.
    It is then like most regimes in the world ( authoritarian regimes).

  • phwest

    Niall – Stalin very much meant harm to Hitler, just not in 1941. The Non-aggression Pact was intended to lock Germany in a war with Britain and France, bleeding both sides, allowing Stalin to grab territory from the sidelines, give Stalin time to modernize the Red Army and enter the war at a time of his own choosing. It was working great until the French Army collapsed, as Stalin was able to seize the Baltic States, Bessarabia and Finnish border territory that was not part of the deal with Hitler, but which Hitler lacked the leverage to do anything about at the time. He did the same thing with Japan, opening the path that led to Pearl Harbor, before Hitler attacked. Stalin supplied vast quantities of critical raw materials to Nazi Germany, without which the invasion of France would not have been possible. He just didn’t think Hitler would risk a war to seize the resources Stalin was already selling him. He had plenty of suspicion of Hitler, he just misread him, something he was not alone in. See Kotkin’s bio (vol 2) and Sean McMeekin’s Stalin’s War. These are both based on materials from the Soviet archives, rather than Arendt’s uninformed attempts at pop psychology.

    As a footnote – one thing I picked up from McMeekin that I was not aware of was the scrupulousness with which both the Japanese and Soviets adhered to the terms of the Non-Aggression Pact. The Japanese allowed American Lend-Lease transports to travel unmolested to Vladivostok for the duration of the war, just as Stalin interned any American aircrews fighting Japan who made emergency landings in Soviet territory for the duration. The degree to which both sides were willing to act against the interest of their nominal allies was quite remarkable.

  • phwest

    BTW – has anyone else here read McMeekin’s book? It’s quite a sad story, the extent to which Churchill and Roosevelt sacrificed their own countries’ well-being in supporting Stalin and how little they got back in the deal. It’s like they tried to create with Stalin the highly trusting mutual support they shared, and Stalin just took them to the cleaners. I had to stop reading for a while it got so depressing. It’s an aggressively revisionist history, and I’m curious what others here might think of it.

  • Kirk


    Given the rather massive disparities in the casualty lists between the Soviets and the Western Allies…? I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and suggest that just maybe, possibly… Stalin and the Soviet people are the ones who got screwed.

    Demographically, the WWII casualties for the US were a blip on the screen. They were somewhat less bad than WWI for the UK; nowhere near as bad for the French. For the Soviets? Dear God… Between the democide Stalin himself conducted and the direct and indirect losses of WWII, the Soviets got the shafting of the century.

    Granted, I kinda think they deserved it, given Stalin’s eager help given the Nazis, but… Yeah. I have a hard time entertaining the notion that the Soviets got the better end of that deal. Anywhere in that decade.

    Frankly, if the CIA and the other intel organizations had been halfway honest and realistic, you could make a case for saying that the Soviet Union never really recovered from its losses in WWII. Demographic, or economic.

  • Mr Putin’s regime has no real ideology, it is just a gangster regime.

    The whole Russkiy Mir thing really is a fairly fleshed out ideology, more than passingly similar in many ways (but not all) to the Völkisch ideology that went out of fashion in 1945.

    I think the ‘Tony Soprano’ theory is a good explanation of motivational drivers, whereas Russkiy Mir described the ideological underpinnings of internal justification, axioms and worldview, all rooted in our old chum meta-context.

  • phwest (November 1, 2022 at 12:44 am), the Nazi-soviet pact put Finland in Stalin’s sphere and, until he had finished with France, Hitler adhered strictly to that in deed and in word (i.e. strict discipline and no complaints in Germany’s press, despite Russia’s war on Finland being unpopular with the German public). Likewise, the cession of Bessarabia to Russia from Rumania was a foreseen part of the pact. Of course, once France fell and Hitler began planning to attack Russia, he decided that these two countries that had recently lost territory to Russia (with German help) would be useful allies motivated to regain that territory from Russia (with German help).

    Generally, the evidence is that Stalin thought of the pact as a much longer-term thing than Hitler. Stalin indeed wanted Germany locked in battle with the west –

    “One must ardently hope the world war will begin as soon as possible.”

    as Molotov told the Germans after the fall of Poland – but he expected to exploit Germany by being her non-combatant ally.

    Kirk’s point has content (November 1, 2022 at 2:01 am). While the cause of communism obtained long-term gains (and losses) from the pact, Russia (which was also communism’s main power-base at the time) had huge losses. The US and the British Empire would have had a lot more Germans to kill – and therefore a lot more English-speaking soldiers to lose – if the bulk of Germany’s army had not died in the east.

    ASIDE: I remind readers of the argument that the persistent and consistent doubling of Soviet estimates of WWII civilian losses in each area they took back from the Nazis was on an order from the centre (from Stalin). That order in turn (goes the argument) reflected an opinion – a guestimate – about how the Russian civilian death inflicted by Hitler in the 40s would compare with the Russian death inflicted by Stalin in the 30s. The communists had forced the cancellation of the 1937 census, the shooting of the whole of its board, and its replacement with a figure decreed from the centre in 1939 but, as Robert Conquest remarks, the 1939 figure “has understandably failed to carry conviction”. So (the argument concludes), Stalin decided that the way to bury the huge losses of the collectivisation and purge, and so to enable an even nominally-sane post-war census, was to assume that he and Hitler were roughly equal on Russian civilians.

  • Paul Marks

    I disagree Perry – I do not think that the ideology pushed by Mr Putin and co is well fleshed out at all. Indeed, he often contradicts it himself.

    Of course, neither is the insane “Woke” ravings pushed out by such regimes as that of the United States Federal Government – the endless contradictions of “Woke” doctrine are well known to you.

    Jacob has a point – most regimes now are based on contradictory nonsense.

  • I disagree Perry – I do not think that the ideology pushed by Mr Putin and co is well fleshed out at all.

    You obviously don’t read as much of it as I have over the years, nor chatted with its Russian exponents online (who I generally met via the online gaming world believe it or not). As they say “I read this shit so you don’t have to” 😀

    Indeed, he often contradicts it himself.

    What’s that go to do with anything? The whole Russkiy Mir crap is riddled with absurdities and contradictions just like the Völkisch movement was. By fleshed out, that means they have stock answers to everything, not that the answers are rational or even coherent. But that is their appeal: they provide answers and identity, to the vatniki as well as the apparatchiks.

  • The Pedant-General

    This caught my eye:
    “It is demonstrably untrue that aspirations for territorial conquest are a thing of the past (see China often stated threats towards Taiwan)”

    Is this plain _territorial_ ambition though? I rather suspect that PRC cannot abide seeing a part of China to be successful and standing as a rebuke to the brutal one-party social control. Ditto Hong Kong.

  • Is this plain _territorial_ ambition though?

    Territorial ambition usually comes with some kind of additional justification, such as “we hate your ideology & will take your land and and kill you as a result” or “it belongs to our sacred motherland” or “we want your water” etc.

  • one thing I picked up from McMeekin that I was not aware of was the scrupulousness with which both the Japanese and Soviets adhered to the terms of the Non-Aggression Pact. (phwest, November 1, 2022 at 12:31 am)

    Since neither party had many scruples, your surprise is understandable.

    In Russia’s case, it was in their interests to observe the pact throughout its length. It stopped being in their interests just at the time when it was ending anyway.

    – From the moment of the German attack, the Russians were impaled on the German side of the war whereas the UK and US had much more strategic freedom to take more or less of the German war at any one time. Stalin – angrily aware of this throughout – saw no reason to give his unintended allies help with the lesser Japanese war they were impaled on at a time when, tied down by Germany, he could derive no benefit from it. Postponing any action against Japan until after the total defeat of Germany was sensible strategy and emotionally satisfying – and, it may be noted, was only an extreme version of the UK-US’s own ‘Germany First’ strategy.

    – The far east was the route by which a good half or more of western supplies reached Russia, and while it was the one that brought them in furthest from the battle front, it was also the only one the Germans could never hope to interdict. The Russians did not want to keep troops in their far east watching, still less fighting, the Japanese while the German war meant no offensive profit could be gained, but it was the supply route above all – that Japan for years could have shut off – that mattered to them.

    By contrast, the Japanese were fundamental strategic idiots not to act against Russia, but their not understanding that was part of their not understanding that their enemies were fighting a war to the death against them (nor did they grasp that their ally was fighting a war to the death against Russia).

    – The converse of no interference in the Russian-flagged US-cargoed convoy pipeline across the Pacific was no bases for the US airforce in Russian far-east territory. Fear of the US airforce bombing the Emperor in Tokyo from a Russian base was great (irrationally great in the early war years, I think) – consider, for example, the response to the Doolittle raid. The Japanese, who were too provincial (and too arrogant) to grasp just how much their ability to fight the west depended on Germany’s keeping the west occupied, never grasped how important it should have been to them to let the impacts on Germany’s war influence their strategic choices.

    – Germany, Russia, the UK and the US all had strong leaders capable of making and enforcing strategic choices. (Because the British chiefs-of-staff approach virtually compelled the US, on allying with them, to adopt a parallel joint-chiefs structure so as to join with them in the combined chiefs, Churchill and Roosevelt gained the benefit of a single administrative organ below them for making / confirming / enforcing fundamental strategic decisions.) Japan alone did not have this. The army and navy had a level of inter-service rivalry (including occasional assassinations) unknown elsewhere and it was very hard to enforce a choice among tempting strategic options. Related to that, the Japanese army did wish to attack Russia in summer 1942; the Japanese navy’s very serious defeat at Midway ensured that project could not be agreed. After that, the Japanese frittered away their remaining period of strategic initiative. As the war turned against them, their provincial reasons for wanting Russian neutrality looked more and more important to their staying in the war – a valid appreciation if (as they did) they overlooked its relationship to the even greater importance to them of Germany staying in the war.

    As regards punctilious observance of small details, that was a reflection of Russia’s and Japan’s nervousness about the most sensitive issue for each. The Japanese did occasionally experiment with detaining convoys, whereupon Molotov instantly had shouting matches with the Japanese ambassador. In readiness for these, Molotov was careful to keep Russia’s own copybook unblotted as regards the pact. On the Japanese side, the Japanese diplomatic establishment kept the Japanese leadership in mind that Russian-based US bombers were a potential consequence of a slovenly attitude to observing the pact.

    Stalin interned any American aircrews fighting Japan who made emergency landings in Soviet territory for the duration.

    Hopefully my long explanation above explains why interning instead of returning lost US bomber crews was viewed by the Japanese, and by the comprehending Russians, as an important signal.