Patrick Armstrong was an analyst in the Canadian Department of National Defence specialising in the USSR/Russia from 1984 and a Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in 1993-1996.
No one ever asks: Mr Expert, you’ve been wrong for twenty years, why should anybody take you seriously now?
One of the favourite delusions of the people Scott Ritter calls the "Putin whisperers” is that Russia or Putin – to them the two are synonymous – are always on the point of collapse and one more push will bring them down. To the sane, observing the development of Russia from 1991 to 2021, this conviction is crazy: Russia has endured and prospered. But, as I have said elsewhere, these people fit Einstein’s definition of insanity and forever repeat their failures: Ritter calls them "intellectually lazy”. They’re not Russia experts, they’re wrongness experts and constant practice has made them quite good at being wrong.
A recent example is a BBC documentary which I haven’t bothered to watch. I haven’t bothered because, after forty years in the business, I don’t have to: I know full well that BBC+Russia=clichés: bears, snow, unchanging horribleness and the confirmation of everything the BBC told you earlier. Bryan MacDonald has watched it and is especially amused by this line: "(However), some things in Russia change, like the seasons.” Paul Robinson describes the methodology: "talk to a few people, and then draw some sweeping conclusions". In other words, just another piece of propaganda reinforcement typical of the species. Russia is always Russia: bad, smelly, stunted and vicious. Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter. As a Putin whisperer said in 1997
It is not prudent to deny or forget a thousand years of Russian history. It is replete with wars of imperial aggrandizement, the Russification of ethnic minorities, and absolutist, authoritarian, and totalitarian rule.
(This is from yet another screed on how to deal with Russia; compare it with Nuland’s a quarter century later: same old stuff – we’ve been too soft but if we add a withered carrot to the big stick, we’ll get them to do what we want. But at least Nuland recognises Russia’s military strength. Which, I guess, should be welcomed as some recognition of reality.)
One of my favourites, from twenty years ago, is Russia is Finished. But never mind what mere reporters write in newspapers and magazines – venues that in the pre-Internet days would have been forgotten after their final appearance as garbage wrap; the Russia is Finished delusion has taken root in more consequential soils. A senior member of the American apparat believes: "Inside the country, low oil prices, the coronavirus pandemic, and Russians’ growing sense of malaise all bring new costs and risks for the Kremlin.” She, or somebody of like opinion, is behind this statement from White House Press Secretary Psaki: "Well, I think the President’s view is that Russia is on the outside of the global community in many respects… What the President is offering is a bridge back. And so, certainly, he believes it’s in their interests to take him up on that offer.” Well, as to "outside”, in the first two weeks of April, Putin spoke with the leaders of Libya, Lebanon, Belarus, Finland, USA, Philippines, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Germany, Armenia, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Mongolia and Saudi Arabia. Official Washington is as condescending as it is ill-informed.
A compendium of doom from the "experts”: Russia will fail in 1992, finished in 2001, failed in 2006, failed in 2008, failing in 2010, "rapid deteriorating economy” in 2014, failed or declining in 2015, failing in 2017, negligible economy and "rusted out” military in 2017 ("Russia’s coming attack on Canada” is an exceptional fount of worthless analysis: hardly a correct statement anywhere, starting with the sub-head), falling behind in 2018; headed for trouble in 2019. Russia’s isolation, ancient weapons, instability. A gas station masquerading as a country. Doomed to fail in Syria and losing influence even in its neighbourhood in 2020. One "expert” repeats himself as if the intervening decade had not passed.
But they repeat themselves because that’s what they do. They have one thing to say and they say it over and over again. Michael McFaul is an exemplar; read what he predicts and bet against it. "If Russia’s economy continues to grow at anemic rates, we should expect these anxieties about Putin’s current foreign policy course to grow” (2018); Russia could have been "strong and great” if only it had "integrated” with the West (2015); "a confident Putin and a confident Russia is no more” (2014). Anders Åslund is an ever-fresh source of wrongness: "The only person who needs a war with Ukraine is Putin. He presumably hopes to boost his minimal popularity through another war.” (2021). "Russia faces a serious – and intensifying – financial crisis. But the country’s biggest problem remains President Vladimir Putin, who continues to deny reality while pursuing policies that will only make the situation worse.” (2015) and, twenty years young: "Russia’s Collapse” from 1999. Mark Chapman gives more "glittering examples of Aslund reasoning". This past, present and future failing is, of course, fatal for Putin. He is a killer without a soul and losing the battle for Russia’s future in 2021, a "weak strongman” in 2020, a "thug, bully and a murderer” in 2016, weak and terrified of losing control in 2015, a "virtual Lt. Col. Kije” in 2001 and a moral idiot in 2000.
The Wrongness Experts tell us it’s a big failure but, in the real world, he and his team have achieved quite a lot. His approval rating has not fallen below 60% in twenty years; the BBC tells us that Russia is heading for catastrophe but Russians tell us it’s "heading in the right direction". (That’s, incidentally, about three times Americans’ assessment of their own future). The simple fact – impossible to get into the heads of the Putin whisperers – is that the Putin Team has done a good job and enjoys steady support. You’d agree too, if you lived in a country that was actually improving: just compare any Western country in 2000 with today and then do the same for Russia; it’s not hard to see. If you permit yourself to see, that is.
Even these dullards understand that a direct military confrontation might not be a good idea (I hope I’m not being premature: after all, in today’s White House, in one room they’re trying to get out of Afghanistan and in another they’re trying to get into more adventures near Russia.) So they recommend sanctions. We’re supposed to believe that each round of sanctions is a response to something Moscow did but the truth is that it’s not what Moscow does, it’s what Moscow is that’s the cause: the very day – 14 December 2012 – the Jackson-Vanik sanctions were lifted, the Magnitskiy sanctions were imposed. That is: from 3 January 1975 to today, for completely different ostensible reasons, Washington has been sanctioning Moscow.
Then after Crimea, more sanctions: Åslund misses the target again: "My view is that the sanctions are so severe that it’s simply not necessary to reinforce them further.” George Soros joined the Wrongness Experts when he confidently predicted Sanctions would bring "bankruptcy” by 2017. Nope: more sanctions, no bankruptcy.
In fact, sanctions, overall, have strengthened Russia because its intelligent government maximised substitution. As a small example, Canada used to have a pretty reliable half billion dollar market for pork in Russia, now Russia exports pork and Canada’s market is gone forever. In the 1990s, it was commonly estimated that Russia imported about half its food; now it is self-sufficient and earns more from food exports than from arms exports. That might have happened eventually, but it happened now because Moscow’s clever reaction was to ban most food imports and support its own farmers. (Remember when cheese was going to bring Putin down?) Europe’s – and Canada’s – loss became Russia’s gain. Washington, it should be noted, is careful never to ban imports that it wants like oil and rocket engines; sauce for the European goose is not sauce for the American gander. But the Putin whisperers, ever willing to reinforce failure, keep piling on the sanctions.
All these "experts” getting it wrong year after year is good for a laugh. But they always pop back up on the TV talk shows spouting the same old tripe. No one ever asks: Mr Expert, you’ve been wrong for twenty years, why should anybody take you seriously now? (Well once – check it out.) On and on it goes – being an Official Russia Expert is the easiest hornswoggle there is. But the Wrongness Experts don’t just clutter up the talk shows, they infest Washington, the White House, the Pentagon, K Street, the universities and the think tanks. They shape policy. We can laugh as we watch them fail again, but their under-estimation of Russia is very dangerous. We have just had an example. Ukraine President Zelensky, egged on by them, confident that mighty NATO had his back and that Russia was feeble, started moving troops and in March pompously decreed the "de-occupation of Crimea". Within a couple of weeks Moscow had concentrated more soldiers and weapons in less time than NATO ever could anywhere. It was tense for a while but Moscow appears to have made its point and Zelensky is now begging for talks. Not so fragile; wrong again.
But the danger is that they will go too far. Scott Ritter thinks that the Putin whisperers have reached their high water level with the recent sanctions, Belarus coup attempt and tensions in Ukraine. I hope he’s right but I suspect that there is still more to come: they’ve made an easy living at this grift and they can’t change now. And it’s depressingly unlikely that they will be replaced by people who can see reality.