Maybe I’ve missed something, but as best I can tell most Americans – indeed, most in the West in general – aren’t aware of the fact that, two weeks ago, US troops repelled a Russian attack in Syria, killing maybe as many as several hundred people (and losing none of their own).
Here’s the contemporaneous report from CNN. If you read Russian, though, you’ll learn a lot more from Pavel Felgengauer’s article today in Novaya Gazeta. In a nutshell: On 7 Feb., a unit of pro-Assad troops including some number of Russians – most likely from the ‘Vagner’ private military co (Russia’s version of Blackwater) – moved on an oil facility near Deir ez-Zor, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
There’s a phrase in Russian – which I’m sure I’ve written about before – that warns against paying too much attention to “the average temperature in the hospital” (средняя температура по больнице, an indicator of patients’ aggregate health that is easily measured but generally meaningless). It’s a phrase that comes increasingly to mind every time I read or hear that Russia’s economy is set to grow by 2% of GDP this year: that figure might make Economy Minister Maksim Oreshkin feel good about his stewardship, but it masks quite a range of ailments.
In today’s Russia, in a context of institutional breakdown and politically enforced atomization, it is not, as Marshall McLuhan has famously suggested, the medium that allows for the extension of human beings across space and time. It is the messages those media carry that matter. Put more succinctly: The messages make the media.
That, in a nutshell, is the argument of a brief essay I was invited to contribute to a symposium on ‘The Press Under Attack’ for Mobilizing Ideas. The rest of the essay is here.
It’s official: Ksenia Sobchak is running for president of Russia.
Her words, not mine:
I know I’m a controversial figure. I’m a journalist, a blonde in chocolate, the daughter of a reformer, a member of the coordinating council of the Russian opposition. I might not be your candidate, but my participation in these elections on the terms I’ve described is good for voters and healthy for Russia’s political system.
In her announcement-cum-manifesto published in Vedomosti, Sobchak declared that she’s not for the annexation of Crimea – and not against it. “I’m outside the rigid frameworks of politics,” she wrote. Russia, she says, should be a European country, a democratic country, a federation, an open economy with a strong welfare state, free of propaganda, secular, and rid of the corruption that currently besets it.
US Vice President Mike Pence walks out of an NFL game because players knelt. President Donald Trump considers firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, we’re told, because the latter called him a moron. What’s this got to do with Russia?
People trying to sound smart about Russian strategy like to use funny words, like zugzwang (what happens in chess when you’re obliged to make a move that will inevitably hasten your own defeat) or kuzushi (the knack in judo of getting your opponent off-balance). Mostly, of course, this is shorthand for “I don’t really know what’s going on, but here’s something that sounds good.”
Funny, then, that people who usually go in for this kind of analysis are so easily kuzushied. (Or zugzwanged? I forget.) Case in point:
In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) asked the witnesses whether she should be worried about an anti-Hillary Clinton robocall she once received, which featured a woman speaking with what sounded to her like a Slavic accent.
There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.