Tit For Tat

Putin’s First Law: For every infraction, there will be an equal and opposite infraction.

READING THROUGH Eric Garland’s thread on Christopher Steele’s just-released 2018 strategic assessment, presented as part of the UK Russia Report from the Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee—I would like to blame the virus for my lack of a social life, but I was this desperate for excitement even before the plague—I came across the term “Tit for Tat” in the context of retaliatory measures Steele recommended the UK government take against Putin personally.

My first thought was about my last semester of college, 35 years ago. (Actually, my first thought was “UK retaliate against Russia? Has Mr. Steele actually met the British?” but the perfidies of Albion are a topic for another dispatch.) I needed a three-credit gut to graduate, so I took a course on nuclear disarmament. The lecturer was a visitor from whatever Princeton now calls what until a month ago was the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. About the only thing I remember from the class was the concept of “Tit for Tat,” a term coined in game theory but adapted during the Cold War into disarmament and security studies. In the context of global affairs, the phrase referred to an unwritten rule between matched superpowers that, if the antagonists wanted to contain a particular public disagreement without escalating into a wider dispute, they should tailor their responses to a perceived insult as narrowly and as symmetrically as possible, without unnecessary humiliation or provocation.

A classic example of this is embassy expulsions for counterespionage purposes. For decades, whenever Washington or Moscow kicked out one or more posted diplomats (accusing them of espionage), the other side within a few weeks threw out the exact same number of the other side’s foreign service staff of similar rank (making the same accusation). No more, no less. Thus, in late July of this year, the Trump administration ordered China’s entire Houston consulate closed on 72 hours’ notice. Within days the PRC shuttered our similarly-sized mission in Chengdu with similar aplomb. There will be a few sputters of righteously insincere indignation (“How DARE you accuse us of what we just accused you of!”) on both sides, but because the response to the insult was titrated with scientific precision, each side has saved public face and can afford to let the matter drop from the news cycle.

The rules can be applied to almost anything that involves a national flag. In 1980, Jimmy Carter snubbed the Soviets by pulling our athletes from the Moscow Summer Olympics because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan. (This was right after we beat their usually invincible hockey team in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, denying them their umpteenth gold in the sport.) Ruining a sporting event over something as trivial as an invasion on the Silk Road was a disproportionate response and was therefore a new insult. Predictably, they boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. (After, of course, taking the gold again at Sarajevo without ever meeting us on the ice, where we placed third to last.)

Afghanistan will come back into this story. As Kipling tried to warn us, the place never really goes away.

I am not an expert in national security issues. I do not possess, and never have possessed, anything remotely resembling clearance for any classified information. That is probably for the best of all concerned: myself, the nations of the world, your family. What follows is less analysis than observation, and the facts averred are based on public accounts supplemented with a generous portion of rumors and supposition. With that disclaimer out of the way, here is my thesis:

For 20 years, Vladimir Putin’s perceived insults to the United States and its allies have been carefully measured responses to what are perceived transgressions against Russia or the Soviet Union (the two are the same thing in Putin’s mind). They are intended to settle scores, certainly, but not to invite a counterattack that risks a snowballing conflict. Our reactions need to be measured accordingly. We can choose to match or to escalate. We cannot choose to ignore.

Note: I am using “insult” here in its archaic meaning, from the original Latin: a measured but effective leaping attack. Fun fact: the word insul’t is the common Russian term for an ischemic event, e.g. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, nashi aktivy soobschayut, chto Tramp perenyos insul’t!” “Pravda, a kakim obrazom razlichali?” (“Vladimir Vladimirovich, our sources say Trump suffered a stroke!” “Really, how could they tell?”)

As previously discussed, the Russians are no strangers to conspiracy theories, and their national narrative going back a thousand years breaks down essentially to: “We were just trying to peacefully stomp on some little guys when a larger guy came and aggressively stomped on us, the bastard.” If that is your worldview, then you are uniquely qualified to measure the effect of the stomping you received and craft an equal and proportionate response. The last 20 years of Putin’s Russia have been about responding symmetrically to almost 40 years of American insults, even if on a long time delay.

Let’s get the big one out of the way first: the patricide of his Motherland. Before he was President, before he was Prime Minister, back when he was simply the top Russian security official in another man’s administration, one of Putin’s first pronouncements was that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the Twentieth Century. This is the same timespan that gave us genocide, the atomic bomb, and polyester spandex clothing, but in a Russocentric universe, losing the other 14 buffer states and its outer penumbra of Central European satellites negated the apotheosis of a millennium of Russian history. The man legally responsible for the official disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was Boris Yeltsin, who signed the Belovezha Accords with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus and presented the fiat to Gorbachev like Larry and his two brothers named Darryl presenting an eviction notice to Dick Loudon. So when Putin—who worked for Yeltsin when he said it—felt free to mourn the breakup, he did so knowing that Russians did not blame Yeltsin, or even Gorbachev, for the death of their beloved country.

Like good xenophobic patriots, they lay that accusation directly at our feet. And they are probably right. In the 1980s, we broke the Bear’s back financially and materially. Reagan’s arms race is still the greatest game of poker ever played. Dutch realized he did not have to have better cards, he just had to borrow all of our grandchildren’s inheritance and spend it to buy all the chips in the house, and Mishka Kosolapy would eventually fold because he could not afford to call. By the time Bush 41 was elected, Gorbachev’s pot had been splashed harder than the only hydrant at a dog park. The General Secretary was faced with a tough choice: maintain the expense of occupying the Warsaw Pact countries and of prosecuting the Afghanistan war but be unable to maintain even basic goods and services at home, or stanch the bleeding and concentrate resources on maintaining the standard of living in the Union.

As far as every Russian from Putin on down is concerned, Gorbachev made the wrong choice. By refusing to choke out rebellions in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany in the late 1980s, Mikhail Sergeevich gave the green light to widespread civil demonstrations in the Baltics, on Soviet turf. By the time Gorbachev opened fire on protesters in Vilnius (Lithuanian for “Portland”) in January 1991, it was too late: all three of the countries were irreversibly headed towards secession. This was one of the reasons for the August 1991 coup in the USSR, plotted and carried out by men who may have lacked Putin’s patience and planning skills but who were certainly simpatico with his value system: they feared that as soon as the hold on the Baltics was loosened, the rest of the republics would demand their own sovereignty. The putschists may have been troglodytes, but they knew the rules of their zoo: Gorbachev had barely shaved and changed into a new suit after being released from detention before Lithuania issued its declaration of independence, and Latvia and Estonia were not far behind. Within six months, the Soviet Union was no more.

Putin, and the people who put him where he is today, is getting his revenge—or to use the more academic term, “responding proportionately”—to this systemic disintegration of their homeland. In Russian security theory, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were necessary counterweights to NATO, the EU, and of course the US. If these structural buffers dissolved, then America and its Western Allies by definition become existential threats to Russia. Even if it has taken them two decades in power, the Putinistas (the variant term “Putinoid” sounds too much like a Devo song or the Domino’s commercial) have effectively and proportionately responded. Consider:

The EU? One of the prime post-war architects of European political cooperation just walked out of the house in a dissolution messier and longer than the average Trump divorce after a political process that could not have a clearer set of fingerprints on it if Nigel Farage relocated to Moscow and started giving interviews in native-level Russian on the success of Operatsiya “Breksit.” Poland and Hungary are in active competition to make Belarus at best the second most totalitarian country in Europe. And with the departure of the UK, Germany and France—both of whom know from a millennium of experience that they do not belong alone in bed together because the lovemaking gets real bloody real fast—are eyeing each other warily as the biggest economies on the continent.

NATO? “Keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and Germany down,” as Hastings Ismay, the alliance’s first Secretary General, is reported to have defined its mission. Trump’s antipathy to NATO would, in anything approaching a normal presidency, be a constant news story, but here on Bizarro World it barely makes page 10 below the fold every third month. Unable to grasp the difference between a military alliance for common defense and one of his golf resorts, the President of the United States simply does not understand why other countries refuse to pay dues directly to him, so he has made no secret of his desire to pull as many resources away from the pact as he can, with or without the assent of our partners or even of our own government. Without America’s keystone military footprint in Europe, and without a UK government invested equally in the Continent and in its “special relationship” with the US, NATO’s future rests on, well, Germany and France. So much for Germany down, so much for the Russians out.

The USA itself? That is the real jewel in the crown. Politically, socially, culturally, economically, and regionally, we are closer now to civil war than we have been since the Buchanan Administration. And while most of these divisions have been brewing within our republic for decades if not at least a century, the Bear’s pawprints on their exacerbation are almost everywhere: Mariia Butina and the NRA’s bottomless financing; Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, advertising revenue to Facebook, and an army of Twitterbots; the invitation of a small cadre of Republicans to Moscow on the Fourth of July to “tell the Russians not to meddle in our elections” (complete with winks, nudges, and, almost certainly, envelopes under the table); an army of bagmen and cut-outs running cash to Republicans—from nematodes like Kevin McCarthy to certain high court jurists who will remain nameless because they have better lawyers—to ensure that there will be another generation of compromised GOP politicians; honey traps to meet every conceivable Republican sexual taste. The list goes on.

(Probably the only divisive element in American society that the Russians do not put money or resources into is organized religion. Our love affair with professional and politicized Christophrenia, and the massive downward pull it has on the national average IQ, is all on us. The only thing Vlad has to pay for there is the popcorn and Fanta as he sits back and enjoys the show.)

I am not saying the Russians want us to have another civil war. They don’t. Civil wars are messy and unstable, and they increase the level of chaos around the world while they are occurring. Chaos is not what Russia wants or needs, even if the epicenter of the storm is on the other side of the planet. America in the midst of a dissolution or emerging from one simply requires Russia to have more than one America policy at a time.

So actually pushing us into disintegration is not their goal: keeping us on the edge of it is. We are in a perfect state of weakness at the moment. We are introspective, isolated, disunified, confused, and mutually suspicious. The heart of the world’s largest and most powerful economy and military is in arrythmia. Our economy is in free-fall, our schools are about to close, our currency has maybe six months before the world devalues it, our electoral system is trusted by neither party, and the only time we go out in public is to scream at each other over mask policies or to test out the latest tear gas remedies.

Congratulations, America. You’ve become the Soviet Union in 1991.

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Next time: the trees are just as ugly as the forest.


Photo credit: The Kremlin. President Boris Yeltsin handing over the “presidential” copy of the Russian constitution to Vladimir Putin in December 1999.