It’s helpful to have a monster under the bed when you’ve run out of scary stories to tell the kids. Every good story needs a proper antagonist. Their function is to take an otherwise complex moral reality and distill it into a simple axiom: good vs. evil. It’s a script we’ve all been indoctrinated with since we were kids. A helpful literary device that let’s us reflexively understand any situation or story without delving into unnecessary details that might otherwise obscure the plot.
Russia has become the ephemeral monster under the bed. Putin – the perfect boogeyman. To him we can pin all number of tragedies afflicting the world. Everything, it would seem, is orchestrated from the Kremlin. And Putin is always two steps ahead of the rest of us. It’s as if the Troizkaya Tower were suddenly equipped with the Eye of Sauron, and Putin were the only one capable of seeing through its gaze.
— Shaun Riordan (@shaun_riordan) April 2, 2016
Given that many of the conflicts are happening in areas where journalists are severely restricted – even jailed, beaten or worse just for trying – details remain sparse and few between. In the absence of fact, speculation takes hold. This is fertile ground for the boogeyman to make an unwelcome appearance.
To be fair, the Russian president seems to bask in the sacrilegious glory of it all. Each rumor or bit of wild speculation that portrays the nefarious leader orchestrating a new world order acts like a horcrux making him more powerful than he was before. The antagonist always has a certain invincibility attributed to them – in the beginning at least. That’s because if they appeared mortal too early on in the story, we would see just enough of ourselves in them to make the plot no longer axiomatic, but deeply troubling. Disturbing, even.
It’s this invincibility that Putin draws from when he whips up domestic support and when he nips would-be challengers in the bud. Even if we don’t like him, we are told, we must respect his power until his fall. Besides, the climax is sure to follow. To my mind, at least, this seems to be a growing narrative among so-called Kremlinologists and among some D.C. foreign policy circles indoctrinated in the finer practices of real politik.
None of this is to say that Russia doesn’t have it’s hand in situation after situation. That much seems obvious. It’s clear, for example, that Russia is helping the separatists movements in eastern Ukraine, sending hundreds of Russian soldiers to an unceremonious (and tragic) Donbass grave. It’s also clear that he directed the Russian military to target areas that weren’t controlled by ISIS in Syria and was unscrupulous about bombing civilian areas in order to prop up a tyrannical dictator that has committed war crime after war crime. And just in case we weren’t sure, Putin, like every evil genius, controls untold riches through vast network of collaborators and petulant thieves.
But axiomatic thinking is unhelpful in understanding the enormous complexities of the world. And empowering a single man with an aura of invincibility, while a nice literary trick, runs the risk of turning a monster of a man into a man-made monster. One that can only be defeated in a climatic confrontation with an as of yet unidentified protagonist.
It also runs the risk of hiding our own complicity in the tragic state of world affairs.
Several commentators were quick to point out, for example, that Russia regularly equips both sides of the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with military hardware, only to reap the rewards of never-ending conflict. Myself included. Almost no one pointed out, however, that the United States also supports both sides militarily. Indeed, despite a longstanding ban buried in Section 907 of US Congress’s Freedom and Support Act, the US has regularly waived this provision or left the arms trade to allies. No such ban exists for Armenia, despite the UN General Assembly’s re-affirmation of the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan – including the contested territories of Nagorno-Karabakh. That’s because the Armenian lobby had a leg-up on legislative matters in the early 1990’s when the conflict first erupted. Thus the US Department of Defense and State Department have been free to support the Armenian military to the tune of millions in US taxpayer dollars over the last several decades, as if Armenia were just like any of the other foreign governments that receive billions in US assistance every year. But Armenia is not just any other country – and neither is Azerbaijan.
The massive armaments build-up in the region has given each regime an illusory, if not dogmatic belief, held by political and military leaders on both sides, that their side can win an ultimate and decisive victory when the time comes. It’s this type of foolish thinking that has led to calamity after disastrous calamity throughout history. And it’s always the poor and downtrodden who suffer the most, not the politicians who whip up nationalist sentiment and drive their country to eventual ruin.This is not a new development in war, but it is a tragic aspect that tidy infographics make a habit of hiding.
Few eyebrows were ever raised when it came to spending what amounts to a drop in the bucket in overall US Foreign Military Assistance and training funds on the small South Caucasus country (despite Azerbaijan’s best lobbying efforts – but don’t worry, Armenia does it too). Regardless if US educated officers on both sides are now directing their soldiers to shoot at each other.
Mutual complicity runs deeper than a simple register of debits and credits, however. The greater issue is the unwillingness on all sides to come to the table and find a resolution. Time and again short-term gains have proven too great an obstacle to long-term thinking and a commitment to peaceful resolution. The US needed partners in the war on terror, and transit routes to Afghanistan. Europe needed Azeri gas, the proceeds of which undoubtedly contributed to the massive armaments build-up. Armenia, isolated on both sides needed all the support it could get – from wherever it could get it – including ‘the boogeyman.’ Stalemate was guaranteed. Protracted conflict, a predictable, if tragic outcome.
As was the inevitable loss of life – not just as a result of yesterday or this morning’s fighting – but with great consistency. With every sniper’s round that found its target, to every suicide at the front – a tragic indicator of the deplorable conditions and lack of support soldiers on the front have endured for decades, and a reminder that this conflict has casualties even when the guns remain silent, and reporters have left the scene of the crime.
Today, virtually no mechanism exists on the ground that could potentially provide even a momentary stop-gap to further escalation. The whole of international monitoring efforts there amount to only a few unarmed OSCE monitors in the area. The lack of effective monitoring is itself an outcome of the international community’s chronic shortcomings in the region. We can only hope that cooler heads will prevail, or that neither side will be willing to push things too far fearing a chain reaction of events that could potentially grow beyond their control. ‘International pressure’ is the key-term to pay attention to here, even though pressure has been building along the contact line for months (even years) with little sustained attention given to it until now.
But world attention brings with it its own risks, and we have to be careful not to become unwilling combatants in a sophisticated propaganda war that serves only one purpose: to keep warring regimes in power while placating their potentially unruly publics with body counts and tales of heroic feats on the battlefield.
In the media frenzy some have been quick to point to the boogeyman in the room. Others have chided at the prospect of Russia playing peace-maker. As Thomas de Waal recently noted, “There is a widespread tendency to see here the “hand of Russia” in this, an attempt by Moscow to manufacture a situation where it can intervene and deploy Russian peacekeepers on the ground… Yet, though influential, Russia is not in the driving seat of this conflict. Armenia and Azerbaijan are.”
That Russia has interests in the region does not absolve complicity of other actors involved. The situation cannot be reduced to analysis that suggests so, as Mr. de Waal rightly points out. It’s also not just states that have a stake in the outcome or a role to play in its resolution.
There is no single boogeyman hiding under the bed. And if we are lucky, no single climatic moment will bring the whole tragic episode to an end. However, assuring such a resolution will require a sincere commitment to peace and a willingness to see the monster in ourselves.
— Meydan TV (@MeydanTV) August 6, 2014
Ryan McCarrel is a PhD Candidate in Political Geography at University College Dublin. He writes extensively on geopolitics and world (dis)order. You can follow him on twitter @ryanmccarrel