Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Putin's Strategy of Inaction and The Rhetoric of Doubt

Putin has shocked and puzzled the world by his actions since the Winter Olympics in 2014. People were shocked by his brazen invasion of the Crimean peninsula, but they have been even more puzzled by his fantastic claims and his support of stories about the invasion of Crimea and the subsequent violent uprising in Eastern Ukraine. We are supposed to believe that all who oppose Russian dominance in Ukraine are fascists; that this fact endangered the lives of Russians living in Crimea, even though not a single incidence of violence has ever been recorded prior to the invasion; that Crimea was in fact not invaded at all, but that some Russian speaking Ukrainians suddenly acquired armored vehicles, military uniforms, tanks, machine guns, sniper rifles, and a clear chain of command in order to spontaneously resist the "Ukrainian nationalist threat." It is said that the first victim of war is the truth, but this takes dishonesty to a new level. The stories aren't even consistent, but rather they change with whatever the situation requires. Phony and rigged referendums are just the top of the iceberg.

Of course, a large part of the explanation is that Putin needs a story to tell his own countrymen in order to justify his actions. His followers have performed a lot of revisionist history lately, writing Russian history books for education which claim that Stalin's mass executions and labor camps were just "a natural consequence of the difficulties of holding together such a vast and diverse country" and portrays the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the worst tragedies and mistakes of the 20th century.

As a former director of the KGB he also understands the use of disinformation and propaganda for external purposes, but what actually is he hoping to achieve?

Putin learned well the lessons from the Iraq War and Syria's use of chemical weapons: An act of war is judged by its justification, and the justification is based on what one could call "actionable intelligence" which convey a clear narrative which warrants a reaction which is appropriate or at least is esteemed to be so by common wisdom. The Iraq War has been condemned mainly because there were no weapons of mass destruction and so the act of war was not justified. The narrative by which an act of war was seen as potentially justified has proven to be false. Fuel is added to the fire when one learns of the faulty intelligence and the flimsy evidence which were used as the basis for the decision to go to war.

Thereafter, the public became increasingly skeptical of justifications for war and scrutinized more carefully the reasons and the evidence given by governments who wanted to do so. "Do we really know for sure that this is what happened? Are there other factors which give these facts a different explanation? Is this really the best course of action and a fitting response?" This was clearly displayed in the public backlash against David Cameron when he lost the vote for use of force to punish Syria for using chemical weapons. Barack Obama felt the same heat from Congress and public opinion. Where was the evidence that chemical weapons were used? How do we know for sure that they were used by Assad's forces? Who issued the order to use it? You claim they have been used by Assad's forces before? Why should we act now when we did not act then?

The opposition did not succeed in disproving that Assad used chemical weapons, but when your goal is not action but inaction you do not have to prove your point. All you have to do is to sow doubt about the narrative and the facts the other person is using to justify their push for action. In any argument aimed at effecting action, the rhetor has to take the audience along the four stases (discussed and elaborated in this post) of fact, definition, quality, and procedure. The audience need to feel they can be pretty confident that they know what happened or what the situation is, what it should be called or what kind of category it fits into, what quality it has (how good or bad it is), and that the proposed action or procedure is the appropriate one according to the facts, definitions, and qualities of the situation in question. Here the defence arguing for inaction has the upper hand, since they do not have to refute all the evidence: all they have to do is muddy the waters a little bit to create room for uncertainty and doubt. The one arguing for action has to defend all the four stases, whereas the one arguing for inaction can choose to attack any one of them. If he can win even one of them he has won the battle and inaction ensues, as any veteran saboteur of planning meetings knows. (just as a side note, this is also why the justice system inherently favors the defense. Not guilty is the default position as long as guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt).

This is what Putin is doing with his rhetoric of doubt. What happened in Crimea? What do we call it? Was it an invasion? Well, no shots were fired, and the action did have the assent of some local government officials. So then it was an annexation? Ok, but that just means that one country took over another. It is not as clear how we should react to an annexation. We know what an invasion is, with all its negative connotations of aggression and war, but what does really an annexation mean and what is the appropriate response to such an action? Support of local government officials and the referendum further makes the case a difficult one to classify. A similar pattern is repeated in Eastern Ukraine, where the so-called "rebels" now have acquired Stinger missiles to shoot down airplanes. Did they get that from used army supply shops as Putin claims? Meanwhile, Russia escalates and then de-escalates their military presence on the border in order to give the pretense of "wanting to keep the peace" while at the same time watching out for its interests. The hope is that the rest of the world will tire and be confused and inactive long enough for Russia to gradually increase and strengthen its hold of the region.

This is the political equivalent of chess with a silent war fought on the stages of international diplomacy as well as through arms supplies, subversion, espionage, and open display of military force. Gradually, the world may learn to tolerate and accept a reality which just a year ago would have provided widespread outrage and the threat of nuclear war. And Putin gets to enjoy his prize with impunity.