When responding to my critical comments on his consistent exculpation of Putin’s Russia, Mr Hitchens succeeded in the difficult task of including logical solecisms, factual errors and crepuscular judgement in almost every sentence.
Replying to his reply in detail would mean writing a book under the working title of What Peter Hitchens Gets Wrong About Russia, which would easily compete in length with Leo Tolstoy’s collected works (50 volumes).
So here comes an abbreviated, if still regrettably long, response, with his words appearing in italics and his syntax preserved.
[Because we pursue business with China and Saudi Arabia, and refrain from criticising their despotism] our supposed disgust [at Russia] is a pose.
It’s not immediately clear why, if we appease two evil regimes, we should appease them all. But Mr Hitchens a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.
China is indeed a threat, but a less immediate one than Russia. She hasn’t attacked anyone since the 1959 rape of Tibet, while Russia has waged three aggressive wars during Putin’s tenure (2000-?). Also, specifically because China is doing massive business with the West, it’s not yet in her interests to rock the boat. This isn’t to say we should ignore the evil of Chinese communism – only that Russia is more dangerous at this moment.
Does Mr Boot actually believe that nuclear weapons are usable by anyone except madmen, or that Russia’s possession of them has any effect on the NATO/USA/EU push to diminish Russian power in Eastern Europe (the objective of German (and Austrian) policy for more than a century, and now of EU policy, the EU being the continuation of German Mitteleuropa by other means).
Historical references are often unsafe. Why for more than just a century? All European powers have been trying to contain Russia’s imperialism ever since she first evinced it, roughly in Elizabethan times.
And why single out Germany and Austria? For example, at the time Germany wasn’t yet unified, Austria, along with Sardinia, was junior partner to Britain and France in the Crimean War fought to check Russia’s expansionism.
One detects tacit disapproval of any attempts to contain Russia’s ambitions to regain control over Eastern Europe. Mr Hitchens chose a wrong audience for venting such feelings – he should talk to the Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians et al. See what they think.
As to the use of nuclear weapons, we must define both ‘use’ and ‘nuclear weapons’. One can argue that Russia has already used them, low-yield variety, in poisoning a British subject with polonium in the centre of London.
And what constitutes using nuclear weapons? Just nuking cities? That’s like saying that a bank robber didn’t use his shotgun because he merely brandished it to scare the staff into acquiescence and never fired a shot.
Nuclear blackmail has been part and parcel of Russia’s foreign policy from the beginning, and certainly since 1954, when Putin’s role models tried an atomic bomb on unsuspecting live targets at the Totsk testing grounds.
It worked as advertised, killing about 50,000 on the spot, God knows how many by delayed action, and scaring the West witless: if they can do that to their own people, what can they do to us? Since then the Russian nuclear cosh has hung over the West’s head like the sword of Damocles.
Had they not been so armed, the West would conceivably not have allowed them to drown the 1956 Hungarian uprising in blood, nor to push the world to the brink of extinction over Cuba in 1962.
The point germane to Mr Hitchens’s pet theme is that the Americans might have prevented the 1949 communist takeover of China had the Russians not tested the bomb a few months earlier.
If Russia’s nuclear weapons were a realistic military/political threat, then Moscow would not have lost control of 700,000 square miles of territory since 1989 (400,000 square miles of which have since found their way into EU control, with most of the missing area being composed of Ukraine, which was non-aligned until the violent pro-EU mob putsch there in 2014 ).
And, writes Chekhov, if Pushkin hadn’t been a great psychologist, they wouldn’t have erected a statue to him in Moscow. In what part of his body does Mr Hitchens store all his non sequiturs? He certainly shouldn’t talk through it. Those territories seceded by internal uprising, not outside invasion resistible by nuclear bombs.
When the Soviet Union began to creak, Gorbachev had to rely on conventional arms only. He encouraged an internecine massacre in Karabakh, 1988; created a carnage in Tbilisi, 1989; had Spetsnaz storm Baku, 1990; twice introduced troops into Moscow, 1990 and 1991; blockaded Lithuania, 1990; landed airborne troops in the middle of a peaceful demonstration in Vilnus, with entrenchment tools busting the demonstrators’ heads. Such is the difference between military and police action, which is lost on Mr Hitchens.
And the Ukraine was non-aligned until 2014? Really. Yanukovych’s criminal government was Putin’s stooge, and the country effectively Russia’s vassal. That’s why it took a popular uprising for the Ukraine to gain independence.
Mr Hitchens should also try not to reproduce word for word the language of FSB propaganda when talking about the Ukrainian revolution. “Violent pro-EU mob putsch”? Next thing you know he’ll be talking about the Judaeo-Nazi-Banderite plot, standard fare in the Putin press.
Moscow’s riposte to the incorporation of Ukraine into a politico-military alliance with the EU (in the accession to the Association Agreement which was the main aim of the putsch) was extraordinarily limited . The reincorporation of Crimea into Russia was simple opportunism and is now a fait accompli. The violent harassment and covert warfare in eastern Ukraine was an attempt to deter further action of this kind, but not to recover what was lost.
So Russia’s naked aggression against a sovereign state was extraordinarily limited? Just simple opportunism? Putin didn’t march on Kiev? That’s all right then. And Hitler was simply opportunistic when grabbing Sudetenland in 1938, as was Stalin in helping himself to the Baltics, East Poland, Bessarabia and Bukovina in 1939-40.
Does Mr Hitchens discern obvious parallels? Apparently not. Nor does he realise that the Ukrainian revolution was inspired by anti-Russian, not pro-EU, sentiments. And referring to the EU as a “politico-military” alliance is a bad joke. There’s only one military alliance protecting Europe: Nato.
Russian conventional forces, sustained by a GDP smaller than Italy’s simply could not sustain a major war (nor as we saw, could Saddam Hussein against Kuwait. Nor could the Vandals.).
This is the old saw about Russia being too poor to be a threat to anybody. Now Russia was starving in the 1930s, which didn’t prevent her from effectively dividing Europe with Hitler and creating the world’s best-equipped (if worst-led) army. And in the 1970s, when her GDP was a third of today’s, Russia had 50,000 tanks threatening Europe and fomented subversion all over the world.
Didn’t the Vandals sack Rome in 410? And Saddam could sustain his aggression very well – it took him 24 hours to occupy a much richer Kuwait. His forces were only defeated by a Nato invasion, and the question remains whether Nato would act as decisively if a nuclear-armed Russia grabbed, say, the Baltics.
Also, smaller than Italy’s though Russia’s GDP may be, its military/security spending is 5.5 per cent of it, and close to 50 per cent (!) of the federal budget – something seldom matched by any country even at wartime. By contrast, China, Mr Hitchens’s hobgoblin, is only spending 1.2 per cent of her GDP on war needs.
It’s not the size of GDP that counts, but the intensity of commitment. An aggressive 11-stone bully can beat up a fat 20-stone coward.
Russia no doubt hates the loss of the Baltic states (Gorbachev, as I have personal reason to know, fought very violently to prevent it) but their physical location, and the eventual inevitable fading of American interest in Europe which we will see in the coming century, mean that it is most likely that they will eventually come under Russian influence again anyway.
It doesn’t take Mr Hitchen’s “personal” gnostic powers to know that Gorbachev “fought very violently” to prevent the independence of the Baltics – see above. Stalin fought even more violently to disabuse the Balts of any notion of freedom: about a quarter of them perished in execution cellars and concentration camps.
However, the Baltics are members not only of the EU but also of Nato, which is contractually obligated to defend them against aggression. Should it neglect to do so, Russia’s takeover of the Baltics would lead to her de facto control of Europe, for Nato would be defunct.
Mr Hitchens doesn’t seem to be unduly bothered by the possible repeated rape of the Baltics, which is only inevitable to someone in possession of aforementioned gnostic prescience.
Baltic and West Ukrainian guerrillas heroically fought the Russian occupiers throughout the 50s, with no tangible support from the West. If the Russians move in again, Muslim terrorism would seem like a school outing compared to what will ensue. The Russians know this, which consideration alone may not make their repossession of their former slaves as inevitable as Mr Hitchens thinks (hopes?).
Mr Boot says : ‘Then comes a downright lie: Russia “isn’t interested in us”. On what basis does Hitchens make this assurance?
On the basis of the fact that there is no rational casus belli. We have no territorial or other conflict with Russia, at sea or on land.
If Mr Hitchens thinks that modern wars are caused only by such conflicts, he needs to go back to history books (a short one will do). Putin is committed to undo what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century”, the disintegration of the Soviet empire.
To that end he’s rallying his impoverished population by reviving traditional Russian imperialism, packaged with Third Rome claims to spiritual superiority over the West and consequently Russia’s holy mission to confront it.
Such is the ideology that has replaced communism, and Putin’s kleptofascist junta lives or dies by it. If he wants to live, he has to deliver – otherwise he dies, if only because the Russians have to have some metaphysical compensation for all the physical deprivation.
Surely Mr Hitchens has heard of modern ideology replacing traditional casus belli?
Mr Boot says: ‘Every page of every Putin newspaper spouts unadulterated hatred for the West, especially the Anglophone West. Hardly a day goes by without open threats being made, along the lines of radioactive dust.’ Talk is cheap. Much of our own press is full of similarly empty rubbish about Russia, which is less excusable because the media involved do it of their own accord.
It’s that moral equivalence again.
I don’t know if Mr Hitchens’s Russian stretches to following official Putin TV channels. I suspect not. But if it does, he could do worse than watch the two regular propaganda talk shows, one hosted by Kisilev (whom the Russians affectionately call ‘Putin’s Goebbels’), the other by Soloviov. Both men, along with their guests, are dummies to Putin’s ventriloquist, and here are some samples of what they’ve mouthed over the past few days:
“I don’t care what America does, or Europe – only what Russia does. And we’ll do what we do best: either fight… or achieve our goals by diplomacy. And if they don’t like it, we’ll wipe the scowls off their ugly mugs.”
“No one will give us anything. We must grab everything ourselves. If we miss something, Trump will sink his teeth into us. We must yank his teeth out. That’s what we must do!”
“We win when we attack! The enemy must be conquered on his territory!”
“Many people are trying to understand what the West is trying to say. We don’t need that. Nonsense should be ignored. We should respond in practical terms, so they realise we’ll hurt them. They knew how to do that in the Soviet Union.”
“We’ve changed our policy. They impose sanctions, and we – bang! – whacked Syria!”
[If Americans were to bomb the Syrian army], “We’ll shoot them down”.
“Imprudent behaviour [towards Russia] may lead to nuclear consequences.”
“If the West doesn’t want to talk to Lavrov [foreign minister], it’ll have to talk to Shoigu [defence minister].”
Doesn’t quite sound like Newsnight, does it? This is the kind of rhetoric with which the Russians are bombarded round the clock.
Talk may be cheap but, when used by aggressive dictators, it’s dear at the price. Just look at the history of the twentieth century to see what bellicose mass propaganda can do. And seldom even in Soviet history was it as bellicose as it is now – a point on which all Russians agree who are old enough to compare.
Nor is it just talk. According to our military analysts, such as Gen. Shirreff, former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Russia is gearing for war.
Putin has committed the country to the £190-billion modernisation of over 90 per cent of her armaments by 2020. Russia has amassed 30 motorised divisions (330,000 troops) on her western borders, with more tanks, by an order of magnitude, than Britain, Germany and France possess put together. She has installed short-range Iskander missiles in the Kaliningrad area at the Polish border. The deployment pattern points at a direct threat to the Baltic Nato members.
The civilian evacuation drills involving 40 million people, vast army exercises in offensive tactics, surreptitious call-up of reservists, massive deployment of strategic missile forces armed with the new ICBM RS-28 all cost billions which Russia’s shrinking economy can’t afford for long. That suggests the country is planning some action soon.
Just two days ago, Putin ordered Russia’s air force to prepare for a “time of war”. Those preparations have already begun, according to Russian ministers.
Does Hitchens think the Russians have no vested interest in reducing our defence capabilities? Are they waging electronic war against us just for fun?” [Quote from my article] I cannot for the life of me see why. We have, in the Thatcher-Major-Blair-Cameron-May period reduced ourselves to military and naval insignificance entirely by our own efforts.
Why what? Why they’re waging electronic war against us? Or why they want to reduce our defence capability? The former is a fact, the latter is its explanation.
Mr Hitchens’s ‘us’ seems to imply Britain only. And it’s true that our defence has been criminally weakened. But we’re a member of Nato, a fact even Mr Hitchens must be aware of, and it’s in this sense that I use the possessive pronoun ‘our’.
Why Russia wishes to undermine Nato defences is self-evident: Nato is the only force standing in the way of Putin’s raison d’être, his self-proclaimed mission of rebuilding the Soviet empire.
What the Russians call disinformatsiya is a critical part of this. The unspeakable monstrosity of Russia’s policy over the past century has always been accompanied by massive propaganda effort aimed at weakening the West’s resolve to resist.
Lenin was “a dreamer in the Kremlin”. Stalin was a great, if at times stern, leader. Khrushchev, Brezhnev et al. were committed to eternal peace. Gorbachev and Yeltsyn were liberal democrats. Putin is a patriot and the great leader we wish we had.
This stream of propaganda ebbs and flows, and it’s now at its peak. The flow is fed by numerous tributaries, among which Western “useful idiots”, in Lenin’s apt phrase, take pride of place.
Whether Mr Hitchens acts in that capacity out of ideological conviction, ignorance or merely the desire to be different is a mildly interesting but ultimately irrelevant question. What’s important is that this is exactly the capacity in which he acts, wittingly or unwittingly.
I’m prepared to debate this melancholy conclusion with him face to face, in any format and before any audience of his choice, this side of the Russian embassy. Ideally the audience should be comprised of people able to distinguish between ratiocination proceeding from facts and intellectually puny ideology.