Russia vs The World, 1904-Present?
A geopolitical conflict theory
Modern spying was invented during the ‘Great Game’ between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia in the late 19th Century. Celebrated as the model for Ian Fleming’s famous spy James Bond, Sidney Riley thrived in these margins of conflict. He secretly surveyed Caucasian oil production, led an effort to install a friendly government in 1919 during the civil war of Red and White, and ultimately died exposing a Bolshevik capture-and-kill program against exiles. It was the first moment in history that countries had ‘secret weapon’ programs as we think of them. The very word ‘espionage’ invokes narrative layers that only make sense in a world of instant communications and rapid movement — a world of machines. Of course, machines need material to produce value. Imperialism was constructed on the premise that land and resources created the new industrial economy, allowing all the progressive social improvements of the era. These ideas have proven delusory, giving the center of the Asian continent its reputation as the graveyard of empires. The downfall of the Romanovs began in 1904, when Sidney Riley served British interests in Asia by selling Russian secrets to the Japanese. Although his espionage was not instrumental in the resulting embarrassment of Russian arms, it is known to us now because spy mania was a real thing at the time. If anything, the outbreak of general European war in 1914 only added fuel to those flames, whereupon actual — if amateurish — German sabotage efforts in the United States led to restrictive wartime laws and the first official American wartime propaganda machinery.
We have endured a recent episode of spy mania in the West. Setting aside questions of how effective Russian political and media influence efforts were before 2022, Russia is now a polarizing political topic in every country, and Russian expatriates are bearing the brunt of it. Here is another historical resonance with 1914. His Majesty King George V was obliged to change the name of his noble house to be less German. Born in Austria, the First Sea Lord also resigned to eliminate all suspicion. Edgar Speyer wasn’t even German; he was a New Yorker born to Jewish parents from Germany, a highly-regarded philanthropist who helped redesign the London subway system. Nevertheless, a kind of cancel culture crowd developed around conspiracy theories regarding Speyer’s coastal mansion and prewar ownership of a radio set. German composers were being banished from the philharmonic orchestras he sponsored, while his friendships with figures like Richard Strauss were cast as disloyalty in the media. Speyer left the UK in 1915, never to return, but this was not enough to stop a Parliamentary committee from revoking his citizenship. You can see how Russian honorary conductors being dismissed from their posts at western Philharmonic orchestras resonates with the spirit of earlier times. What might be less obvious is the link between the sinking of the Lusitania and the riots it sparked in Liverpool a few days later: a German torpedo resulted in a British mob attacking Russian émigrés and destroying their shops. Wartime rage becomes inchoate. Contrary to popular myths, conflicts create animosities where they had not existed before; jingoism is a response to war, not the origin of war. Despite Trump and Cambridge Analytica and Robert Mueller and all the rest, there was no real wave of reactionary Russophobia in the world until just now, either. Now here it is.
Even the idea of boycotting a nation first took form in the First World War. Britain’s economic blockade of the Central Powers had to be a project of the Foreign Office, not the War Office, because it was not fighting work. Instead, companies doing business with the enemy were blacklisted, even if they were based in neutral countries. Supplies of goods could be bought up wherever the enemy might want to buy them. Anthracite coal was a notable example of this. Without it, German battleships were slower and needed more maintenance because German coal was dirty. Efforts to cut off German agents from buying it in neutral countries were a top priority, and the British paid top dollar to succeed. Then as now, instant communications and information dominance were the keys to economic victory. It took Britain two years to make their blockade really effective, and another two years for it to make Germany run out of bullets. By comparison, the current blockade of Russia is already having an impact on Russians. Analysts now say the window of opportunity for Russian to take any offensive action in Ukraine is not very big — six months or a year — which probably seems like an eternity if you are under bombardment, but would be a blink of the eye to historians.
Ukraine is turning into the Western Front. A successful defense in depth has so far defeated invading Russian land and air forces. Sorry Russian logistics have produced immobility. Russian tactics are more destructive now, but less effective, for they are disconnected from any action that might produce victory. All Russian efforts at deep penetration by air and ground have been defeated or are in the process of defeat. This conflict is different from 1914-1918 in that a negotiation process is already underway while combat rages, a sign of just how badly things were already going by Day 4. Ukrainian forces are reporting great successes so far, though their ability to actually repel Russia from the rest of Ukraine is also quite limited. The result now is a kind of static front. There will be no breakthrough that does not get cut off and annihilated, a la Tannenberg in 1914, as long as Russian troops are still using radio sets from 1960. Noises from Moscow about enlarging the war to include Poland or Romania or the Baltic states are evidence of this frustration. The urban terrain of Ukraine is beginning to resemble the sad photography of cities under high explosive artillery fire in various wars, including the First World War. There are no continuous trenches, of course. Nevertheless, Russian mobilization has given out and they are taking that out on civilians, just as German artillery did in France.
What has not changed between 1904 and 2022 is Russian imperial insecurity. Vladimir Putin and Russia are intellectually stuck in a world where “spheres of influence” were legitimate and necessary. For everyone else, that world was destroyed in blood and fire a century ago; the whole planet has been decolonized with only rare exceptions, including would-be states on the Russian periphery. While no one misses the sad trappings of communism, the psychic pain of losing Soviet hegemony has never healed. Russia’s empire was one of the few things the Bolsheviks wanted to preserve. Many former Russian officers chose to serve the new regime after 1917 because the empire was more important to them than the monarchy. Defaulting to autocracy every time, Russia cannot imagine itself as a peer to Ukraine or Georgia or Poland, for this would diminish Russian greatness. Putin’s historical narrative does not allow for Ukraine or Chechnya or Moldova to exist separate from, and independent of, Russia. Domestic opponents have been systematically discouraged or prevented from imagining a different Russia from this one. Until Russians are allowed to think of themselves as a nation instead of an empire, violence will always emanate from the Russian center, and it will continue to be a problem for the whole world.
Japan checked Russian ambitions in 1905, and it almost brought down the Romanovs. They could not survive a long war with the Central Powers, yet Romanov policy played a vital role in making war happen, and then Russian arms proved incapable of winning a quick victory, or any victory at all. Defeat in 1917 ended the medieval regime; Ukraine will simply have to kill enough Russians to defeat this one, and then we will all have to hope something very new can emerge.