Tag Archives: Vladimir Putin

Diversionary Strategies, Iran, and the Putin Election Campaign

Russian presidential candidate Vladimir Putin has made attacking the U.S. a major part of his election strategy. Is he engaging in a diversionary campaign?

Diversionary war (and diversionary actions short of war) has been the subject of a great deal of research by political scientists and popular commentary by news outlets, pundits, and even Hollywood.  Simply put, the diversionary hypothesis states that political leaders who face domestic political or economic difficulties will often invent or exaggerate foreign threats.  This may take the form of bellicose rhetoric, displays of force, or full-scale military action.  Diversion may provide a political boost for leaders either by distracting public attention from problems at home or by unifying the public (behind the government) against this alleged adversary abroad. 

There remains considerable debate in the academic literature about the prevalence of diversionary strategies and the precise conditions that might lead to their use.  A major challenge to empirically identifying cases of diversion is that political leaders have strong incentives to avoid ever admitting to the use of force for political purposes.  But alleged instances of diversion include Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s decision to invade Grenada shortly after 241 marines were killed in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, and U.S. President Bill Clinton’s bombing campaigns against Iraq and Serbia in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the resulting impeachment trial (1998-99).  Even Hollywood films have featured the diversionary hypothesis.  The film Wag the Dog (1997) is commonly regarded as a hilarious satire of American presidents’ efforts to manipulate the public in the media age, and many commentators drew uncomfortable parallels between the plot of the film and the actions of President Clinton. 

Two recent news items suggest that while diversion may be difficult to prove empirically, it is alive and well in world politics.  With presidential elections approaching in Russia and anti-government protests growing more strident, presidential candidate (and current prime minister) Vladimir Putin has begun to consistently attack the U.S. for allegedly meddling in its internal affairs and seeking to weaken and “subdue Russia.”  A CBS news analysis points out that “Putin’s anti-Americanism may have roots in his 16-year KGB career, but many believe that it is really driven by political expediency rather than ideology…Facing growing public frustration over pervasive official corruption and rising social inequality, Putin appears to be trying to redirect public anger at foreign forces.” 

And in Iran, where blaming foreign enemies for domestic problems is common (and often appears convincing given a history that includes the U.S.-British overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and more recently aggressive covert operations to halt Iran’s nuclear program), Iran’s leaders raised the specter of its foreign enemies to increase voter turnout in yesterday’s parliamentary elections.  In reporting on the elections, the New York Times highlighted the “recent campaign by Iranian high officials and clerics that declared voting a national and religious duty at a time of stress and danger…Mohammad Ali Shabani, a political analyst in Tehran [concluded]: ‘They portrayed a high turnout as a way to show unity and resistance in the face of sanctions.'”

What do you think?  Do diversionary strategies work or does the public typically see through such efforts to distract them from domestic problems? If such strategies do work at times, under what circumstances are they likely to be more or less successful?  How might actions taken for domestic political reasons have unintended effects on international relations?

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Political Efficacy, the Middle Class, and the “Russian Spring”

In the wake of parliamentary elections, Russian protesters have taken to the streets in numbers not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union.

What prompts people living under tyranny to finally rise up and demand change? The Arab Spring of 2011 has given us a laboratory to examine various theories of revolution and political change. The events in Russia during the last week have given us an additional window into the causes of political change.

As discussed previously in this blog, Russia has stalled in its transition from communist autocracy to liberal democracy. But up until now, the Russian people have seemed content to sacrifice democracy for stability and economic growth, which Vladimir Putin has provided. Putin’s announcement, however, that he would seek the presidency again in 2012–where he could stay for 12 more years–and simply switch positions again with current president Dmitry Medvedev was poorly received by the Russian people. This discontent was exacerbated by last week’s parliamentary elections, which produced losses for the ruling United Russia party but were widely perceived as flawed and provoked massive demonstrations in Moscow.

Why are these pro-democracy stirrings occurring now?  Some evidence indicates that a new sense of political efficacy has gripped some Russians.  Political scientists have shown through survey research a strong correlation between perceptions of political efficacy–the belief that one can have an impact on political outcomes–and political participation.  Julia Ioffe writes in a Foreign Policy article:

“For years, polls showed well over 80 percent of Russians did not believe they could influence the political process. And, for the most part, they were right, not least because people who do not participate — either because they don’t want to, or because they’re disincentivized from doing so — can have little effect. The lack of incentives to participate was important, and it was by design…The [election] results, despite the forgeries and the trickery, at least accurately reflected in some way United Russia’s sinking poll numbers, and this seemed to have been the push the class of the fed-up needed: it showed them that if you go out and participate, even in a crooked system, something, even something small, can come of it.”

Who populates this vocal group of dissenting Russians?  Ioffe quotes a member of the Russian Duma (parliament) as saying: “We have a middle class now. It may not be as big as in Germany and France, but it exists. And the quality of the needs in towns has changed, from how to survive to how to live. They have what to eat and what to drive. The question now is how to live with dignity and justice.”  Indeed, scholars have suggested that the presence of a rising middle class is a key precursor to democratic change in a country, since people who have become accustomed to greater economic power and choices normally desire political influence that is commensurate with their newfound economic power.  Ioffe concludes:  “As could be seen at the week’s mass protests, and in the Twitter and Facebook blizzard in the days that followed, what these young, educated, urban, middle-class Russians of the Putin era need is exactly what [the Duma member] said they needed: dignity and justice.”

Constitutional Structures vs. Political Reality in Putin’s Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev are set to swap positions (again) in 2012.

The announcement that former Russian president (and current prime minister) Vladimir Putin plans to assume the presidency again in 2012–a position he can legally hold for up to 12 more years–has provoked a flurry of reponses from political analysts.  Some have expressed surprise and consternation, while others contend this is simply Russian politics as usual.

But these analysts all agree that there is a considerable gap between Russia’s pretensions as a liberal democracy and the reality of how the Kremlin exercises power.  (See the recent discussion, in this blog, of illiberal democracy).  Indeed, Putin’s dominance in recent years bears little resemblance to the distribution of power as envisioned by the constitution.  The Russian constitution invests the president with great authority and the prime minister with little power, yet when Putin relinquished the presidency in 2008 and became prime minister, it was Putin who remained the dominant figure.

Russia therefore provides a vivid example of a common phenomenon in politics: the gap between formal structures, as codified in documents like constitutions or organizational charts, and actual political behavior.  It was precisely this gap that motivated scholars to move from traditional political science (largely concerned with the study of formal documents like constitutions) to behavioral political science (focused on the empirical discovery of patterns of political behavior).  This “behavioral revolution” occurred in the 1950s and 1960s and behavioralism has become the dominant approach among today’s political scientists.  Behavioral political science has been criticized for its lack of concern with normative questions and its allegedly foolhardy efforts to discern lawlike generalizations about inherently unpredictable human behavior, but few would question the fact that its emphasis on actual political behavior has produced important advances over the traditional mode of inquiry.

What other examples of the gap between formal structures and empirical behavior can you identify?  Is the traditional approach to political science of any value today?  What are the shortcomings of the behavioral approach?

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been another busy week for President Barack Obama, who started the week laying the foundation for a new arms control agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, then moved on to discuss a range of issues including food security and climate change at the G8 summit in Italy, before concluding the week with a visit to Ghana, where he delivered a speech calling for more effective and accountable leadership in Africa.

In other news from the previous week:

1. In a surprising move, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced on Friday that Russia was still interested in securing membership in the World Trade Organization. In doing so, President Medvedev reversed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s June announcement that Russia was ending its bid to secure WTO membership, moving forward instead with a customs union incorporating several of the former Soviet republics. While Medvedev’s spokesperson sought to minimize the differences between Medvedev and Putin’s approaches the policy reversal nevertheless represents the most dramatic policy clash between Russia’s two top political leaders. The uncertainty surrounding Russia’s position on WTO membership further complicates ongoing talks between Russia and its trade partners.

2. A series of denial-of-service attacks against the United States and South Korea on Wednesday were likely the result of a North Korean cyber attack. In a denial-of-service attack, thousands of simultaneous electronic information requests are made, causing computer servers to crash. Wednesday’s attacks were directed against South Korean and U.S. financial sector and government computers, including Department of Defense and FBI networks. The attacks followed a series of increasingly aggressive missile test launches by North Korea, including several launched over the July 4th weekend, and highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. computer networks to relatively simple cyber attacks. Many analysts believe this sort of denial-of-service attack—in an effort to inhibit communications—would precede a North Korean military attacks against the South.

3. Israel’s National Security Advisor, Uzi Arad, considered by many to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closed political advisor, announced that Israel would not return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of any peace deal. The two countries are currently engaged in indirect talks aimed at reaching a “comprehensive peace.” But the status of the Golan Heights remains disputed, as both countries seek control of the region, which is of strategic importance, as well as being a major source of water and a popular tourist destination in the water-scarce region. Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967, after the Syrian army used the strategic position to shell Israeli positions in the Hula Valley below. The status of the Golan Heights, along with the status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, remains the major stumbling blocks for a comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbors.

4. Talks intended to resolve the political crisis in Honduras began in Costa Rica on Thursday. The crisis began two weeks ago, when President Manuel Zelaya was removed from office and put on a military transport out of the country. Roberto Micheletti has been named interim president, but his government is not recognized by the international community. The Organization of American States has taken the lead on addressing the standoff, sponsoring talks to peacefully resolve the standoff. But so far, both sides are unwilling to compromise on the central question: who should rule in Honduras?

5. The United States and the European Union appear to be on a collision course with respect to new financial regulations intended to prevent another global financial crisis like the one that ripped through markets late last year. The U.S. Congress is currently considering a new regulatory system that would impose stricter regulation on derivatives, including bans on some of the riskiest financial instruments. But many are concerned that stricter regulations in the United States would encourage regulatory arbitrage, where financial companies would simply relocate to jurisdictions with weaker regulatory systems.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a dramatic week.  Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States.  For many, the election marked not just that historic first but brought the possibility of dramatic policy changes in the U.S.  There was also a series of reports bringing bad news for the global economy, including a dramatic uptick in the unemployment rate in the United States (now at its highest point since the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.   It was, in short, a busy week.  Here’s five stories you might have missed amid the flurry of news.

1. Following a report showing U.S. car sales sank to their lowest levels in 25 years and reflecting the widespread impact of the global financial downturn, both the U.S. and Germany auto industries pressed for rescue packages from their respective governments.  In the United States, the Democratic Congressional leadership has requested Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to assist the American auto industry as part of the $700 billion rescue passed by Congress last month.  BMW is pushing for similar relief from the German government.

2.  In   move widely seen as an attempt to open the presidency for Vladimir Putin’s return, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called for consituttional reforms which would extend the tenure of the Russian president from four to six years.  Putin, who remains incredibly popular among the Russian population, is currently serving as Prime Minister after being termed out of office by constitutional limitations.  Medvedev’s term is currently set to expire in 2012, at which time Putin would be eligible to stand for the office again.  However, some observers argue that Medvedev may resign before that, allowing Putin to return to the presidency even earlier.

3. An anonymous official within the U.S. government said that hackers with ties to the Chinese military successfully hacked into the White House and Department of Defense computer networks.  The source said that the hackers were not able to access classified documents during the attack, but did have access to unclassified communications between high ranking government officials.  In unrelated attacks also believed to originate with the Chinese government, computers belonging to both the McCain and Obama campaigns were also compromised, allowing hackers to obtain internal policy documents from both presidential campaigns. 

4.  The political future of Israel’s current government remains unclear.  Although polls indicate that Tzipi Livni’s ruling Kadima party holds a narrow lead in popular opinion, Israel’s current political instability undermines the ability of the government to move forward with peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  This week, Israeli’s living in Jerusalem will elect a new mayor.  But the election will likely shed little light on the future direction of the country, as the major parties have all opted not to field a candidate for the position

5. Proving the old rally ‘round the flag adage, Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party won an important by-election on Thursday, effectively ending discussion of both an early general election and a leadership challenge from within the party.   Brown, who served as the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in Tony Blair’s government, had seen his popularity decline precipitously since coming into office.  But Brown’s handling of the credit crisis in the United Kingdom has effectively averted a deeper crisis in the United Kingdom and has been used as a model for governments elsewhere in the world.