Food for Thought for US Companies Maintaining Robust Operations in China despite Beijing’s Strained Relations with Washington

The Great Wall of China (above) actually consists of numerous walls built over two millennia across northern China and southern Mongolia. The most extensive version of the wall dates from the Ming dynasty. Despite the Great Wall’s construction, China has always been relatively open to contact and trade with foreigners. The Communist Party of China would explain that due to such openness, in more recent times, China was the victim of Western “imperialist,” “capitalist” countries that reaped huge benefits from it. Many foreign companies currently operate in China, but their host, quite different from the past, is a world power. The Communist Party calls China’s success the vindication of an ancient civilization after a ‘century of humiliation.” China desires to take the title of the dominant power in the world and in its quest has created a challenging situation with the US. US companies in China must closely watch how US-China relations “progress,” and well-consider what prospective outcomes could mean for them.

Many in the US government’s foreign and national security policy bureaucracies and the US Congress with the responsibility to monitor what China is doing apparently do not want to tell too much about its actions and intentions and what its intelligence services are doing against the US, possibly for fear of metaphorically frightening the horses,  the US public. The Communist Party of China has at least demonstrated to itself that it had all the cleverness to outwit, outmaneuver, and surpass some preceding US administrations in its quest to establish the People’s Republic as the world’s dominant power. China’s accomplishments in that direction are now recognized by many policy experts as being far more significant than once realized. Relatively recent, popular books on US-China relations cut to the foundation of that which was perhaps previously satisfying and assuring in US policy circles about Beijing’s actions and intentions. While is far from exhaustive, among list of such books that greatcharlie has read or reread on the matter are: Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt and Company, 2015); Steven Mosher, Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order (Regnery Publishing, 2017); Robert Spalding, Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio, 2019); and, Bill Gertz, Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy (Encounter Books, 2019). Those with a keen interest in what has popularly been called “The China Threat” surely possess copies of one or more of these texts and likely have frequently made a long arm for copies in their libraries for reference. Though recognizing their popularity, greatcharlie would not dare hint at some rank or order of them for it would only open the door to judgments of its choices which is beside the matter. For its April 30, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed Gertz’s Deceiving the Sky. Of course, a treasure trove of excellent, recent academic books on US-China relations have been presented by university press and think tank publishers, which includes a few greatcharlie has appreciated and recommends: Michael E. O’Hanlon and James Steinberg, A Glass Half Full?: Rebalance, Reassurance, and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship (Brookings Institution Press, 2017); Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the Chinese State (Oxford University Press, 2018); Clyde Prestowitz, The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership (Yale University Press, 2021); and, Ryan Hass, Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence (Yale University Press, 2021).

Despite readily discernible differences of each text, their respective discussions harmonize on the point that China is in the midst of implementing a strategy to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power. Some say the deadline for this takeover is 2049, the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, but others believe it may come earlier. (Some policy circles in the US have assessed dispiritedly that it has happened already.) To that extent, on an additional common point, the authors explain how preceding US administrations, with an apparent tinge of romanticism, misguidedly believed that the US could somehow guide and manage China’s industrialization, trade and overall economic development and thereby impact its political and social development. They also explain how, in some instances, the US government has unwittingly assisted China in achieving its goal of world dominance. In fact, each author essentially declares that China is a national security challenge for the US and its allies. China has made that very clear by building island seabases to secure claims of sovereignty over waters in the South China Sea, conduct overflights of the airspace and naval incursions into the waters of US allies in the region, regularly organize parades of their latest weapon systems, and marches of tens of thousands of men, stupefying to the eyes. The authors by in large suggest that the US should implement a more competitive strategy toward China, as it really is, to get a handle on it, by using all instruments of national power and urging US allies in Asia and outside to do the same. The efforts of the aforementioned authors, and many authors of notable books not discussed here, to expose China for the danger they believe it poses is driven not by antipathy but rather by evidence. There is materiality on the balance of negative probabilities which they have dug up in their research and revealed in their works. 

Given what generally presented, it would appear that China may not be the safest country for US companies to operate in at the present. Being steeped in matters concerning China, and they certainly are, one might presume that senior executives of firms there have already formed positions. Perhaps the best answer for senior executives of US companies is to consider moving their operations to a country that presents no risk or at a minimum, far less risk than China at the moment while the opportunity still exists. Yet, as many US companies are operating robustly in China, clearly moving out is not the course that all senior executives would agree upon. With un fil di voce, greatcharlie, cautiously takes on the task of shining some light on why they would continue operating in China despite problems their firms could face as a result of a collapse in US-China relations or even conflict between the two countries. Some not so subtle changes in attitudes and behaviors of Chinese officials toward the US in recent times are examined to develop insights on specific reactions that should be expected from Beijing. The possibility is considered that Beijing may have plans to make their companies targets of its wrath in the event such dark days come. Simply with the possibility of trouble on the horizon, it would seem their respective companies will soon become targets of China’s public security and intelligence services in very apparent ways. Along with think tank scholars, academics, policy analysts, and military and diplomatic officials, journalists, and students that would hopefully be an interested audience for this essay, greatcharlie would hope that senior executives of US companies with considerable operations in China, might take note as it directly concerns their efforts. Absent from the discussion is any mention of the identities of companies that have placed themselves in, or may have in some way fallen into, a somewhat precarious position in China as greatcharlie believes that information is immaterial, away from the heart of the matter. As for the senior executives of US companies, they are only referred to in the third person as the sole goal here is to touch upon the likely prospective broad range of thinking among them, not to throw the spotlight upon anyone. Make no mistake, greatcharlie is not offering any business advice to anyone. It is stated without pretension that such would be out of its province, and any impressions of the kind caused by this writing should not be given flight. The aim is to provide a look at some important issues from a new angle, provoke thought, and contribute to the greater discourse on the matter at hand. Non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est, propterea quod alterum communi hominum infirmitati alterum singulari cuiusque vitio est attributum. (For it is not having insufficient knowledge, but persisting a long time in insufficient knowledge that is shameful; since the one is assumed to be a disease common to all, but the other is assumed to be a flaw to an individual.)

People’s Liberation Army forces on parade in Beijing (above). In the past, US administrations believed the US could somehow guide and manage China’s industrialization, trade and overall economic development and thereby impact its political and social development. Some scholars assert that in certain instances, the US government unwittingly assisted China in achieving its goal of becoming the world’s dominant power. China is surely a national security challenge for the US and its allies now. It has made that very clear by building island seabases to secure claims of sovereignty over waters in the South China Sea, conduct overflights of the airspace and naval incursions into the waters of US allies in the region, regularly organize, parades of their latest weapon systems, and marches of tens of thousands of men, stupefying to the eyes.

“Perfidious Communist China”

“Perfidious Albion” is the nickname that French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte would use to acidulously refer to his arch rival Great Britain, which he considered to be treacherous in international affairs, distrustful of foreigners, and had a knack for frustrating his plans. Albion is a literary or poetic term most often used for Britain or England of Ancient or historical times. The term, “Le perfid Albion,” was said to have been first used by Augustin-Louis, Marquis de Ximenès, the 18th century French poet and playwright. In the same vain that the term, “Perfidious Albion,” was used by Napoleon, perhaps the term, “Perfidious Communist China,” could be used in Washington in reference to China as US leaders must remain suspicious and distrustful of it. Leaders of the Communist Party of China do not leave any room for doubt that they are determined to bring down the US in order to claim the title of dominant power in the world. Moreover, they are clearly willing to use whatever jiggery-pokery it takes and use, so far within tolerable limits, the aggression needed to achieve that goal. 

Becoming the world’s dominant power may not seem to some as a worthy pursuit for a developed, industrialized country. The US essentially fell into the role and has held it as a matter of events, fate, and necessity, though arguably some political leaders in the early years of the 20th century, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, envisioned the country reaching the top. Many countries and national leaders in the past two centuries that sought the mantle can now be found upon what former US President Ronald Reagan in 1982 referred to as the “ash heap of history.” Yet, it is the Communist Party of China’s pursuit nonetheless, and Beijing seems to be moving inexorably toward that goal. The strategy to reach its objective apparently from the start was far larger in conception than some in US foreign and defense policy and business circles still appear willing to consider. 

The words of the Chinese officials have begun to reflect the Communist Party of China’s unsheathed antipathy toward the US. The Party, itself, might explain the words of the Chinese officials rightfully manifest the tone of a country once victimized, yet not demoralized by Western “imperialist,” “capitalist” countries that reaped benefits from it. (Truth be told, by the late 1800s, China was “carved up like a melon” by foreign powers competing for spheres of influence over trade and territory.)  The Party line is that China’s success is the vindication of an ancient civilization after a “century of humiliation.” Their words have the flavor of officials from a country that has been executing a clearly defined strategy to unseat the US as the world’s dominant power. It often smacks of something personal for members of the Communist Party of China. With regard to the officials and diplomats of the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this behavior was briefly discussed in the June 30, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: China’s Coronavirus Tack Includes More Abrupt Officials and Political Warfare; Its Diplomatic Tool Must Endure the Consequences.”

Such qualities in Chinese officials words could be ascribed to those expressed by the People’s Republic of China delegation led by the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi, and People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi at bilateral meeting with a US delegation in Anchorage, Alaska in March 2021. The US delegation led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan. Blinken, indeed, started the meeting off by telling the delegation from China that the US intended to address “deep concerns” over the treatment of the Chinese citizens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the situation with Taiwan. However, Yang responded boldly, taking a bit of time to express sharp criticism of the US over what he described as its struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities, and over its foreign and trade policies.

Yang’s words of reproach and his demeanor were completely out of character for an opening statement, particularly a very public one, for a bilateral meeting between industrialized powers. If the matter were not so serious and the prospects for improved relations between the two countries so grim, it might have been characterized as satire and marked down as a response. Needless to say concerning the speeches given by the two senior officials of the Chinese delegation in Anchorage, bon mot, they were not! Previously, there was an apparent Chinese doctrine of moderation in talks with other countries. Calmness and authority was once shown not only in diplomacy but in all circumstances by officials. This more assertive approach as of late has pulled Chinese officials from their more traditional conservative, stolid posture.

Overall, Yang, as well as Wang when he spoke immediately after him, comported themselves with an astringency which some critics would agree uncloaked the true nature of the regime. Certainly, as discussed in greatcharlie’s April 30, 2021 post, one could not help but get the impression by the vexatious words used lately by Chinese negotiators that all talks and perhaps the overall situation with the US, something even more is going on with Beijing’s thinking. It may very well be that leaders of the Communist Party of China have been satisfied enough with its accomplishments and ongoing progress towards surpassing the US that they have approved behavior by officials in interactions with foreign counterparts that would indicate the transition of power has already occurred. In the New American Bible, it is written in Luke 6:45: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

In its April 30, 2021 post, greatcharlie also postulates that the Chinese officials appear to be presenting themselves as symbols of national resistance to US power. The Chinese officials wanted not just the US delegation, but the world to pay heed to their exhortations concerning the US. Such public behavior is part of what is known as united front work under Communist Party of China. During the current rule of the People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping, united front work calls for the never-ending, enthusiastic promotion of the Communust Movement, the Communist Party of China, Xi, and the People’s Republic, and a lot of other things. The Communist Party of China is happy to foster animus toward the US wherever it may be found in the world as well as cause foment over such where it can. James Baldwin, the 20th century US novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist, rightly recognized in his fascinating September 23, 1979 New York Times interview: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

The future situation is not entirely clear. One might reasonably suspect that while Beijing wants a peaceful resolution to the most stressing geopolitical issues it faces with regard to the US, it is uncertain whether they would even imagine accepting a balanced one. Real success for Beijing may very likely mean achieving some major advantages across issues in contention with the US. Looking at the extreme alternative, measuring what it might lose against what it might gain in some limited use of force, its judgments are likely balanced on perceptions of the will of the US to act and to sacrifice in such a way to actually protect its interests and allies in the region. Another factor included in the forecasts of Beijing’s moves would perhaps be the temperament of Xi. Conflict of any kind would have a dreadful impact on US companies in China. The lead up to any turn for the worse would likely mean problems for their operations and their employees in-country. As would be expected, some US companies have moved out or have expressed plans to move out. Other companies appear to be tiptoeing in the same direction. Still, there are those firms that are not just reluctant, but unwilling to take a new course. 

People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above). In an April 30, 2021 post, greatcharlie postulates that the Chinese officials appear to be presenting themselves on the world stage as symbols of national resistance to US power. That was apparent during a bilateral meeting in Anchorage , Alaska in March 2021. Chinese officials wanted not just the US delegation, but the world to pay heed to their exhortations concerning the US. Such public behavior is part of what is known as united front work. Under the current rule of the People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping, Chinese officials appear required to engage in a never-ending, enthusiastic promotion of the Communust Movement, the Communist Party of China, Xi, and the People’s Republic, and a lot of other things.

Do Not Rely on Beijing’s Goodwill!

Knowing what is wrong is not as great as knowing how to fix the problem. Moreover, one must accept there is a problem and be willing to fix it. In his philosophical and autobiographical treatise, “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences” (1637), the renowned 17th French philosopher René Descartes wrote: “And thus, the actions of life often not allow any delay, it is a truth very certain that, when it is not in our power to determine the most true opinions we ought to follow the most probable.” In the small hours of the morning, one might imagine US executives look within to find the truest answer to how to proceed given all that they have been informed of respectively. 

What greatcharlie has discovered in its own research and the voluminous scholarly sources that support the view that danger lies ahead is that from the aggregate of respective discussions in recent books and other publications in this vein, this idea can be confidently drawn by business executives in question, too! More so, executives sophisticated enough to create a successful space for their companies in China have sufficient information available to them even beyond what outside experts offer, to include reports from the US government, that would allow them to grasp the potential impact of decisions they might make. Undoubtedly, capable and diligent regional specialists in their own companies have collected and presented similar information on the dangers of remaining in China. Everything asserted about the threat Beijing poses to US companies can be substantiated by a history of necessary commiserations between company senior executives and decision-makers of the Communist Party of China.

Yet, while it is most apparent that China’s recent past clearly is not without stain, that fact appears to be by the by to those senior executives of US companies working robustly in China who choose to remain. They will not allow their minds to be biased by theories and suspicions suggested by those who do not have the type of investment at stake in China as their respective companies. They are unwilling to condescend to what they would call fear mongering about the Communist Party of China. China appears to have won many of them and those in that number will hear nothing against it. In this discussion, greatcharlie leaves aside any suggestion that the continued investment by US companies in China is the result of some urge among their senior executives to act in a knowingly dangerous way, l’appel du vide. What those business executives may believe is that in their own assessments of Beijing, they have the advantage of being well informed through what they might characterize as their own most informative, “regular” contacts and “substantive” conversations with officials of Chinese government bureaucracies and leaders of the Communist Party of China. They may believe their relationships with them are strong, bien entretenue. Many appear willing and some comforted by refusing to look beyond what Beijing presents about itself. In that respect, some have become metaphorically tone deaf to warnings concerning all urgent matters now underway. It was expressed by Aristophanes in Clouds (423 BC): “To invoke solely the weaker arguments and yet triumph is a talent worth more than a hundred thousand drachmae.”

As for Beijing’s guile and maneuvering, some of the senior executives even at this point would doubtlessly declare that the evidence that has publicly presented on its malign actions and intentions as something akin to an albeit a peculiar rag bag of singular happenings. Ironically, they might sarcastically note that some new wrinkle of China’s malevolence comes to light practically “every ten seconds” as the 20th century US humorist Sam Levenson might remark to defuse the tension caused by the subject.

In A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2010), Elena Gorokhova recounts growing up under the Communist government of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and tells of her discovery of the hidden truths about adulthood and her country’s profound, brazen lies. Gorokhova recounts: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.” The regime in Communist China operates in a similar deceitful fashion both at home and abroad. There are doubtlessly many more aspects of Beijing’s thinking and behavior that have not as yet been discerned or at least publicly reported. They may become known only after a situation literally blows up. One might state that within the Communist Party of China, the powers of evil are exalted, anything negative is possible. 

The latest word from the US Intelligence Community is that the US supply chain from China now faces real threat. There are a few normal factors that can affect US supply chains, including production shortages, trade disruptions and natural disasters. However, the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) has warned that “actions by foreign adversaries to exploit vulnerabilities in US supply chains pose unique counterintelligence and security threats.” According to the NCSC, foreign adversaries are increasingly using companies and trusted suppliers as “attack vectors” against the US for espionage, information theft and sabotage. Officials warned that those actions compromise the products and services that “underpin America’s government and industry” and warned of the effects–“lost intellectual property, jobs, economic advantage, and reduced military strength.”

What is shared by the US government on Beijing’s plans and intention toward companies foreign working in China should be fully heeded by US companies. Beijing would of course become indignant claiming Western arrogance would lead accusers to say an idea was stolen. Perhaps Chinese government spokespersons would rely upon words similar to those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes, who in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” the third story of 13 in the The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), stated: “What one man can invent, another can discover.” 

Simple facts can go some way to explain what might be recognized as a charitable position. To that extent, distortions of truth from Beijing or other trusted or favored sources are far more satisfying as a result of an infatuation with a present preoccupation. In arguments, the business executives will mistakenly grab the nearest evidence to hand that would uniquely support their perspective. What they might characterize as the “stirring of alarm” would likely be inexplicable to those who have not abandoned the idea that China acts in goodwill. They would likely assert that China’s sense of a rivalry between itself and the US is natural given geopolitical, geostrategic, economic considerations alone. Indeed, among those reluctant to accept what present evidence insists upon, one might find that almost every decision to carry on with their current business plans in China is likely founded upon a mix of reality and imagination.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 26, 2021, in the weeks that surrounded the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese leaders waged an information campaign aimed at the US business community. It included a flurry of speeches, letters and announcements. Of special note was a February 2021 speech by the Communist Party of China’s  foreign policy director, Yang, to a virtual audience of US business leaders and former government officials. Initially laying out a very positive situation for investment and trade opportunities in China, he then offered the stern warning that Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan are “red lines” that anyone from the US should remain silent about. He also made the demand that the business community lobby the new Biden-Harris administration to reverse Trump administration policies toward China which he excoriated. 

Without the intent of being folsom, greatcharlie states that there are highly qualified individuals that serve as senior executives at companies. In their respective fields, these professionals are generally known and admired for their astute judgments, being steady and reliable, and having keen minds and the laudable capacity to reason. Finding answers to such situations were what the executives were hired for. Being incommoded by the regulations of China’s bureaucracies would by no means be new to them and they would expect to find a way to work around any problems. Their thoughts would remain focused on optimizing their respective companies’ investments in China. That would be the vintage way of thinking, so to speak.

One might go as far as to suppose that some US business executives may feel that if accomplishing that meant being under some recherché obligation to Beijing, they would accept that. They doubtlessly would expect to gain additional favor from the Communist Party of China through such loyalty. As a bonus of taking such a step, they might believe they would be taking the steps that would allow them to avoid a serious dilemma in the near future. (Such would hardly be a schema Beijing would feel obligated to follow, and indeed, something one should not plan for.) One might expect to occasionally hear expressions of appreciation from US companies to the most senior leaders of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people for their “magnanimity.” In fact, they have been heard. Those companies could do no greater service for Beijing than to take such a course. Those in the US outraged by China’s overall behavior toward the US and its allies would very likely call it a perverse allegiance.

Perhaps conditions for some companies were never idyllic to start, and any new circumstances that arise are just one more hurdle to overcome. One might suppose that for senior executives of US companies in China, navigating any problems that have arisen so far has been a bit similar to white water rafting. It is a challenge, but in the end overall satisfying. To speak more in metaphors, senior executives of most US companies still operating in China likely feel that they successfully managed the disturbed sea of those relations by monitoring essential currents and will achieve further success by navigating them intelligently. Indeed, in many cases having spent years inveigling their way into many meetings with Communist Party of China leaders and government officials they likely feel that have created links with them near equal to those that exist between those same Party leaders and officials that the executives of China’s state-run companies. They are likely confident that as a result of those linkages, their companies’ investments In China are to the greatest extent possible shielded from any possible troubles in relations between Beijing and Washington. In corporate conference rooms and meetings with Communist Party of China or other government officials, any dark imaginings of Beijing’s behavior evaporate fastest. Conceivably, ideas and attitudes expressed In those same conference rooms of US companies are very likely encapsulated with the quip: “I will believe it when I see it.” There may very well be companies planning to simply carry on even under the worst circumstances should it come to that. 

Yet, many have doubtlessly assessed that contrary to the reports of experts, they have so far had no reason to regret, nor do they believe they shall have any reason to regret their speculation in China. Until they are caused to accept anything to the contrary, one could imagine certain senior executives of US companies would happily seek to remain in their offices in China. The claim that Beijing could turn against them in some profound way may simply be a counterfactual. Perchance senior executives still engaged in robust operations in China believe Beijing’s intentions are the best and would refer to all of the negative talk of Beijing’s intentions as slander. Presumably, senior executives of US companies, having minimized in their own minds the danger that China presents, might suggest to other senior executives whose companies are similarly invested in China, that no one should get ahead of oneself in reaction to what they may have heard or observed of those companies that have moved out. Perhaps the retention of that mindset, a certain stubbornness among some, may be a prime obstacle in convincing them to open their eyes. Assuming that all have the best intentions at heart, one might believe that differences in thinking among senior executives of US companies are mostly a matter of clarification 

There are situations in which even the most accomplished business executives might find themselves helpless. No US firm should count upon the goodwill of Beijing to help see them through the storm of greatly deteriorated relations, or the catastrophe of a clash, between the US and China. Beijing time and again has proven that it is unworthy of such trust. Most US companies operating in China or have an extremely close relationship with Party leaders and government officials, they should not expect that they would be able to just carry-on as they have been no matter what. By the mere fact that they are Western companies representing Western capitalism, there would be a fairly good chance that they would fall afoul of the Communist regime in Beijing. That has been a reality all along.

To be as frank as possible, the Communist Party of China has no love for them. Without a shadow of doubt, many Party leaders yearn to reach that day in the future when China can show its true colors, declare broad powers over all foreign companies and severely alter terms of any signed agreements to immensely favor its own interests, if a firm is allowed to remain in China at all. Surely they believe there would be more than one parallel Chinese firm of its respective industry to replace just about every foreign entity, except those as the National Basketball Association (NBA), and could take on their markets even in the US.

Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi (above). In the weeks that surrounded the inauguration of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese leaders waged an information campaign aimed at the US business community. It included a flurry of speeches, letters and announcements. Of special note was a February 2021 speech by the Communist Party of China’s foreign policy director, Yang, to a virtual audience of US business leaders and former government officials. Initially laying out a very positive situation for investment and trade opportunities in China, he then offered the stern warning that Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan are “red lines” that anyone from the US should remain silent about. He also made the demand that the business community lobby the new Biden-Harris administration to reverse Trump administration policies toward China which he excoriated.

Recent Displays of Beijing’s Tactfulness toward Foreign Companies

The renowned English philosopher and physician, John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), wrote: “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” There have been a few  fresh events in China concerning foreign companies operating there over the grave issue of members of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s far west, being used as forced labor in factories. They may provide some clues as to the sort of subterfuge and sophistry senior executives of US companies still operating in China should expect, and perhaps things even more intense. (In citing news articles concerning these events, greatcharlie felt some reluctance given a few US companies are directly mentioned in them and that information is central to understanding the events that occurred. However, to the extent that these incidents were well-supported in the news media, the sense that anything fresh about the firms was being revealed was mitigated.)

In an extensive new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think-tank founded by Australia’s government, between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese government relocated at least 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang in western China to factories across the country where they work “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour.” The report further explains that the manufacturers using these transported Uyghurs supply at least 83 international companies making everything from footwear to electronics. Regarding the Uyghurs, the Chinese Communist Party is waging a targeted campaign against Uyghur women, men, and children, and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, China. Abuses have included coercive population control through forced abortion, forced sterilization, and involuntary implantation of birth control; the detention of more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in internment camps; forced labor in facilities nearby or affiliated with the internment camps; the destruction and closure of mosques and other religious sites, prevention of youths from participating in religious activities, forced political indoctrination or “re-education.” 

Beijing has denied all of these claims, declaring them to be unjust aspersions. It has stated that rather than running forced labor camps, it is providing vocational training, and that its measures are needed to fight extremism. Recall that Xinjiang was an issue broached by Blinken at the bilateral talks in Anchorage. In January, Washington had banned Xinjiang cotton used widely by clothing producers for Western markets. The US, the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang in March 2020. . China retaliated with sanctions on European lawmakers and institutions.

According to a March 27, 2021 Bloomberg report, Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M), the Swedish multinational, expressed the view in March 2021 statements that it’s “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities.” It was a risky move for H&M given that China is one of the five biggest markets for the company in terms of revenue with 5.2% of the group’s total sales in 2020. The company had opened 505 stores in China as of November 30, 2020. The company’s access to China, the Communist Party of China, and to customers was put on the line. Almost immediately, H&M encountered what was characterized as backlash over its statements from the company concerning issues surrounding Xinjiang. The company quickly removed its statement on Xinjiang from its website, on a separate link on its homepage expressing the same stance on Xinjiang cotton remained active.

Authors of the news story notably recognized that China’s response to H&M was markedly stronger than its previous pushback when foreign brands crossed political lines. Xi had already set a red line on the issue of China’s human rights record, and foreign companies surely understood at that point that addressing the issue in any way would mean picking a side. In a briefing in Beijing, Gao Feng, a spokesman for the Chinese Commerce Ministry, essentially proscribed H&M’s statements as slanderous ravings. He reportedly said: “We can’t tolerate any forces bringing shame on and tarnishing the pure and flawless Xinjiang cotton.” He went on to state: “Chinese consumers have acted in response to the so-called business decisions made by some companies based on false information. We hope the relevant companies will respect market laws, correct wrong practices, and avoid the politicization of commercial issues.”

As would be expected, H&M’s statement was blasted by organizations such as the Communist Youth League and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on social media. However, there was also rising outcry and calls for a boycott on Chinese social media against an undated H&M statement over its website that also expressed concern about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang. At least six stores in the lower-tiered cities of Urumqi, Yinchuan, Changchun and Lianyunang have been shut down by the owners of the properties, according to mall operators in those areas who were contacted by Bloomberg. Local media have reported more closures and pictures showing H&M’s brand billboards being removedThe global clothing retailer’s outlets have also vanished on Apple Maps and Baidu Maps searches.

Adverse effects from the H&M’s statement about forced labor in the contentious region of Xinjiang have spread to other Western brands that have voiced their views on the matter. DW News noted that the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) declared in October 2020 that it was suspending cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-2021 fashion season, also citing concerns over that region’s human rights. BCI, formed in 2009 and based in Geneva, Switzerland  states that it was formed to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future. Its goal is to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. Members include US-based Nike, Germany-based Adidas, Japan-based Fast Retailing, as well as China-based ANTA. Certainly, BCI members would not comment idly on such a grave matter or any matter for that case.

As foreign companies speak out concerning Xinjiang and forced labor, they are being targeted for treatment. China’s government-aligned English language newspaper the Global Times cited Burberry and New Balance as having made “cutting remarks” about Xinjiang cotton two years ago. It also cited the brand Zara as having expressed a “zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor.” ANTA, a Chinese shoe brand announced it was quitting BCI and would continue buying Xinjiang cotton–prompting a spike in its share prices on Hong Kong’s Han Seng Index.

Chinese social media users expressed umbrage against Western sanctions over alleged abuses of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province by ostracizing further global clothing and footwear brands. DW News quoted one “netizen” as stating: “If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China.” Social media posts in China have reportedly also mentioned the Japanese and US brands Uniqlo and Gap but it was unclear whether the people posting messages were private citizens or government plants online. Two popular Chinese television stars, Wang Yibo and Tan Songyun, reportedly said they would end promotional work for Nike over remarks it made in 2020. China’s People’s Daily newspaper began a social media campaign via the microblog Weibo, using a slogan translating as “I support Xinjiang cotton. Citing Reuters, DW News explained many Chinese online users said they would instead support local Asian brands such as Li Ning and ANTA, prompting share price surges in Hong Kong. The US government has called attention to China’s state-run social media campaign and boycott against foreign companies that refuse to use cotton from Xinjiang. State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter stated that tactic amounts to a state-run “corporate and consumer boycott.”

Taking a closer look at what has been directed at Nike, according Reuters it faces rather a singular social media storm in China over its statement concerning Xinjiang Indeed, anger with Nike reportedly erupted on Chinese social media late immediately after China’s netizens spotted a statement from the sporting goods giant saying it was “concerned” about reports of forced labour in Xinjiang and that it does not use cotton from the region. There is a well-known love affair among the Chinese people and basketball shoes worn by NBA players. It was no small matter. 

Topics around the Nike statement were among the highest trending on China’s Twitter-like social media Weibo the day it was revealed and the social media backlash had a wider fallout. It was in direct response to Nike’s statement concerning Xinjiang and social media criticism on social media, that the agency representing actor Wang Yibo stated on Weibo that he has terminated his contract as a representative for Nike. It was not apparent when exactly Nike had put out the statement. It did not have a date on it. Nike explained in the statement: “We are concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).” It also stated: “Nike does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.” To prevent further interference, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times urged Western companies to be “highly cautious” and not to “suppress China’s Xinjiang” in a social media post. To do so, Hu anticipated, would “undoubtedly arouse the anger of the Chinese public,” he added. He did not single out any companies.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher, writer, and co)mposer of the then independent Calvinist city-state of Geneva, explained in The Social Contract (1762): “Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves.” Naturally, foreign companies operating in China will attempt ameliorate and perhaps resolve Xinjiang controversy or any other with Beijing, senior executives of those companies be assured that the Communist Party of China’s memory of even temporary disrespectful acts and what its leaders may perceive as betrayal through declarations of concerns on what are in reality documented human rights abuses, substantiated by Western government sources, will be long.

A heavily secured industrial park in Xinjiang, China (above). In a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese government relocated at least 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang in western China to factories across the country where they work “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour.” The report also explains that manufacturers using these transported Uyghurs supply at least 83 international companies making everything from footwear to electronics. The Chinese Communist Party is waging a targeted campaign against Uyghur women, men, and children, and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, China. Abuses have included coercive population control through forced abortion, forced sterilization, and involuntary implantation of birth control; the detention of more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in internment camps. Beijing has denied such claims.

Experience Speaks?

Memores acti prudentes futuri. (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be.) As aforementioned, with consideration of a full range of facts on the current situation between the US-China, to include many discussed here, as well as other key business considerations, some US companies have accepted that the risks are too great to remain and rather than wait for a crisis to arise. To the senior executives of those companies, China’s true, malevolent nature appears to be self-evident. Aware of those practices first-hand, they watch likely in horror as other US companies confidently stroll into the Chinese tangles from which they avoided or feel they escaped. Hope undoubtedly remains even among those companies that have already left that Xi and the Communist Party of China are not intending anything tragic. Any positive prospects for their future reinvestment in China surely rest upon what comes next with Xi and the Biden-Harris administration.

Those with a turn of mind to commit themselves to a defense of China’s behavior as a “competitor” of the US, and commit to even greater investment there, may eventually find themselves obliged to be a bit more obedient to Beijing’s wishes if events cause the authoritarian Chinese government to make its true self clear to them. If that day comes, the sense of the scale of its malignant being and purpose will likely be overwhelming. Those dead-enders, though they would hardly see themselves as such, will discover just how masterful Beijing has been at deception, offering satisfying explanations and signing agreements that really had no meaning. 

Some senior executives whose companies remain in China may already fear doing anything to subvert Beijing and incurring its wrath upon their respective interests. Others will perhaps be paralyzed to act in a crisis having been sufficiently instilled with fearfulness over a perception that the Chinese government will become noisy and rough. Even then, reaching a low point but not yet bottom, it would not be too late to accept the loss, as wise business executives sometimes must do, and move out.

Fallaces sunt rerum species. (The appearances of things are deceptive.) The security of US companies, all foreign companies, working in China, is a subject greatcharlie previously broached on the individual employees of those companies might face. Certainly, security offices of any US companies whose executives and staff frequently visit China should have long since arranged opportunities to brief those employees on problems they could possibly face in China. Such briefings might include the discussion of ways to subtly execute defensive measures to defeat Ministry of Public Security (MPS), Ministry of State Security (MSS), PLA Joint Staff Department human intelligence groups, and any Communist Party of China intelligence organs (e.g., the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the super secret and malignant International (Liaison) Department, the United Front Work Department, and the Propaganda Department) from capturing information that meets their organizations’ immediate intelligence requirements as well as whatever information that managers of those spy organizations may deem useful otherwise.

What was presented in the discussion of the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago” on security precautions employees of foreign companies must take in China seems worthy of review as background. The discussion is preclosed here. Only the more apposite points are presented.

As discussed, the foreign visitor is always a potential target for province and municipal offices of MPS and MSS. The capability of Chinese authorities to use technological means to keep a close eye on foreigners and detect, apprehend, and deal with those who protest and oppose the government has been enhanced immensely. Two sensational articles in the New York Times, “A Surveillance Net Blankets China’s Cities, Giving Police Vast Powers” dated December 17, 2019, and “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras,” dated July 8, 2018, well lay out the increased use of technology in MPS and MSS surveillance efforts. Reportedly, as part of Xi’s effort to have the security services take on a greater role in China, he has launched a major upgrade of their surveillance capabilities. China, as a result, has become the world’s largest market for security and surveillance technology. It is reported that almost 300 million cameras have been installed in the country. Government contracts are supporting research and development into technologies that track faces, clothing and even a person’s gait. MPS officers on the beat have been observed using experimental gadgets such as facial-recognition glasses. In Zhengzhou, police and security services can use software to create lists of people. They can create virtual alerts when a targeted  individual approaches a specific location. They can acquire updates on people every hour or every day, and monitor anyone with whom those people have met, particularly if there exists a report that one or both individuals have committed an infraction.  Yet, while the new technology may ostensibly provide police and security services with a way to track criminals, it also improves their means to crack down on sympathizers of the protest movement in Hong Kong, critics of the Communist Party of China, and critics of the police and security services, themselves. Worse, it better enables the police and security services to target migrant workers who travel from the countryside to fill China’s factories and ethnic minority groups as the Uyghurs.

On the street, the surveillance of foreigners will typically be relatively light, calibrated to ensure utilization of an optimal number of officers and informants in the role of surveillance operatives in the field. Doing so also facilitates the monitoring process. The more surveillance one uses the more reports that must be reviewed to find one aggregate picture of what occurred. MPS counterintelligence officers will regularly collect and closely review reports on a foreigner’s behavior via informants among neighbors in the vicinity of their residence and locals among colleagues at work. They would be interested in knowing if they have engaged in behaviors that would make them open to recruitment. Their attitudes toward China and its system would be important. The friendships they have made would be of interest. From the reports of informants and technical surveillance, assessments of what type of temptations could be used, if necessary, to bring them to China’s side based on observations of the foreigner’s lifestyle. 

In its December 13th post, greatcharlie additionally cites Articles 9, 11, 12, and 13 of the National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China, as adopted at the 15th session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People’s Congress to explain that for citizens of the People’s Republic of China, the motivations of money ideology, conspiracy, and excitement do not factor in such a decision to come to call of their country’s intelligence services. The law requires them to do so. If any motivations at all could be said to factor in a Chinese citizen’s decision to obey the direction of an intelligence service, expectedly the Communist Party of China would list faith and adherence to the ideals of the Communist Revolution, the Communist Party of China, patriotism, and the homeland. Supposedly, revolutionary zeal drives the heart of China as “one beating heart.”

Since that writing, the NCSC provided, on Twitter, three articles from China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017, Cybersecurity Law of 2016, and, National Security Law of 2015. NCSC explained its aim in doing so was to help those entering an agreement with a company based in China better understand the legal landscape and that Chinese companies will provide data they obtain or information stored on their networks to China’s state security apparatus upon request. More directly, the NCSC wants US citizens to better understand by its message that Chinese companies and citizens are required to assist in intelligence efforts against them by law. Under Article 7 of the PRC’s National Intelligence Law (2017), NCSC cites: “All organizations and citizens SHALL support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with the law, and shall protect national work secrets they are aware of.” Under Article 28 of the PRC’s Cybersecurity Law (2016), it cites, “Network operators SHALL provide technical support and assistance to public security and national security organs that are safeguarding and investigating criminal activities in accordance with the law.” Under Article 77 of the PRC’s National Security Law (2015), it cites, “Citizens and organizations SHALL provide the following obligations for safeguarding national security,” and then cites section specifically (5), which instructs: “Provide national security authorities, public security authorities, and military authorities with needed support and assistance.”

The foreign businessman, scientist, engineer, academic or any other type of professional  working closely with a Chinese counterpart in China may not be aware that he or she is being monitored by that same friendly colleague. It should be expected. When told, it may be so emotionally shocking to outsiders  that it may very well be near impossible to believe. Perhaps refusing to accept that reality is the only way a foreigner can continue to function comfortably in China. In any event, it is the responsibility of the Chinese citizen to engage in such activity under the National Security law. To that extent, friendship with Chinese colleagues may never be authentic as there is an element to the interaction between the foreigner and the Chinese citizen that is cloaked. China comes first. The foreigner is inconsequential to that reality. Ordinary people doing a little this and a little that for the MPS as well as the MSS is a norm.

Although it has not as yet become a commonplace problem, if a foreigner visiting China for the purpose of business or tourism, accepts  documents, notebooks, and books, the traveler might discover quite surprisingly that he or she is carrying items that contain sensitive data the possession of which could be considered criminal. Those illicit materials would have been presented to the traveler intentionally, perhaps even by a Chinese citizen with whom the traveler may have a positive personal relationship, almost certainly at the behest of MPS or MSS. It was said somewhere that it is terrible to find an enemy in a friend, but it is much worse not to find a friend in a friend. (Given the uncertainty of what may result from contact with Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence units, ordinary Chinese citizens typically will not seek out contact with them nor independently engage in activity with foreigners outside of the workplace on matters related to their work. They will focus on true personal relationships on personal matters, human interests.)

One must also be very cautious about accepting recording devices or recorded materials, or any devices, thumb drives, dvds, or materials that may include video or audio recordings unless one can be absolutely certain as to their contents. Documents contained in any of these media may prove to be government documents concerning confidential matters, and not any run-of-the-mill confidential matters at that. One must immediately open the documents and read them before those who presented them using a laptop or tablet. The review of the recordings posthaste could be passed off as an affected display of ebullience and appreciation of the gift and wonderment about what it holds. 

As things stand, from year to year, the situation has not gotten better in terms of stability and safety. If troubles between the US and China ever begin to arise with regularity, such as detainments of employees of US companies, one might expect some form of ransom will be discreetly demanded by Chinese officials with a warning not to acknowledge their villainy to the world. More than just an aggressive act, it would be an expression of Beijing’s power over those companies, designed to work in the psyche of the US business executives. If a US companies is resolute about remaining in China, it would to be willing to accept that the situation could change rapidly for the worse, new ground rules could be put in for operating in a flash, and it would know without doubt who is really in charge. They would need to accept that ties back to the US would have little meaning to Beijing. The Communist Party of China would surely delight in exercising such power over Western “capitalist” guests. The door opening in that direction of what is outlined here can already be heard creaking.

President Xi in his People’s Liberation Army uniform on parade (above). It would be more than likely that if a military conflict between the US and China arose on the greater world stage, Beijing would lash out at available US targets right at home such as US companies and their employees. Indeed, when leaders of Communist Party of China are exhausted of tricks and manipulations, they often turn to the cane. If US companies were to face such a situation, the matter would need to be put right by senior executives of those companies at the crisis point, if at all possible.

Prospective Problems Ahead

ata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt. (Fate leads the willing, and drags the unwilling.) As US companies, by their own devices, continue to entangle themselves in meshes with Beijing, they may be grooming themselves to become subject to its machinations. An impregnable collection of evidence already indicates that Beijing’s desire to control Western business communities attitudes and behavior toward nearly anything Chinese. Perhaps one day US companies will awaken to the true character of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government after it is too late. Once any extraordinary conduct is exhibited by Beijing toward one or more US companies  it would be almost impossible for the US government to chuck itself in the mix in a calibrated way that mitigates such steps as opposed to exacerbating the situation.

As it was explained in the 14th century by the English lawyer, author, and statesman, Saint Thomas More, “What is deferred is not avoided.” Caught in such a conundrum, it would be best if US companies had already laid plans to respond to such a contingency well in advance of it. It would be the only way to have a fighting chance of getting some handle on it. Complete consideration of Beijing’s immoral side must be part of that assessment. Exactly how business executives might intend to put the matter right on their side under such circumstances is unknown. In spite of contingency planning, it is hard to see from greatcharlie’s vantage point what cards US business executives could realistically play to sway Beijing in such a crisis. They would be in a weak position to negotiate relief from Beijing. Perhaps it was in the process of planning for such a contingency, that senior executives of such companies along with their security offices recognized that it was time to leave.

Conceivably, the senior executives of some US companies in China might hold the idea that they might serve as “go-betweens,” neutral emissaries, who, while loyal to their US homeland, are also loyal and responsive to their Chinese hosts, and assist in finding some settlement between the US and China during a conflict. The idea would unlikely interest Beijing in wartime. Despite any notions senior executives might have of their ties to China and relationship with leaders of the Communist Party of China, during a war, they would most certainly be tagged as enemy aliens, perhaps dangerous enemy aliens, and handled with due care by MPS and Party security organs. In an atrocious yet very possible scenario, they may be tasked to perform high profile duties against their will for the Party’s Propaganda Department. United Work Department and International Department operatives might force them without compunction to any point resembling a front line of the conflict to demonstrate the senior executives recognition that China was on the correct side of the struggle and any of its actions against the US were righteous. Chinese security services might force them to visit foreign capitals, accompanied of course, to give speeches on how the US allegedly may have wrongfully threatened China’s interest and caused the conflict. One could imagine a hundred possibilities and none of them would be good for the senior executives. At about that point, the business executives will have the truest and fullest understanding of the Communist Party of China.

Interestingly enough, any decision by Beijing  to take steps against one or more US companies would undoubtedly be a measure decided upon in its own contingency planning in the event of a sudden ratcheting up of contentious relations with Washington. To that extent, what might happen to US companies stranded in China in such circumstances would assuredly be a fixed fate. Leaders of the Communist Party of China, under such circumstances, would hardly be inveigled by the platitudes of foreign business executives to be more lenient toward their companies. Any Party leaders would feel both angered and shamed if that perception was created about them within the Party’s membership. It is imaginable that such a bargaining effort would be responded to violently.

Essentially, any breakdown in relations between the US and China, or worse, a military conflict, would have an unfortunate effect upon the position of US companies operating there. More than likely, it would cause Beijing to lash out at available US targets right at home such as those US companies and their employees. Indeed, when the brains of the leadership of Communist Party of China are exhausted of tricks and manipulations, they have often turned to the cane. If US companies were to face such a situation, the matter would need to be put right by senior executives of those companies at the crisis point, if at all possible.

The Way Forward

Aligning the suppositions offered here on thinking over remaining in China with specific senior executives of US companies operating in China undoubtedly would not be too difficult for numerous investigative journalists if they preferred to do so. Yet, as mentioned on the outset of this post, their identities are immaterial with regard to the objective here which was to provide a picture of the challenging circumstances that those business executives face particularly from China’s public security and intelligence services, shed light upon what they are likely discussing among their counsels, and present insights on the decisions they have reached given the paths they have taken.

If credit might be given to their line of thinking of those US business executives resolute about remaining in China, it might be provided by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a February 1936 Esquire magazine essay entitled, “The Crack-Up.” Fitzgerald explains: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible” come true.” However, it cannot be denied that those executives are placing their respective companies’ interests in a vulnerable position by remaining on the ground in China. Some might call that a calculated risk. 

Worrisome is the possibility that some may be unable to fully grasp the effect of their own actions. If placed in a trying position by external events as a collapse in US-China relations or a military conflict between the two, it is hard to imagine how US business executives would preserve their respective companies’ operations in China or more generally, how they would actually act. They may very well be placing themselves in what could become a serious dilemma. Concerning those executives laser focused on the bottomline–some might say they should be, they might do better to employ their minds on the matter of the well-being of their employees and equities in China before there is some tumultuous event. Perhaps some would say greatcharlie is over-egging the pudding here. However, greatcharlie hopes only to be of some material assistance.

The world exists in an ordered universe and one expects everything to follow that design. There are patterns one can discern that establish order in the human mind. Illusion must never be chosen over fact. Any senior executive of a US firm operating in China should have already been sufficiently aware of how Beijing is acting. Sentiment is a poor substitute for true feeling and fact. Ignorance more often than not dissolves into tragedy. While they are in a position to reexamine the facts, they should do so while there is still time available. Qui ipse si sapiens prodesse non quit, nequiquam sapit. (A wise man whose wisdom does not serve him is wise in vain.)

China’s Ministry of State Security: What Is This Hammer the Communist Party of China’s Arm Swings in Its Campaign against the US? (Part 1)

The Headquarters of the Ministry of State Security (above). China’s primary civilian intelligence service engaged in the political warfare struggle against the US is the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Yet, while fully involved in that work, MSS has adhered to its bread and butter mission of stealing national security and diplomatic secrets with specific regard to the US. It has also robustly enhanced another mission of grabbing intellectual property and an array of cutting-edge technologies from the US. This essay provides a few insights from outside the box on the MSS, the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, it believes, help to keep China secure and help to improve China’s capabilities and capacity to compete and struggle with the US.

There was a time not so long ago when discussion in US foreign policy circles concerning China centered on issues such as trade, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, North Korean denuclearization, and human rights. Now the primary focus of discussion is the coronavirus. China is where the virus originated and was surely ineptly handled, setting the stage for the current pandemic. How China has responded to the crisis turned pandemic has been a source of curiosity and absolute outrage globally. Despite preening about its own advances in science and medicine, China proved not to be up to the task of handling the outbreak that most experts agree more than likely began disastrously in a Wuhan laboratory. It is difficult to fully comprehend what on Earth went on in the minds of China’s leadership upon learning about their country’s coronavirus epidemic. Shutting down cities and restricting travel was among the means to control the spread among their own citizens but China’s government was quite derelict in ensuring the virus would not break out around the rest of the world. Worse, the Communist Party of China and the National Party Congress were unapologetic and frightfully defensive concerning all discussion of China’s role in what was happening. China very quickly became exercised with the US over the matter. They became particularly warm toward US President Donald Trump. The words of official spokespeople were certainly not seasoned in grace. Although it has found itself in an unpleasant, contentious relationship with the US as a result of its own doing, Beijing has nevertheless effectively doubled-down on the behavior that exacerbated the situation. China’s government spokespeople will most likely continue to assail the global media with waves of distortions. At the same time around the world, the number of people infected by the coronavirus continues to increase, the death toll rises, and the financial loss is being calculated in the trillions. Hopefully, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping is well-aware of what is transpiring and has set some type of guidance on just how far this whole cabaret put on by Beijing should go. Numquam enim temeritas cum sapienta commiscetur. (For rashness is never mixed together with wisdom.)

The figurative hammer of the foreign and national security policy apparatus swung by the arm of the Communist Party of China against the US is China’s intelligence services. They are the ones on the front lines of the political warfare struggle. Among those intelligence services, the primary element engaged is the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The Ministry of State Security is the embodiment of the logic that created the Chinese system’s intimidating, authoritarian order and for years has choreographed events to accomplish the Communist Party’s purposes. To that extent, the Communist Party of China has entrusted the defense of “their creation,” the modern Communist Chinese state, to this complex government organization. China has only offered soupçons about the MSS, and even less than that lately. Unless one is engaged in diplomatic, intelligence, defense, military, or law enforcement work, MSS is an elements of the Chinese government with which most outsiders when engaged in their normal business related to China, whether inside the country, in a country near by, or even at home, will have contact, but will often be completely unaware. The ostensible purpose and task of MSS is to defend China against external as well as internal threats. By performing its mission of collecting vital information about China’s friends, allies, competitors and adversaries MSS gives the leadership of the Communist Party of China time to make decisions and space to take action. To that extent, the MSS has adhered to its bread and butter mission of stealing national security and diplomatic secrets with specific regard to the US. However, it has also robustly enhanced another mission of collecting intellectual property and an array of cutting-edge technologies from the US. The Communist Party of China is surely counting upon it to successfully take on China’s adversaries in a large way with a small footprint. Interestingly though, there has been far greater discernment worldwide of MSS political warfare activities than Beijing might have imagined. The immediate implication of that has been the infliction of considerable damage to China’s reputation as a world leader. Veritas nimis saepe laborat; exstinguitur numquam. (The truth too often labors (is too often hard pressed); it is never extinguished.)

This essay does not focus on the political warfare effort by MSS, the nuts and bolts of which are somewhat straight forward, and compressed into summary form in the March 31, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: Beijing’s Failed Political Warfare Effort Against US: A Manifestation of Its Denial Over Igniting the Coronavirus Pandemic”. It focuses on what the Ministry of State Security (MSS) is and what it does, day-to-day, for China. It is presented in two sections. This section, “Part 1,” provides greatcharlie’s insights from outside the box on the MSS and the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods it believes both help to keep China secure and help to improve China’s capabilities and capacity to compete and struggle with the US. That discussion is buttressed by a few celebrated and trusted sources. “Part 2” continues that discussion and, without an ax to grind, greatcharlie calls attention to how, over recent years, a number of less-familiar, self-inflicted wounds have hindered the prosecution of a successful campaign by US counterintelligence services against the MSS as well as other Chinese intelligence services. The extent to which those same issues concerning US counterintelligence services have impacted the Trump administration is also touched upon. Without pretension, greatcharlie states that there is no reason for it to believe policymakers and decisionmakers in the White House and among US foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations, would have a professional interest in its meditations on MSS intelligence operations in the US. However, it is greatcharlie’s hope that if given some attention, perhaps in some small way it might assist those who work on matters of gravity in this province improve their approach to defeating and displacing the MSS networks and operations as well as those of its sister organizations in the US. Bonus adiuvate, conservate popular Romanum. (Help the good (men) save (metaphorically in this case) the Roman people.)

People’s Republic of China Chairman Mao Zedong (left) and Kang Sheng (right). After the defeat of Imperial Japanese forces in China and prior to 1949, the Communust Party of China’s main intelligence institution was the Central Department of Socialism Affairs (CDSA). CDSA was placed under the control of Kang Sheng, a longtime political associate of Mao with a linkage from the past to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. With the Communist Party’s victory over Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, CDSA became one among a full array of government intelligence organizations that were created to supplement Party-based intelligence services. CDSA would draw information from foreign news agencies and open sources. It was hardly a very rewarding business.

Chinese Intelligence Under the Communist Party: The Beginning

The foundation of the Chinese intelligence services was laid during the revolutionary period in which the Communist Party of China sought to establish its rule. In the early 1930s, two intelligence services existed. One was centered in Shanghai and the Communist Party, the othjer was based in the Chinese Communist government that existed in Shaanxi where Mao Zedong established his base after the Long March. The later intelligence service proved to be the stronger of the two. By the late 1930s, it was replaced by a newly created Social Affairs Department (SAD) within the Communist Party. Within the years of struggle against Imperial Japanese forces in China, there was the Yan’an Rectification, from 1942 to 1944, in which Mao consolidated his paramount role in the Communist Party of China. Yan’an was also the part of the ten year period in which: Mao established his premier role in the Party; the Party’s Constitution, endorsing Marxist-Leninism and Maoist thought as its guiding ideologies, was adopted (Mao’s formal  deviation from the Soviet line and his determination to adapt Communism to Chinese conditions); and, the postwar Civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang. Prior to 1949, the Communist Party of China’s main intelligence institution was the Central Department of Social Affairs (CDSA). CDSA was placed under the control of Kang Sheng, a longtime political associate of Mao with a linkage from the past to Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. With the Communist Party’s victory over Chang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces, CDSA became one among a full array of government intelligence organizations were created to supplement Party-based intelligence services. CDSA would draw information from foreign news agencies and open sources. It was hardly a very rewarding business.

The Ministry of Public Security was established as China’s principal intelligence service at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It, too, was placed under the leadership of Kang Sheng. CDSA fell into the hands of Li Kenong, a deputy chief of staff to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief of staff Chou Enlai and a vice minister for foreign affairs. The main role of the MPS, as with all previous Chinese intelligence services, was to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China. However, as time passed, it was also officially given jurisdiction over counter subversion, counterintelligence, and conducting espionage in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Overseas during the 1950s, most Chinese diplomatic missions accommodated the MPS with an Investigation and Research Office for intelligence collection staffed by CDSA personnel, with analysis performed by the Eighth Bureau, publicly known in 1978 as the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. In 1953, CDSA became the Central Investigation Department (CID). In China, the MPS presence was nearly ubiquitous, as it kept a watchful eye on China’s population. It was energetically engaged in monitoring Chinese who returned from abroad. To cope with what it determined to be errant citizens, MPS ran labor reform camps. MPS personnel were known for behaving harshly among its own citizens. That behavior was said to be reflective of the violent mentality of its initial leader, Kang. Despite his alleged romance with Mao’s wife, Kang was far from a charming man. Rather, he was known for being an absolute brute. He would move on to become a member of the Communist Party of China Political Bureau, and Li Kenong moved up to take command there. In 1962, the decision was made to move Ministry of Public Security counterespionage functions over to the CID.

The 1960s were a volatile time for Chinese intelligence services as with all military institutions in China. Li Kenong died in 1962 and in 1966 he was succeeded by Luo Quinchang, who had been adopted by Kang in 1958 and ushered into the MPS. However, the MPS became involved in the power struggles that embroiled the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution. Mao, feeling his power base was threatened mainly as a result of his failed Great Leap Forward, implemented the “Four Cleans Movement,” with the objective of purifying politics, economics, ideas, and organization of reactionaries, led by a one time ally, Luo Quinchang of MPS. His staff files were seized and mined for candidates for criticism and banishment to the lao jiao prison system.

Kang Sheng (above). The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) was established as China’s principal intelligence service at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. It, too, was placed under the leadership of Kang Sheng. The main role of the MPS, as with all previous Chinese intelligence services, was to serve the interests of the Communist Party of China. As time passed, it was also officially given jurisdiction over counter subversion, counterintelligence, and conducting espionage in Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. MPS personnel were known for behaving harshly among its own citizens. That behavior was said to be reflective of the mentality of Kang, who was known for being an absolute brute.

Most of the leadership of the CID was sent to the countryside for reeducation and the organization, itself, was abolished for a time. Its activities and assets were absorbed by the Second Department of the PLA’s general staff taking over its duties. The Second Department oversaw human intelligence collection to include military attachés at Chinese embassies overseas clandestine collection agents sent to other countries to collect military information, and the analysis of overt sources of information. Mao turned to Kang to ensure that his ideological and security directives were implemented. Kang, Mao’s wife Jiang, Wang Hongwen, Yao Wenyuan, Zhang Chunqiao, dubbed the “Gang of Four,” worked together in a campaign to renew China’s revolutionary spirit. With the assistance of the Red Guards, a mass student led paramilitary movement mobilized and guided by Mao from 1996 to 1967, the Gang of Four set out to destroy the “Four Olds” of society: old customs, old culture, old habits, old ideas. The Red Guards were particularly disruptive. Apparent moral confusion caused the base student army to rise and nearly wreck China by attacking senior Communist Party leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and by conducting mass executions. There were reports that the Red Guards cadres had engaged in cannibalism, eating students. They destroyed approximately 66 percent of China’s famous temples, shrines, and heritage sites. These included nearly 7,000 priceless works of art in the Temple of Confucius alone. The Red Guards would face resistance in major cities. Often the PLA was forced to violently put down their destructive attacks. The organization having fully flown off the rails, Mao instructed leaders of the Red Guards to end their movement.

Meanwhile, Kang had returned to the intelligence service from on high to assume responsibility for the CID cadres that remained left in limbo. Eventually, a new organization, the Central Case Examination Group, composed of CID cadres under Kang was created. That organization was instrumental in the removal of Deng Xiaoping from power. The CID was reestablished in 1971 following the death of Lin Biao and then again became entangled in another power struggle as Hua Kuo-feng and Deng Xiaoping vied for control of the party. By then, Kang had receded into the distance, viewed as too connected to the untidiness of the Cultural Revolution.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, the new leadership under Hua Guofeng initially tried to return to the pre-Cultural Revolution years and strengthen the CID. When Hua Kuo-feng and Wang Dongxing assumed power in 1977, they tried to enlarge the CID and expand the Communist Party of China intelligence work as part of their more general effort to consolidate their leadership positions. However, their hopes and dreams met their fate. Deng Xiaoping, having steadily ascended within the leadership ranks of the Communist Party of China, was uncertain of CID loyalties and his opinion of it was unfavorable. Circumstances indicated that he should order the shut down of all Investigation Offices in Chinese embassies. Although it remained part of the Chinese intelligence services, the CID was officially downgraded. According to Anne-Marie Brady in Making the Foreign Serve China: Managing Foreigners in the People’s Republic (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), the impact of the CID’s downgrade was softened by the fact that its intelligence efforts  were being paralleled and to some degree occasionally outmatched by the extraordinarily secret International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, which became deeply involved in inciting and assisting international revolution by moving weapons, financial support, and other critical resources to numerous Communist and non-Communist insurgencies worldwide.

The emblem of the Ministry of State Security (above). In 1983, there was considerable frustration in the Communist Party of China with the high volume of secret information being leaked to the West. This was particularly true with regard to information about debates occurring within the Communist Party and reports of poor economic and social conditions within China. In reaction, counterespionage responsibilities were transferred from the MPS to the new Ministry of State Security (MSS). Known as the Guojia Anquanbu or Guoanbu, the MSS was stood up in July 1983 to rectify the deficiencies of the previous iterations of the intelligence function in the Chinese national security apparatus.

The Inception of the Ministry of State Security

The story of the Ministry of State Security (MSS) began thoroughly in July 1983. That year, there was considerable frustration in the Communist Party of China with the high volume of secret information being leaked to the West. This was particularly true with regard to information about debates occurring within the Communist Party and reports of poor economic and social conditions within China. In reaction, counterespionage responsibilities were transferred from the MPS to the MSS. Known as the Guojia Anquanbu or Guoanbu, the MSS was stood up to rectify the deficiencies of the previous iterations of the intelligence function in the Chinese national security apparatus. When the reorganization of the MPS was completed in 1983, it was temporarily left with only traditional police functions. Nevertheless, the change turned out to be quite positive as both organizations were allowed a new beginning so to speak. MSS represented a reimagination of the intelligence collection process abroad and the counterintelligence struggle against outside powers. It eventually bring new dimensions to China’s foreign intelligence scheme. The creation of MSS freed MPS to revamp existing capabilities and explore and adapt a new as well as more technological set of cards to play in the domestic intelligence game so to speak. It represented a reimagination of the intelligence collection process abroad and the counterintelligence struggle against outside powers.

At its nascent stage, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed predominantly with PLA and government retirees. Despite the declaration of its raison d’être as a foreign intelligence organization, the MSS was initially asked to do what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was to perform as police. For that reason, the most important task that it was given after its inception, focusing on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests, was a natural fit. Tiananmen Square, in addition to being frightfully embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them to remain greatly concerned over a possible follow on move by students. That concern was thoroughly evinced when Chinese authorities announced that some 200 Chinese had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union. One might say that the counterintelligence purpose of the assignment made giving it to the MSS plausible. However, MPS had the domestic counterintelligence mission covered. Redundantly taking on the assignment concerning the student–surely MPS was on it–was a turn in a wrong direction. The MSS would eventually develop into an authentic foreign intelligence service, but it would take time. It would be an evolutionary process.

An ocean of student protesters in Tiananmen Square in May 1989 (above). At its nascent stage, the ranks of the MSS were filled with longtime MPS who transferred over to the office. MSS provincial branches were often staffed with People’s Liberation Army and government retirees. Despite the declaration of its raison d’être as a foreign intelligence organization, the MSS was initially asked to do what its rank and file knew how to do best, which was police work. For that reason, the most important task that it was given after its inception, focusing on students in both China and abroad after the Tiananmen Square protests, was a natural fit. The protests, in addition to being frightfully embarrassing to the Communist Party of China leaders, caused them great concern regarding a possible follow-on move by students.

As aforementioned, a paucity of quality information exists publicly from the Chinese government about the present-day MSS in primary or secondary sources. No official Chinese government website exists for the intelligence organization. There have been no press releases distributed or press conferences held by the organization’s public relations department. Access to information from the organization is essentially nonexistent. No significant writings have been published  by security scholars in China on the MSS. Precious few defections from MSS have occurred, so little has been provided from an insider’s view. What is best known generally about MSS in the US has been superbly relayed in I.G. Smith’s and Nigel West’s celebrated Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

The MSS headquarters is located in Beijing in a large compound in Xiyuan, on Eastern Chiang’an Avenue, close to Tiananmen Square. Within the security perimeter is snowing apartment block, Qian Men, where many of the MSS staff and their families live. The MSS is a civilian intelligence service and operates independently from the People’s Liberation Army General Staff Second and Third Departments, which also conduct military intelligence and counterintelligence operations. Although it has a central headquarters, the MSS actually was not built up as a centralized organization. It is composed of national, provincial, and local branches much as the MPS from which it sprang. Even the initial CDSA and later CID units of the MPS operated domestically under a decentralized and autonomous structure throughout China that was supported by the Communist Party of China. Their structure somewhat resembles that of the erstwhile regional and Soviet republic KGB bureaus. The provincial, and local branches receive directives from headquarters in Beijing and are financed by National Security Special Funds. Yet, only to the extent that provincial and local branches receive “administrative expenses,” could they be considered accountable to headquarters. They are largely autonomous in reality, reportedly acting as essential adjuncts to the local administration. The formal chief of the MSS holds the title Minister of State Security. As of this writing, the minister is Chen Wenqing. However, from the national level to the local levels, the MSS and its subordinate departments and bureaus report to a system of leading small groups, coordinating offices, and commissions to guide security work while lessening the risk of politicization on behalf of Communist Party of China leaders. Initially, the most important of these was the Political-Legal Commission (Zhongyang Guoja Anquan Weiyuanhui). The Political-Legal Commission was chaired by a Politburo member at the Central level with the title Secretary, who serves essentially as China’s security czar. There are Deputy Party Secretaries at the lower levels. The lower-level commissions oversee all state security, public security, prisons, and procuratorate (judicial) elements for their levels. Currently, there is a Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission (Zhengfawei) who oversees China’s security apparatus and law enforcement institutions, also with power reaching into the courts, prosecution agencies, police forces, paramilitary forces, and intelligence organs  Xi announced the creation of the Central State Security Commission (CSSC) in the Third Plenary Session of the Eighteenth Party Congress in November 2013. The CSSC held its first meeting on April 15, 2014. The purpose of this new commission was twofold. First, it was intended to balance internal political power created by the expansion of the security services and their capabilities in the 2000s. Second, the commission orient’s the MSS and other security forces toward planning and preempting threats to the party-state. At lower levels, provinces, counties, and municipalities have state security leading small groups (Guoja Anquan Lingdao Xiaozu). The political-legal Commissions and State Security leading small groups overlap in personnel but not perfectly. They combine with defense mobilizations committees and 610 offices to create a kind of system of systems that oversees local security and intelligence work. Headquarters is surely kept apprised of what the provincial and local branches are doing. Each level reports to the next MSS level up and the Political-Legal Committee at that level. This florid arrangement of horizontal and vertical relationships often creates bureaucratic competition that encourages pushing decisions upward while hiding information from elements of equal protocol rank.

Intellect, will, and hard earned experience drove MSS leaders forward as they molded the MSS into a truly effective intelligence organization. What compelled the domestic focus of its initial work is further apparent in that process. The first two ministers, Ling Yun and Jia Chunwang, faced the challenge of turning a small Ministry with only a handful of outlying provincial departments into a nationwide security apparatus. The expansion occurred in four waves. In the first wave during MSS’ inaugural year, the municipal bureaus or provincial departments of state security for Beijing, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, Liaoning, and Shanghai were created. A second wave appeared shortly thereafter between 1985 and 1988, including Chongqing, Gansu, Hainan, Henan, Shaanxi, Tianjin, and Zhejiang. The third wave from 1990 to 1995 completed the expansion of the Ministry across at the provincial levels, bringing in Anguilla, Hunan, Qinghai, and Sichuan provinces. The fourth wave the provincial-level departments expanded vertically, taking over local public security bureaus or established subordinate municipal or County bureaus. The MSS policy of expanding representative offices in most major towns and cities was reversed in 1997. Nevertheless, when MSS minister Jia left in 1998 for the MPS, the MSS was a nationwide organization at every level. Presently, the MSS’ thirty-one major provincial and municipal sub-elements. Interestingly, as MSS moved through each growth spurt, it did not ignite efforts to rename the organization, to divide it into pieces and parcel out some of its departments among other Chinese intelligence services, or to disband it altogether in the way CDSA and MPS suffered in the two previous decades. There seemed to be an understanding system wide that the need existed for a solid civilian foreign intelligence as well as counterintelligence capability. Continue reading

Why Putin Laments the Soviet Union’s Demise and His Renewed “Struggle” with the US: A Response to an Inquiry from Students

When Putin occasionally grieves publicly over the Soviet Union’s demise and expresses pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners worldwide. Putin, just being himself, certainly does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Still, he is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. A group of university students in the US inquired with greatcharlie on Putin’s expressions concerning the Soviet Union following a lively seminar debate. It was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to their inquiry. Hopefully, what is at the root of Putin’s stance on the Soviet Union has been figuratively dug up for them to see.

In late-May 2019, greatcharlie received an intriguing message from some undergraduate students of a university in the US concerning recurrent comments of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, lamenting the Soviet Union’s demise. There had apparently been a very lively debate in their political science seminar on Putin’s “often public lamentations over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his insistence that it had many positive attributes and that as a superpower, it played a valuable role globally.” The students’ solicitation of greatcharlie’s thoughts on the matter was flattering. It was even more stirring to see them express great interest in international affairs and Russian politics in particular. Another subject was selected for greatcharlie’s June post.  However, rather than simply suggest a few books and journal articles to supplement their seminar debate, it was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to the students’ inquiry. Undergraduate and graduate students represent a significant portion of greatcharlie’s audience. The hope of greatcharlie is that by responding in this way, these intrepid students and others reading the blog will be encouraged to further pursue their international affairs studies and to continue reaching out beyond their classroom lessons to augment their knowledge base.

Confusion over one’s thinking can often issue from imprudently offering enthusiasms on a subject. When Putin occasionally offers pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners. Putin, just being himself, does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Yet, Putin is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. It would be counterintuitive not to accept that when Putin acts at any level, he does so with purpose and that purpose can be uncovered. What is at the root of Putin’s nostalgic, pro-Soviet position is figuratively dug up for them to see from this somewhat informal, multidirectional examination. Hopefully, it discusses a few valuable points perhaps not covered in the inquiring students’ seminar. Further, from this examination, insights were generated on the Russian Federation President’s intentions and actions that will contribute to the foreign policy debate internationally. Nulla tenaci invia est via. (For the tenacious no road is impassable.)

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was the very public nature of his expressions. Even in those dire initial days in office, Putin rarely offered comments off the cuff that could possibly produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as they related to feelings of patriotism were heard from him before. Still, he avoided uttering sentiments that stemmed from truly personal feelings. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Putin Has Said Some Interesting Things about the Soviet Union

When Putin first began publicly discussing his feelings about the Soviet Union, he provided a rare glimpse of how thoughts coalesced in his consciousness. Only a few years earlier Putin had become a full-fledged political man, a deputy mayor of St Petersburg, and then suddenly found himself at the very top, learning his way through the Kremlin jungle, domestic politics, and the larger world of global international affairs. Prior to his statements about the Soviet Union, Putin left no doubt that the essence of his thinking was akin to a “Russia First” concept. On August 16, 1999, the members of the State Duma, the Russian Federation’s Parliament, met to approve Putin’s candidacy of a prime minister. He was President Boris Yeltsin’s fifth premier in 16 months. In his speech to the Duma, Putin stated with spirit: “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest . . . We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.” Being Yeltsin’s choice, Putin was dutifully confirmed as prime minister without much been made in support of, or against, his nationalistic stance. His strong patriotic tone was heard again in a statement made in Part 5, “The Spy” of Putin’s memoir First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) page 80. One of the interviewers preparing the book, notes that she asked him, “Did you suffer when the Berlin Wall fell?”, he explained: “Actually, I thought the whole thing was inevitable. I only really regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last. But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.”

Even so, only after a few short months as acting president and as the elected president, Putin, with the apparent aim of keeping the Russian Federation a welcomed player on the international stage, began taking a nuanced approach in issuing statements. When Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin departed in 1999, he left his young, hand-picked successor, Putin, with a rather dire situation economically, socially, and politically. Through strenuous efforts, Putin managed to halt what was once the country’s downward spiral toward abject ruin. Yet, after leveling things off, he hoped to move forward with plans and programs to improve living standards for average Russians and conditions around the country as a whole. At Kremlin press conferences, official government meetings and events, political rallies,  presentations at universities, policy think tanks, scholarly journals, and other institutions, Putin expressed his desire to create something better for the Russian people. Reading through Putin’s December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”, that appeared on the website of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999, he clearly believed, boiled down to the bones, that the key to Russia’s progress would be a successful effort to maximize the performance potential of the Russian people. That became his stated aim. He would focus on those factors that have brought some level of success and advancement, and attempt to amplify them to create some change.

Putin also was interested in acquiring Western investment into his economically troubled country to provide the people with the support they needed. For a while, he seemed to stoke Western approval of the Russian Federation with his words. However, he also made a number of half-turns away from a pro-Western position that really evinced there was a duality in thinking. As an example, on March 5, 2000, Putin made a statement to the effect that he did not rule out having the Russian Federation join NATO. However, he stressed that it would only do so “when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.” After stating that he could not imagine Russia being isolated from Europe, Putin went further on NATO to state: “it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.” Putin’s nuanced language was apparent, too, when very publicly broaching the issue of the Soviet Union’s fall. He remarked: “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart, whoever wants it back has no brain.” Putin’s efforts were successful to the extent that statements as these caused the West, if not to drop its guard, certainly to take a more relaxed view of him and his intentions. It would seem even then, that his true feelings and intentions would have readily identified him as a Russian nationalist. In that same vein, those pro-Western statements ran counter to the strong nature of his later statements of near adoration of the Soviet Union.

Soon enough, that nuanced bit of his statements that provided a touch of goodwill to the West was dropped. The collapse of the Soviet Union was publicly discussed by Russian Federation officials with the apparent goal of amplifying the message to world of how badly Russian people suffered as a result and that consideration might be given to increasing any efforts to invest in and generally assist their country. It also had the purpose of letting the Russian people know that their government was aware of their plight. No deception was being used then to hide deficiencies in the system which was the practice under Soviet rule. On April 25, 2005, Putin stated: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” In process of repairing things, however, Putin encountered significant obstacles that primarily concerned the capabilities and capacity of the Russian people to get beyond only making changes here and there for the better, and get behind efforts at making real progress. The product of his efforts could be characterized as rather anemic. There was still an uneasiness in Russia when Putin began as president. Morale was low, fruitful activity was sparse, and new, useful ideas were absent. One might posit that faced with disappointment and discontent over immediate results of his own efforts over the years, he has been able to manage his greatest concern which is not to allow the country to roll backward. That was probably a nightmare that likely nearly suffocated him many nights at the time. In order to stabilize the situation, he apparently decided to turn toward something that felt familiar and safe. Eventually, Putin’s goal became to develop some simulacrum of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union. Sustainability was less likely a concern given the exigent circumstance of a need for immediate answers. On March 2, 2018, Putin issued his most direct comment to date about the Soviet collapse. Taking questions from supporters in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad, Putin was asked what Russian historical event he would like to change. Putin immediately answered, “The collapse of the Soviet Union.”

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was its very public nature. Putin has never been anything akin to some wandering preacher, expressing his convictions about matters. Even in those dire early days in office, Putin, who emerged from the secret world of Soviet intelligence, rarely offered comments off the cuff that could produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as it related to feelings of patriotism were certainly heard from Putin before. Still, Putin is a man who has typically avoided uttering sentiments genuinely stemming from personal feelings, which in this case was his grief over loss of the Soviet Union. If he ever slipped up and revealed blithely his inner feelings on a matter, he would have moved quickly to preserve the confidentiality of such statements. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was clearly because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated Western characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons.

The KGB Factor

An immediate impression of Putin’s words might reasonably be that he and most likely many others who were part of the Soviet apparat continued to adhere to their “unique reality” about the Soviet Union. Indeed, his statements were true to life with respect to the commitment to the Soviet system by hardline, old guard, former apparatchiks, which includes Communist Party functionaries or government bureaucrats, nomenklatura or high ranking management, and dead-enders among former rank and file Soviet citizens. For all those from the same water in which Putin swam, each time anyone referenced the Soviet Union in such a positive manner, there would doubtlessly be agreement that it was the full version. For them, such words from Putin likely ring patriotic bells. It strikes greatcharlie as hopelessly derivative to remind readers that Putin’s decisions and actions have been influenced by his life in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security, initialized from Russian and better known as the KGB. It was Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Nonetheless, it is a reality and an important factor that should be examined first.

A seemingly infinite number of primary and secondary sources exist on the KGB. However, an intriguing Cold War era description of the KGB that greatcharlie has referred to often is a concise November 13, 1982 New York Times article entitled, “KGB Praised By Some Feared By Many”. The article explained that the KGB was the most widely feared instrument of the Soviet Government. It measured the strength of the KGB at 90,000 or so staff officers inside the Soviet Union to guard against internal security threats and run the political prisons. Along the country’s borders, 175,000 of border troops patrol its 41,800 miles of frontiers. Outside of the country, the article noted that its scientific-technical operatives sweep Western countries seeking the latest secret inventions, while its ”illegals” try to penetrate foreign intelligence operations. The article explains further that the first Communist secret service, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage, mainly referred to under the acronym Cheka, virtually copied the Czarist secret police organization and even co-opted some of its more capable officers. The Cheka’s founder, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, was quoted as saying, ”Trust is good, but control is better,” and, in 1918, ”We stand for organized terror.” In its earlier years, the article states, the Soviet secret police acquired a reputation as an instrument of mass terror: beginning in the 1920s as the organizer and supplier at home of huge concentration camps where millions perished; in the 1930s as Soviet Premier Josef Stalin’s executor of huge purges of the party and the Red Army officer corps; and, in the late 1940s and 1950s, as the perpetrator of assassinations of opponents abroad. The latter killings were performed by a group specialized in what Soviet intelligence reportedly  called ”wet affairs”. In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death on March 5,1953, the KGB was accused of trying a coup in the Kremlin, using secret police troops. Its chief, Lavrenti P. Beria, was seized by his party comrades and executed. The article notes that it was not until 20 years later that the KGB recapture the degree of respect it once held in the Soviet Union when its director, Yuri Andropov, was elected to the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

Citing a common perspective of Western intelligence specialists then, the article states that the KGB, while retaining excellent abilities in traditional espionage was devoting greater resources to acquiring Western military and industrial technology. In fact, in the decade before the article was written, the KGB has acquired the plans of American spy satellites, advanced radar, computer source codes and conventional weapon innovations. It posits that those acquisitions could have been attributed to former KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov. It was under his supervision the KGB became a type of office for technology transfer from the West, in addition to its conventional tasks, such as penetrating the coderooms of the NATO alliance. The article further explains that the KGB, to the envy of foreign intelligence services, was able to retain key personnel for many decades, providing a kind of continuity particularly valuable in counterintelligence. The article quoted an assessment of the KGB by James J. Angleton, retired head of the CIA’s counterintelligence branch, a controversial figure, yet sacred cow US intelligence. Angleton simply stated: “I wish we had their continuity.”

Interestingly, the New York Times article’s treatment of the KGB had an almost prosecutorial tone. Still, there should not be any misunderstanding that among those who were or potentially could have been victims of the KGB in the Soviet Union and abroad, the organization was not by any means viewed as the “good guys”. its actions were not misunderstood. However, while it is a bit one-sided, the article manifests prevailing Western impressions of the KGB at the time, It hopefully allows one to gain a sense of the tension and tenor of the geopolitical struggle between East and West during the Cold War as late as the 1980s.

In First Person, Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Indications are that members of the KGB managed to skirt many of tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. He has great reason to be thankful to it.

On Putin’s KGB Perspective

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. (Into the truth through shadows and images.) Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. While embellished to a considerable degree, that remains the “commercialized”, Hollywood version of the KGB officer, popular in the West during the Cold War. It was certainly a great departure from reality. Essentially, for Putin, they paint a portrait of someone who does not exist. Some appear so satisfied seeing Putin as such, they do not seem interested in getting the picture straight. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons. A fair appraisal of Putin’s career would be that he was good at his work and that he well-impressed his colleagues and superiors alike. Certainly, he could be dashing and audacious when necessary, but moreover he was honorable and discreet, using his wits and memory. He progressed gradually and fruitfully with agents he recruited. As a result of his many successes, he received promotions up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Similar to most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered Putin a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian noted: “Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”  In his bildungsroman, First Person. Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. The officers of the KGB were the tried and true protectors of the Soviet Union. The organization was praised by the Communist leadership as the country’s ”sword and shield”. The KGB certainly had the trust of its customers. At the same time, the KGB, was an indispensable instrumentality of the government to the extent it was the means through which it subjected the Russian people to terrible conditions believing that there was little chance that those conditions would fully effect its members. Indications are that KGB officers managed to skirt many of the tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. For those reasons alone, he has great reason to be thankful to it. In Part 3, “The University Student” of First Person, Putin states about himself: “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” Ubi bene, ibi patria.  (Homeland is where your life is good.)

It must be mentioned that Karen Dawisha, in Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Shuster, 2014), insists that there was more than an emotional connection between former KGB officers and the Soviet Union. Dawisha explains that in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Chekists were asked to take control of the currency that the Communist Party had accumulated. There were Central Committee decrees ordering such activity. Dawisha cites an August 23, 1990 decree which authorized: “urgent measures on the organization of commercial and foreign economic activities of the party” and laying out the need for an autonomous channel into the Party cash box . . . the final objective is to build a structure of invisible party economics . . . a very narrow circle of people have been allowed access to this structure . . . .”  Dawisha makes the connection between this period when KGB officers heard the clarion call of the Communist Party to loot state coffers and Putin’s start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a job he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Grabbing money became their métier, and they worked hard at it. In St. Petersburg, Putin obeyed his patrons and proved himself to be reliable.  He also gained a solid understanding of the linkages between organized crime, which is of a special breed in Russia, bureaucrats, and former KGB officials. (While in St. Petersburg, he befriended an attorney named Dmitry Medvedev.) When his boss, Alexander Sobchak lost his bid for reelection as St. Petersburg’s mayor, Putin was out of a job. Yet, in the course of less than two years though, Putin rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months after that, he was Russian Federation President. On April 2, 2015, greatcharlie posted a review of Putin’s Kleptocracy. There is far too much to follow along that argument to unpack here. However, Dawisha does an excellent job of providing evidence to support her thesis. It could very well be an important part of the larger picture of Putin, the KGB, and governance in the Russian Federation.

Why a KGB Veteran Is Likely to Follow His Former Institution’s Line of Thinking

Surely, those who joined the KGB would say that they had answered the call to serve their nation in the security service. Some likely found a home, that offered employment security, a steady salary a place to belong to, a place where they will be taken care of, and an ordered life. That would not be considered irregular. The same could be said of those who have sought military careers or foreign service careers. Yet, as a result of more than a “collective consciousness” about defending the homeland, and given the unique nature of their work, a bond would form among KGB personnel and their families to the extent that a sort of mini society existed in the service. There may be some evidence that KGB officers, having an innate sense for being discreet, were mainly repressed people. Unable to express love within family or in close circles, the repressed have a habit of investing emotionally into larger organizations. Their love can be put into an institution, which in the case of Putin and his colleagues, was the KGB. The intelligence service, that closed off part of the intelligence officer’s life, becomes his family. For some, it becomes their raison d’etre. That type of linkage can lead to difficulties upon retirement and separation from organization. That makes associations of retired intelligence professional all the more important by creating links to the organization in which they served. The more contentment officers found in the KGB, the more settled and satisfied they became with their lives. Through the KGB, they got the picture of their lives straight.

Putin rose meteorically through the newly formed Russian Federation Government under Yeltsin almost as if his life had been mapped out by providence. He found support and guidance from former KGB colleagues from St. Petersburg which is both his hometown and where got his start in politics at the local level. Many have since become officials in Putin’s government, political leaders, and key business leaders with whom Putin remains in close contact. In the KGB, these former officers are affectionately referred to as Chekists. They come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Among the aforementioned cadre of government officials, political leaders, and business leaders with whom Putin has surrounded himself are men who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg were mostly Cheka. Putin’s own Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was in fact raised in the Chekisty (Chekists) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended. With a loyal and effective team, Putin could stay ahead of troublesome political and business leaders that would disrupt his plans more often than not to the extent they would enable themselves to achieve their own self-aggrandizing, short term goals. However, by surrounding himself with like-minded Chekists of his “KGB family”, retaining his prevailing Chekist beliefs that aspects of the Soviet Union provides a good model for Russia to itself build upon has been made easier for Putin.

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, were not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. Those who were not privileged seem to discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. According to a December 19, 2018 Levada Center poll, more Russians regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union then than at any other time since 2004.

Is Putin in Touch with His Fellow Russians Regarding the Soviet Union?

His KGB life aside, Putin must be able recall that the Soviet Union was not satisfying for all Russians. Even in First Person, Putin admits that housing conditions for his family in St. Petersburg were far less than perfect, nevertheless, they still lived better than many. For those not so enthusiastic with the Soviet system, Putin’s pro-Soviet sentiments likely reminded of the ugliness of a not so distant past. The majority of Russians were unable to obtain positions equivalent in prominence and power as Putin held. Surely, they did enjoy the relatively staid and secure life that came with it. While it was more “democratic” to claim that Soviet citizens had equal access to education, opportunity, housing, sustenance, health care, social welfare, and other programs, efforts by the Soviet system in that direction were more cosmetic than consequential in establishing the type of society to which they made claim. All of those services, while satisfying when made available and were of appropriate quality, hardly reflected an effort by the Soviet government to respond to the will of the people.

Under the authorized description of the Soviet system, it was a so-called classless society. However, it assuredly was economically stratified, and could be visualized in terms of concentric circles. The quality of life for citizens in the society would degrade sharply as one looks outward from the center all the way to those circles at the end where citizens struggled daily to survive. Those who occupied the center circle were the nomenklatura, the country’s leaders and power elites at the top. Those moguls lived in luxury relative to other citizens, and enjoyed the best things that Russia had to offer. Outside of the nomenklatura, the standard of living was passable for Soviet citizens from what would approximate “middle-class”. Those were usually the apparatchiks of the Soviet system, full-size functionaries of the Communist Party or the Soviet government apparat (apparatus). Apparatchiks were also those who worked in any bureaucratic  position or position of political responsibility. In many cases, they were lucky enough to be employed under the “self-management” concept positions, which required employees to evaluate the quality of their own productivity. However, that virtual middle-class was never completely comfortable for they , too, could suffer the effects of housing shortages, rationing, corruption, and other inconveniences. In some cases, they had to pay their superiors in order to keep their positions. This was even true in some parts of the military

Russian citizens living under a lower standard encountered those same problems and more with far greater intensity. They often suffered periods of rationing and privation. Some fell into a state of penury, a reality that the Soviet system desperately sought to conceal. They were forced to make the most of nothing. Those citizens emerged from the Soviet system holding a worldview, infiltrated by pessimism. They fully experienced the self-serving, self-enriching, behavior of national leaders for whom they were simply statistics.

Of the many Russians émigrés who escaped the Soviet Union during the Cold War, some who were activists or associated with activist organizations, were labelled anti-social elements when they lived there, and the Soviet government was likely happy to rid the country of them. There were some defectors, and some who managed to immigrate in order to take advantage of Western educational and professional training programs, getting away from the Soviet Union. What these groups typically had in common though, was the manner in which they spoke with disdain about of the Soviet system once they arrived overseas. They generally told stories with unmitigated rancor of an abominable government security apparatus that abused power, had neighbors spy on neighbors, obliterated all aspects of privacy, and made freedom something that could only be enjoyed in dreams. They could vividly recount their difficult lives in a manner that would bring the walls down. Very often, Soviet intelligence services would troll émigré communities in the West, to recruit and develop agents abroad using the threat of harming family members still living in the Soviet Union if cooperation was not provided.

Immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, tens of thousands of detailed facts, intriguing anecdotes, and classified debriefings collected on furtive actions taken by the KGB were collected from the archives (vaults) of what was once called 2 Fellx Dzerzhinsky Square Moscow, the headquarters and prison of the KGB. With that information, and insights such those discussed here, there is enough to assess today, as it had been at the time of the Soviet Union’s demise, that the inability of the government to find an efficacious way to meet its all important responsibility to provide for and ensure the well-being of its citizenry, that led to the country’s downfall. Despite all of the alleged promise and dogma uttered about the “great socialist system”, the results confirmed that the Soviet concept was never viable. Despite all appearances, the country for years was slowly being strangled by many ills from within. While not easily stirred by the transfer from one national leader to another, at some level, Russians surely had expected that the rather shrewd, worldly-wise young ex-KGB man, Putin, might be the elixir their country needed. Many may have hoped that he would be able to present a concept for change to overcome what was before. It certainly would not have expected that Putin main focus would be to use Russia as a platform from which the supposed splendor and the power of the Soviet Union could be reestablished

As Putin, himself, acknowledged, the average Russian citizen had little idea beyond the US and the European Union to find examples of what they quietly wanted to be after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in that case, they had absolutely no idea what it would really take to reach such heights. They also had little knowledge of how to discern what would indicate a political leader has the qualifications or capabilities to put the country on a path to advance there successfully. Steps in that direction were made. Russia was made a member of what became the G8 and G20. It would become the key member of NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It participated in UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions mandated by resolutions. After the 1990s, there was the image of Russia acquiring a place at the main table with the top industrialized countries despite its precarious situation economically, socially, politically, and militarily. As a policy, Russia sought to incorporate itself into the international system of regulating foreign economic operations, particularly the World Trade Organization. However, paying careful attention to Putin’s words when he was acting President, the impression is created that finding a true path toward comity with the West was not actually on his mind. Putin explained in his very revealing essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”: “Russia will not become a second edition of say the US or Britain, where liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly to be gotten rid of. Quite the contrary, it is a source of order and the main driving force of any change.”

Do Russians Want to Go Back to Soviet Days?

In the West, one might expect that concerns or fears would be so universal among all Russian citizens over any wording that would even hint some form of the Soviet Union would be reanimated in Russia. That uneasiness clearly would not be based on unreason and paranoia, but rather upon the experience of having lived so shabbily under its system. Conceivably as a result of the experience many Russians had enduring dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union and living with the limitations and inconveniences of daily life in the Russian Federation, they had become expert in keeping a sense of proportion. The follow-on to the Soviet system was supposed to be the great Russian liberalization. However, that was not the case.

There are occasionally some significant grumblings about Putin’s governance. Protest rallies become considerably more intense than perambulating demonstrators near election dates. Flaps of clashes with police and the security services by more politically active segments of the population have been predicted by Western experts, and reported in the Western media, as spelling the beginning of the end for Putin. Nevertheless, Putin remains. Interestingly, Putin has been ridiculed and denounced in the news media. Further, there has been television programming in the Russian Federation that has lampooned Putin much to his dissatisfaction. However, he hardly dealt with any problems of considerable intensity from his core constituency or, relatively, from the majority of Russians countrywide. They have not really exhorted Putin to try harder. They keep within the margins. Perhaps the old adage “go with what you know” could be applied, for it best suits the situation for the Russian people regarding their country’s path and its leadership. To the extent that they will continue have any order in their country, average Russians believe that they can at best rely upon Putin. That begrudging sense of being somewhat satisfied has been just enough to bring Putin victory in election after election. One might say therein lies a sort of duplicity on their part. Still, in an even bigger way, the Russian people are really gambling on Putin’s mortality. The possibilities of who might come to power from other powerful political forces in Russia is hair raising. Via trita, via tuta. (Beaten path, safe path.)

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, typically are not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. That is quite intriguing because those who were not privileged seemingly discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. They are the dead-enders. It is posited here that in some cases, such pro-Soviet elements apparently focus upon and magnify aspects of Soviet life that they may have enjoyed from the totality of their experiences and then determined that it was as a result of the benefits of being Soviet. To be more precise, it appears that as a result of some psychological transference, what defined their private existence somehow became what universally defined their existence under the Soviet system. Those positive, pleasant aspects of Soviet life may actually have been things such as good times had among family, friends and colleagues that in reality are common to people all over the world, transcending citizenship or nationality. Perhaps in Soviet terms, it could be chalked up to humanism. While being a Soviet citizen may have been a common experience, what they had even more in common was their humanity. It was the US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey, who stated: “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.”

Statistical evidence of such pro-Soviet thinking among former rank and file Soviet citizens was provided by a poll published on December 19, 2019 by the Levada Center, a Russian independent, nongovernmental polling and sociological research organization. According to that poll, more Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union at that moment in time more so than any other since 2004. The poll was conducted between November 18, 2018 and November 28, 2018, surveyed 1,600 people nationwide. When asked whether they regret the 1991 Soviet collapse, 66 percent of respondents answered “yes”. That represented an increase of 58 percent from 2017, and is the highest proportion since 2004, the last year of Putin’s first term. Reportedly, 25 percent of respondents said they did not regret the Soviet breakup, the lowest proportion since 2005, and 9 percent said they could not answer. Interestingly, Levada found that Russians’ concerns about their economic security today were among the main reasons for the increase in the number voicing regret. Indeed, a Levada pollster explained that 52 percent of respondents named the collapse of the Soviet Union’s “single economic system” as the main thing they regretted. The peak of regret over the Soviet collapse came in 2000, when 75 percent of Russian polled by Levada answered “yes” to the same question. At the same time, 36 percent said they miss the “feeling of belonging to a great power,” and 31 percent lamented mistrust and cruelty in society.

US and Soviet armor units face-off at Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin October 27-28, 1961 (above) For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against efforts by the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West always emphasized its moral superiority, but that never needed to be done in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West through newsmedia stories, spoke for itself.

The World Does Not Miss the Soviet Union

An examination of the Soviet Union’s position in the world cannot be made by only weighing how the government administered the domestic affairs of the country against the preferences of quondam citizens. Those who speak nostalgically before the world about their own positive version of the Soviet Union, such as Putin, typically engage in an act of omission by airbrushing its realities. The impression is given that its collapse was the result of some benign decision among its republics to succeed to pursue their own aims. They omit, albeit intentionally, that the failed country not only posed problems for its own citizenry, but particularly after World War II, it posed a threat to the world. To be frank, the history of Soviet behavior is atrocious. The people of countries that stand just outside of its sphere of influence but close enough to feel threatened, and the people of border countries that are former Soviet republics, many of which in some way have been victimized by Russian Federation transgression, would unlikely ever think or say anything positive about the Soviet Union. The haunting spectre of the departed Soviet Union has helped to form negative impressions of the Russian Federation. Surely, one should not, using a broad brush, condemn the people of a country for the acts of their government. It was the Soviet government that ruled by fear and terror and was the anathema. As for the Soviet people, they were most often appreciated around the world. Many significant contributions were made by the Soviet people to the arts, mathematics, sciences, engineering, philosophy,  that were remarkable. Some space could reasonably be granted for former Soviet citizens wax about the loss of a homeland and those good days that existed. Still, looking at the pertinent facts, the greater realities about the Soviet Union cannot be denied.

Running through the basics of the Cold War, one would learn that in the postwar period, the Soviet Union essentially replaced Germany as occupiers large areas of Eastern Europe, to include Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In a very powerful speech in Fulton, Missouri in March 5,1946, the then former United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill would say that those countries were locked behind an “Iron Curtain.” In those countries, a process of “Sovietization” began. Soviets operatives worked behind the scenes to establish puppet governments that would serve as an extension of Moscow’s rule. These governments had the initial appearance of being democratic but in reality were not. Local Communists were gathered into a coalition party then handed power, usually after coups or rigged elections. All political parties, other than the Communist Party, were dissolved. Leaders of the Soviet-dominated countries would lie about or deny realities about what was occuring in their societies. As a result of Soviet efforts, an “Eastern Bloc” and “Soviet Bloc” had been established. US officials agreed that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “Containment” formulated by the US diplomat George Kennan. In his famous February 22, 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow outlining the policy, Kennan explained that the Soviet Union was “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; as a result, the only choice for the US was the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” US President Harry Truman agreed with Kennan and stated before the US  Congress on March 12,1947, “It [Containment] must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation . . . by outside pressures.” In his speech, Truman also asked Congress for $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey to counter Soviet meddling in those countries. The Containment Policy would shape US foreign policy for the next four decades.

Direct confrontation came when the Soviet Union cut all road and rail links to West Berlin, allegedly in response to a decision by the US, the United Kingdom, and France to merge their occupation sectors of the city. With no access to any sustenance, the US and United Kingdom flew in tons of food and supplies by air transports in what was known as the Berlin Airlift. Elsewhere in the world, North Korean forces, trained, equipped, and supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Led by the US, UN forces collectively responded. The fighting was halted on July 27, 1953. Pro-Soviet Russians, might point to the fact that actions taken by Russia in the period capsulated here were the result of Stalin, who many Russians decry as a corrupt despot who sullied the grand ideals of the revolution. However, in the years that followed his death in 1953, the commitment of Moscow to the revolutionary and expansionist paradigm continued. Under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union, despite calls for peaceful coexistence and desire to reopen ties with the West, firmed the Soviet Union’s grip over its empire and increased its support of Third World Communist movements. On May 14, 1955, the Soviet Union and seven of its European satellites sign a treaty establishing the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense organization that put the Soviets in command of the armed forces of the member states. The military alliance was named the Warsaw Pact because the treaty was signed in Warsaw. Warsaw Pact countries included the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria as members. Similar to NATO, by treaty, Warsaw Pact members were required to come to the defense of any member attacked by an outside force. The force was initially set up a unified military command under Soviet Army Marshal Ivan Konev.

Soviet efforts to maintain a tight grip over its empire were highlighted by the quelling of protests against Communist rule in 1956 culminating with Soviet tanks successfully taking control of Budapest on November 10, 1956. On August 15, 1961, the Soviet Union initiated the construction of a wall between East Berlin under Soviet control and West Berlin under US, United Kingdom, and French control. The border between East and West Germany were also sealed by fencing. A decision by Khrushchev to construct a Soviet intermediate range nuclear armed missile base in Cuba, led to a blockade of the island country and strenuous demands from US President John Kennedy that the missile be removed. As the US prepared to invade Cuba, negotiations between Khrushchev and Kennedy, initially through back channels, led to an October 28, 1962 agreement to remove the weapons.

Khrushchev legacy was not one of diplomacy, but rather brinkmanship the nearly led more than once to nuclear war. On October 15, 1964, Khrushchev was removed from office. His successor Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union for nearly two decades. Brezhnev also wanted to launch a new era of negotiation with the West, labeled détente by US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in the administration of US President Richard Nixon. However, under his leadership, the Soviet Union never ceased its military buildup and pressed its efforts to expand Communism into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. From July 1965 to April 1975, the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam with everything from rifles to fighter jets in war against the South Vietnamese government which the US and its Southeast Asia Treaty Organization allies supported with troops and materiél. The result was the intensification of fighting and prolonging the wreckage of human lives. On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed efforts by Czech President Alexander Dubcek to initiate reform programs, known as the “Prague Spring”. Dubcek was arrested when he refused to halt his efforts. On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. On December 30, 1980, the Solidarność (Solidarity) Movement in Poland was crushed with the imposition of Martial Law. It was finally under Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who in attempting to reform the Soviet Union under perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), destabilized it to the point of collapse.

For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. Its defense against those Soviet ideals was simply referred to as anti-Communism. Societies in the West were somewhat disparate, with loosely associated forms of freedom, and democracy in most of its countries must have appeared disorderly from the East, with up roars over government decisions and actions, demands for justice and social progress, and political rivalries that played out publicly. Yet, they still took on an amiable form. Moreover, it was well-accepted by those in the West that their world and way of life was worthy of protecting. Militarily, the means was collective defense. Those who were part of that struggle, using the white hat black hat symbolism of the Western film genre of the 20th century, saw themselves as the white hats representing all that was good, admirable, and honorable and viewed the Soviet and Soviet Bloc operators as the black hats, the villains. One was either on the right side or the wrong side. Using familiar terms of today concerning human interactions in societies to explain Communism, it posed a threat to individual freedom, inclusiveness, and tolerance. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West’s moral superiority was always emphasized, but it never needed to be presented in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West when occasional newmedia stories told what was happening there, really spoke for itself. US President Ronald Reagan, getting to the root of the differences between East and West in his renowned June 12, 1987 “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” explained: “The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship and affront.” (Attempting to boil down to the bones the Cold War to provide an accurate, comprehensive summary of ideas and events felt a bit Sisyphean. Too much occurred. There were too many episodes, too many flaps of diplomacy and periods of aggression and war, to synthesize. If a sense for the monumental geopolitical struggle was created, this synopsis has served its purpose. Hopefully, the information has also provided some factual counterbalance to pro-Soviet statements recounted here.)

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Russians have never seen the coming of a new day, but rather an ongoing dark night, a black void they have stared into for decades.

What Has Putin Established in Russia?

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens countrywide. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Indeed, it would not be out of court to say that despite what one might perceive at first blush, Putin seems, in practice, oblivious to the economic realities those conversations revealed. If the Russian people were to take a careful look over their shoulders today, they undoubtedly might recognize that nothing spectacular has been accomplished at home on their behalf by his government. There is no interest in disparaging any of Putin’s exertions, but many Western analysts and other observers would agree that Russians never seen the coming of a new day in their country, but rather just the ongoing dark night, a black void which they have stared into for decades. It might be stated with confidence that in a general sense they are not content. The reality that their lives have hovered in an endless limbo seems to be suppressed by most.

It may very well be that by the time Putin reached the top of the power pyramid, such people skills, his ability to understand others he is not associated with became a bit seared. Perhaps proper focus has not been placed on the people’s thinking and the ability to perceive their needs. Even his intuition regarding experiences of other Russians and where many were at a given moment seem darkened from disuse. A gentleman must always adapt to his circumstances. To a great degree, what has emerged in the Russian Federation is indeed Putin’s version of the Soviet Union. Although the struggle to establish global Communism is absent, Putin certainly has included imagery from the Soviet Union in his new Russia. It would seem that some methods well-used during the Soviet era to maintain social order and population control, were implemented by Putin in response to the fragility of the society and that the Russian Federation remains vulnerable to collapse. It is also assured that many of Putin’s former KGB colleagues would find ample opportunities to make use of their dark and unusual skill sets.

Once again, the old adage “go with what you know” seems to fit well, in this case with the Putin’s thinking. Of course, such explanations do not provide an excuse or a defense for his actions. The following list includes only a few of those elements: utilization of prison camps, “gulags”, in Eastern Russia, to detain reactionaries and other undesirable elements; the suppression of political opposition; assassinations of political opposition leaders; assassinations of journalists; the padlocking of media houses, newspapers the broadcast, publish, and post stories exposing what they perceive as questionable or even corrupt activities of Putin’s administration; and, the expulsion of “undesirable organizations” such as foreign and international religious, human rights, and civil society organizations and termination of their programs. There are also: massive military parades before the Russian Federation’s leadership; fiery anti-Western speeches at rallies; military deployments into other countries (e.g., Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus) the occupation and annexation of the territories of sovereign neighboring countries; the sudden death, murders, suicides of senior diplomats, senior military officers, senior intelligence officials, senior law enforcement officials, and senior officials of other security related services; the arrest and prosecution of Russians who are international business elites, known better as oligarchs, who have fallen into disfavor with the Kremlin; regularly renaming and repeating policy conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions of technology created to highlight Russian intellect, ingenuity, and advancements; the hosting international amateur sporting tournaments in Russia as a means to showcase the country; and, reported violations by Russian Federation national sports teams of rules and regulations of international sporting associations, including the International Olympic Committee. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable)

Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has doubtlessly been a considerable psychic drain along with the stresses and anxieties of other matters in which he has been engaged daily. He may never have publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live, yet as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Putin Knows How Much Progress Is Really Possible in the Russian Federation

There is rarely a single reason for anything, and that certainly applies to Putin’s claims about the Soviet Union. With no intention of being whimsical, it might be worthwhile to consider that theories on what may have influenced Putin other than his KGB background, can also be joined by others built on his additional dimensions. It should not be thought that analysis from another direction might even compromise theories already proffered on Putin’s pro-Soviet comments. After all, the hope and primary goal of this examination remains reaching the actual state of the matter. Putin may not necessarily be so dedicated to other foreign and domestic matters that he has not tried to develop a clearer vision for Russia and has not sought to respond at all to the echoes of those suffering economically in his country. It might be reasonable to doubt that Putin would be completely unable to see the world through the prism of average Russians. That would run counter to expectations of what should be among the suite of skills possessed by a KGB officer in the field. Interestingly, in Part 3, “The University Student”, a close friend notes that he once asked Putin about his work in the KGB. Putin cleverly replied, “I’m a specialist in human relations.”

Putin might very likely reject the idea that being in the intelligence service of the KGB seared his conscience and left him indifferent toward the situation of fellow Russians or cause him to disregard their well-known plight. Moreover, he would most likely reject the idea that members of the KGB thought to help the Soviet government subject the Russian people to “unappealing conditions.” It may very well be that a heartbreaking value judgment was made. Putin may have viewed it as unconstructive to turn his attention fully in the direction of the troubled state of affairs of the Russian people because his ability to be fruitful has been simply too limited. From the start, he knew that the job of Russian Federation President involved achieving monumental tasks. So much wrong had to be made right. Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness of leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union at this point might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has been beyond peradventure a considerable psychic drain in tandem with the stresses and anxieties caused by other matters in which he has been engaged daily. Psychologically, the aggregate disappointment and agony could have become so magnified in his mind and everything would become unmanageable. Being the true professional that he is, Putin knows that he needs to stay focused on the larger picture. He must avoid losing himself in the labyrinth. He must not allow himself to be over matched by difficulties. He has never publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live. However, as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them

The Russian Federation government’s limited capabilities and capacity to resolve those domestic problems for some time, in fact, is not necessarily the result of Putin’s leadership being remiss. Certain inadequacies that have harmed output, seem to be intrinsic to the Russian system. Among them are included: unreliable governance at the republic, krai, and oblast levels, poor execution of economic policies, banking and financial disarray, low moral in the workplace, alcoholism, drug abuse, mismanagement, corruption, and criminality. With focus has been placed on Putin’s efforts to extol cherry picked “virtues” of the Soviet Union, little attention is given to other comments that he made during his first months of service as a national leader. He often spoke the truth about the ills of collapsed superpower, and often explained that lingering problems from the Soviet era made getting the Russian Federation moving forward very difficult, if not impossible. A statement to this effect from Putin can also be found in his December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”. He stated: “We had to pay for the Soviet economy’s excessive focus on the development of the raw materials and defence industries, which negatively affected the development of consumer production and services. We are paying for the Soviet neglect of such key sectors as information science, electronics and communications. We are paying for the absence of competition between producers and industries, which hindered scientific and technological progress and prevented the Russian economy from being competitive in the world markets. This is the cost of the brakes and the bans put on Russian initiatives and enterprises and their personnel. Today we are reaping the bitter fruit, both material and mental, of the past decades.” It is hypothesized in a January 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One”, that the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, and may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put the Russian Federation on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him.

Even militarily, Russian Federation efforts to create an aura of technological modernity have fallen short. Its latest high tech, 5th generation fighters and hypersonic missile reflect the measure up only to the latest developments in the West nearly two decades past. The US move to lasers, 6th generation fighters that hardly resemble anything the world has seen before, and hypersonic systems that it has already has been developing almost the point of deployment, ensure that the Russian arsenal will pale in comparison with the US for some time to come.

Given all of that, it is very likely that Putin arrived at the conclusion that he had little choice but to simply do things as he saw fit with available resources to create the best circumstances possible. Unable to move steadily and safely in a new direction, Putin apparently saw the best option as creating a copy old order with all of its power and prestige. As aforementioned, sustainability was not at issue. He likely took this step originally as a temporary measure, to allow him time to chisel something better. That would certainly be in following with Putin’s modus operandi. However, in the end, in spite of many improvements, the country moved so much in the direction of the old order, the familiar for the Russian people, that it became figuratively “heavier” and more difficult way of being to transition from. If Putin learned anything from his KGB work, it was that sacrifice is required in nearly every endeavor. Many Russians have failed to benefit from his efforts. Indeed, there is a tendency for some to suffer while others benefit. Yet, those who continually fail to benefit have unlikely been forgotten. Imputing the best intentions on Putin, he will eventually use his full powers as president to make amends to them at some point, if time and opportunity will allow. Though the people may very well be uplifted at that point in the future, until then, they will be left twisting in the wind. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

US President Donald Trump (left) and Putin (right) in Helsinki, July 16, 2018. The vengeful thinking which prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration likely initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation had clearly changed. Trump explained that he wanted to work with Putin to achieve things globally that could best be done jointly. In response, Putin has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US mirroring the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. He has promoted what greatcharlie has labeled un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration.

Troubling Manifestations

It is important here to point out a unique aspect of Putin’s KGB world. Enlarging on a point made earlier about Chekists, they share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As heard in Putin’s public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Fully xenophobe and suspicious, Putin was determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he saw as enemies that might weaken it. In many respects, Putin has conformed to what might be expected of a Chekist. Although he would seem to be much more than average, he appeared to have been poured into same mold as all the others. Putin has actually stated publicly that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. While on his way to the top of the political heap in the new Russian Federation, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially.  In another statement made while he was acting President in 1999, Putin diplomatically explained the consequences of relying upon foreign experts for assistance. He stated: “The experience of the 90s demonstrates vividly that merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks cannot assure that our country will achieve genuine renewal without any excessive costs. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.”

Some Have Said Putin’s US Policy Manifests His Revanchist Mindset

When character and behavior are brought together, one uncovers motivation. In the summer of 2013, the EU Council sharply condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on members of the EU Eastern Partnership, countries with association agreements with the EU. In 2012, the EU accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports, 68 percent of which consisted of fuel and energy. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU suspended virtually all cooperation. Still, Putin’s thinking on the EU was not positive even before the Ukraine crisis. Putin saw the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Certain Russian actions, to include election meddling, indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries joining it. Joint projects with European countries reportedly allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. As much as making money, a goal of such efforts has been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. The Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, for instance, has provided Putin with the means to disrupt, and potentially weaken, European unity. A murmur exists in Europe that solidarity ends at the frontiers of some countries.

Regarding NATO, in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted West German Parliamentarian Egon Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putin further stated: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. (Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.)

Putin did not stand by while the EU and NATO expanded. One might agree with the supposition that Putin has a revanchist mindset, his decision to attempt to pull independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit would surely support that idea. To accomplish that, Putin had to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually began with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin gains a base from which he can exert his influence in that country.

A greater part of the foreign policy matters upon which Putin, seemingly in revanchist mode, felt cause to be laser focused was the geostrategic competition with the US. By the time his third term as Russian Federation President began, Putin left little doubt that the Russian Federation would assert itself in the world and he would ensure that Russia would never fall victim to business and financial experts and multinational corporations. Hostile feelings toward the US seemingly came to a head during the administration of US President Barack Obama. The details that contentious period are too sizable to unpack here (The most recent posts in which greatcharlie has outlined those many episodes in detail include: “Commentary: Trump and Putin: A Brief Look at the Relationship after Two Years”; Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage; “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him”; and “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”.) Crimea was likely just the first step among what would likely have been far worse actions leading even to war had the interregnum between Democrat and Republican administrations had not occurred in 2016.

Un Grand Défi

One might theorize that the sort of vengeful thinking which prevailed during the Russian Federation’s struggles with the Obama administration, initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation clearly changed with the arrival of the Trump administration. Putin and his aides and advisers should have recognized that. It was never the stated intention of the Trump administration to engage in a protracted, geostrategic competition with Russia. That is still the case despite the entreaties of some advisers. It was the expressed intention of candidate Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign to improve relations with Russia. As US President, Trump made it clear that he wanted to try to work with Putin and achieve things globally that could best be accomplished jointly. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them.

Clearly, the Russian Federation has not been threatened by any unprovoked aggressive or outright hostile offensive actions on the geostrategic landscape by the Trump administration. In reality, with the current political environment in the US, sounding the alarm over what might be identified as revanchist behavior by Putin might have served Trump well in at least an attempt to mollify critics and detractors. Nonetheless, without such provocation, Putin, has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US that would mirror the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, he has propagated what greatcharlie is labeling un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration. The benefit from un grand défi that Putin stands to gain is that it helps him create the appearance that the Russia Federation is a world leader and superpower. Indeed, despite all of Putin’s other maneuverings, the Russian Federation is only able to seen as a superpower when it is interacting with the US or measured against it. Correspondingly, as long as the Russian Federation is competing geostrategically in a discernable form of rivalry with the US, it can retain a strong place for itself at the grand table of military superpowers, although it stands a far off second to the US. Further, from what is detectable, that military tie in Putin’s mind also allows the Russian Federation, by a slender thread, to set a place for itself among the world’s economic powers, although it is not one. (As a measure of goodwill from the West, Russia was once welcomed on the G7. Putin wrecked that by conquering Crimea.) Alas, any unvarnished assessment would confirm that without tying itself to the US, any claims by Moscow of being a true world leader would simply appear self-styled, and could not be substantiated. Unless there is something or someone who could change Putin’s mind otherwise, doubtlessly as a matter of policy, he will continue to create a competitive environment with the US, leaving US Presidents with little choice but to meet any challenges posed by the Russian Federation. Curiously, it may very well be that Putin, living the Judo Ichidai, likely appreciates being in a “struggle” with the US. Odimus accipitrem quia semper vivit in armis. (We hate the hawk because he always lives in arms.)

Thus far, Putin has shown himself to be very intelligent man. All of the factors pulling him away from positive relations with the US seem to have caused Putin to metaphorically miss his exit along the road of diplomacy. The truth about the Trump administration and its good intentions should have reached Putin and made an impression, if only subconsciously. It is difficult to believe that Putin genuinely does not understand what Trump has been doing and that he does not recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia do some good in the world. By now it should be clear to Putin that Trump will not rise to grab the bait and begun some contentious back and forth between Washington and Moscow. As a consequence of  un grand défi he purposefully designed and promoted to compete as a soi-disant “superpower” with the Trump administration, Putin must contend with the missed opportunities for progress and advancement of the Russian people by insisting the two countries remain essentially divorced from each other. Those realities seemingly make Putin’s own effort at keeping Russia on top both counterintuitive and somewhat Quixotic.

It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image.

The Way Forward

By approaching the matter of Putin’s nostalgia romanticising of the Soviet era from a couple different directions and arguing matters from varied angles, it is hoped that the undergraduates who contacted greatcharlie, it has provided an edifying journey of exploration on their inquiry. It is also hoped that this essay was also satisfying for greatcharlie’s other regular readers. The purpose of greatcharlie’s examination was to simply consider Putin’s reiterative statements of praise for the Soviet Union. It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image. Patriotism, national identity, national pride, history, and culture are powerful ideas to organize a country’s population around. Focus upon them, often allows tricky leaders to distract from the internal with external The argument is made that the cause of Russia’s problems is the outside world, not internal difficulties, lack of capabilities, mismanagement, corruption, criminality, and so on. Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit. (Of mortal men, none is wise at all times.)

For the past two decades, great wells of anger have stored up among Putin and senior Kremlin officials toward the US for a variety of reasons. That has made finding a moderate path more difficult.  At the same time, as a practical matter, the Russian Federation’s contentious interactions with the US create a tie to it that could imaginably support the claim that a superpower competition exists. As greatcharlie posits here, without interacting with the US or being measured against it on a geopolitical matter for example, the Russian Federation would simply appear as a self-styled superpower, unable to substantiate the title in any way except by ostensibly harkening back to historical examples of the superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Russian Federation can only steal a modicum of the “superpower light” radiating from the US. It has precious little ability to generate any light of its own in that respect. Thereby, negative interactions need to be regularized and promoted by Putin. Under such circumstances, engaging positive interactions with the Russian Federation will prove very difficult for the Trump administration. However, Putin should not believe that he has found some sweet spot from which he can take on the US without any real consequences. There are also inherent dangers that stem from un grand défi Putin has inflicted upon the US. It could very well open the door to unmanageable disagreements and potential clashes. Fortunately, the Trump administration has shown little interest in rising to take Putin’s unappetizing bait. Whenever Trump feels he needs to act in response to Putin’s moves, it will be at a time, at a place, in a manner of his choosing, most likely with some degree of impunity, and when necessary covertly with plausible deniability. In that respect, although he has promoted un grand défi, Putin has in reality only established pas de problème, or no problem at all.

Things could certainly be better for the Russian people. The “golden mean”, a middle way, could very likely be found to create positive relations with the US that would bring real benefits to the Russian Federation. Moving in that direction would certainly mean doing more than just putting a toe in the water. Still, as long as the Russian people are satisfied, as a few polls and studies indicate, attempting to judge from the outside what would be best for them seems unmerited. Putin’s actions appear to illicit some uniquely Russian reactions. Putin does not need to turn back the clock and resurrect the Soviet Union because it has not really moved too far away from what was in a functional sense. Actions that have resulted in economic sanctions and have prevented the Russian economy from participating in competitive world markets, attendantly hinder genuine scientific and technological progress. The potential of Russian enterprises and people consequently remains locked in. It is almost assured that bitter fruit will be reaped in the future by moving forward in such a troubled way. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.)