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December 13, 2014

Was the Soviet 1923 Male Birth Cohort Doomed by World War II?

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Tim Harford's BBC Radio programme "More or Less" asked me to comment on a claim that is widely repeated on the internet, for example on Buzzfeed:

Almost 80% of the males born in the Soviet Union in 1923 did not survive World War II.

My answer

Here's the numbers I worked from on the programme(in thousands, rounded to the nearest hundred thousand). Each of the lines is sourced below.

  • Males born in the Soviet Union in 1923: 3,400
  • Infant (0-1) mortality: 800
  • Childhood (1-18) mortality, famine, and terror: 800
  • Surviving to 1941: 1,800
  • Wartime mortality: 700
  • Surviving to 1946: 1,100

My comment

The Buzzfeed claim is overstated, although not by a wide margin. Around two thirds (more exactly, 68%) of the original 1923 male birth cohort did not survive World War II. But the war is not the most important reason for the poor survival rate; almost half of them died before the war broke out.

The babies of 1923 were born at an awful time and faced a dismal future. The country they were born in was poor and violent. Between 1914 and 1921 their families had endured seven years of war and civil war, immediately followed by a major famine. Their society lacked modern sanitation, immunization programmes, and antibiotics. Rates of infant mortality and childhood mortality were shockingly high. Moreover, violence and famine were not a thing of the past. The 1923 cohort would be aged nine in the first year of the next major famine (1932) and fourteen in the year of Stalin's Great Terror (1937). They turned eighteen just as Germany attacked their country (1941).

The German invasion of 1941 was a deep national trauma. The young men born in 1923 were inexperienced conscripts for an army that was repeatedly shocked, taken by surprise, encircled, and pulverized. It suffered terrible losses. In the first six months, three million troops were killed or taken prisoner, and most of those taken prisoner did not survive. If they survived that, they faced more years of battlefield attrition or else and exhaustion on the home front. In all the Soviet Union suffered around 25 million war deaths, plus or minus a million (Harrison 2003). Red Army deaths alone were 8.7 million.

The overall mortality of the Soviet 1923 male birth cohort can be distributed over four stages of life. Around 800 thousand died in their first year. These died of birth defects, disease, accidents, abuse, and neglect. Another 800 thousand died between the ages of 1 and 18 from a range of causes that included those just mentioned and extended beyond them to famine and political violence. Then, from age 18 to 22, another 700 thousand were carried off in the war. That left just over a million to live on into middle and old age.

It may be surprising that war was not the major cause of premature death up to 1946 for the young men born in 1923. But in this there should be two harsh reminders. The first reminder is that nature is wasteful: everywhere until very recently only a minority of babies survived to adulthood, even in peacetime. This was still the situation for the Soviet Union in 1923. The second reminder is that 700,000 wartime deaths from a single birth cohort of young men is still a shocking figure. It is, for example, more than twice the total number of British military and civilian casualties in World War II.

My working

I took the data from Andreev, Darskii, and Khar'kova (1993). These three Russian demographers reworked the Soviet census and registration records immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union opened up the archives for independent research. Everyone abbreviates the reference to ADK so I will too. ADK (p. 118) give the total of births in the Soviet Union in 1923 as 6,523 thousand. Assuming a normal male/female split of 107/100, male births were 3,372 thousand. This is the size of the 1923 male cohort that we have to reckon with.

ADK do not give exact figures for the numbers of the 1923 male cohort surviving to 1941 and 1946, but you can read them off a chart (p. 79) as approximately 2 million and 1.2 million, implying 800 thousand wartime deaths. For our purpose, however, these figures require adjustment for border changes. In 1946 Soviet borders were wider than in 1923. In 1939/40 the Soviet Union expanded to absorb the Baltics, eastern Poland, and some other territories. Because of this the population was boosted (p. 118 again) from 168.5 to 188.8 million, or about 12 percent). So we need to multiply by 168.5/188.8 to take the 1923 male birth cohort as reported in 1946 back to the original borders of 1923. This gives survivors to 1941 as 1,785 thousand, wartime deaths as 714 thousand, and 1,071 thousand survivors to 1946.

A cross-check

If these figures are right, two thirds (rather than 80 per cent) of the original 1923 male birth cohort were dead by the end of World War II. But the war was not the largest cause of death, for nearly half of them were dead by 1941, before the war broke out. How reasonable is that?

There are two factors that explain heavy peacetime mortality. First, infant mortality: ADK give infant mortality in 1923 (p. 135) as 229 per thousand (with 220 as a lower bound and 238 as an upper bound). Applying their central estimate gives 770 thousand deaths in the first year of life, leaving 2,600 thousand survivors to 1924.

Second, childhood mortality, famine, and violence. For consistency with 1,785 survivors in 1941, we obtain deaths over the period from 1924 to 1941 as a residual, and the number of these is found to be 814 thousand, which is a larger number than the number of deaths in the first year of life. Is that reasonable? Elsewhere (pp. 19, 20. 35), ADK give survival tables for male newborns based on the three interwar censuses, from which it is clear that male child mortality over 1 to 3 years was never much less than over 0 to 1. Taking into account famine, terror, etc., a figure for 1-18 mortality that slightly exceeds 0-1 mortality is plausible.

Soviet demography is not an exact science. All these figures are more fuzzy than might appear at first sight -- one reason my opening summary rounds everything to the nearest hundred thousand. On the same programme you can hear Mike Haynes (he and I reach similar conclusions) reminding listeners that the error margin on Soviet war deaths, plus or minus one million, is another number that is greater than the number of British war deaths. The one thing that saves us from complete confusion is that demographic accounts have to be consistent, both internally and externally. The requirement of consistency helps us to judge that some claims are reasonable and others are ruled out.


  • Andreev, E. M., L. E. Darskii, and T. L. Kharkova. 1993. Naselenie Sovetskogo Soiuza, 1922-1991. Moscow: Nauka.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2003. Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: Comment. Europe-Asia Studies 55:6, pp. 939-44.

August 08, 2014

Was Europe really ready for World War I?

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How prepared were the Great Powers for war in 1914? Too often, this question has been answered by pointing to expectations of a short war, and to muddle and inefficiency in its opening stages. The realities are that most informed people had realistic expectations, and that muddle and inefficiency are intrinsic to war.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who masterminded Prussia’s victory over France in 1870, wrote the words often paraphrased as, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” His son commanded the German army as World War I broke out.

In fact, the degree of preparedness of the Great Powers for war in 1914 has as many layers as an onion. Here are four.

Did political leaders expect war?

In various ways the war was anticipated, planned, and even welcomed. War was planned in Berlin and Vienna. It was welcomed in St Petersburg, and to some extent in Paris.

Anticipation of the war was widespread among national political elites. The element of surprise was greatest for the mass of people who were uninformed in every country. For the leaders there were differing degrees and kinds of anticipation, but one feature of the prewar period was that all the Great Powers had shared knowledge of each others’ war plans. The sharing arose partly through espionage, partly through intentional diplomacy.

This led to a situation where, on one side, all the leaders understood the potential for specific conflicts to trigger a general European war. This is one reason why Britain tried hard to mediate in the July 1914 crisis. These efforts were unsuccessful because others were willing to take the risk of a wider war or even intended to bring it about.

On the other side, it is true, some particular aspect of the coming conflict was salient to each national elite. Thus, for Austria the enemy was Serbia; for Germany the enemy was Russia; for Russia, the enemy was Austria. For Britain the priority was to save France. For France, the priority was to save itself and avenge 1870. In every country, in the end, these aims took precedence over war avoidance.

Did the leaders understand what was coming?

Yes, although not fully. Too much has been made of the idea that everyone expected a short, victorious war. This expectation was widespread only among ordinary people who had no influence on decision making. German war plans were for a short, victorious campaign but even their authors understood they represented an outrageous gamble. The idea of a short war was a hope, not a calculation.

Signs of an understanding that the war might drag out and that victory could turn to ashes are everywhere in the decisions and documentation of the time. They are represented in the German decisions to respect Dutch neutrality, leaving Dutch ports open to neutral trade, and to attack British shipping. These made no sense unless the war was drawn out. They are explicit in the diaries of leaders on all sides (including the younger Moltke’s). Who could forget British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey’s words on the eve of war:

The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.

Did the people understand?

If not at first, they quickly adjusted. In every country national feeling swung quickly behind the war effort, with only small and isolated minorities opposed. In fact, without this, it would be impossible to explain how any country could have supported the devastating casualties and huge economic burdens of the war for years on end. Only during 1917 did clear signs of social strain begin to emerge in most of the countries that were at war.

Public support for the war was to a considerable extent spontaneous, but its mobilisation was also managed. Notably, German leaders knew they would strike first in the coming war, and a major pre-war concern was to ensure the German public would perceive their country as acting to defend itself against Russian aggression.

Were the soldiers equipped for what came next?

No. In the early stages of the conflict, three kinds of troops went on the offensive: infantry, gunners, and railway and horse troops for supply. They faced rifles, guns, and static machine guns. It soon became apparent that infantrymen had no offensive equipment that could answer the gunfire of a positional defence.

The infantry had rifles that they could fire standing up (making them vulnerable) or lying down (so they could not move). They could not fire and move at the same time. The gunners behind them could try to suppress the defending fire, but they often failed because gunfire was inaccurate and insufficiently heavy. This is why attacking infantry so often walked forward to their deaths.

The volume of munitions required to advance was so great that the supply troops could not bring it to the front when the front was moving, and the Great Powers’ economies lacked the industrial capacity to produce it. Having traditionally relied on its Navy for defence, Britain was more unprepared than most.

Three things eventually restored the ability of the infantry to fire and move. New offensive infantry equipment was developed, such as automatic weapons, rifle grenades and trench mortars. The volume and accuracy of artillery munitions increased enormously. Assault vehicles and aircraft were used in combat for the first time.

All these relied on a colossal mobilisation of productive capacity, which was more successful in Britain than in any other country. These developments explain why the last year of World War I begins to look like the coming years of World War II, with breakthroughs, mobile warfare, and heavier casualties on both sides than those resulting from trench warfare.

July 18, 2014

MH17: Four preliminary judgements

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I was interviewed this afternoon by Tim Boswell on BBC Coventry & Warwickshire's Drivetime. This isn't exactly what I said, which flowed in a conversation, but it roughly follows the notes I made beforehand.

  • Question 1. Who did it?

As yet there is no smoking gun. But there is quite a lot of circumstantial evidence. There are radio intercepts and also posts on Vkontakte, the Russian version of Facebook. The radio intercepts show pro-Russian separatists stunned to find they have shot down a civilian jetliner, and then lashing back:

That means they were carrying spies. They shouldn’t be fucking flying. There is a war going on.

If you don’t trust the Ukrainian government sources, you might give more credence to the evidence provided by the separatists themselves on Vkontake, the Russian version of Facebook where they boasted about bringing down a military transport until they realized the full truth:

We warned them – don’t fly 'in our sky.'

  • Question 2. Crime or tragedy?

Clearly there are elements of both in this hideous event. There was intent to kill: you can’t set out to shoot down an airplane and not anticipate that deaths will follow. The event took place on Ukrainian soil, which is governed by Ukrainian law; in other words it was murder.

There was also incompetence: probably the aim was to kill a dozen Ukrainian servicemen, not 300 civilians from many countries. At best, the circumstantial evidence points to the involvement of people who are unscrupulous, reckless, and lacking in all respect for human life.

  • Question 3. What is Ukraine’s responsibility?

According to Russian President Putin,

The state over whose territory this happened is responsible for the terrible tragedy.

In other words, he argues, Ukraine is to blame for the downing of MH17 because its government is responsible for the actions of those opposing it by force. This amounts to a doctrine of collective responsibility that few will take seriously from a moral or legal standpoint.

Nonetheless Ukraine does have a responsibility, as do all Ukrainians on both sides of their country’s civil conflict. This is to facilitate and ensure objective investigation and prosecution of those found to be personally accountable, no matter who they turn out to be.

  • Question 4. A turning point?

For thousands of people, yes. Their lives have been changed forever.

In terms of global politics, no. The world has not changed, and the reason for this is that we have not learned anything new. We already knew that Eastern Ukraine is in the hands of reckless and unscrupulous people, willing to start a civil war and cause deaths for political ends.

There have been past parallels. In 1983 the Soviet air force deliberately shot down a Korean airliner over the Far East with many casualties. In 2001 the Ukrainian armed forces accidentally shot down a Russian airliner over the Black Sea. These were horrifying events, but it was no surprise that Soviet leaders would overreact disastrously to an airspace violation or that command and control was a weak point in the Ukrainian miliitary.

Russia’s relations with the West will now deteriorate further because of justifiable concerns about Russian support for the Ukrainian separatists and possible involvement in the supply of weapons and technical assistance. But relations were worsening already and the concerns were there already.

It is a terrible tragedy, as well as a crime. These are preliminary judgements, perhaps reached in haste. But it seems hard to escape them.

June 13, 2014

The military power, economics and strategy that led to D–Day

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The Conversation published this column on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, June 6 2014. I thought I'd include it here.

On June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy. Their number rose to 1.5m over the next six weeks. With them came millions of tons of equipment, ranging from munitions, vehicles, food, and fuel to prefabricated floating harbours.

The achievement of the Normandy landings was, first of all, military. The military conditions included co-operation (between the British, Americans, and Free French), deception and surprise (the Germans knew an invasion was coming but were led to expect it elsewhere), and the initiative and bravery of officers and men landing on the beaches, sometimes under heavy fire. More than 4,000 men died on the first day.

D-Day was made possible by its global context. Germany was already being defeated by the Soviet Army on the eastern front. There, 90% of German ground forces were tied down in a protracted losing struggle (after D-Day this figure fell to two-thirds). The scale of fighting, killing, and dying on the eastern front was a multiple of that in the West. For the Red Army in World War II, 4,000 dead was a quieter-than-average day.

Economic factors were also involved. In 1944 the main fighting still lay in the east, but the Allied economic advantage lay in the west. Before the war the future Allies had twice the population and more than twice the real GDP of the Axis powers. During the war the Allies pooled their resources so as to maximise the production of fighting power in a way that the Axis powers did not attempt to match. America made the biggest single contribution, shared with the Allies through Lend-Lease.

Between 1942 and 1944 Allied war production exceeded that of the Axis in every category and on all fronts. This advantage was especially great in the West. In the chart below, a value of one on the horizontal plane would mean equality between the two sides. Values above one measure the Allied dominance:

The Allies made more planes, guns, tanks and bombs on every front. Mark Harrison

Eventually the accumulation of firepower helped turn the tide. A German soldier in Normandy told his American captors, “I know how you defeated us. You piled up the supplies and then let them fall on us.”

D-Day was made possible by economics, but it was made inevitable by other calculations. When the outcome of the war was in doubt, Stalin demanded the Western Allies open a “second front” in Western Europe to take pressure off the Red Army. At this time, working towards D-Day was a price that the Allies paid for Stalin’s cooperation in the war. By 1944 German defeat was assured; now D-Day became a price the Western Allies paid in order to help decide the post-war settlement of Europe.

While D-Day was inevitable, its success was not predetermined by economics or anything else. The landings were preceded by years of building up men and combat stocks in the south of England, and by months of detailed logistical planning. But most of the plans were thrown to the wind on the first day as the chaos of seasick men struggling through the surf and enemy fire onto the Normandy sands unfolded. This greatest amphibious assault in history was a huge gamble that could easily have ended in disaster.

Had the D-Day landings failed, our history would have been very different. The war would have dragged on beyond 1945 in both Europe and the Pacific. Germany would still have been undefeated when the first atomic bombs were produced; their first victims would have been German, not Japanese. Germany and Berlin would never have been divided, because the Red Army would have occupied the whole country. The Cold War would have begun with the Western democracies greatly disadvantaged. We have good reason to be grateful to those who averted this alternative history.

The ConversationMark Harrison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

May 22, 2014

Gas and Geopolitics

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China and Russia (represented by the Russian state oil major Gazprom) have signed a deal that will supply China with gas worth up to $400 billion over 30 years. Since Energy Live News and International Business Times have quoted my views, I thought I'd put up the full version, which goes like this:

For China the Gazprom deal solves an energy problem. For Russia, it solves a market problem: Russia needs to sell its energy sources somewhere, but has spoiled its traditional market among the European democracies to Russia’s south and west by applying economic and military coercion to Ukraine.

Both China and Russia are governed by authoritarian regimes. Major bilateral trade deals among such regimes have a long history. Exactly what they mean depends greatly on context, sometimes unpredictably so. In the late 1930s Hitler encouraged bilateral trade deals between Germany and countries to Germany’s east not out of friendship, but because he considered them to be part of Germany’s future colonial sphere. Most notorious of these was the German-Soviet trade deal associated with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, which was followed within two years by all-out war. After World War II Stalin deliberately fostered bilateral trade deals between the Soviet Union and countries like Poland and Hungary in order to tie them into the Soviet economic sphere; for the same reason he prevented them from making bilateral deals with each other. These deals were followed by closer integration, not conflict.

No one envisages war between Russia and China, but it is important to remember that ultimately the governments of these two countries see each other as rivals in the global balance of power. China’s population and wealth are rising faster than Russia’s; Russia remains an Asian power, but the balance of power in Asia is moving steadily against Russia. Smiles around the table in Beijing do not betoken true affinity.

As authoritarian rulers (and the commercial entities under them, like Russia’s Gazprom) approach bilateral deals, they have an advantage and a problem. The problem is that everyone understands the signatories are not necessarily the real principals. The real principals are Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. No court will punish either of them if one of them chooses to break the Gazprom contract in future. The advantage they have is over open societies, where public opinion counts. In an open society, public distaste can sometimes get in the way of business. No human rights issues are likely to derail the China-Gazprom deal.

March 05, 2014

Putin: King in Russia or Emperor of all the Russias?

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After recent events in Crimea several commentators have asked for more understanding of Russia's position -- among them, for example, my old friend Liam Halligan. This is particularly important because, if we do not understand Russia, we will be unable to predict the consequences of our own actions. Because this will be a long blog, here's the short version:

  • Does Putin want primarily to be King in Russia or Emperor of All the Russias? We don't know, and it will make a big difference.
  • If Putin wants to be King, the result of his invasion of Ukraine will be to consolidate his rule, at least for a while, but any further implications are limited.
  • If Putin wants to be Emperor, a protracted and dangerous international conflict has already begun; only resolute deterrence will avert tragedy.

We need better to understand Russia, but Russia is not easy to understand. Why? The most important reason is that Russia's politics lack transparency and accountability. Consider the following. The Russian invasion was clearly well planned, yet took the world by surprise. It was undertaken despite a near total absence of popular support; according to a VTsIOM poll published on 24 February[correction: link updated, 8 March 2014], only 15 percent of Russians endorsed military intervention in Ukraine, with 73 percent opposed. Although there was no popular enthusiasm for military intervention, Russia's parliamentarians mandated it unanimously. Although there would appear to be clear blue water between the administration and public opinion, the administration's action has met with little or no popular reaction.

Russia, in short, is free of the public agonizing that signals a vibrant democracy. Nothing could show more clearly that Moscow's decisions are made in a secretive, unaccountable way, so that ordinary people expect to have no voice and remain passive.

Two related factors only add to the difficulty we face in trying to interpret Russia's behaviour. One is that the Kremlin understands the value of surprise. The sudden and unexpected character of the Russian action in Crimea deprived Russia's opponents of the chance to react promptly in a calculated way. The result has been confusion and indecision in Kiev and western capitals. While Ukrainian and Western leaders have pondered their best responses, Moscow has consolidated its gains. The result of this is an analyst's paradox. A capacity for unpredictable action is valuable, but can only be maintained by preventing adversaries from understanding how Russia will decide its next move, and therefore from predicting it. Thus, Russia's leaders must continue to behave unpredictably, avoiding any clear or systematic pattern.

A second related factor stems from the fact that, while Russia's action in Crimea was extremely successful in exploiting surprise to achieve a bloodless coup, the bloodless nature of the intervention could not have been predicted. Any panicky self-defence by Ukrainian troops or (say) Tatar civilians would have led to a bloodbath. One must suppose that Putin and his cabinet anticipated this possibility, but discounted it and went ahead regardless. As things turned out, the risk of bloodshed was not realized, but this was just lucky. In other words, Russia's leaders were prepared to take a very substantial risk. A propensity for risky behaviour is characteristic of rulers that have a great deal at stake but also fear that time is running out: the option of wait-and-see has low value for them, or is seen as also highly risky, so they act now despite the risks.

What is at stake for Russia in Ukraine that is of such value? What is Russia's action designed to achieve? Here I see two possibilities, and the opaque, unaccountable nature of Russia's politics makes it hard to discern which is the dominant factor.

I take it for granted that Russia's action in the Crimea was designed to help bring about a lasting change in the balance of forces. I cannot see that any lesser objective would justify invading a sovereign neighbour whose borders are guaranteed by two other nuclear powers (the US and UK, the third being Russia itself). But which hostile forces was the Russian action designed to counter? Does Putin mean to change the balance of forces within Russia or that in the world beyond Russia? Related to this, is Putin content to be King in Russia more or less as it is today, or does he mean to become the new Emperor of All the Russias?

Explanatory note. "All the Russias" means Great Russia (Russia proper) plus Little Russia (the Ukraine) plus White Russia (Belarus). All the Russias would be a smaller territory than the old Russian Empire (which extended to Poland, Finland, the Baltic, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) and also smaller than the Soviet Union (which lost Poland and Finland), but it would reunite all the Slavic nationalities under one authority.

There is a case for thinking that Putin just wants to be King, and his primary objective is to offset potential domestic opposition. Among Russians, his legitimacy rests on a narrative of Russia, weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, plundered by domestic and foreign thieves, and encircled by enemies at her borders. When Putin's position at home is weakened by stories of election-stealing or corruption, he portrays his opponents as fraudsters and agents of foreign powers and he deters many critics by putting a few of the more important out of circulation. His narrative has been sustained by the turmoil of Ukraine's unfinished transition from communism and by worsening relations with the West. On this interpretation, Putin's goal in Ukraine has been to stoke international tension for a while and so change the balance of forces domestically, within Russia. He has used the Ukrainian events to teach Russians that Ukraine's movement is not "anti-corruption" or "pro-democracy" or "pro-Europe" but "anti-Russia." And anyone in Russia who campaigns against corruption or vote-rigging is now vulnerable to proscription as anti-Russian.

If it is Putin's strategy to weaken domestic opponents and so shift the domestic balance of forces in his favour, then it is already largely successful. All that is required is for the West to put up a show of resistance, and Putin will have achieved his objective, which is to confirm that Russia is embattled and he is the Russians' only defender. He does not need a war to prove it. He will take no more risks, and he will stop here. It's hard to say how long the effects will last; they might be relatively short lived. As for Crimea, the outcome can be some messy compromise that will poison Ukrainian politics and store up future conflict, which will also serve Putin's domestic purposes.

Alternatively, and much more seriously, Putin's final objective may be to weaken external adversaries, and so to shift the balance of forces in Europe. To do this permanently would mean to redraw frontiers by creating a new Empire of All the Russias with a cordon sanitaire of neutralized states on its borders. A first step is to expose the powerlessness of the EU, to divide Europe from the US, and so to divide NATO. But in this case he has only just begun. He will continue to work to subordinate Ukraine and Belarus in a Eurasian Union, while isolating and neutralizing all Russia's less compliant neighbours, which include Georgia, Poland and the Baltic states. If that is Putin's grand project, it is probably shared by others around him.

If Putin wants to be Emperor, it is hard to see how confrontation can be avoided at some point. If Europe and NATO signal accommodation, for example, and express only token resistance to the Russian action in Crimea, then Putin will drive on towards his ultimate goal by undertaking other adventures, perhaps by going deeper into Ukraine or by setting out to humiliate other neighbours. On the other hand, to the extent that Europe and NATO show unity and put up resistance, Putin's objective will become more distant and, because time is not on his side, he will be willing to take more risks to achieve it. Only resolute deterrence will prevent violence and tragedy.

As I see it the immediate policy implications are limited. In 1994 Britain guaranteed the security of Ukraine's borders. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. Whatever Russia's motivation for breaking its word, we cannot honourably walk away from our own guarantee. There are many steps that Britain, Europe, and NATO should now take, that fall well short of destabilizing military intervention. Most importantly, we should take them together.

It troubles me, however, that we do not know how Russia will respond. If Putin's objective is to affect the domestic balance of forces, nothing much more will follow, except that his regime will be consolidated for a while. If his objective is to redraw Europe's boundaries, then a game has begun with many unpredictable and dangerous moves in store.

February 24, 2014

Kiev, Europe's Dangerous Crossroads

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Europe has been at this crossroads before. An ancient multi-national empire creaks dangerously under the strains of modern nationalism and separatism. Its rulers fear the mob, and fast-moving events. It fears especially the example of a neighbouring independent state, once its colony. Above all, it fears the future.

A century ago this was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the Hohenzollern dynasty, ruling in Vienna, determined to crush the rising challenge of Serbian nationalism. In planning war on Serbia, the Austrian government knew that Serbia had a powerful ally, Imperial Russia. The Austrians knew they would face strong resistance. They feared their enemies, but they feared the future more. They gambled on war.

Austria was encouraged in its war aims by the rising power of Germany, which expected to take advantage of the resulting conflict to settle accounts with its own rivals and shift the balance decisively in its own favour. This too was a gamble.

Today the ancient, creaking multi-national empire is Russia itself, where the Kremlin looks to events in the neighbouring Ukraine, once ruled from Moscow, with mounting anxiety.

Note what I am not saying. I'm not saying that history repeats itself. It doesn't repeat itself at all, never mind exactly one hundred years later. Over a century the world has changed in too many ways for this to be a nice laboratory experiment with controlled conditions under which similar reagents reliably produce a similar result. All that history can tell us is some of the risks in the situation -- and not all of them, because there is always something latent or new that did not happen before.

But I am saying that Europe is at a dangerous crossroads. A popular uprising has rid Kiev of the corrupt Yanukovych regime. In this moment, 45 million Ukrainians face an unknown future. That's their problem. It's not an easy problem. If it had been easy, former president Yushchenko and former PM Tymoshenko would have solved their first time around, in 2005. They would not have fallen out and Yanukovych would not have been elected president in 2010.

The one thing that Ukrainians cannot change is their location. Russia was, is, and will remain their powerful neighbour. Many Ukrainians speak Russian and feel Russian. Whether the reformers like it or not, they have to take this into account.

The problem for Russia's president Putin begins with the fact that events in Kiev look set to put an end to his dream of uniting Ukraine with Russia and Belarus in a Eurasian Union. Worse than that, Ukraine in this moment embodies an existential threat to his rule. If the people can get rid of Yanukovych, they can get rid of Putin.

The problem for 700 million Europeans in this moment is: What will Russia do now? Does Russia have the will and the capability intervene in Ukraine by whatever means present themselves -- openly or under cover, by inducements, threats, or force? Financial inducements have been tried. Repression from within has been tried. Both have failed. What else can Russia do?

When rulers feel their survival is at stake, the normal restraints and inhibitions can melt away. They may not act rashly or precipitately; they will still calculate and if calculation suggests waiting they will wait. But what enters the calculation and with what weight may change. And pessimism is a dangerous element, because fear of the future may tilt the calculation in favour of taking a gamble on precipitate action today.

If the alternative is to be chased out of the presidential palace, the resort to violence may no longer look so bad. That's what Yanukovych showed us last week. I wonder what Putin is thinking about this morning.

February 06, 2014

A Blast from the Past: The KGB and Counter–Terrorism

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The athletes gathering in Sochi for the Winter Olympics must regret the fact that the threat of terrorism is commanding as much media atttention as the prospects for sporting excellence.

The extent of the terrorist threat to Sochi is a measure of how Russia has changed. The Soviet Union offered little scope for terrorism. Under intense state and party surveillance it was very difficult for non-state actors to spread a message or recruit. It was not obvious what would make an effective target for a terrorist act and the state was fully capable of suppressing any publicity that would normally follow in an open society. Terrorist acts were rare. Nonetheless, a few did take place.

While studying the records of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania (held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution), I came across documentation of such a case. On a Saturday afternoon in January 1977, three bombs were detonated in Moscow, one in a subway train, another in the street, and a third in a food store. The attack came out of the blue: there was no warning and no one claimed responsibility. Seven people were killed and 44 injured. Two days later, on January 10, the Soviet news agency TASS issued an uninformative bulletin that mentioned only the subway blast and concealed the deaths.

The KGB was completely at a loss where to look for the perpetrator, so they looked everywhere -- including Lithuania. The investigation took many months; almost a year passed before arrests were made. I'm not going to tell the story of the investigation here; I've published the main story elsewhere and you can also read a more detailed version in a working paper with footnotes.

The thing that interested me most was what I learned about the career concerns of KGB operatives. It worked like this.

  • If you were Yurii Andropov, the USSR KGB chief in Moscow, you naturally had what Mancur Olson would have called an "encompassing interest" in identifying and catching the culprits as soon as possible.
  • At the next level down, if you were Juozas Petkevičius, the Soviet Lithuania KGB chief in Vilnius, your concerns were more complicated. Your first priority was to ensure that the culprit was not in Lithuania. The culprit had to be somewhere, of course, and the chance that he (or she, but let's be realistic: most terrorists are male) was in Lithuania was very small (1 percent of the Soviet population). Moreover, if the perpetrator was found in Lithuania, Petkevičius could expect a career setback, because this would be someone the local KGB had overlooked or underestimated. One could understand it if Petkevičius had chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. But he couldn't, because then he would face an even worse career risk: that some other branch of the KGB would come into Lithuania and find the terrorist that the locals had overlooked. So Petkevičius did the right thing and mobilized his forces to scour Lithuania for the culprit, if the culprit was to be found there.
  • There were still lower levels, headed by chiefs of KGB city and rural district administrations, and so on down to factory and ward officers, workplace and apartment block informers, and so forth. At each level the KGB staff and agents faced the same conflicting pull as Petkevičius, but the balance changed. By the time you came down to a village or street, the chance that the culprit had chosen to hide out exactly there, as opposed to any other street in the entire Soviet Union, was absolutely infinitesimal. Correspondingly, as you went down the hierarchy, the risk of slacking and the incentive to search weakened and dwindled to zero. The only remaining incentive to search was to please the boss. Therefore, as time went by, Petkevičius became more and more concerned that no one below him was trying hard. And he needed them to try hard, so he pleaded and threatened and bullied.

Why is this interesting? Because we might think of the KGB as a special, elite organization full of dedicated, self-motivated patriots and loyalists. Yet, when push came to shove, in the face of a national emergency, most employees behaved like the staff of any bureaucracy: they responded to career concerns, and not otherwise.

PS If you follow my links to the full story, you'll find that what happened in the end was exactly what Petkevičius must have feared most -- but it happened elsewhere, to another regional KGB boss who was found to have held the terrorist leader in his hands and let him go.

January 16, 2014

Soviet Censorship: A Success Story

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Yesterday VOX published a short column that I wrote about Costing Secrecy. The teaser is as follows:

Democracy often seems bureaucratic with high ‘transaction costs’, while autocracies seem to get things done at lower cost. This column discusses historical research that refutes this. It finds empirical support from Soviet archives for a political security/usability tradeoff. Regimes that are secure from public scrutiny tend to be more costly to operate.

A starting point of my column was that communist rule in the Soviet Union gave rise to one of the most secretive systems of government that has ever been devised. I'm always looking out for ways to illustrate this, and I found a new way recently with the help of Google's Ngram Viewer(thanks to Jamie Harrison). The Ngram Viewer searches the Google Books corpus for words and word combinations and shows their changing frequency over time. The chart below shows the result of searching in the Russian corpus for the word "Главлит" (Glavlit).

Glavlit, the Soviet Union's Chief Administration for Affairs of Literature and Art, was created in 1922 to centralize the censorshop of the media. The background is that the Bolsheviks introduced censorship in November 1917 as one of the first acts of the Revolution (the "Decree on the Press"). During the Civil War that followed, they operated censorship through many agencies at many levels. Glavlit pulled it all together into a single, unified agency. The official title of Glavlit changed a few times over the next 70 years. Still, no one ever called it anything but "Glavlit," even in official government and party documents.

My current research is on secrecy. Censorship and secrecy are not the same. But they are closely connected. Enforcing government secrecy was one of the most important functions of censorship. In addition, Glavlit was a government agency, and its working arrangements were entirely secret, so the censorship had to censor the facts of its own operations.

How effective was Soviet censorship? The frequency with which the chief agency of censorship was mentioned in published works offers a simple measure in one dimension. Here it is:

Notes: My guess is that the Google Books Russian corpus must include books published in the Russian language abroad, out of reach of the Soviet censor, as well as within the Soviet Union. For transparency the chart is completely unsmoothed. In the years of the Civil War (1918 to 1920) and World War II (1941 to 1945) fewer books were published, making observations in those years more susceptible to the law of small numbers. You can view and play with the chart here in its home setting.

There is a simple message. The Soviet censorship agency was openly acknowledged and discussed at the time of its establishment and for a few years afterwards. From the mid-1920s it faded rapidly from sight. By 1931, when Stalin was fully in charge, its disappearance was almost total. For more than half a century Glavlit successfully covered its own tracks. Fifty-six years later, in 1987, Gorbachev launched his policy of "glasnost" (openness). Only then did Glavlit gradually come back into uncensored view. Glavlit was finally abolished in 1991.

In short: Soviet censorship worked.

January 03, 2014

What is the True Mission of the NSA in a Free Society?

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This item first appeared under the same title on DNA India on 3 January 2014.

In the name of counter-terrorism our phone and Internet communications are today under continual government surveillance. Should we worry about the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ? Yes: Ordinary people have a right to privacy and few means to resist covert surveillance. The privacy of hundreds of millions of people is at risk. Against that, a relatively small number of ordinary people have secret plans that threaten our security. Compared to the threat, the indiscriminate character of surveillance seems disproportionate.

But the critics of surveillance also need a sense of proportion. Many commentators have suggested that more than privacy is at stake. Our liberty is also at risk, they fear: perhaps we are moving towards a police state. Really? A standard of comparison is needed, one that would be best provided by the historical records of a real totalitarian police state.

The Soviet Union was such a police state. In the Soviet Union under Communist rule, the secret police was the KGB (Committee on State Security). Most KGB records remain under lock and key, because Russia today is governed by an ex-KGB elite that has no interest in letting the world see how the KGB upheld Communist rule. A few of the former Soviet states have made a clean break with the Communist past and have opened up their KGB archives. For the last five years I have been working with records from now-independent Lithuania — held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution in California. These are highly revealing about KGB methods of mass surveillance and intervention.

Soviet society was organized to make surveillance easy. Every citizen had an ID card; everyone’s residence was registered with the police. At work, everyone was employed by the State or by government-controlled “collectives”. At home, everyone was a tenant of the government or some collective. The government and the ruling party ran the press and TV; there were no independent media, no independent access to copying or print services, and absolutely no Facebook or Twitter.

With one State postal and telephone service, any letter or call could be intercepted. The KGB ran a network of informers, which was concentrated on key offices, factories, and colleges where young people gathered. The extent of secrecy and surveillance was never debated in any public forum.

No one could leave the country without permission, and the small numbers allowed in and out were basically limited by the KGB’s capacity to watch them individually or in groups. In the 1970s, for example, Soviet Lithuania sent at least 1,000 visitors abroad each year and received at least 10,000 visitors. Forty years later, freed from Communist rule Lithuania would receive more than one million visitors each year just from the European Union. By the standards of a middle-income country today, Soviet citizens were almost unbelievably isolated. Just as important, the cause of their isolation was the Communist regime’s resolve to keep the citizens under continual observation. The first lesson seems to be that a police state will restrict citizens’ travel and communication to a level that it can observe. As humans we love to move around and be in constant touch with each other through social media. In open societies our intelligence agencies respond to this challenge by gathering our data indiscriminately and hoarding it in vast quantities. But they do not compel us to live or work only where they can watch us, and they do not try to prohibit us from communicating through channels they cannot overhear or from travelling to where they cannot see us. On this criterion we are still far from a police state.

After surveillance comes intervention. Intelligence agencies don’t do surveillance for its own sake; they want information on which they can act. Another important difference between us and them is what the authorities do with the products of surveillance. On the basis of the information it received, the KGB intervened directly in the lives of citizens to nudge their behaviour and limit their choices. Suppose they heard that Ivan Ivanovich was behaving suspiciously or voicing undesirable views. The response, at a minimum, was to call Ivan in for an unpleasant and frightening warning. Ivan’s card would also be marked for the future. No Soviet citizen could be promoted to any management position or allowed to travel to any foreign destination without KGB clearance, and Ivan’s chances of either of these were now greatly reduced.

At the moment we have no clear evidence that any of the NSA’s programmes has impinged on the life of any citizen in this way. Nor is it clear how they might do so, other than in the form of private abuse. Again, we seem to be a long way from the working of a real police state.

Still, is there something to worry about? Absolutely. Just as there is no clear evidence that Western intelligence surveillance is taking us into an Orwellian nightmare, there is also a lack of evidence that it is effective at doing what it is supposed to do: combat terrorism and strategic threats to Western security. Western security establishments look overfunded and undermanaged. Potentially, vast resources are being wasted to promote the careers of security empire builders. That should be of huge concern.

What is the true mission of national security in a free society? Surely it is to protect the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government, to protect our freedom (as private persons) and to be the people we want to be. A question then is: What do we want to be, or how do we want to live? Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should set limits on surveillance and accept some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. It’s a tough one, especially for politicians who do not want another 9/11 on their watch.

Mark Harrison writes about economics, public policy, and international affairs. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick. He is also a research fellow of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

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