If you’re going to hold yourself out as an expert on any given topic, you really should make absolutely, totally, completely, 100% you-can-take it to-the-bank certain that you get your facts right lest everyone begin to suspect you of talking out your ass. This has become even more true since Al Gore invented the internet, making one’s pronouncements and prognostications available to an ever-wider audience, many of whom will be at least as knowledgeable of the subject to hand.
Sadly, there are plenty of “experts” who prefer to phone it in. Take for example this Stratfor article Russia Falls Into Old Habits which has been popping up on my Facebook feed this week. The premise of the article is that Russia goes through periods of expansion, followed by periods of contraction and that it is now entering one of the latter after a brief period of expansion between 1999 and 2013. However once you dig down into the article you find that many of the “facts” the author relies upon to make his argument are just plain wrong. And if Lauren Goodrich, the author of the article can’t even get the basic history of Russia right, why should we expect her hypothesis to hold?
For nearly eight centuries, Russia has been trapped in a loose cycle: It rises from chaos, returns as a regional and sometimes even global power, grows aggressive as the system cracks, and then collapses before rising again. The cycle is less about political choice than it is about geographic constraints. Geographically speaking, Russia is operating from an inherently weak position. It is the largest country in the world, covering roughly 13 time zones (split now into four mega-zones). Yet 75 percent of the country is virtually uninhabitable frozen tundra that becomes marshland in the summer, making domestic trade extremely difficult. Maritime trade is also difficult for Russia, given that its only warm-water port, on the Black Sea, is blocked by rivals, including Turkey. Therefore, the country has struggled to develop economically.
Furthermore, Russia’s heartland — which runs from St. Petersburg south through Moscow and into the Volga region — lies on a series of plains, making it vulnerable from all sides. This has forced Russia to seek to expand its borders and influence outward to create a buffer zone between its heartland and rival regional powers. As Catherine the Great famously put it: “I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them.” The longest sustained example of this expansion occurred during the Soviet period, when the Russian heartland was shielded by Siberia, 14 other Soviet republics and seven Eastern Bloc countries.
She has this precisely backwards. Russia doesn’t operate from position of geographical “weakness”. Russia’s vast size gives it a strategic depth and always has. The last successful invasion of Russia that had any sort of lasting impact was that of the Mongols who succeeded in defeating and subjugating Kieven Rus (which was already going into decline) in 1223. To put this in perspective, this invasion occurred a little more than half a century after the Norman conquest of England. Since the rise of Moscow as first the pre-eminent Russian vassal state to the Mongols and then as the spiritual centre of the Russian Empire, it has only been conquered twice – by the Poles in 1610-12, and by Napoleon in 1812. Both successes proved fleeting which is more than can be said for attempted invasions by the Swedes, Ottoman Turks, Japanese, and of course the Germans. Even the map of “common invasion routes” is misleading. No one has invaded Russia from Central Asia since the Mongols and no neighbouring potentate ever thought that the best way to Moscow was through the Caucasus Mountains.
Or consider this passage:
Expanding Russian influence comes at an immense financial, military, political and social cost. During the Soviet period, Moscow had to centralize control over the entire Soviet space, subsidizing most of the Soviet states’ economies while managing their diverse populations. Moreover, Soviet gross domestic product was half of U.S. GDP, even though the two countries had roughly the same population. By the last decade of the Soviet Union, Western intelligence sources estimated that half of Soviet industrial output went toward building up the military, causing vast shortages of industrial goods. Thus the dilemma: Russia must expand to survive, but that expansion is unsustainable and has historically led to its collapse.
While this may have held true during Soviet times, it doesn’t follow that this has been the case throughout Russian history. It’s certainly not the case before the industrial revolution when Russia’s vast size, population, and fertile soils gave it a comparative advantage over its rivals. Even during the 19th Century, despite lagging Western countries in industrialization and agricultural productivity, Russian expansion came mostly at the expense of weaker powers such as the Ottomans, China, and various minor Central Asian principalities and imposed no undue burdens on the Empire or its citizens.
Goodrich can’t even get the facts straight in relation to recent Russian history, micharacterizing the relationship between Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin:
A bureaucrat from St. Petersburg, Putin was appointed by Yeltsin to head the KGB’s successor, the Federal Security Bureau, in 1998. The intelligence agency was charged with containing the chaos. Yeltsin assumed that Putin, a Moscow outsider, would not be able to challenge him. But Putin and his cadre of loyalists from St. Petersburg (many former KGB agents) took strong steps against the various problems facing Russia, and by the next year he was prime minister.
This is simply wrong. There was never any question of Putin “challenging” Yeltsin. In 1998-99, Yeltsin was tremendously unpopular (he was nearly impeached in the spring of 1999) and was looking for a way to retire without being at risk of being charged for corruption and other illegal activities. He recruited Putin to serve as his Prime Minister, and when Putin proved popular, Yeltsin resigned allowing Putin to serve as Acting President until the next elections which he then won handily. #
I could go on and on. The article is riddled with factual errors and weakly supported suppositions. Stratfor bills itself as a geopolitical analysis firm. Individuals, companies, and possibly even governments pay them for their analysis and predictions. Worse still, many of them will use the information they receive from Stratfor to make important (to them) decisions. Scary huh?
I decided to pick on Stratfor simply because I studied some Russian history on my way to obtaining my first degree, continue to read about it, and follow the subject in the news. But this problem exists across every field of human knowledge. Whether it’s medicine, economics, computing, hard science, or business, many of the experts who people turn to for information are blowing smoke out their asses. And if you get your information from the media? Don’t even go there – cause now you’re getting the same expert opinions filtered through the mind of a know-nothing reporter.
We’re doomed I tell you. Doomed!