Credibility, Ends, and Means: Part I

Lavrentiy Beria’s son Sergo published My Father: Inside Stalin’s Kremlin in 2003. Sergo portrayed his father as an anti-Communist Georgian patriot who was trying to free his plucky little homeland by destroying the USSR from the inside out, a loving husband and father, and a man maligned by history. Sergo Beria’s rosy picture stands in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom on Lavrentiy Beria. The conventional Beria was the head of Josef Stalin’s NKVD, the father of the Soviet atom and hydrogen bomb projects, and one of the great monsters of the twentieth century. Stalin (demonstrating what passed for Stalinist humor) himself mortified the elder Beria to by introducing him to Franklin D. Roosevelt as “our Himmler”.

Young Beria’s book had a large credibility gap to clear. And it fell short. Sergo Beria’s portrayal of his father within the Beria family may be the truth as he remembers it. History records almost as many examples of men who were monsters at work but saints at home as it does of men who were saints at work but monsters at home. Sergo Beria’s portrayal of his father’s political views may reflect what his father told him they were. They may even be what the elder Beria believed his views were. But within Pa Beria’s mind there were many compartments. The extant historical record convincingly demonstrates that the elder Beria kept many of them compartmentalized away from his family. The younger Beria may know more about what was in those hidden compartments than he lets on. He may simply be ignorant that those compartments and their sordid contents even existed.

We don’t know, hence Sergo Beria’s credibility gap.

With that large asterisk in mind, Sergo Beria’s tale about one of the great mysteries of twentieth century history hints at how credibility is managed within the overall framework of statecraft. The circumstances surrounding the genesis of Operation Barbarossa and Stalin’s peculiar (for him) behavior before and after June 22, 1941 have baffled many observers. The conventional narrative is that Stalin obstinately refused to heed the many warnings provided by his world-class intelligence services and others, trusted Hitler too much, and refused to put the Red Army on alert, leaving it open to the massive damage it and all of Russia suffered at German hands during World War II. The biggest problem with this version is that credulity and trust are not the species of personality trait that Stalin normally displayed. So the conventional narrative asks us to believe that, for much of 1940-1941, Stalin ceased to be Stalin.

The leading counter-narrative about the beginnings of Operation Barbarossa was popularized in the 1987 book Icebreaker by V. B. Resun, a Soviet military intelligence apparatchik who defected to the West in 1978 and published many books under the pseudonym “Viktor Suvorov”. In Icebreaker, Resun claimed that the Red Army was thrown into fatal disarray because it was forward deployed in an offensive and not defensive posture. Stalin was planning on doing to Hitler what Hitler did to him with the only difference being that Hitler beat him to the punch and attacked first. Stalin was surprised because he’d finally met a man as duplicitous as he was.

Sergo Beria’s account of what happened in June 1941, if accurate, provides a bridge of understanding between the conventional and revisionist narratives. The younger Beria claims that Stalin knew that the Germans were going to attack but that Stalin wanted the Germans to attack first since Stalin pull off one of the greatest reverse flip-flops in human history. While the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed between Nazi Germany and Communist Russia on August 23, 1939 had cleared the way for Stalin to partition Poland with German, sweep up the Baltic states, and extract territory from Romania, it’d left many in the West disillusioned with Stalin and his USSR. During the 1930s, a significant slice of Western opinion thought that Soviet Communism was the future. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact however, many were shocked out of this opinion since they’d seen the future and, whatever the future was. it didn’t re-partition Poland, annex the Baltics, or attack Finland. While Stalin’s hardened cadre of fifth columnists, fellow travelers, hidden agents of influence, useful idiots, and true believers reliably pivoted 180 degrees and relayed the new official Comintern line without deviation and with perfect devotion, a crucial swing constituency within Western public was lost. After Germany’s surprise conquest of France in May-June 1940, Stalin foresaw that he would need to win back this constituency if the Soviet relationship with the now more powerful Germany went south.

Sergo Beria claims that Stalin was fully aware of the panicked reports coming in from Richard Sorge and other Soviet intelligence assets. But Stalin calculated that the USSR would never regain its credibility in the West unless Germany clearly and unequivocally demonstrated that it was the aggressor. The younger Beria further claims that Stalin believed that all the expensive weapons produced by all those Five-Year Plans would enable the Red Army to absorb the initial German attack at the border and then immediately go on the offensive against the Wehrmacht. Sergo Beria implies that the Red Army was deployed in a defensive offensive formation. Whichever formation it was in, however, Stalin underestimated the tactical potency of the Wehrmacht and was shocked at the destruction wreaked on the Red Army in the first weeks of Barbarossa. It was this shock which, if Beria’s account is credible, explains Stalin’s well-attested absence during the first week of the German invasion.

Stalin was successful in regaining his credibility in the West but his success didn’t come cheap: it came at the cost of 25 million lives, untold destruction of property, and, for those that lived, suffering on an unprecedented scale. Even the incorrigible old reactionary Winston Spencer Churchill was forced to concede that, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” and play along with his old enemy. The swing in public opinion was dramatic enough that, at least for a time, large swaths of Western public opinion could credibly mistake the architect of the Great Terror for kindly Uncle Joe. In this, the darkest hour in Russia’s history and his own career, Stalin enjoyed a rare moment of general, and positive, credible influence among people who didn’t happen to be his avowed or covert personal creatures.

But the one form of credibility that Stalin never lost was his negative credibility. From the moment that the Bolsheviks seized power during November 1917, they credibly demonstrated to incumbent power elites outside of Russia that communist revolution or conquest meant that they, their property, and their culture would be inevitably, efficiently, and utterly liquidated down to the last man, woman, child, and book entry. As Japan’s fortunes faded during World War II, Hirohito saw hints of revolution in the faces of Japanese civilians as he was driven through the burnt out remains of Tokyo. He and the Japanese imperial establishment saw the threat of quiet fifth columnists at home meeting up with the oncoming Soviet juggernaut. Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave them an excuse to throw the Japanese Army and its extremist nut jobs overboard and conditionally unconditionally surrender.

The Americans were erratic and prone to unpredictable swings between rage and sweetness. However, with the Americans there was always the possibility of hanging on until there was a favorable turn in policy. There was no such hope with the Russians: the Soviets consistently lived up to their reputation for wanton brutality. The threat of Soviet annihilation was more credible than the schizophrenic Americans promises of absolute destruction and absolute mercy.

Credibility, like all constructs of human imagination, is a mixed bag of deceptive simplicity and unfathomable complexity. If it were as simple as some leaders promise and much of  the public believe, establishing credibility would be easy. Consent would be manufactured as the inevitable byproduct of a sort of credibility by algebra where X end  + Y means = Z certain result. People could instantly tell you were credible: after all, your lips were moving.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

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War endures… The way it was, and the way it will be.

My boss and co-author Daveed Gartenstein-Ross recently wrote a post at Gunpowder and Lead responding to the question of whether major armed conflict had come to an end. In his explanation, he notes that not only is major armed conflict still a possibility, but that the United States should be skeptical that it can pick and choose what sort of military engagements it will become involved in:

The unpredictability of armed conflict is one reason that, when it comes to current debates about counter-insurgency, I’m skeptical of the idea that the singular lesson of our recent experience is that we should never again put ourselves in a position where we are fighting against an insurgency. Surely, the position that we should be extremely hesitant to do so is reasonable, worthy of discussion; so too is the position that our current military posture is not worth its costs. But, at the end of the day, is never getting involved in another counter-insurgency situation our choice alone? Or not getting involved in another large-scale armed conflict?

This point is unfortunately lost in a lot of commentary on war and warfare. Even wars against state opponents can involve irregular actors. For example, in a potential strike against Iran to disarm its nuclear program, Israel or the United States could find themselves embroiled in retaliatory attacks by Iranian proxies in the Gulf and Lebanon. While such an attack would be a voluntary act on America or Israel’s part, it demonstrates the point. Such expansion of the battlefield is nothing new, and while the Iranian case is voluntary, states have long records of attempting to foment insurgencies and irregular threats against each other during wars. More importantly, though, dealing with irregular threats does not inevitably involve nation-building, state-building, or the exact replication of the population-centric COIN which serves as the boogeyman of the “irregular war, never again” crowd – although such changes would be significant departures from our current strategic and foreign policy assumptions.

This brings me to another one of my pet peeves – the so-called “old wars” and “new wars” paradigm that we are stuck with in the strategic studies literature. Old war, as defined by state-versus-state or “industrial” warfare, is actually a very new phenomenon. The total war arguably evolves between the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War and comes into full fruition during World War I. In other words, in historical terms, so-called industrial war is very new, and the modern state for state-versus-state warfare not much older. Irregular or “new war” on the other hand, is ancient, as wars against insurgent groups for the purpose of state-building and consolidating authority were present at the formation of states themselves. The insurgent, the private military contractor, the autonomous religious organization, the ethnopluralist and loosely networked polity and ungoverned space, the transnational corporation – these are old ideas. Their reassertion in global politics is less a return to the medieval than a return to reality. Continue reading