Tag: Russia (page 1 of 10)

ISIS and the Future of Counter-Terrorism

[I’ve been debating whether to post this…it’s a “transcript” of a talk I gave yesterday here at the University of Puget Sound. It’s a bit basic as it was intended for a general audience of, primarily, undergraduate students. I wrote this up for friends who wanted to hear the talk but were unable to attend. It’s a bit disorganized too. So be warned it’s kind of ramble-y and general. Also, I haven’t provided source information or links. If you want any, please ask!]

It’s been a few days since the Paris bombings, and we have some more information about what happened, which has prompted me to reflect on what the attacks—along with those in Ankara, Beirut, and the Sinai—tell us about what ISIS is doing and why, and what these attacks mean for counter-terrorism efforts.

First, it’s important to note that these attacks are occurring in the context of an increase in mass casualty attacks (defined as terrorist attacks causing more than 100 deaths). Between 1978 and 2013, there was an average of 4.6 mass casualty attacks per year. In 2014, there were 26 while to date in 2015 there have been 15. While this is indeed a small n in terms of both number of events and time, it’s interesting to note that there might be a trend among terrorists towards soft target mass casualty attacks.

While we still don’t know for sure the degree to which the ISIS leadership in Syria was involved in any of these attacks, it’s looking increasingly likely that they played a role in at least three of the attacks (the Sinai bombing is the most likely to have been done by some other organization, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula being the leading candidate). But, if we assume that ISIS is responsible for these attacks, it would represent a shift in their tactics and overturn many of the analytic assumptions about the group’s strategy.

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What’s Going On in the Sinai?

The mysterious crash of a Russian charter plane in Sinai over the past weekend is causing all kinds of turmoil in the international arena. As you probably know, there is lots of confusion about exactly what happened to bring the plane down. Shortly after the crash, the ISIS wilayat (province) in the Sinai claimed responsibility, releasing a video purporting to show them shooting the plane down with a surface-to-air missile, a claim that was quickly debunked as ISIS does not have the kind of missiles capable of reaching 31,000 feet, the cruising altitude of the plane. Furthermore, the plane shown in the video is the wrong type. Russian authorities have been arguing among themselves whether internal failure could or could not be involved. English Prime Minister David Cameron has claimed “it’s more likely than not” that a bomb caused the crash, but President Obama backed that claim down, only saying that “there’s a possibility” that a bomb was on board. Meanwhile, the Sinai affiliate of ISIS continues to claim responsibility, but now without any kind of supporting evidence. And, now Egyptian officials are admitting that not only is a bomb possible but that it is the most likely scenario and Russia has suspended all flights into the Sinai.

So what the hell is going on the Sinai?

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The Duck Civil War over Russia…

…has escalated. First, Jeff took his argument to Foreign Affairs.  Now I’ve retaliated—and brought in Alex Cooley in an attempt at establishing escalation dominance.

These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however. Putin’s appearance of strength is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position. Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions, and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as U.S. weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless—sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.

Go check it out (paywalled).

Is Russia a Paper Tiger?

Jeff Stacey has a new piece at Foreign Affairs that is basically a re-skinned version of his post at the Duck of Minerva. It should come as little surprise that I don’t find either piece particularly persuasive.

Overall, I agree with Jeff’s basic assessment of Russian moves as destabilizing. In Syria, where Moscow seeks to save the Assad regime, Russian intervention in a country that the US and its allies are already mounting military operations carries with it significant risks. Also, as Jeff writes:

Indeed, Russia has been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with allied planes and ships across Eurasia for many months now. Among other things, it has been both flying in the flight paths of Western commercial and military aircraft and using ships and submarines to intermittently sail into Western countries’ territorial waters. In addition, Russia has staged a series of large-scale military exercises just across the border of Poland and several Baltic states, and its intelligence service actually seized an Estonian agent during last year’s NATO Summit and held him for several days.

I see this ‘muscle flexing’ as a mixture of ham-handed coercive diplomacy and reversion to Cold War great-power repertoires. It would obviously be better for everyone if Moscow stopped, insofar as they increase the risk of military and diplomatic incidents. But, as I noted a few days ago, these efforts have generally backfiredContinue reading

Russia, Russia Burning Bright? (Spoiler: Not So Much)

Russia Comp GDP

GDP (PPP) for US, Russian Federation, and Major European Economies

The Russian Federation covers more territory than any other country. It has a large nuclear arsenal, skilled weapons designers, and the world’s fourth largest military budget—after the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. But it maintains that budget—which comes it at roughly 12% of US military expenditures—by spending a larger percentage of its GDP on defense than does the United States, China, Britain, France, Japan, or Germany. Indeed, if the major European economies boosted defense spending to 3% of GDP—still short of Russia—they would each have larger military budgets.

Of course, military spending is a poor proxy for capabilities. Russia has a larger population than any other European state, along with a big army, extensive air-defense network, and other indicators of martial prowess. But it also has a smaller economy than the state of California, and still cannot indigenously produce much of the high-tech accruement of modern warfare. Moscow can certainly overwhelm many of its neighbors, but it isn’t a political-military juggernaut.

I consider such remarks necessary in light of the current freakout over Moscow’s intervention in Syria, including here at the Duck of Minerva.

Thankfully, a wave of cooler heads have started to push back against the hyperventilations of #resolvefairy acolytes. But the whole notion that Putin is a master strategist, and that whatever goes down in Syria is a result of his outmaneuvering the West in Ukraine, needs a reality check.

Let’s review. Continue reading

Putin Falls Into Obama’s Syria Trap. (Or Is It The Other Way Around?)

Russia has begun conducting air strikes in Syria, much to consternation of many. But there seems to be some in the Obama Administration who can barely contain their glee at the thought of Putin and Russia getting bogged down in the Syria quagmire:

“If he wants to jump into that mess, good luck,” one official said, noting that Russia had become bogged down in Afghanistan a generation ago in a fight against Islamic radicals.

Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken told reporters that the Russians may be “making a terrible strategic mistake” by deepening their military involvement in Syria. He also warned of the “risk of running into a quagmire.”

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Russia, Syria, and the Costs of Inaction in Ukraine


The ominous Russian military buildup in Syria represents the most significant projection of force beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union since the old Cold War. It will allow Russia to keep the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria, effectively negating the new diplomatic path toward resolution of the regional sectarian war that has been opened up by the Iran nuclear deal.

In addition it will further enable Russia to build and retain a major forward operating base for Russian military forces. At first it will be used to keep Assad in power. Then, as a cover, Russia likely will initiate sustained use of force ostensibly against ISIS, but actually to act as if Russia is in vanguard with the West and Middle Eastern powers in combating the world’s most dangerous insurgent group.

Beyond this, there is little guarantee that Russia won’t use its most high end military weaponry in other destabilizing ways that are contrary to western interests, such as attacking U.S.-backed opposition fighters (alarmingly, Russian drone flights have been scouting those areas, not ISIS areas). Offensive hardware including fixed wing Su-24, 25, and 27 fighter jets, attack helicopters, drone aircraft, main battle tanks, and SA-22 surface-to-air missile batteries have already been deployed at Russia’s new base in Latakia Syria in the backyard of Assad’s stronghold. Continue reading

The Future of Deterrence?

A long, long time ago, before I became a professor and even before I went to graduate school for my doctorate, I worked for a few years in the defense community. I was a Defense Analyst for the Strategic Assessment Center of Science Applications International Corporation (unfortunately, the SAC no longer exists), which was a small organization that dealt with issues of future war. We did much of our work for the Office of Net Assessment of the Defense Department under recently-retired Andrew Marshall. Our job, simply said, was to help DoD think about what war would look like 25 years or so down the line: What technologies might be around? How might those technologies change the way the US fights? How might potential adversaries respond? One of the weapon systems with which the office was particularly interested in was hypersonic projectiles. But, as this was in the mid- to late-1990s, most of what we were doing was mere speculation.

The future has arrived. Or is at least getting closer.

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Partly Missing the Point: Rethinking US and EU Sanctions on Russia

Recently, Suzanne Nossel published a piece critical of US and EU sanctions against Russia. A number of her points make sense. For US-EU sanctions to really isolate Russia and thus have a chance to change Russian behavior in the short term, they need to have the participation of other major states in the system like China and India. Without those states, the isolation effort is doomed to fail. Moreover, the effect of US-EU sanctions will fade over time as Russia deepens economic interaction with non-participating states. The marquee example is the May 2014 deal for Russia to provide $400 billion in gas to China over 30 years (Russia and China announced a second deal in November 2014, but as one analyst notes, that second deal is not a deal on price or timelines, but rather a agreement to discuss further). Nossel also rightly notes that sanctions did not prompt Putin to change direction but rather to impose counter sanctions. And as the continued violence in East Ukraine suggest, Putin has not dropped his military support for separatists or changed his mind about implementing the Minsk II agreement. The sanctions, at least in the short term, has also lent superficial veracity to Putin’s narrative that the West seeks to prevent Russia from regaining its national greatness.

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Are Germans Against Upholding NATO’s Article V Commitments?

A recent Pew poll says that they are.  According to Pew, “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” Indeed, the news is grim.  The public release informs us that, “Americans and Canadians are the only publics where more than half think their country should use military action if Russia attacks a fellow NATO member (56% and 53%, respectively). Germans (58%) are the most likely to say their country should not.

Clearly, Pew thinks this is a big deal. How do we know? They provided a one-click solution for anyone wanting to publicize the finding on Twitter: “Germans (58%) most likely to say their country should not defend NATO allies against Russian military conflict http://pewrsr.ch/Rus-Ukr2015”

That certainly sounds distressing. Is it true?

Unfortunately, we can’t tell. Because that’s not the question Pew asked.

NATO pew poll

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Not All Alarms are False

This piece raises the question I have been asking for the past week in Brussels: can we credibly commit to the defense of the Baltics?  Without a permanent NATO (or at least American) presence, is our Article V commitment (an attack upon one is an attack upon all) believable?

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Which Costs Matter?

There has been much focus, and deservedly so, on the economic sanctions hitting Russia hard.  The problem is whether they hit those who support Putin or not, and whether they create economic opportunities for those who are good at evading the law (the police, organized crime) who also happen to be tied to Putin.

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The Costs of Irredentism

In For Kin or Country, the basic idea is to explain a set of policies that is always expensive.  When one tries to take the territory of another country, there tends to be a response.  While folks dismissed Obama’s line about Putin’s moves having a cost, it turns out that he was right.

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Second Thoughts About the West's (Weak) Opposition to the Putin Doctrine


Russia may have agreed to a ceasefire with Ukraine the week before last, but in addition to regular violations of it by both Russian forces and pro-Russian rebels, it is important to understand that what not long ago was considered an irregular conflict has transitioned into open warfare between Russia and Ukraine. Most of the fighting ended in a ceasefire when President Poroshenko — weakened by the West’s refusal to provide lethal equipment and the failure of the NATO summit to address the Kremlin threat in a fully comprehensive fashion — accepted Putin’s terms.

This ceasefire is unlikely to hold, however, as Putin is feeling his oats. Not only did he ignore NATO warnings not to send regular troops into Ukraine, he undermined President Obama and NATO’s efforts to reassure its Eastern members by abducting an Estonian intelligence officer the day the summit ended. With his regular troops, Putin has expanded and reinforced his position in the Donbass and has approached the port city of Mariupol. There are credible reports that Russian agents are at work in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and Odessa.

If the West continues to react slowly and weakly to Kremlin aggression, Putin will face no serious obstacles to moving further west in Ukraine to Odessa and even the border with Moldova. Doing so would provide a land bridge to Crimea and Transnistria, the frozen conflict in Moldova that Moscow has nourished since the fall of the Soviet Union. Continue reading

NATO Puts Credible Deterrence Back in Place


The evidence that President Putin has lost Ukraine in the most important senses has been around for months–Ukrainians want to be western even more now, eastern Ukrainians in majority terms continue to want this as well, Ukrainians elected a pro-western President, the EU trade deal is going forward, and Poroshenko is pushing for NATO membership with NATO not ruling this out–but crucially what was not in place until recent days is credible conventional deterrence against additional territorial annexation by Russia.  In an even more substantial indication of Putin disastrously overplaying what not long ago was a pretty good hand, Russia’s invasion/annexation of Ukraine was all NATO needed to renew and reinvigorate itself in addition to successfully reassuring eastern European allies and deterring Russia from serious intervention in them.  NATO is stronger and more vigorous than it was even 6 months ago, and Sweden and Finland are likely to join its ranks in the near future.

I called for this in my pre-summit Foreign Policy piece, and we now have two examples of Russia heeding the redrawn strategic landscape.  First, the incredibly harsh response from Moscow and a slew of empty threats of retaliation (with the expected nonadmission that Russia’s aggression caused the NATO response in the first place) and second an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine that Russia called for, that was verbatim from Poroshenko’s ceasefire proposals from last month, that occurred despite rebel/Russian advances on the ground, that caused Russia to admit and demonstrate it does have influence over the rebels, and that occurred before the NATO summit Wales even ended.  [Note in the Foreign Policy piece, I did not title it “How to Beat Down a Bully”; the editor did that without telling me in advance; the original title was “How to Oppose the Putin Doctrine”] Continue reading

Why John J. Mearsheimer is Wrong on Ukraine

When I arrived as an incoming graduate student at Ohio State University, I was labeled a realist since I studied extensively under John J. Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. And despite the fact that I find such labeling exercises rather silly (plus, my advisor at both Chicago and OSU was actually Alex Wendt), there was, and still is, some truth to it. Power does matter in international politics and contrary to many others in our field I think that Mearsheimer’s theory of great power politics does make a lot of sense, and it explains large swaths of international politics throughout history.

However, despite the fact that his recent analysis in Foreign Affairs of the causes of the Ukrainian crisis makes a number of good points, most importantly, that Putin’s actions do not necessarily signal an attempt to build a greater Russian empire and that realpolitik matters, it is at the same time wrong. Continue reading

Meaningful Punishment

Seeing reports in the New York Times today on further Russian aggression in Ukraine has me thinking about Ely Ratner and Elizabeth Rosenberg’s recent article entitled “Pointless Punishment?” where they argue that Western sanctions on Russia are at best pointless and at worst counterproductive. I think Ratner and Rosenberg (R&R henceforth) have a valid point in looking at the ways in which sanctions might produce unexpected negative consequences for the US. But also I think the events being reported today, and some other lines of analysis that they do not include in their article, suggest that not only is the punishment not pointless, but that it is important for the stability of the international system and the health of the rules that underpin it that all states, or as many as possible, impose a significant cost of Russia.


From Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/putin-tells-merkel-partial-withdrawal-east-ukraine-border-238941

From Newsweek: http://www.newsweek.com/putin-tells-merkel-partial-withdrawal-east-ukraine-border-238941

To be fair, R&R argue that eventually isolation of Russia would be counterproductive. It would in the long term weaken Japan (which needs access to Russian gas supplies) and push Russia and China closer together by weakening Russia’s ties with states like India, Vietnam, and Japan that see China in a negative light. So while R&R do not say the international community should do nothing, since Russia shows no signs of backing down in Ukraine the suggestion does seem to be that punishment (i.e. sanctions) should be rethought now and probably abandoned.


There are some parts in their argument I find problematic. First, isolation of Russia in the long term is not inevitable, even with sanctions. Europe and the US have given Russia a clear path out of the crisis, and it doesn’t even involve returning Crimea to Ukraine. So it is possible that increased sanctions will push Putin to reconsider, particularly since he has thus far used military force in ways that allow him a level of deniability, which dramatically decreases the domestic cost to him of a policy reversal.


Also, in the long term Russia’s economy is going to push strongly in favor of selling hydrocarbons to Japan. Russia needs diversified customers. While it is true that Russia just signed a gas deal with China, it is not entirely as R&R characterize it (that Russia and China can cooperate when they have nowhere else to turn). Russia inked the agreement at the lowest possible price they had indicated acceptable, suggesting that while Russia had nowhere to turn, China apparently had enough options to drive a hard bargain. That imbalance will only continue to get worse as Russia’s economy suffers under sanctions and lost investment while China’s continues apace. My guess (and it is only that) is that Russia’s business leaders if not political leaders understand this reality. So it is unlikely that Japan will pay a serious long-term cost for participating in the sanctions regime now. And in the short to medium term, the United States may step in to the breach if LNG exports are approved by the Obama administration (thus strengthening ties between the US and Japan).


Second, R&R seem to ignore the political reality in Europe, where important NATO member states are increasingly nervous about Russia’s behavior, and what it means for them. Abandoning sanctions or any efforts to oppose/correct Russian behavior may lead to a weakening of the transatlantic relationship as some of the most stalwart Atlanticist countries come to doubt the resolve of US to help hold Russia in check and in general support European allies. So while sanctioning Russia may isolate it in the short to medium terms, not doing so may damage the most world’s most successful security alliance in the long term.


Third, R&R overlook the ramifications of Russia’s behavior in terms of nuclear proliferation. No mention is made of the fact that Russia violated an explicit legal agreement (the Budapest Memorandum) lodged with the UN by which it bound itself, the US, and the UK to observe the territorial integrity of Ukraine in perpetuity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its legacy nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War. Russia has completely violated that agreement. Failing to punish Russia undermines the international legal basis for assurances given to all non-nuclear states. The potential damage in terms of the nonproliferation regime is clear. So while isolation of Russia may be problematic, so to is the potential that the US might undermine sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program by appearing to dismiss the rule of international law and thus undermining the credibility of any promises given in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions.


All of this comes on top of the flagrant violations of the legal norms of sovereignty Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine. As with any policy, sanctions now and possibly enhanced sanctions in the future have a cost. But so does doing nothing, and in my reading the cost of the latter is far higher than the former. The solution, if there is any, to Russian transgressions in Ukraine is for the international community to come together with as broad a coalition as possible to impose sanctions on Russia, thereby undermining both an element of Putin’s legitimacy at home (economic growth) and defusing his nationalist narrative that he is leading Russia against Western oppressors. China may not participate, but if India, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and other major states outside the ‘West’ do, that gives the best chance of short-circuiting the narrative Putin is using domestically to legitimate his policy while aligning material incentives to encourage him to stand down on Ukraine.

Confronting the Putin Doctrine in Full Force

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Just as the international community appeared at long last to be taking a stronger stand against Russia, President Putin upped the ante. Unlike its annexation of Crimea, Russia is now in open warfare with Ukraine on its eastern border. There is fresh evidence indicating not only that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by Russian-aided rebels in eastern Ukraine, but also that the Russian military has been firing missiles and artillery from its own territory at targets inside Ukraine proper. Russia has redeployed over 20,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border.

The SA-11 mobile missile battery was supplied by Russia and crossed into Ukraine in a large Russian military convoy a week in advance of the attack, which included additional missile batteries. Radar information, wreckage from the crash, and intercepted phone calls implicate the rebels directly, as well as Russia’s involvement in the cover-up. The crash site was thoroughly tampered with by the rebels, who delayed releasing the bodies of victims and have yet to release the monitoring officials from the OSCE that they have held captive for months.

Russia decided to up the ante of its double game prior to the shooting down of Flight 17, a response to the recent gains the Ukraine military forces have been making against the pro-Russia rebels. In fact many of these rebels are not just pro-Russian, they are full-fledged Russian citizens—including some notorious bad apples that Russia previously used in not so subtle attempts to destabilize former members of the Warsaw Pact.

But just as the EU is about to drop a new sanctions hammer on Russia, the Russians have taken the Putin Doctrine to a new more dangerous level. They have transitioned from weeks of waging irregular warfare against Ukraine to low grade standard warfare, and they appear to be preparing to raise that grade and potentially invade Ukraine Georgia-style. What more crystal clear evidence could there be that western allies have yet to establish conventional deterrence vis-à-vis Russia? Continue reading

The New Blitzkrieg, Part II

isis convoyAs I wrote a few days ago, a new pattern of warfare is emerging in the Middle East and Africa. This “new blitzkrieg” isn’t really new, but it is asymmetric warfare at its best, pitting swarms of fast-moving, lightly armed fighters operating as a network against hidebound hierarchies of Western-trained and equipped “professional soldiers”. These state forces have a bad track record of crumbling under the tempo of swarming, networked attackers; and the only thing that has proven capable of stemming the tide is early airstrikes followed with a robust military “prop-up and mop-up” campaign, as demonstrated by French and African Union forces in Mali. The outcomes aren’t that great in any of the recent cases – but it’s much, much worse when any regional government has fallen to the non-state forces. Continue reading

Putin is Losing the Current Round of the Ukraine Crisis


If only present day global competition were confined to the World Cup. But while eyes have turned back to a new crisis in Iraq—something I’m not exactly proud of predicting here—at least there has been progress on the Ukraine crisis, which has gone from boil to simmer in recent weeks. At this stage it has become clear that Russia has blinked, and thus will not be swallowing eastern Ukraine whole. Just as important, we now have clear as day evidence that President Putin’s gambit has failed:  Ukraine has not only signed the EU trade agreement that former President Yanukovych walked away from—sparking the crisis in the first place—newly elected President Petro Poroshenko formally asked the EU to open membership negotiations with his government. In other words Msr. Putin may have purloined Crimea, but he has lost Ukraine proper.

Strategically speaking, it matters less that the EU is no longer as rosy about bringing Ukraine fully into its membership fold. After all, previously doing so was one of the major causes of the now receding crisis. It is more important that the EU signed precisely the same trade deal, with the very ink pen that Yanukovych would have used had he gone through with it last year. More important still is the fact that Ukraine continues to tilt west not east, and in landslide public opinion terms. Not only did Poroshenko achieve an electoral landslide, but there even remains a majority of citizens in eastern Ukraine that do not want to be part of Russia.

But the EU has also done something it previously had not:  it threatened that a new round of much more punitive sanctions would be levied against Russia if it did not stop destabilizing eastern Ukraine by sending in mercenaries, ammunition, and major military equipment in continual violation of Ukraine’s porous border—this time with a deadline.  Defying a host of predictions both in Europe and back in the U.S., German Chancellor Merkel has actually stepped up to begin providing forceful strategic leadership. The U.S. is also preparing a new more punitive round of sanctions. And Putin has foresworn any direct use of force after—blink—pulling the 40,000 Russian troops back from the border.

Predictably, however, at present the negotiations that were underway to extend the ceasefire between Ukraine and Russia—brokered by France, Germany, and the OSCE—have broken down. Poroshenko has rescinded the ceasefire, claiming rightfully that the Russofile separatists have not adhered to it (despite surprising analysts by agreeing to it in the first place). If the Ukrainian military were to make any gains in the fighting, this would lead to additional leverage at the negotiating table—which Russia is already calling for a return to. More importantly, the failure of the ceasefire at this precise point may in fact be good thing. For it will compel the EU and the U.S. to follow through on their sanctions threat, which they may have backed away from had the ceasefire lasted. More spine stiffening in the West is a good thing, something this entire crisis has in fact been good for. Continue reading

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