Tag: Russia (page 1 of 11)

Black History Month

Do you think this person is white?

If you are from Europe or North America, you might have said yes. If you are from Russia, you might have described this person as black. Most IR peeps are familiar with the fluid perceptions of whiteness and blackness that exist in the word: Sandor Gilman wrote, for instance, how Irish immigrants in the US in the beginning of the century were often considered black. The irony of blackness could not be more poignant in Russia: the famous Russian Armenian actor Frunzik Mkrtchan whose picture I put above is literally Caucasian, because he comes from the South Caucasus region in the European South of Russia. The ones who would describe him as black would also very likely to adhere to “Russia for [ethnic] Russians” slogan and in worst case scenarios would have tried to kill him because he “doesn’t look Slavic enough”.

Derogatory terms like ‘kavkazcy’ (Caucasians), and ‘chyornye’ (blacks) have become ubiquitous in everyday speech in Russia, while Russian mass media employs euphemisms such as ‘litsa neslavyanskoy vneshnoti’ (non-Slavic looking people) when it comes to the identification of crime suspects. A xenophobic discursive representation applies to non-Slavic looking individuals irrespective of their citizenship, even though former USSR citizens can seek Russian nationality under a simplified naturalisation procedure, according to the Federal Law on Citizenship. Apart from “Caucasians” who are often discursively connected to terrorism and ethnic criminality, there isn’t much love for former Soviet citizens from Central Asia. If you are not Ivan Drago or Natasha, you might have a lot of trouble even renting an apartment.

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What’s worse, looking jealous or crazy?

When President Trump and Press Secretary Spicer started to insist that the protest against Muslim ban [that is not a ban] was paid for, it rang a bell. This kind of rhetoric is a textbook reaction from an autocratic ruler who cannot believe that people would care enough about human rights to go out on the streets on their own. Unfortunately for all the autocrats in the world, people would. The success of the protest is hard to predict, especially in a democratic country, but if people are protesting against you, the first thing to do is to try and delegitimize it. Here is how.

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Talk Intel To Me

I remember laughing about an article in The Medium about a TV Sitcom that triggered the downfall of Western Civilization. In case you were wondering, it’s Friends with its “tragic hero” Ross Geller. The author lamented the awful mistreatment of the most cerebral character on the show that signified the harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America in the early 2000s. For instance, most of Ross’s academic stories were cut off by his bored friends and audience laughter. Why? Maybe some people would like to know more about sediment flow rate?!

In the age of an amazing accessibility of knowledge, America was conned by a man who disregards the value of science and whose surrogates do not see the difference between facts and feelings. Richard Hofstadter warned about the tendency for anti-intellectualism in the US back in the 60-s, but things seem to have gotten much worse. These days, there is a whole field and a term for deliberate politics of ignorance –  agnotology. It was already obvious on presidential campaign trail: Hillary Clinton was made fun of because she was preparing for debates instead of “winging” them. Academics and professional journalists were scolded (says who?) and college students were derided as snowflakes out of touch with real America. Gagging of scientists and professionals has followed: yes, lock them up in their ivory towers. Agnotology has even born its long-awaited fruit — the by now infamous “alternative facts” euphemism (or is it “euphenism”?).  As one of American bookstores has put it:

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WPTPN: Different Paths to Regional Economic Hegemony: Russia and Turkey Compared

 This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Seçkin Köstem, an assistant professor of International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, and managing editor of the Review of International Political Economy.

Various sub-fields of International Relations, including IPE and security studies, have explored dynamics of cooperation and conflict in different regions of the world as well as regional integration and regionalism. Yet little has been done to investigate the role that regional powers, as economically preponderant states, play in fostering economic integration in their regions. In particular, two questions have been unexplored. First, why do the regional economic priorities of regional powers shift over time? Also, why do regional powers pursue different forms of leadership to exert economic influence over their neighbors? In my doctoral dissertation, I have tried to answer these two questions with a cross-case and within-case comparison of Russia and Turkey.

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The Many Faces of Trump Foreign Policy

From NBC. Admit it, you'd rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

From NBC. Admit it, you’d rather look at Nick Offerman than Donald Trump. Which is good. Because usage rights.

It won’t be too long before we start to get a better understanding of what foreign policy in a Trump Administration will actually look like. It’s useful to keep in mind that current rhetoric is no guarantee of future grand strategy. Remember when we all worried that the Bush Administration was going to be too isolationist? Good times.

But let’s assume, for a moment, that the past is prologue. Or the prologue is the main part of the book. Or whatever.

This raises an interesting puzzle: what the $@!#* • #!*$$%*(!! is he doing? Seriously. What the !#(&–^&!# stupid #$#(*$!! is going on?

As I noted in another post, on what godforsaken inhospitable bright orange gas giant is it a good idea to attack your most successful alliance at the same exact time that you’re picking fights with your nearest peer-competitor—that is, China? And it isn’t like the incoming administration has been sending unambiguous signals to key Asian allies while it’s been prodding China. Oh yeah, and also North Korea’s in the mix.

As I was thinking about this—duly motivated by a discussion among fellow international-relations specialists on Facebook—I took to the Twitters to work out some alternative theories. Here they are:

The Chess Master.” Trump is a strategic genius. He recognizes that the US cannot afford to defend Europe while threatening war with China. He needs to take Russia out of the picture. So that means a “grand bargain” that will concede to Russia its privileged sphere of influence, as well as forward some of its other strategic priorities in western Eurasia. Not only does this free up the United States to take on Beijing, but it might even entice Russia to remain neutral—or support the US. It’s like the Austrian Diplomatic Revolution. Which turned out terrific for Vienna.

“The Transactionalist.” This is the conventional wisdom on Trump. He thinks in terms of short-term zero-sum bargains, mercantilist economics, and is deeply insecure about being taken advantage of. In his mind, NATO helps trade competitors. It’s basically a trade subsidy for Germany. But he can make big, splashy deals with countries like Russia. Maybe he can squeeze better deals from the NATO allies as well. There is a “T” in NATO, after all. It doesn’t have to stand for “Treaty.”

“Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt.” Trump speaks loudly and carries… a small stick… in his freakishly small hands. He’s all bluster. US foreign policy will largely carry on as normal, under the watchful eye of Defense, State, and second-tier national-security staff. In fact, Trump’s barking might just get a few NATO countries to make token increases in their defense spending, or offer more subsidies for American troops.

“The Buffoon.” This is kind of like Mirror Universe Teddy Roosevelt, but he actually means it; cooler heads aren’t going to prevail. It really is that bad. In other words, Trump is an impulsive narcissist and a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Don’t worry too much about strategic logic. There really isn’t any. But some nice commentators—at Fox News, NewsMax, whatever new #MAGA journals appear, or the National Enquirer—will be happy to tell us that it’s genius. In a hundred years, Chinese revisionist historians will argue that there actually was a calculated grand strategy. They will be wrong.

“The Leninist.” The Trump ‘brain trust’—some combination of Bannon and Flynn—just want to burn it all down. This is something Cheryl Rofer (blog, Twitter) emphasizes. As reported at The Daily Beast:

“Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.

In this scenario, it’s all about shredding globalism and liberal order. And that means watching NATO and the EU burn. Or, at least, gumming them up. Here, the eerie overlap with Russian interests is all a matter of convenience. They hate the liberal order, because it benefits the US and its allies. The Trumpistas hate the liberal order too, because reasons.

“The Transnational Rightist.” The Leninist is to revolutionary Marxism as The Transnational Rightist is to parliamentary socialism. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with NATO and the EU that a Europe dominated by a mix of right-wing populist and post-fascist parties won’t cure. The enemy is the broad European center—the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and so on. What Trump wants is the rise of political co-confessionals, such as the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, and the Freedom Party in Austria. Hurting the establishment is good, but burning everything down would be a bit too much. Maybe just the EU. NATO can stay. Is Russia an ally of convenience or a fellow traveller? For now, it doesn’t really matter.

“The Useful Idiot.” Is Trump compromised by Kompromat? Is his overleveraged financial spider web dependent upon, intertwined with, or simply looking for the best deals in Russia? Does Trump just having a thing for strong, buff autocrats? Who knows? It’s all bad.

“Tales of the Incompetent Transition.” Transitions often make for policy instability and amateur-hour mistakes. I arrived at the Pentagon in 2009. The Obama Administration had just rolled out its new plans for European ballistic missile defenses. They were much better than the old plans. They also involved ending the “Third Site” in Poland. That the Bush Administration had so carefully negotiated. Apparently, no one gave  Warsaw a ‘heads up’. Things were bumpy for a bit.

Point is, even well-run transitions full of experienced people can go bad. And this is not one of those transitions. Eventually, there will be national-security principals, assistant secretaries, deputy assistant secretaries, and the rest of the crew. People will be briefed. Many will have a clue. Things will settle down.

…. Of course, it could be any combination of these. And perhaps I’ve missed some possibilities. Thoughts?

[cross-posted at the Lawyers, Guns and Money]

#RussiansDidit

Putin’s annual press conference is a chance for regular citizens to spend 3 hours in a great and rich Russia, where everything is in order and Putin is capable of installing presidents in foreign countries (according to one journalist). In general, the press conference strived to paint a picture of a great power facing some economic problems and who is constantly challenged by other countries (they are probably jealous and/Russophobic). For me it was also a chance to wonder at Putin’s stamina. He might not be Superman, as one of the posters brought by the journalists stipulated, but his bladder is definitely made of steel.

As always, Putin demonstrated his ability to juggle all kinds of statistics in response to questions about economics, including Russia’s successful export of IT. One may wonder if he included hacking, because that was definitely a very successful export. As a female journalist called for abolishing juvenile justice in Russia, because ‘slapping children is a traditional Russian [sic] pedagogical method’, Putin emphasized that there was a slim line between slapping and beating up, but still warned against interfering into family matters. In comparison to the rhetoric of some of the questions, Putin did make an impression of a more liberal and reasonable politician, very much fitting into the narrative of ‘without Putin it could be much worse’ .

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The Russians Are Coming (for your language too)

Gone are the good old days when I had to explain what the word ‘yarki’ means to my friends and colleagues (for the record, ‘colorful’, not ‘brilliant’). Now I will have to clarify the complexities of planting child pornography into the computers of oppositional leaders thanks to the re-emergence of ‘kompromat’.

Why did kompromat, arguably a KGB-developed practice of mining compromising material on politicians and blackmailing them with it, surface again in the media? As Fabian Burkhardt noticed, the word first appeared in the English language with the information wars of the 90s. Moreover, the term ‘kompromat’ is inextricably linked in Russia with the former Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov – or, rather, with ‘a man who looked like the prosecutor general’…

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WPTPN: How Vladimir Putin Became the Oracle of the East

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Emily Holland and Hadas Aron, PhD Candidates in Political Science at Columbia University. Holland’s research focuses on energy politics, political development, Russian politics and East/Central Europe. Aron studies right wing populism and nationalism with a regional focus on Eastern Europe, the United States, and Israel. They blog at Commenting Together.

Immediately following the annexation of Crimea and the tragedy of flight MH17, the West largely regarded Vladimir Putin as a dangerous international pariah. But two years later, following the sweeping success of demagogues world-wide, Putin has emerged as a new oracle of the East, leading the charge for the new wave of illiberalism. Widely praised by US President Elect Donald Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Erdogan, India’s Modi, and Hungary’s Orban, amongst others, Putin’s brand of strongman leadership and exclusionary nationalism is succeeding like never before.

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WPTPN: Will Populist Nationalism Lead to Great-Power War?

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Louis F. Cooper. His online writing includes “Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy” at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog (July 16, 2014). His Ph.D. is from the School of International Service, American University.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815, which one historian has labeled “the first total war,” engulfed basically the whole of Europe. A century later, a war broke out in Europe that extended beyond the continent to become global in scope. One can think of the two enormously destructive world wars of the twentieth century as a “thirty years war” (1914-1945), interrupted by what can be viewed in retrospect as an uneasy lull marked by the Depression and the rise of fascism.

Those who see history as essentially cyclical might have expected another global war to occur in or around 2014. The idea of ‘long cycles’ of war and peace, explored by several scholars, could have suggested this. And if one believes, as Robert Gilpin wrote some years ago, that “even though some states occasionally come to appreciate the mutual benefits of international cooperation, unfortunately all states have yet to learn the lesson simultaneously,”[i] then the occurrence of another world war would not have been out of the question. Obviously, however, it didn’t happen on the centenary of World War I. Why not?

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Ice Thin Memory

Usually when news about Russia makes it to American late night shows, Russia either gets hit by a meteorite, or it annexes part of a neighboring country. Either way, it is illustrated by Putin’s bare-chested photograph on a horse. This time, however, neither celestial bodies, nor Putin’s nipples were at stake. Several high-profile newspapers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah reported on…  an ice-skating dance routine.

‘Wife of Putin’s ally’ [putting aside the whole sexist tradition of defining a woman through her male companion] was widely criticized for her Holocaust-themed ice-dancing routine. Even though the press secretary of the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities said in a commentary that the story didn’t have anything to it and there was no reason to get upset over the dance, as the Holocaust has been used as a theme in many art projects. The champion ice-skater Tatyana Navka was also surprised at the negative reactions and insisted that the routine was done ‘to remind our children about that horrible time’.

No offence, American media, but you kind of live in a bubble that does not include Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic crime. Oh, sorry, now you no longer do. Russia is a different story. Holocaust was never really a part of Russia’s collective memory. Most monuments erected during the Soviet era on the sites of Jewish massacres were dedicated to civilians while their Jewish identity was brushed over. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz in 1945 and Soviet citizens knew about concentration camps, but the Jewish identity of the victims was downplayed. Through the works of Ilya Ehrenburg, Evgeny Yevtushenko or Vassily Grossmann some people were familiar with mass executions of Jews. But these works were far from mainstream and were a protest against Soviet governmental policy of hushing up the ‘final solution’. This is yet another example of ‘warped mourning’ over the victims of wars, famines, repressions and purges in Russia.

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Femme Fatale

After Donald Trump won the elections in the US, Twitter was abuzz with the picture of potential UN Security Council country leaders that included Theresa May, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Marine Le Pen. After Brexit and Trump all eyes are on France and its upcoming presidential elections. The possibility of ‘Frexit’ in case of Le Pen’s win is alarming enough, but Russia is also on the agenda. Russian-French relations have been strained since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, but have got even worse after President Hollande accused Russia of war crimes in Syria that purportedly prompted Vladimir Putin to cancel his trip to France. While in American elections Russia had a clear favorite, and did not really have a plan B for Hillary Clinton’s win, French elections seem to be much more comforting.

In the recently finished primaries on the right, the losing candidate Alain Juppe criticised the winner Francois Fillon for leaning too close to Russia. Fillon did defend Russia’s actions on a number of occasions and even wished for a Putin-Trump alliance. Putin admitted himself that he cultivated a good relationship with Fillon in 2008-2012, probably because they both belong to the J. Mearsheimer’s ‘I don’t give a damn about small countries’ sovereignty’ school of thought. On top of that, Fillon fits well with the conservative turn of the Russian government, being a vocal supporter of la Manif Pour Tous (anti-gay marriage movement in France), whose ‘traditional family’ poster has also been adopted by Russian anti-gay activists.

Marine Le Pen managed to shift Front National further to mainstream by purging some of her father’s most racist friends and allies and settling on a more conventional anti-migrant xenophobia. After all, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government expelled Roma migrants and closed borders way before the refugee crisis. Ms. Le Pen has been a welcome guest in Moscow and received a large loan from a Russia-affiliated bank for her party. Eurosceptic, pro-Trump and anti-NATO, Le Pen would be a perfect partner for Putin and the worst nightmare for the EU. At the same time, Sputnik News, a pro-Russian propaganda outlet, puts Fillon and not Le Pen into their IR dream ménage à trois with Putin and Trump. [dirty joke edited]

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Love Me Tender

‘I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in my car. If I find one. Join me! They have earned it‘. If you were wondering who else was celebrating Trump’s win, it was the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan. Overnight, a deep-seated Russian Anti-Americanism and disbelief in American democracy was turned into almost unending love, although Russian Prime-Minister Medvedev still finds the name ‘Americano’ too unpatriotic for coffee and proposed to rename it into ‘Rusiano’.

The US election results came as a big surprise in Russia as well. According to many sources, most Russian TV talk shows had already prepared panels of ‘experts’ that were supposed to prove how democracy in the US is dead, how the elections were rigged, how American mass media were unfair to Donald Trump and how Clinton cash bought everything. Sound familiar?

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Applying the Emerging Trump Doctrine to Syria

syrian_refugee_camp_on_theturkish_border

By and large, world leaders have gone from being taken aback about Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to being outright alarmed. Exceptions to this rule are Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, both of whom expect Trump to be far better to deal with than Secretary Clinton. Yet, while it still is not remotely clear what a Trump Doctrine will strategically comprise, his coming moves in Syria do not bode well.

Russia and the Syrian regime look to be the chief beneficiaries of the coming shifts in U.S. policy toward the 5-year old conflict that has weaponized half the country as refugees, killed half a million people, and continues to mete out suffering en masse in Aleppo and elsewhere.

Trump has said—erroneously—that Aleppo has already fallen, and he has described the opposition forces “as worse than Assad.” Trump will immediately remove support for the moderate opposition forces fighting Syrian/Russian/Iranian/Hezbollah forces, both overt and covert. To boot, the UN’s efforts to broker peace will be thoroughly undermined. At one point early on in the campaign Trump spoke favorably of a safe/no fly zone, but that is not on the cards at this point. He will avoid acting contrary to Russian interests.

The upshot of the coming Trump Administration’s moves in this space will be to strengthen the Russian hand, and give it a free one in and around Syria. As such, Putin is unlikely to test Trump in the manner some have speculated. Effectively he has no need to see how far down the road of harming U.S. national security interests he can go, when his partner in this potentially dangerous diplomatic dalliance is doing the work for him. Continue reading

In Cheese We Trust

Mass media in the US often portray Donald Trump as an American version of Putin, if not his puppet. But it makes sense to take a closer look at the essence of Trump’s and Putin’s appeal to their respective populations. Let’s recap three broad topics: foreign policy, domestic policy, and the economy.

Both Putin and Trump focus on ‘foreign policy populism’ trying to sell the idea of great power resurgence. Showing the West “Kuzma’s Mother” has been Russia’s operative battle cry since Khrushchev didn’t slam his shoe at the UN General Assembly in 1960. Russia’s current leadership is carefully executing this master plan, starting with cyber-attacks and finishing with nuclear missile deployment In Kaliningrad.

On the other side of the pond, apart from “we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning” and the whole “make America great again” rhetoric, the Trump campaign has voiced admiration for Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad and Kim Jong-un, complaining that Obama failed to show real leadership. I guess, “bombing the shit out of ISIS” as well as praising genocidal maniacs is his way of showing Kuzma’s mother to the rest of the world. Why this is necessary is a whole other question.

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Jokes Aside

Russia has been one of the spectres haunting the US presidential election. President Obama’s latest press conference is a case in point:

Mr. Trump’s continued flattery of Mr. Putin, and the degree to which he appears to model many of his policies and approaches to politics on Mr. Putin, is unprecedented in American politics and is out of step with not just what Democrats think but out of step with what up until the last few months almost every Republican thought, including some of the ones who are now endorsing Mr. Trump

It is rather bewildering for a Russian observer: the party that gave birth to McCarthyism is now overwhelmingly endorsing a candidate who embraces Putin who is ‘a leader far more than our President’. Hillary Clinton, despite having pressed the ‘reset’ button back in 2009, has called Russia a dictatorship on a number of occasions, showing that it is easy to revert to Cold War era clichés to perpetuate American exceptionalism in comparison to Russia’s un-American autocratic Otherness. No wonder there has been a lot of angst and conspiracy theorizing on the (American) left that Trump is the Manchurian candidate, whose arrival has been anticipated from the Pavlov Institute since 1959.

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Syria: An Option Remains

obama-siria-from-iraq

With the bombing of the UN aid convoy in Syria and fresh attacks on Aleppo after the Assad regime declared the ceasefire over, American and UN officials are in need of a Plan B. Now that trust between the U.S. and Russia is at a new low after Russia allegedly carried out the convoy attack, the situation on the ground Thas gotten even more grim. With the U.S.-Russian ceasefire accord in tatters, the time has come to put a Safe Zone in place for refugees.

In fact, a de facto safe zone is already in place in northern Syria. The Turkish military’s recent thrust over the shared border has begun to allow Syrian refugees to cross back over into Jarabulus. For weeks Turkey has been advocating that the U.S. and western allies work with it to install a formal Safe Zone. With no other realistic options remaining, this novel development has the potential to be a game changer.

The only viable option is to install a Safe Zone in northern Syria stretching north from Aleppo to the Turkish border and east to just west of Kobani.  The viability of the zone rests on Turkey’s ability to lead the effort and militarily guard the zone on the ground, and the fact that the Syrian regime does not at present fly in this area. The security and humanitarian reasons are compelling, from turning around refugee flight to establishing a sizable zone of stability and allowing the focus to be on eradicating ISIS with Turkey fully engaged. Continue reading

Restoring Conventional Deterrence in Europe: How to Climb Out of the Joint Security Trap

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Russia is currently riding high on the geostrategic landscape, despite a trove of domestic economic woes that stem partly from Western sanctions. But Vladimir Putin has successfully wagged the dog and distracted Russians from this by illegally annexing Crimea by force, occupying eastern Ukraine with a proxy force upheld by Russia, and successfully keeping the Assad regime in force in Syria with a surprise intervention that has not only sent cruise missiles through an airspace with U.S. aircraft in it, but also wiped out the efforts on behalf of the anti-regime rebel forces by Western intelligence services on the ground.

Russia continues to be undeterred in its use of force, which was reinforced last week by a Russian fighter plane buzzing a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft within 50 feet and multiple Russian fighters buzzing a U.S. destroyer ship within 30 feet, both in the Baltic Sea. Russia is in fact so sufficiently undeterred at present that the Baltic members of NATO are once again in fear of direct Russian intervention. All of this comes as NATO members are getting prepared to hold a crucial summit in Warsaw—perhaps the most pivotal Alliance summit since the end of the Cold War.

Its number one task is straight forward: restoring conventional deterrence in Europe. NATO’s previous summit in Wales was supposed to accomplish this task, but it fell short in its attempt at providing sufficient reassurance to the East Central European members of the Alliance. NATO suspended its relationship with Russia, warned it, and through a series of small-scale maneuvers and exercises sought not only to reassure threatened members but also restore conventional deterrence with regard to Russian threats. It failed. This became clear even before NATO officials had departed from Wales, as Russian intelligence operatives kidnapped an Estonian intelligence operative in a successful attempt by Russia to thumb its nose at NATO.

NATO must compensate for this by beginning to restore deterrence and increase contributions from NATO members to the Alliance’s collective defense. Otherwise it risks a consequential slide into a two-tier alliance and a collection of allies that even in the face of a dramatic newfound series of threats from Russia cannot manage to climb out of the joint security trap they fell into over the past five years. Continue reading

A New Plan B for Syria

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Syria’s civil-proxy war is on the cusp of turning into an all-out regional war, with negative repercussions for all involved in the conflict. The humanitarian disaster is at its most acute to date, with Russian forces systematically attacking the Syrian opposition and on the verge of a rout of Aleppo—and now Turkish ground forces engaging Kurdish forces across its border. With the U.S.-Russian ceasefire accord appearing unlikely to alter much on the ground, the time has come for the U.S., Europe, and the Saudi-led Gulf countries to make a decisive move to take the initiative back from Russia, contain Turkey, and stabilize the conflict.

Anti-ISIS efforts in northeastern Syria and Iraq aside, the pressure point at present is in northwestern Syria. Conventional wisdom suggests that there are no good options for the allies: 1) Attempting to implement the loophole-ridden ceasefire accord, 2) allowing Russia to continue bombing “terrorist groups” i.e. the opposition forces, or 3) taking more direct military action directly against the Syrian military, for which there is zero appetite in the U.S. and Europe. Nonetheless, putting a safe/no fly zone option back on the table would not only meet the joint interests of Western and Gulf allies, but also prove viable on the ground. Not only has Turkey called for this, but so have Germany and France–not to mention Hillary Clinton.

While Turkey will be critical for getting to an eventual endgame in Syria, at this crucial juncture this key western ally needs to be contained itself. Turkey has been shelling Kurdish YPG militia forces for the last week, and now that one of its operatives is being blamed for the successful attack in Ankara, Turkey is on the verge of a highly destabilizing escalation. Turkey legitimately needs the U.S. to press the YPG to back off, and Turkey itself has called for the establishment of a Safe Zone. The U.S. and its western allies need to act fast, also to ensure that the YPG does not “defect” and transfer its allegiance to Russia—which would be another coup for Russia.

Having ceded the initiative to Russia, not seizing it back would be an additional strategic error. Already the Russian action proves that conventional deterrence against it remains lost, even after announcement of a major U.S. effort to shore up western capabilities in Central Eastern Europe. Even before it could be enacted, it is falling short of one of its major objectives: the intended deterrent effect is stillborn. Russia has already wiped out the efforts of allied intelligence agencies on the ground in Syria. And at the Munich Security Conference it just took the mask off in claiming it is in “a new Cold War” with the West. To begin restoring deterrence, western allies need to act. It was a mistake to publicly declare that military options in Syria were off the table, indicating the diplomacy track is now the basket holding all the Administration’s eggs. The allies need to pursue a different option in order to regain their lost leverage. Continue reading

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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