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.
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
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
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
[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.
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?
…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).
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 backfired. Continue reading
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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). ”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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
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