Shadows of the Kremlin: A Tale of Cyberwarfare and Bureaucratic Reprisal

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“…There will be no lies. We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else.” ~ President-elect Donald J. Trump

Russia exercised its cyber muscle to influence the U.S. 2016 election. At least that is what the CIA, FBI, and everyone else, myself included, thinks. Liberals are wasting no time in calling Trump a puppet of Putin. Meanwhile the Trump camp denies any sort of aid from Russia. Conservatives are saying that this is just a liberal attempt to discredit Trump.

I would argue that these groups are in denial to some extent. I have no doubt that Russia involved itself in the electoral process, but I would scarcely call Trump an agent of the Kremlin. Furthermore, it is not just liberals who are attempting to weaken Trump: Democrats, the GOP, and bureaucracy are all capitalizing on the hacking.

Now, actually proving Russian involvement in the election is a difficult prospect. Throughout history Russia has proven to be a master of misdirection. The Soviets were experts of making their dirty hands appear clean and their successors are even better at this. Putin is, if anything, great at manipulating people and opinions (a trait he shares with the late Brezhnev). This is standard operating procedure: the West plays the role of accuser, Russia denies any involvement whatsoever and demands that the West prove its claims. The people who would argue that Russia is innocent are either ignorant, Russia-sympathizers, or paid propagandists of the Kremlin.

The hacking allegations follow the pattern and will continue to do so. The United States’ intelligence agencies will claim that Russia was involved but will furnish no evidence. There could be a few reasons for this. It may be that there simply is no evidence! Maybe Russia wasn’t actually involved (which seems unlikely) or perhaps Russia is just good at covering their tracks (which we would never admit). More likely they have found tangible evidence but don’t want to reveal it because doing so would expose weaknesses in the Russian cyberwarfare engine that we would prefer to be left exposed. In failing to provide proof, the CIA will only polarize domestic debates about potential hacking while allowing Putin to win more prestige  among his people for calling out the West on its constant need to vilify Russia. Regardless, I assume they have a good reason for keeping quiet on details.

Ultimately there will always be an air of mystery around the Russian interference. What is clear though is that their will be consequences, and soon. Obama’s 12/16 press conference brought up the prospect of cyberwarfare. He is still hesitant to employ an attack, both for fear of starting an escalating cycle of conflict and out of a desire to keep U.S. capabilities a secret, but I imagine we will see an attack of some sort before January 20th, 2017. Obama has authorized at least one cyberattack-against North Korea during the Sony debacle-and he will have less reservations about starting a full-scale cyberwar with the knowledge that his successor is on good terms with the Kremlin. Putin would be unwilling to annoy his ally, Trump, and wouldn’t retaliate once Trump is sworn in. We may very well see an attack on January 19th so as to minimize the Russian window for a response.

Cyberwarfare is a new and complicated field. It is certainly scary, with targets ranging from private emails up to infrastructure, finance sectors, and security agencies. While it lacks the raw collateral damage of atomic weapons the cyberattack could very well be the WMD of the future, and it could be even more common than other, conventional WMDs.  It could certainly cause much more mass “destruction” than chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons in much more short order. Of course, the novelty of cyberwarfare is precisely what may keep any cyber-engagement limited. At what point does cyberwarfare deliver diminishing returns? How do you judge one nation’s capabilities against your own? Are there any gains to be had by crippling an enemy’s infrastructure during peace time? Is it worth the retaliation that will follow?

I think a retaliatory cyberattack from the U.S. won’t lead to a tremendous amount of escalation for these reasons. Russia’s attack was admittedly small; quite frankly they may have done a service by exposing the rigging of the primary process by the DNC and revealing what information Hillary dealt with on her private server. Intervening in the electoral process of a democratic nation is heinous, let us not disguise that fact, but what measure is such an action when the Democratic Party itself tried to fix the election in Hillary’s favor? The Russian hacks and the information they revealed helped me decide to support third-party candidate Jill Stein, but they weren’t a more significant factor than Hillary’s neo-liberal tendencies. A lot of liberals act as if Trump could not have won without Putin, ignoring the real factors for his victory-Trump’s charisma, dark horse status, and economic platform juxtaposed with Hillary’s unpopularity-at their own peril.

It is feasible that Russia (or the corporations running polling machines) could have directly intervened in the results in Michigan and Wyoming, but there have been no claims made to this effect. I don’t think Russia would have used its capabilities for anything so direct either; the Kremlin places a premium on preserving plausible deniability and therefore prefers indirect, sophisticated methods. Lets face it, their hacking was only an indirect factor of Trump’s victory, and it would have been useless without the context Trump created with his campaigning.

A U.S. retaliation will therefore be small: perhaps we will target a crony of Putin’s. We will likely be unable to dig up any dirt on Putin himself given that we couldn’t even directly implicate him in the Mossack-Fonseca leaks, but in any case we would definitely not want to launch a direct attack against Putin.

As for Trump being a puppet of the Kremlin: this is bogus. Trump admires Putin’s strongman approach to leadership and heaped praises on Putin as part of a strategy to increase criticism of Obama and, by extension, Hillary. Beyond cooperating on security matters I don’t see much other reason for the two to get along. I do appreciate the irony of a populist leader coming to power by praising and receiving minor aid from Russia, a historic rival of the United States. Sure, Putin has gained some political capital with Trump, but I don’t expect that Trump will march to the beat of Moscow’s drum. Most Americans still have profound distrust of Putin; they perceive him as expansionist (incorrectly), dangerously cunning (well-founded), or as an enemy of human rights (also on-point). Combine popular opinion with the mistrust of Russia found in the GOP and you find that Trump will be quite limited in what he can achieve regarding Putin. At the very least though Moscow is happy to have a friend, and placed enough of a premium on Trump to undergo hacking in his favor.

However, one cannot deny that these accusations do work to delegitimize Trump to a certain degree, even if hacking did not directly contribute to his victory. So often we look at the motives of big men-Obama, Trump, or Putin-we also need to consider the bureaucracy and their goals! Quite frankly, Trump is terrifying to the American bureaucracy. He has ignored the advice of the intelligence community or the State Department, and his cabinet choices and stated policy goals of “draining the swamp” are reminiscent of перестройка (perestroika! “restructuring”). Professional bureaucrats and federal employees are directly threatened by Trump. The desire to send a message to Trump is partly responsible for the current emphasis on hacking.

The intelligence community wanted to show, and has shown, that it still has the ear of the House, the Senate, the media, and other groups, not the least of which is the Electoral College. The bureaucracy exists as a sort of 4th branch of government. While they may not have constitutional powers to take advantage of, they have certain de facto powers that they can use to help boost or balance against the Presidency. Several members of the Electoral College are actually looking more into the allegations before they formally cast their votes. It is a long shot that this will keep Trump from the magic 270 needed to win the Presidency, but it will cut into his lead and is indicative of division. Already, the Trump-Right Wing/GOP coalition is showing signs of stress. Trump will also have a harder time seeking rapprochement with Russia on his own without losing political capital with these allegations floating around. I still think the “Trump Thaw” will take place, but it will be much more difficult for Donald to pull off. Regardless, the left’s fear of an ultimate, all-powerful GOP-Trump coalition is bogus. Trump may have goals to drain the swamp and use his “electoral mandate” to force through reforms (some of which are good), but he seems to have forgotten that the swamp* has its own agenda and is clearly willing and able to fight back. Trump runs roughshod over federal agencies at his own peril; already they are working to shackle him.

Putin may aided Trump in a tense election, but ironically he may have only helped to weaken his apparent ally. Yet again, continued division and tension in Washington would serve Moscow more than Trump ever could.

Meanwhile we hold our collective national breath, preparing our own cyberattack.

*Please note that by referring to the bureaucracy as the swamp I don’t mean to demean them. Quite frankly I think that they are doing an invaluable service for Constitutional democracy by trying to balance against Trump.

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Our Man in Havana: Castro

The kill-proof man died yesterday. Age did what a Cuban dictator, Cuban exiles, and CIA ploys never could. Loved and reviled by many, Castro was one of the giants of modern history. A true Cold Warrior, he rubbed shoulders with superpowers. Any Cold War historiography would be incomplete without the thick haze of his cigar smoke permeating the discussion.

Having long languished under the Spanish, at the turn of the 20th century the Cuban Revolution was more or less hijacked by the global Spanish-American War. America played an integral role in the Spanish defeat (somewhere in the chaos the immortal Cuba Libre libation was born) but the American victory precluded a Cuban one. The Monroe Doctrine, manifesting as the Platt Agreement, reared its head and left the young Cuban state hamstrung. Cuban still had some self-determination and there were some elections, but the shadow of the hegemon hung over the island. The United States had become an imperial power, and its economic and political influence could not be understated. Corruption and cronyism pervaded the Cuban state. Power was eventually seized by Fulgencio Batista, one time elected president, who brutally suppressed the Cuban peoples and unabashedly cozied up to the Americans.

Cubans were understandably tired of foreign meddling and dominance, and the time was ripe for revolution. Fidel Castro became their champion. A tall, dark, and handsome lawyer, Castro pushed for a Batista-free Cuba. Waging a difficult guerrilla war, often against impossible odds, Castro somehow managed to pull it off. At first America didn’t know how to treat Castro. Pictures of a trip Castro took to the United States seem to show joy and good will. Eventually though Castro chose to adopt the standard nationalist leader package that Mosadeq had previously subscribed to: land reform. Suddenly American interests, legal or otherwise, were challenged in Cuba. America gradually began to posture itself against Castro; concurrently Castro began to more closely align himself with Communist interests.

I don’t think that it is fair to just view Castro as a Communist. First and foremost he was a nationalist motivated by the cause of Cuban independence, not unlike Ho and Vietnam. Communism was a matter of expedience and security. In a world where Cold War us-them mentalities were becoming entrenched it was dangerous to be in favor of land reform, especially in the U.S. economic and political sphere of influence. Castro was always left leaning; mutual suspicions born of ideology, action, history, and geopolitics meant that relations could only sour. Thus was born the Soviet-Cuban alliance.

Khrushchev dedicates a chapter of his memoirs to the “Caribbsky Crisis.” He writes that at first Fidel was ambivalent towards the USSR, not even bothering with diplomatic relations, perhaps out of fear of attracting US attention too early. Fidel’s brother, Raul, and right-hand man, Che, were committed Communists but Fidel himself was not there yet. Gradually Fidel shifted more and more to the left, increasingly nationalizing industries and promoting socialism, leading many Cubans to leave for Miami. Gradually America got more and more concerned, and the CIA made getting rid of Castro their number 1 priority. The newly impaneled Kennedy was told of an invasion that was originally planned under the Eisenhower administration. Cuban exiles were to invade Cuba with American air support. JFK gave his blessings to this project; meanwhile Cuba was beginning to receive USSR arms. Eventually the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. For Castro and the Soviets it was a tremendous victory. Kennedy did not authorize the use of air power given bad weather, so the invasion was a humiliating and huge US defeat that cast doubt on Kennedy’s presidency.

JFK won in part because he was tough on Communism, and he could not politically afford to let this defeat go by without responding. Castro and Khrushchev became increasingly paranoid; the Soviet Premier was worried that Cuba would have trouble defending from a true invasion since it was sausage-shaped. He was also firmly committed to defend Cuba. A Communist country on the doorstep of the USA was too good to pass up. Castro was a bright spark in the Communist world. Dynamic, handsome, tall, regal, and outspoken, he was a perfect idol for the Communist movement. He was an example of success against Western intervention, and gave hope to third world countries in Latin America and beyond. Khrushchev needed him. Cuba broadcast Soviet power and supremacy. Here was the proof in the pudding that the USSR could outstrip the US. Khrushchev was also looking to cement the USSR’s position in the Communist movement ever since Mao left the Soviet camp. A confrontation with a Cuban setting was inevitable at this point.

So Khrushchev bought oceangoing tankers from Italy, much to NATO’s chagrin, and began to ship arms and troops to Cuba. Wanting to make a statement, and wary of American missiles on his own doorstep in Turkey, Khrushchev decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. He sold his idea to Castro and then plans were underway. Cuba had no direct control over the missiles, the Soviets provided all the supplies and manpower. The Americans finally caught wind of it late in 1962 and decided to take action. Some pressured Kennedy to pursue peace, others wanted blood; fortunately JFK decided to impose a “quarantine” (calling it a blockade would have made it an act of war) and wait to see what the Soviets were going to do. Khrushchev tried to continue installation and run the blockade, but ultimately gave up and negotiated to publicly withdraw the missiles in exchange for secret promises from Kennedy that missiles in Turkey would be disposed of and that Cuban safety was guaranteed.

Khrushchev may have taken a tremendous loss of prestige but he achieved what he set out to do and ultimately considered the Crisis a strategic victory. Unfortunately his colleagues in the Politburo did not agree. Castro was not exactly pleased with the result: he likely did not feel safe without nuclear missiles guarding his country. Ultimately the Soviet commitment to protect Cuba and keep the US out held firm, but Castro could not have foreseen such a result.

People love to look at Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Crisis, but Castro was not a passive party. He was the head of a fledgling nation with his own agenda to take care of. Imagine being in Castro’s position. The superpower 90 miles north wants you dead and the other superpower wants to install nukes in your country to protect you. You accept the nukes but now armageddon is apparently at your doorstep. Regardless of ideology, the Cuban people you love and protect are at ground zero for World War III. Castro walked an interesting middle road. He resisted Che’s radical calls to initiate nuclear conflict to ensure the destruction of capitalism at all costs. He likewise resisted backing down or surrendering, taking the initiative to shoot down a US spy plane, risking WWIII in the process. The conflict was made all the more dangerous by the fact that the Soviet missiles on Cuba were already operational, which Kennedy did not know at the time. Castro may not have gotten his desired outcome of retaining nuclear weapons, but Cuban security was nonetheless somewhat assured.

After the feelings of betrayal subsided (and once Khrushchev was out), Cuba would resume normal relations again with the Soviet Union, receiving support and aid. Castro embodied defiance, sending fighters abroad to bolster the cause of Communism and urging on Latin American nationalism. He became a symbol for nationalists and Communists the world over. Cuba has the distinction of being the only Communist country to achieve some 1st World standards: its education and health care systems are incredible. However, Cuba struggles economically, in part because of a continued US embargo and a loss of Soviet support following the 91′ collapse. Russia continues to remain a friend of Cuba and Obama has tried to reset relations with Cuba, although Trump’s victory leave everything in the air. Cuba does have a difficult human rights record and an apparently corrupt regime continually comes under withering criticism from Cuban exiles.

Watching how Trump approaches Cuba will be interesting. Without Fidel a thaw is possible; Fidel remained firmly anti-US even during the 2015 Obama visit.  Personally I advocate a total thaw on Cuban relations: tourism, economic co-development, and free exchange of ideas will be the surest way to democratize Cuba at this critical point in time. However, America must be wary to approach Cuba on its own terms: forcing Cuba to change or make concessions, as Trump would do, will only continue a legacy of bitterness and resentment. We may have forgotten about Cuba, but they have not forgotten about us. Human rights are the central issue here, for both sides. Will Cuba be willing to improve their standards? Will we be willing to improve ours by disavowing Guantanamo? Seems unlikely, but stranger things have happened. If rapprochement with Russia is possible then thawing with Cuba is not off the table.

Regardless of how you judge Castro, he was one of history’s giants. Fidel was a smart, capable man with a clear vision, the firm willpower to make it reality, and the charisma to bend a nation and captivate imaginations worldwide. He spread hope. He spread fear. With cigar in hand, he changed the world in his own way. Being the father of a nation is a messy business.

L’appel du Vide

L’appel du vide. “Call of the void.” The common man or woman might experience it as the urge to veer off the road or hop off a cliff. It’s a fleeting, transitive moment of sudden insanity. The sane mind summons the call with a spark of morbid curiosity and dismisses it just as easily.

Do world leaders ever suffer from this same lapse of reason? Does the leader of a superpower ever get a sudden inspiration to launch nukes and start World War III? Yes, I suppose so, but I don’t imagine they entertain the ideas for much longer. This isn’t to say that WWIII isn’t possible, or that nation-states don’t prepare for it-I am simply saying that WWIII is not a viable policy choice, especially because states prepare for it.

Increasingly though the media would have us believe that this is not the case. Various news channels argue that Vladimir Putin is preparing for war. Quite frankly, there are some scary signs. Putin has given unfaltering support to Assad in Syria where Russia and America are increasingly at loggerheads. Russia is apparently escalating the situation by moving a fleet into the Mediterranean, although the fact that Russia has halted its campaign for the time being may come as a relief. Still, there are other acts as well, such as the stationing of short range missiles in Kaliningrad, a sizable exclave just north of Poland. Putin is increasingly rattling the nuclear sabre.

But the idea that all of this could signal future aggression on the part of Russia is simply implausible for a rather important reason: namely that WWIII would likely be a suicidal venture. Unfortunately, people just don’t seem to pick up on this fact. There is a false perception in the media, the Pentagon, and beyond that there is such a thing as limited war. The idea is that it is possible for two superpowers to restrict themselves to using only a few nukes while relying primarily on conventional power.  Different agents use this falsehood to justify various ends: the media likes to drum up fear, the Pentagon wants to justify its budgets, the President wants to seem tough, and, most importantly, Russia wants to try and cultivate the perception that nukes are on the table as an option.

This strategy isn’t new; Nixon tried to convince North Vietnam that he was ready to nuke Hanoi as part of his “madman theory.” Why else would the U.S. have declared DEFCON 2 before the Gulf War if not to put the fear of the bomb into Saddam? In these circumstances this just might work. A nuclear power can afford to blackmail a non-nuclear power because the latter party has no recourse. The nuclear party could, conceivably, launch a one-sided nuclear war and win with no losses: the question simply becomes “how desperate does the nuclear power have to be to consider this option.” The intent of such a strategy is to have a chilling effect on the other side’s policy, but history has shown that this seldom works. N. Vietnam didn’t seem to care much at any rate.

And if a non-nuclear power wouldn’t care, then why would another nuclear power care? Threatening to use nukes against another nuclear power is the equivalent of contemplating suicide, only on a vastly larger scale. No matter how desperate either side might get, it is better to remain desperate and alive than risk annihilation.

Suffice it to say, the nuclear alarmism of the media is bogus. Even if relations are completely sour, even if Syria is being bombed into oblivion, even if Russia remains in control of Crimea, I don’t think that there is any possibility of a new World War breaking out. The risks are simply too great. Russia is just bluffing in the great international poker game, using its nukes as chips. Far from being an irrational, unpredictable foe, Russia is taking carefully calculated risks.

Recent statements by Gorbachev reveal that the real danger in these conditions is not that Russia is willing to use nukes but rather than Russia is willing to use nukes as a bargaining chip. Russia has de-prioritized nuclear disarmament, in the process undoing a great deal of Gorbachev’s legacy and the lengthy status quo of mutual disarmament embodied in the so-called New START initiative. By reviving and updating strategic nuclear forces, Russia is beginning a new trend that other great powers will surely follow. It seems that nuclear weapons will stay with us for a little longer now…

But why even bother? What are Russia’s ultimate aims. Russia of course wants to impress people at home and intimidate people abroad. Russia remains skilled at taking advantage of organized chaos and playing out events for its benefit as it seeks normalized relations with the West and stability for Assad.

But I think the main reason for so much recent activity is something far more sinister, and silly: Russia wants Trump to win. A Clinton victory on November 8th (which seems increasingly likely) would mean continued sanctions, neo-liberal policy, and marginalization for Russia. Trump, on the other hand, has stated that he would try to get along well with Putin and place a priority on cooperation against terrorism (something the Kremlin has been wanting for years now as a way to brush over that whole Crimea thing). There are allegations, probably well-founded, that Russia is involved in leaks and hacks aimed at smearing Hillary in order to keep her from the White House. Obviously this does not sit well with Washington and there is growing talk of a retaliatory cyberattack against Russia being readied.

Cyberwarfare is a totally new front. Since they don’t necessarily result in collateral damage or casualties, there is far less stigma in using a cyberattack. Who knows how this might end up: undoubtedly it will just be a series of tit-for-tat assaults with a gradual escalation. I don’t think that cyberwarfare will lead to any actual, physical conflict. Actually I think it is possible that cyberattacks may even be a healthy outlet for nation-states to release aggression. They may ultimately result in a decline in tensions once states reach the point where the costs of successive attacks outweigh any possible, ephemeral gains.

That being said, the fact that Russia is so brazenly attempting to influence the American election is deeply troubling. We may launch a cyberattack against Russia, but they can do far more damage to our elections than we can do to theirs since ours are (arguably) more free, fair, and open. I suppose we could reveal something aimed at casting a shadow on Putin or his cronies, but Putin tends to be skilled at acting through proxies and enjoys a teflon popularity among his people so pinning him down wouldn’t be feasible.

Fortunately the actual damage done by Russian hacks are negligible. Leaked information on Hillary have done some damage to her. I, at the very least, decided to support alternative candidates after a Russian leak revealed that the Democratic Party had effectively arranged for Bernie’s defeat. But ultimately good old fashion mudslinging does more damage. The leaks of audiotape revealing Trump’s creepy, womanizing tendencies by Hillary did far more damage to him than Russia could hope to do in a million years. Russian leaders like Putin and Zhirinovsky, and maybe even Russian citizens may prefer Trump to Hillary, but I think their attempts to manipulate public opinion here in America will most likely fall on deaf ears. Trump’s support base is built heavily on nativism, appealing more to voters caring about domestic issues than international policy. Many of his voters are people who thought that Obama was soft on Russia.

Sadly I agree more with Trump’s policy towards Russia than Hillary’s. Even if World War III is unlikely to the point of impossibility I would hardly advise backing Russia into a corner anymore. We’re in a position of strength, and we have been for some time. By directly confronting Russia with diplomacy we may be able to thaw relations. Unfortunately my relationship with Donald J. Trump ends here, and I have nothing else in common with his platform.

By my estimates Clinton will win. I predicted this back in 2015. This just means more of the same-a status quo. Same old sanctions, same mistrust, same Russian aggression. Things will stay as they are, boring and “normal,” and minds will start to wander. Seems like we are destined to experience l’appel du vide for some time longer.

Obituaries: Islam Karimov and the Levada Center

This week we need to commemorate two deaths…

R.I.P. Uzbekistan’s Dictator

Uzbek president Islam Karimov died on September 2nd, 2016. The cause of death was a prolonged downward spiral following a stroke that was veiled in state secrecy, a fate that seems to befall many autocratic leaders in the post-Soviet sphere. Speaking of which, like any great post-Soviet tyrant, he ruled his country from 1991 on-wards after winning plenty of “free and fair” elections. The word “dictator” is getting thrown around a lot in the media, which may be warranted since his regime brutally suppressed free expression, tortured political opponents, and had street protests crushed in stereotypical fashion. Sensationalist media has been reminding everyone that at least 1 or 2 people were boiled alive during his tenure, which is actually pretty horrendous I’ll admit. Mr. Karimov may be a relic of an earlier, by-gone era, but his state administration remains. There is talk of the state security apparatus or even one of his daughters taking the helm. Regardless, I suppose Uzbekistan will stay on its accustomed post-Soviet trajectory, although his death may create opportunities for states interested in Central Asia. Perhaps a post on the current superpower showdown in Central Asia is warranted at this point?

R.I.P. Independent Polling

For years I have been following the work of the Levada Center. Long considered to be the most accurate and valuable polling center for an aloof people, the Levada Center provided  series of excellent statistics ranging from Putin’s approval rating to thoughts on how well the Russian government is warding away terrorism. I have used their figures for numerous papers, and have recommended them previously in this blog, but they were just labeled as a “foreign agent.” Recall that Russia applies the “foreign agent” label to any NGOs accused of receiving support from the West. The actual Russian word for “foreign agent” carries very strong sentiment among the Russian people, and if their hatred was not enough then the mountain of paperwork foreign agents must file to stay in operation is enough to bury them. Yet again, the former is enough to put the Levada Center under. How can you poll a population that perceives you as a danger? Apparently this death knell was sounded after the Levada Center published polls showing that support for Putin’s United Russia party had declined. With elections coming up, and with the last ones being quite controversial, Putin will likely want to sure up his odds as well as he can. United Russia will do whatever to remain in-power, even if it means going beyond their usual election fraud.

Hopefully the Levada Center will find a way to cope with this death sentence, or perhaps all my gloom and doom is simply unwarranted…

You can check out the Levada Center’s body of work here.

Sochi 2014 and Russian Revival

 

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Ahhhhh…The Good Old Days

The Olympics is a rare example of international good will and cooperation, with countries setting aside their differences to compete on the track field rather than the battlefield. The Summer Olympics in Rio are now in session, accompanied with the standard endless cable broadcasts of the same dozen people swimming in the same rectangular pool. (Personally I prefer the Winter Olympics, largely due to my inexplicable appreciation for ice dancing.)

For all the ideals it represents however, the Olympics have been coming under fire recently, and the games in Rio are only the latest manifestation of this. Underneath a beautiful exotic location and a goal of cooperation is a gritty struggle between globalisation and nationalism. Hosting Olympic games causes an undue financial burden on the host country, something many Brazilians have used to justify protesting the games. The economic aspect is just the tip of the iceberg: other controversies surrounding the Rio games include security, sanitation, and the recent political coup in Brazil. Perhaps we could also mention the haze of Zika-laden mosquitos that threaten to turn Rio into a vector for a deadly virus.

But the Olympics keep on going nonetheless, and should we be surprised? At this point opposition to the Olympics seems token, especially after the extreme controversy surrounding the previous games held in the seaside Russian town of Sochi.

Politics Never Sleeps

It would be naive to believe that the Olympics are divorced from politics. A high-profile international event is going to always be political. Certain Olympics stand out more than others. The 1936 Olympics were used by Germany to try to showcase Nazi “progress.” Throughout the Cold War the games were used to highlight East vs. West.

Russia has had its fair share of infusing politics into the games, and at times it even seems as if they incorporate the games into their political strategy. On Christmas of 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, prompting the West and much of NATO to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics of the following year. Brezhnev was likely pleased when the Soviets swept the games. Later, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the Western games.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the e is not much to report over the next decade or so. The 2008 games in Beijing were put to great use in Russia to launch a quick invasion of Georgia that was swiftly condoned by the international community. Russia’s gambit was as successful as it was unexpected, as the world was too distracted by the Beijing games to furnish a reply to Russia.

After Beijing we had games in Vancouver and London. Then, somehow or other Russia got the green-light to host the 2014 Winter games in Sochi. As usual, this was known some years in advance, but as time went on the IOC’s choice of location came under increasing scrutiny. Why was this?

Putin Prime

After reigning from 1999-2008, Putin took a brief, 4-year, constitutionally required reprieve from the Presidency by handing it to his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. The 1993 Constitution stipulated that a President can only serve 2 terms consecutive terms. It says nothing about total terms, a loophole that Putin exploited in 2012 by re-ascending to the Presidency.

Having won a major constitution victory, and then having re-written the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2024, Putin had just entered his prime. The period from 99-08 was merely prologue. Now Putin had the country, and he could enact his will. Immediately the regime took conservative steps to further entrench its own survival. Civil society came under fire with new laws that harassed and oppressed NGOs and human rights groups. Censorship widened, with bloggers and journalists coming under fire, not to mention Pussy Riot. The state also renewed its ancient ties with the Orthodox Church. Perhaps the laws that got the most scrutiny from the West were those targeting homosexuals, which entrenched the deep Russian antipathy towards homosexuality in stark contrast to the tolerance preached by the West. Meanwhile, the price tag of the games came into question. At approximately $50 billion dollars, these were the most expensive Olympics in history. The price as obviously inflated thanks to the corruption of the Russian state, with contracts being rewarded to many of Putin’s supporters. Despite all this money, the guest rooms for athletes were laughably deficient, with barely functioning toilets. I guess we should also mention the Circassians, a Caucasian people who were displaced from Sochi by the Russian empire. They didn’t get much screen time in the West though.

There were calls to boycott or cancel the games, like those complaints now levied against the Rio games. Much like today, the IOC refused to step down and the games stayed on schedule. Controversy was reaching a fever pitch in 2013, and then Euromaidan happened. Ukraine broke out into civil war as the Russian backed President turned down membership in the European Union. The crisis was reaching a fever pitch by the time the games happened.

Sochi 2014: The neo-Brezhnevite Phoenix

Despite controversy, reproach, and the political collapse of a neighbor, the Sochi games started in February of 2014. While everyone remembered the Beijing opening, which championed the collective values of the state, fewer remember the punk-rock fiddling of Vancouver or the celebration of industrialization in the London games. It seems like even fewer people bothered to watch the Sochi opening, which was a real shame since it had a huge political message.

I have been dying to review the opening ceremony, but I have patiently waited until now to do it:

The games opened up following a young girl as she navigated the Russian alphabet, with various letters and highlights being showcased. Then she appeared in person, and floated among proto-Russian locales and villages, clearly an embracing of early Russian/Siberian life. After an excellent rendition of the Russian national anthem there was the parade of nations. I personally love the parade of nations, and the Russian house music in the background really set the mood. The German team walked out in rainbow outfits, challenging Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies. The Russian team walked out to “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U. For those of you who don’t know, T.A.T.U. is a female duo that used a high school lesbian aesthetic for their marketing. To my knowledge they also performed at the Olympics before the opening, and I find the contrast of anti-gay policy with lesbian fetishization to have an unsettled irony.

After the parade of nations we entered into the main body of the display. A troika brought out the sun, a tribute to Russian pagan beliefs and sun worship. It was followed by colourful onion domes and teapots, clearly representing the ushering in of Orthodox Christianity and the state created by Ivan the Terrible. The young girl from earlier was present in these games, and we were clearly envisioning the situation through her eyes: it had a fanciful and dreamy quality about it. Next we saw a stormy sea with a ship on it, followed by the regimentation of naval officers and the blueprints of Saint Petersburg, paying homage to the glory days of Peter the Great and his Westernization of the country.

Then suddenly elaborately dressed women scurry onto the stage to mingle with the officers, and we enter perhaps the most beautiful of the entire opening ceremony. An elaborate ball room scene with beautiful ballet work and classical music unfolded in front of us. It looked like something out of Tolstoy, and told a story much in the same manner. It followed the romance of a young officer and a beautiful dancer (perhaps this was the young girl from earlier grown up, representing a maturation of Russia?).

A dashing young man who looked a little like Peter the Great (though not as freakishly huge) then took center stage and started dancing in a lovely blue suit. Then suddenly the stage starts to vanish, the lights dim, and a gentle snow begins falling. The nobles seem to be cold and agonized, crowding and moshing and growing frantic as the lighting and music became frenzied. All the nobles die as the stars of the ballet begin to make out, and then the nobles come back, making clock like motions with their arms and sharing one last embrace before being swept aside. At first I thought this would usher in a Napoleonic scene.

I knew after I heard the train noise and saw the red lights though that I was wrong. I had just seen the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Now was the Bolshevik era. Lovely pillars gave way to industrial and farming imagery. Filigree turned into the brash, bold geometry of Malevich. Ornate outfits turned into utilitarian red and black bodysuits as coordinated ballet was abandoned for a robotic, mechanical dance. This was collectivization, Stalinism, and the Five-Year Plan. Georgy Sviridov’s Time Forward! set a hurried, mad tone as the stage below descending into organized chaos. While I was impressed that they were covering the taboo Stalin period, I could tell that there was no love or affection. The people looked pained and indifferent, and some gears even had people inside them, more or less crucified as they were being rolled around.

As quickly as this all appeared, it vanished. Only a small nucleus of workers remained as the lights dimmed and spotlights began to spread throughout the stadium. Suddenly the music stopped and the sounds of war began. The stage turned black and there was a moment of silence, an appropriate nod to the Great Patriotic War.

I am probably getting way off topic though. Really the only part of the open ceremony that means much is the immediate aftermath of the war tribute. The stage came alive again with blueprints and workers. Industrial sounds gave way to Soviet rock-and-roll as the streets below began to bustle with activity. This was the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev period. Young pioneers, workers, pilots, cosmonauts, athletes, even hipsters took the stage to celebrate the great achievements of this period. The seven sisters, Stalinist skyscrapers, unfurled as the famous statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, made its was across the roof. This wasn’t just an homage to the Soviet era, it was nostalgic. Everyone was happy and busy with their lives. Some slight unrest was featured briefly when the traffic cops pushed the hipsters away, but overall the tone and music were carefree. Then the lovers came on stage, proceeding to get married and have children in a clear state endorsement of reproduction (remember, Russia has population issues).

While some may write this portion off as ridiculous (and it was), I think it speaks a great deal of modern Russia character. There is a fundamental longing for the old days of Brezhnev and the prestige of the Soviet empire. Out of every leader, Brezhnev is generally regarded as the most loved since under his reign the Soviet Union reached its apex in terms of power and economy (most forget that Brezhnev’s policies led to later failures). Nostalgia was best represented at the end of the opening show, when the young girl from earlier let go a red balloon, symbolizing the loss of Russian character that occurred in 1991. There was no other historical or significant cultural display after this: this was the political culture portion of the show.

What followed was Olympic formalities, torches, and so on.

I feel like there really hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion regarding the opening ceremony and what it represents, but I think I have a way to tie it all into something meaningful, so standby.

The Putin Doctrine

The Olympics happened. Russia won big. Sochi was competing with Ukraine in the headlines as the conflict waxed. Amidst all the controversy, the games seem to have gone off despite plenty of criticism.

Meanwhile I was on facebook, arguing what these Olympics meant and what would happen with Ukraine. At some point I apparently predicted that Russia would take action after the Olympics, but I had no clue how quickly it would happen. Soon after the Olympics, virtually overnight, Russia annexed Crimea and took it over, validating the annexation with a local referendum and with the claim that they were protecting good Russians. The fighting in Ukraine reached new heights as Russia began to arm Russian speaking separatists. Suddenly all of the criticism and distrust of the Sochi games seemed warranted: Russia was still Russia after all.

After Beijing people were worried about China, although fears have slightly waned since their economy has slowed. After Vancouver nobody talked about Canada, and after London nobody cared about Britain. Sochi was different. After Sochi, Russian foreign policy became front and center. Of course this is due more to the Russian involvement in Ukraine rather than the Olympics themselves, but I hardly think it is a coincidence that the two happened so soon together.

When the red balloon floated away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was badly hurt. The economy was virtually destroyed. Russia’s prestige and power had evaporated. Russia was weak, lacking in promise and barely able to eke out an existence in a world where the United States reigned as the hegemon.

Putin had been working feverishly to get Russia back ever since 1999. He had to rebuild the economy, which he did by nationalising major industries. He had to settle the Chechen conflict and protect his country from terrorism and secession. Putin had to do his best to check the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s neighborhood so as to ensure that Russia still had a say in Eurasia. We could also mention the colour revolutions, which had Putin fretting over the potential for revolutions. From 1999-2008, his job was to rebuild the country. Medvedev continued this goal from 2008-2012 in Putin’s stead.

Then Putin came back, and Russia came back too. Russia was economically stable, and Putin had proven that he could take liberties with the Constitution. Putin used the next two years to consolidate his hold on Russia and slowly began to exert influence on Russia’s neighbors (hence, Euromaidan in Ukraine).

For all intents and purposes, Russia was back. It had risen from the ashes of catastrophe like a phoenix, poised to once again resume great power status. What better way to showcase this than by hosting the most extravagant Olympics in history? Russian power and prestige were on display. By appealing to the great times in Russian history, Russia was reaffirming its historical role as a superpower. Russia’s display in the games were decidedly Russian, showing her unique Eurasian character and culture, especially the language. Finally, by highlighting the Brezhnev era in the final act of the historical presentation, Russia was appealing to its moment of greatest strength. This is what Russia had been in it’s not so distant history, and this is what Russia could be again. Surely there are some differences from the Brezhnev era and some progress, but overall I would say that Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s. At the very least however we must admit that Putin is smarter: he is far more pragmatic, active, and engaged. Brezhnev was not nearly so hands on, nor so competent.

Putin’s foreign policy, which emerged immediately after the Olympics with the annexation of Crimea, is also much better than Brezhnev’s. Brezhnev’s policy was summed up by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in response to the 1968 Prague Spring, the Doctrine gave the Soviets the right to intervene in fraternal socialist countries where socialism was threatened. This gave the Soviet Union dominion over its members and satellites. Putin’s foreign policy arrangement is more precise and opportunistic. His “Putin Doctrine” seems to deal with the protection of Russian nationals and Russian speakers in other countries. It provides the logic for protecting Russia while leaving enough room for Russia to intervene in unruly neighbors like Ukraine.

While he likely didn’t have it planned out very far in advance, once the opportunity presented itself Putin could not help but jump into Crimea soon after the Olympics. Say what you will about Putin, but he knows how to make a presentation. His Olympics succeeded in the face of criticism from the West, and Russian boots remain in Crimea, which holds its breath as Ukraine and Russia warily eye one another. Within only a few weeks in February, Russia had completely re-emerged. Far from being second page news, Putin ensured that Russia would set the tempo in international affairs.

I think most people label Crimea as the turning point, but I think the Olympics in Sochi were a necessary prologue. Sochi set the tone of Russian revivalism. It captured the publics attention, acting as a smoke screen as Ukraine fell into chaos and as Russia prepared for entry into the conflict. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Sochi and Crimea highlight just how powerful Russia has become. Russia is capable of hosting an international event in goods spirits, and then can immediately switch gears to assert its foreign policy on its neighbors almost effortlessly. The rest of the world was still in a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, and suddenly this! Suddenly Russia is alive, dynamic, threatening, and dedicated to its goals again. Here is a state worthy of Peter the Great or Brezhnev’s legacy. Here, suddenly, is a great power.

Sochi 2014 will live in infamy. It was held in an increasingly totalitarian regime where freedoms and civil liberties are undermined. It was a globalised event held in a wild, independent, sovereign state. Unwittingly, the IOC allowed itself to be used to advertise and promote Putin’s Russia. In the end they both got what they wanted. The IOC got successful games. Russia got international recognition. Perhaps this is why people hate the IOC: they are willing to get into bed with anyone who offers one, no matter the costs. In Russia, there were only political costs for the West.

Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, ultimately the Rio games may be more disruptive to the international order than Sochi. Sochi merely made a long-standing fact of history, that is, Russian greatness, an indisputable reality. Rio, on the other hand, stands poised to undermine globalisation, and the threat posed by Zika’s spread could very well be unprecedented.

Whatever you do, don’t write the Olympics off as irrelevant or merely ideological. The Olympics in many ways capture the pulse of the world at any given moment, and they prophesy great change.

 

Brexit and Turkey

Russia finds itself in a bold new opportunity-filled Europe after an eventful week for Europe. The Brexit vote on June 23rd and the fateful attack on Istanbul on June 28th both have important political ramifications for Russia, and they will certainly change the calculus in Europe and the Middle East.

Brexit: Russia 1, Europe 0

I honestly did not think that British voters would opt to leave the European Union, but it seems as if the anti-globalisation sentiment is more serious than Trump’s campaign would indicate. By a slim margin voters chose to have Britain leave the E.U. While the details of the divorce will take a brief while to sort out the message was absolutely clear. Britain is out! The economic fallout from the Brexit seems to have resolved itself but the situation is anything but stable. Britain’s departure is a sign of the times: nativism is on the rise. What other countries might leave or attempt to leave next?

This is a significant blow to the credibility of the E.U., and it can also be construed as a defeat for the United States. The U.S. openly enjoys a “Special Relationship” with its former colonial overlord. British and American foreign policy generally complement one another, enabling the U.S. to indirectly impact E.U. policy. Without the British connection, the U.S. will be able to exert less influence on Europe. Britain and America are still tied to much of Europe through NATO however, so it would be foolish to think of the U.S. as out of the picture.

Regardless of what alliances remain, a major anti-Russian voice has left the E.U. Some major nations in the E.U., such as France, have been somewhat sympathetic to Russia, and it is possible that detente may take place. The European Union is still resentful of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, and they even reaffirmed the sanctions against Russia about a week after the Brexit vote, but the future is filled with possibilities! With economic strains between Britain and the E.U. emerging, some European countries may find it easier to turn to Russia. Personally I do not believe that sanctions will survive much longer. Russia and its territorial claims to Crimea would greatly benefit from a normalization in relations.

It is too early to say whether or not the E.U. will disintegrate. I think that the E.U. can function fine without Britain. But Russia can certainly apply increased diplomatic pressure to the most vulnerable nations to encourage them to depart. Successful efforts at splintering the E.U. would possibly have ramifications for NATO’s cohesion as well, and breaking apart the Western monolith would be a huge boon to Russian power.

Turkey: The Enemy of my Enemy…

Months ago Turkey shot down a Russian plane in Syria that had violated Turkish airspace. This week Turkish PM Erdogan apologized to Russia over these events. Diplomatic relations have resumed, and there is talk of Russian-Turkish cooperation.

Unfortunately the bridge of renewed relations was built out of tragedy. A devastating attack on the Ataturk airport in Istanbul has strengthened Turkey’s resolve to combat terrorism. It doesn’t matter who might have perpetuated the attack: terrorism must go. International incidents and politics must be set aside in the name of survival. Russian foreign minister Lavrov has used this argument before in numerous instances, and now Russia is making good on its promise by setting aside any bad blood over losing a plane and engaging with Turkey. While Brexit only leaves room for Russia to act, the events in Turkey have led to a direct renewal of Russian involvement in the region.

Could the terrorist attack have been prevented? This is always a major concern after an attack. Seeing that the terrorists in question are from Russia (various news reports label them as either Chechen or Dagestani), I think the case could be made that had Russian-Turkish relations never been severed it is possible that the attack might have been stopped. There are no guarantees of course, but information sharing is often the most effective counter-terror tool. Cooperation between Turkey and Russia would have enabled greater information sharing, thereby enhancing the security of Russia, Turkey, and beyond.

A lack of information sharing is not just a Russia-Turkey problem, it is also very much a Russia-NATO problem. The operations of the NATO-Russia Council were unilaterally suspended by the latter party in protest of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The NRC aimed to enhance cohesion and information sharing for the goal of combating terrorism and crime. The NRC’s suspension shows that the West prioritizes politics over security. There is more talk of cooperation between Russia and America in the fight against terror, but talk is cheap. Hopefully though the major players will understand this and firmly commit to cooperate. In the interim, I welcome any cooperation between Russia and the individual members of NATO.


 

Recent Russian international affairs have been mercurial and capricious, with constant reversals and changes. This past week has shown that Russia’s approach to Europe and the Middle East will still be wrought with upheaval. Luckily for Russia, Putin is a pragmatist extraordinaire. When fate offers its hand, Russia takes it. It is important to remember that these events are not independent of one another. Together, they may compound to greatly enhance Russia’s fortunes. Russian-Turkish detente grants Russia some leverage against NATO, while Brexit may just leave the E.U. hamstrung. As usual, Russia is far from being cornered.

Russo-Japanese Relations

I’m going to keep this brief. Russo-Japanese relations are bad. They have been bad for most of the modern era. Russia has long had a foreign, looming presence in East Asia, and Japan was its oldest rival for power in the region.

By the midpoint of the 1800s China became a hot-spot for great power politics. The imperial powers of Europe were eager to batter down the walls to the world’s most lucrative market. Russia, which was consolidating its hold in Siberia at this point in manifest-destiny fashion, had the odd advantage of being adjacent to China and, as such, concentrated on the northeast region known as Manchuria. Japan, which was sewing the seeds of inevitable conquest in Korea, also used Manchuria as its point of entry into China.

Additionally we should briefly mention Sakhalin, a large isle due north of Japan, and the Kuriles, which connect Japan to the Kamchatka peninsula. These islands aren’t particularly valuable but they have changed hands (or have been split) several times throughout history. Currently Russia maintains control over them, which is a massive strain on relations. The Sakhalin and Kurile issue just highlights one of the recurring ironies of Russian history: the country with the most land doesn’t want to give up any.

Relations in the late 1800s were tense, shifting, and unclear. Multipolarity in East Asia required a careful balance-of-power, and yesterday’s friends could easily become tomorrow’s enemies. It was all good sport for the great powers, just so long as China remained subdued and nobody gained the upper hand.

Balance-of-power politics are unstable at best, and it was only inevitable that Japan and Russia would come to blows in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Japan invaded the Russian outpost of Port Arthur and a bitter struggle began. Poor discipline, ailing bureaucracy, and an apathetic Tsar would ultimately contribute to Russian defeats, but the simple undeniable fact was that Japan was truly coming into its own as a great power. Nobody expected an upstart Asian country to defeat one of Europe’s mightiest and oldest powers, but sure enough Japan won. The ultimately humiliation came in the Tsushima Straights, where a Russian force sailed around Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia only to be destroyed by a far superior Japanese Navy. The Navy was the pride of Tsarist Russia, built from nothing by Peter the Great, and its defeat was a crushing blow. Eventually Russia and Japan agreed to a peace brokered by Theodore Roosevelt, with Japan gaining territory in Manchuria and Sakhalin.

Japan fought alongside Britain, France, and Russia in World War I, mostly to grab weak German colonies in China, although this did little to ameliorate Russo-Japanese relations. The abdication of the Tsar and subsequent Revolution only further complicated matters: an opportunistic Japan joined an international coalition in trying to stabilize Russia. The coalition was inconsequential in the unfolding of the Russian Civil War, although it succeeded in deepening Russian mistrust of the outside world and also gave  Japan time to consolidate its holdings in Northeast Asia.

Renouncing imperialism and focusing on intensive inward development, the USSR withdrew from the great power game in China. The devastation of World War I sufficiently weakened other European powers,  leaving Japan as the only major contender in the region. With growing imperial designs and increasing militarism, Japan eventually came to dominate East Asia, conquering parts of China in the 1930s and expanding into Southeast Asia as World War II unfolded.

The Soviets and Japanese did fight a brief war in East Asia in the late 1930s. It was here that Marshal Zhukov earned his mettle. Clearly, hostilities were still alive. However, despite a sour history the USSR and Japan managed to sign a non-aggression pact that held until the very end of WWII. The rationale was simple enough: the Soviets wanted to focus exclusively on Germany while the Japanese wanted to sure up their footing on the mainland while shifting focus to an increasingly tempestuous Pacific. Despite a legacy of hatred and mistrust, and in spite of the fact that the United Nations and Axis were locked in total war, peace held for years.

Once the Allied victory became apparent, Stalin began to plan on breaking the peace. He announced his intentions at the Big Three Conferences, which sought to force a plan for the postwar world. Yalta produced the most substantive framework. The Soviets were to declare war on Japan several months after victory in Europe was secured. For their entry the Soviets were to be rewarded with Sakhalin, the Kuriles, and holdings in Manchuria, among them the warm water Port Arthur. The language explicitly mentions reversing Japanese gains from the Russo-Japanese War: clearly some historical tensions survived the 1917 Revolution. China was conspicuously absent from the Yalta Conference, and they certainly would have objected to the rewarding of land to the Soviets. Keep in mind that such concessions were deemed necessary by Churchill and Roosevelt who both didn’t see the war in Asia coming to a quick ending. This was before the atomic bomb was completed…

In July 1945 the Big Three met in Potsdam. Stalin found himself on uncomfortable terms with the new members of the group. Elections replaced Churchill with Attlee, and the death of Roosevelt saw the arrival of Truman. Stalin must have been disappointed to see the promises of Yalta evaporate. Confident in the power of the bomb and resentful to see the Soviets profit in a theatre where they shed little blood, Soviet involvement in the Asian peace was essentially written out of the Potsdam Declaration. The Americans proceeded to bring the war in Asia to a conclusion by dropping atomic weapons, but Stalin still managed to force his hand. The Soviets broke their peace with Japan in the days between the atomic bombings, and Operation August Storm steamrolled the tired and ill-supplied Japanese garrison in Manchuria. The Soviets pushed deep, managing to reach the 38th parallel that divides modern-day North and South Korea (the division results directly from this Soviet involvement). The USSR also established control over Sakhalin Island. It is feasible to assume that the Soviets may have conducted an invasion of Japan if the war continued, a fear which surely factored into Japan’s decision to surrender.

The USSR used its hold in Manchuria (they retained control of Port Arthur) to give the Chinese Communists the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War, and the subsequent Korean War made East Asia overwhelming Communist. As containment became the modus operandi of US Cold War policy, Japan became a bastion for containing the Soviet-Chinese menace on the mainland, which likely did little to reverse the mutual resentment between the Soviets and Japanese. The Sino-Soviet schism under Khrushchev would once again return East Asia to uncertain multi-polarity. The Soviets and Japanese might have had a mutual interest in containing China, but with the United States-Chinese detente such an alliance never took off.

As abruptly as our story begins, it ends. Russian-Japanese relations remain very cold and haven’t really changed much since the end of the Cold War. Sakhalin and the Kuriles remain a bone of contention, and a compromise remains elusive. Japan remains a steadfast ally of the United States, and Russia’s on-and-off backing of North Korea does nothing to heal relations with Japan. With a potentially rising China and a nuclear North Korea it may be essential for rapprochement to occur if Russia and Japan wish to remain secure in East Asia, and politics may breed strange bedfellows. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Putin recently and the two seem to have struck a conciliatory mood. A Russo-Japanese renewal may occur in the near future, but it remains impossible as long as historical misgivings remain. The disputed status of Sakhalin and the Kuriles has come to embody this long-standing conflict, and I think these islands will be the key factor in any negotiations. If their status remains conflicted any chance of cooperation is likely to be impossible. But if Russia were to cede territory, or if Japan were to let go of claims, then negotiations could be fruitful. Given that these islands were bought with blood, I find any sort of compromise highly unlikely. Japan and Russia will most likely continue to tolerate a frozen peace.