The Trump Thaw

I never really went to bed on Tuesday. I stayed up until 1:30AM watching. Despite all polls, despite a confident Democratic party, despite all of our fears, hopes, and expectations, the stars aligned and the seemingly impossible happen. Well in retrospect it isn’t so unbelievable, but it is still shocking nonetheless. We could go into why Clinton lost for hours. We could spend days trying to figure out what this election means for women, African-Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and so on. Quite frankly, nobody here or abroad knows what is going on. Trump ran a campaign heavy on criticism and light on policy. His real viewpoints and ideologies remain to metastasize. Personally I don’t even think Trump knows what he is doing yet. The election surprised him most of all.

But Russia knows exactly what this all means. Putin was quick to extend congratulations and cooperation. Russia’s ultra-nationalist fringe candidate, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, held a party at the Duma to celebrate. Even Gorbachev was happy at the prospect of a Trump presidency. And why wouldn’t they be? After years of sanctions and Western opposition Russia finally has a reprieve: one of Trump’s few stated, plausible policies is relaxation with Russia.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, U.S.-Russian relations have more or less collapsed. Disarmament initiatives, cooperation against terror, and the NATO-Russia council fell apart. Crippling sanctions were placed against Russia by the West, and these have had a substantial impact on the Russian economy. Russia has responded in kind with continued support of Ukrainian separatists, military involvement in Syria, cyber intrigue, and pressure on NATO states. Tensions between Washington and Moscow have risen to the point where media outlets have been falsely advertising World War III and discussing nuclear preparedness. Many were paranoid about Russian conquest of Ukraine or the Baltic States, two completely unfounded fears.

At the start of this election both the GOP and Democrats were anti-Russian. Hillary wanted to continue Obama’s policies and perhaps create a no-fly zone. Meanwhile the Republicans were calling for greater preparation and increased military presence in Eastern Europe. I remember quite clearly when Ben Carson suggested that he would consider all viable options to stop Russia, including nuclear weapons. This bluster resonated well with  conservative voters who had long criticized Obama’s policy as too soft on Russia, and yet they ultimately chose the softest candidate on Russia, Donald J. Trump. It turns out that Trump’s economic and nativist message mattered more to people than foreign policy.

But now we are faced with an interesting question: can Trump manage to revive relations with Russia? Undoubtedly he wants to, and Putin would certainly be willing to oblige him. But can he actually do this? How far can he go? Here is where everything gets fuzzy. Trump is building his cabinet with many people who were tough on Russia, and the Senate and House are both controlled by the Republican Party who, just a brief while ago, were calling for a harder reaction against Russia. Trump and the Party differ over a number of issues, and this is one of them.

Of course, foreign relations are increasingly the domain of the imperial presidency. Trump has plenty of room to visit with Putin, work out deals, and his word carries a tremendous deal of symbolic weight. Trump is willing to end sanctions and acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea, and he has unlimited opportunities to work towards this effect. I think that the GOP, for all their jingoism towards Russia, will be happy to let Trump heal relations with Russia. It would mean a symbolic break with past policy; why would Republicans pass up a chance to try to bury Obama’s legacy? Russia may become a bargaining chip for other disagreements between Trump and “his” Party, but I think Trump will be able to deliver on his only tangible and realistic policy goal.

Let’s call it: the Trump Thaw. You heard it here first folks. I searched, it seems like people use the words “Trump” and “Thaw” and “Russia” in a sentence but not as I have. Some people say “Trump Thaw” as a phrase to discuss GOP acceptance of Trump. Well that is ok, I have another name picked out if Trump Thaw doesn’t stick. Maybe we could try: Trumptente! Kremelania? Should we give them a power couple name? Is Vladonald catchy enough? Maybe we should move on…

How will the healing process take place? Here is where things get interesting. Trump and Putin are similar in  some ways. I believe they are both masters of symbolic action: read their body language, look at how Putin arrays his foreign policy and reigns over opposition, look at how Trump managed to win an election. Far from Trump being a madman who says anything and everything, I think he has very carefully cultivated and acted out this part. Putin and Trump are also used to negotiating with businessmen: Trump makes deals and Putin took out the oligarchs. So how will these wily cats approach each other? I can imagine Trump going to Putin, although it would be a very powerful statement if Putin set foot on American soil. Regardless, the Thaw will occur, and a meeting will make a profound impact.

Of course, Russia isn’t just happy about immediate direct benefits of a Trump presidency. The Kremlin is also going to benefit from the ripple effect Trump will have on Ukraine, NATO, and the EU.

Regarding Ukraine, this is a massive defeat for them. Ukraine lost its strongest backer when Trump won the election. It was a little sad to see Poroshenko acknowledge the Trump victory by saying that he hopes for cooperation. I do not see this happening. Ukraine may be at the mercy of Russia, again.

NATO, long-standing opponent of Russia in Europe, it also placed at risk by Trump’s election. Trump called for an end to NATO bandwagoning. He was unwilling to enforce Article V (collective defense) unless allies paid their fair share. For some allies this wouldn’t matter, but a significant amount of NATO members do not contribute their due amounts to the alliance, especially since NATO was used by Bush in an attempt to legitimize US entry into Iraq and Afghanistan. The question of what to do with NATO is trickier to call. Trump may be able to repair US-Russian relations, but convincing the GOP to abandon a longstanding and important alliance would be far more difficult, especially with the GOP in control of the Senate (our treaty affirming arm) and the House (our budgetary arm). I believe that NATO will remain well-funded by the United States, and we may even see the reconvening and strengthening of the NATO-Russia Counsel and renewed attempts to push NATO “out of area” in the fight against terrorism. NATO members are still paranoid though. Estonia’s pro-Western coalition collapsed following the U.S. election: they had a wide list of issues beforehand but Trump’s victory may have been the death knell. Ironically Estonia was one of the most fervant supporters of NATO and they have paid for their membership in human life and monetary contributions.

How can the US election possibly affect the European Union? Well, setting aside the fact that NATO and the EU are interrelated, the election still has a great deal of salience. Viewed in a broader context, the Trump surprise is the second big step in a Western realignment towards nationalism and populism. Remember months ago when we all thought that Brexit was going to fall flat? We all know how that went, and all the questions that raised for the EU. Now with Trump’s victory these movements are gaining more and more legitimacy. France seems next on the chopping block. Hollande’s regime has self-immolated. The next prospective election of France seems to be a toss-up between former President Sarkozy, a candidate mired in intrigue and corruption, and the face of the ultra-right, Marine Le Pen. Does this seem at all familiar to our election? Well, one detail is off: this time the female candidate is the nationalist. France has never had a female leader, so who knows what might happen. Marine Le Pen’s campaign though is energized by the Trump win-the wind is at her back. If France goes the nativist route it could shock the EU. Russia would like this.

It isn’t hard to see why Putin, Zhirinovsky, and Gorbachev celebrated: Trump’s election is tantamount to a Russian foreign policy coup.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Trump does and says. Likewise, his apparent nativism and anti-intellectualism is a big turn off. But I have to say that he does understand Russia better than any other candidate. He was the only person saying that Russia does not have designs against Ukraine (beyond the unspoken reality that Ukraine is and will remain in Russia’s sphere), and I can finally see my dream of renewed Russian-U.S. relations aimed at bolstering international security achieved. I can also say with absolute certainty that Putin will remain in power now at least until 2024. Putin likely had his upcoming 2018 election secure, but with the lifting of sanctions, peace with the West, and tangible, legitimized victory in Ukraine he will be riding high as usual (barring any extraordinary circumstances). The more things change…


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.

Sochi 2014 and Russian Revival



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.

Mission Accomplished?

Once again Putin surprises me, this time putting my predictions of gloom and doom in Syria to rest. No, history did not repeat itself. Yes, Putin seems to have learned something from the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. A massive pullout of Russian forces (namely air power) is underway.

Is Putin just giving up on Assad? I doubt it. Putin is most likely confident in the position he has left for Assad following a potent Russian air campaign and a weary truce. The ongoing talks have been colourful, with the USA backed Kurds recently announcing the formation of an autonomous federal region in northern Syria. Ironically, the USA has not recognized this while Russia, the longtime ally of Assad, has said they are open to such a development.

So what exactly is going on? Is Assad’s regime stable? How will this impact the war on ISIL and the refugee crisis? Will the truce last?

Putin, the eternal pragmatist, most likely wouldn’t pull out unless he felt confident in Assad’s survival. Syria is Russia’s main foothold in the Middle East, providing a much needed naval base, and Putin would not gamble so lightly with such a valuable asset. Russia’s air superiority has given Assad the trump card in the war he needed. Recall that the primary target of Russia’s air strikes was not ISIL but rather Syrian rebels. Americans were disappointed and surprised to see Russia target “freedom fighters,” but but this shouldn’t have really come as a surprise. Terrorism remains a subjective term, and for Russia, which witnessed an ongoing brutal war in Chechnya, rebellion and terrorism are synonymous.

On the subject of Chechnya, I was surprised to hear that the Kremlin backed Ramzan Kadyrov has announced that he will step down. We will see if this holds true…

Anyhow yes I believe that Assad is safe. Putin has taken a special interest in protecting Assad, and Russia has achieved overwhelming successes. Putin’s spontaneity and brilliant maneuvering are to thank here. When the question of whether or not to bomb Syria was on Obama’s mind, Putin swept in and convinced Assad to surrender chemical weapons, thus nullifying any US justifications for intervention. When Assad’s regime was crumbling in civil war, Russia deployed potent air strikes. Russia’s Middle East policy has revealed that the bear has not only awoken from hibernation but is now smarter and stronger than ever. The Obama administration’s foreign policy has gone from trying to destroy Assad’s regime in 2011 to negotiating a truce with Russia and Syria in 2016: quite a turnaround! While I generally approve of Obama’s foreign policy overall, I agree with conservatives that Russia has thoroughly stumped us. Yet again, what can America do? Russia has had and will have a vested military presence in the region. Attempts to criticize the Russian intervention are met with cries of American hypocrisy for having intervened against Iraq. Just like Russia’s foreign policy coup in Ukraine, there is little that America can do here.

But is Syria really that valuable to Putin enough to justify military operations in a time of financial strain? Evidently it was! Putin obviously places a high value on the Russian naval base in Syria (Russia also had a naval base in Crimea with a lease that expired in 2017, so the oft-cited Russian desire for warm-water ports may be a truism after all!). Additionally I believe that both Crimea/Ukraine and Syria provided ample opportunity for Russia to show off its renewed drive to become one of the world’s dominant powers. Russia provides a potent counterpoint to Western/US foreign policy, and by placing safe bets Putin has been able to stymie the West. The fact that Putin’s withdraw surprised people is an indication that Russia, not the USA, holds the initiative. Of course, I think Russia’s ability to press its advantage is short-ranged: Russia can only really project force within its traditional sphere of influence, which means that Crimea and Syria are victories for Russia rather than defeats for the West. Gone are the late 80s and 90s where Russia often acquiesced to territory loss.

Regardless, Putin has performed several foreign policy coups and, at the very least, has several visible triumphs on his belt.

The stabilization of Syria under the Assad regime will likely have little impact on the war against ISIL which continues to be primarily led by US backed regional militias. Syria may have achieved greater territorial integrity but will likely not be able to lend much aid in the fight against ISIL. Russia’s withdraw of military hardware tells me they have no interest in entering combat with ISIL. Russia’s military actions may have created more sympathy for the Syrian rebels, and more suffering that could allow for radicalisation, but while a will may exist the means to mount any further serious defense against Syrian government dominance have been broken.

As for the refugee crisis, the damage is already done. As Assad regains a devastated Syria will likely continue to hemorrhage. The deal between the EU and Turkey may alleviate the crisis (for the West at least), but at a significant cost of EU unity (Turkey remains controversial among EU members for the anti-democratic nature of the Erdogan regime, and dealing with such a regime weakens the values that hold the EU together).

Will the truce hold? Since Putin smashed my expectations of the intervention I am not willing to make more predictions. Kurds, who were excluded from peace talks, are attempting to create a federal structure which, surprisingly, Russia is backing despite having intervened to preserve the Syrian governments sovereignty. Perhaps Russia is trying to force Assad to compromise? Maybe Russia is simply trying to further stabilise Syria at any costs.

Yet again, perhaps Russia has already achieved its goal. US Secretary of State Kerry is back at the negotiating table with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and this time they are not discussing Russia. The most important thing about the truce is that the US and Russia are talking about and working together towards common international goals. After a brief stint as rogue nation #1, Putin may have managed to force the US into normalizing relations. Having thoroughly dominated Syria, Putin is now sacrificing some influence in the negotiations for the prize of forcing the USA to the negotiating table as an equal. It would be pointless to theorize that this may have been Putin’s original goal; all that matters is that Putin is once again making the best out of the situation.


Holier-Than-Thou: Race, Interventionism, and Russia’s Blame Game

While doing some research into fallacies (on Wikipedia, what else) I came across this…er…quaint Russian phrase…

А у вас негров линчуют

And you are lynching negroes


The term whataboutism (brought into lexicon by Edward Lucas) outlines the Soviet/Russian approach to criticism. When accused of some wrongdoing Russian politicians and propagandists would often try to shift blame on their critics.

While Wikipedia claims the origins of the above quoted phrase lies in political jokes, it serves as a perfect example of whataboutism. When accused of abusing human rights the Soviets would often fire back by targeting America’s Achilles heel: race. The mistreatment of blacks, not to mention women and the poor, in America was a favourite target for Soviet propagandists. This was an excellent strategy for the Soviets, as bringing attention to Jim Crow would certainly have helped to legitimise the early Soviet regime. This tendency only became more pronounced, and more potent, when the Soviets entered into direct competition with the United States in the Cold War, where winning over multi-ethnic third world nations was critical. This tactic gradually lost potency as apartheid in the U.S. was addressed with the Civil Rights movement, and as Soviet abuses became more egregiously mundane. However this tendency to shift blame was not just a passing fad, but rather a tactic that Russia uses, and uses well, in the present day.

We’re not talking about hard power, that is, economic and military muscle, but rather about soft power. The Cold War was not just an icy standoff of nuclear tipped ICBMs, but a living, breathing, warm brawl aimed at winning as many hearts and minds as possible. Hard power may have started the Cold War, but soft power flavoured it and, ultimately, ended it. That is the first lesson here. The second is that domestic politics have a significant effect on international affairs. Domestic policies can completely undermine soft power or grant it tremendous legitimacy.

As we’ve mentioned before, whataboutism was used to legitimize Soviet rule and, later, to compete for international interest. To a great extent this made for an excellent political weapon during the Cold War. It was the West, not Russia, which had engaged in oppressive imperialism well into the middle of the 20th century, and this enabled the Soviet Union to justify its international efforts to promote Communism. Exactly how effective whataboutism was is hard to say, but I suppose that it varied place to place. The Vietnamese, under immediate threat from the French and, later, Americans, (and indirectly from the Chinese) would have been natural allies to the Soviets regardless of rhetoric. Whataboutism was likely more potent in Africa, where Russia could clearly point to the oppression of African Americans in the United States in order to peddle influence (ironically prejudice against Africans exists in Russia just as it does in America).

Even if we limit our view to Africa though the efficacy of whataboutism is questionable. The United States after all still managed to create bastions of influence in Latin America and Africa (sometimes by backing violent coups or dictatorial leaders, which the Soviets would love to point out).I see whataboutism less as a vehicle for foreign policy as more as a useful defense mechanism. It freed the Soviets from the need to justify their own abuses and it put pressure on the West. While the West was eager to condemn Communism as backwards, the Soviets were at least able to level the playing ground by creating doubts about Capitalism. They would have been able to appeal to historically oppressed nationalities and minorities. Overall it seems like whataboutism meshed well with the overall Soviet logic of waging a Cold War by subverting and undermining faith in the West

Taking the Bait: the Helsinke Accords and the Decline of Whataboutism

Jimmy Carter may just be one of our most influential presidents, as Schmitz would agree. He was the first to place great importance on human rights, and he dramatically altered his foreign policy to show this. Ironically though, Carter was fine with expanding detente with the U.S.S.R. despite their human rights violations, something which Reagan and other conservatives were eager to point out. But in retrospect what was Carter supposed to do? The Soviets had agreed to observe human rights before he even came into office.


Yes, in 1975 the Soviets signed an international agreement where they guaranteed human rights within their borders. This agreement, the Helsinke Final Act, may have just been more significant than the arms limitations treaties that Nixon, Carter, and Reagan signed. If we view soft power as key, the unlikely President Ford may have won the Cold War. The Helsinke Final Act gutted the Soviet ability to defend human rights abuses and provided enough traction for grassroots activism to form. Dissidents, among them former atomic bomb designer Sakharov, now had grounds for criticising Communist rule.

Why would Brezhnev, who brutally crushed any attempts at secession and had anti-Communists committed to insane asylums, ever agree to such a treaty? Quite frankly, Brezhnev valued hard power over soft power. He underestimated the impact that promising human rights would have. He also liked the clause of the treaty which legitimised Soviet territorial gains from WWII.

To conclusively prove that the Helsinke Accords marked the decline of Whataboutism would require far more time and space than I have here, but I think I can feasibly make the claim that the Final Act was a part of an overall decline in blame shifting. Brezhnev’s human rights record was already something of a joke, as if his 1968 crushing of the Prague Spring revolt hadn’t made this abundantly clear, and the Soviets were losing traction in the soft power war. At this point the United States had tidied up their own house sufficiently for the Soviets to have trouble pulling the race card. Their was still the issue posed by S. African apartheid of course, which Reagan had defended, but this form of racism was becoming the exception rather than the norm. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 obviously did not help the U.S.S.R.’s image in the soft power wars, and continued abuse of human rights, in clear violation of the Helsinke Accords, only turned Brezhnev’s regime into a laughing stock.

As the U.S.S.R. slipped into crisis in the 80s, Gorbachev sought to repair the Soviet reputation and keep the Soviet state alive. His glasnost reforms gave critics more freedoms to criticize the regime. Some activists were satisfied, but a great deal only wanted greater reforms. Nationalists and/or democracy advocates, among them Boris Yeltsin, would play a significant role in upending the Soviet Union in the period from 88-91.

Iraq, Crimea, Ferguson, and the Revival of Whataboutism

The collapse of the U.S.S.R. left Russia reeling for over a decade. Putin was eventually able to get Russia back on its feet and he put Russia’s foreign policy back online as a force to be reckoned with. If Drezner is to be believed, whataboutism played a significant part in this revival, and it is safe to say that it has returned as a feature of Russian rhetoric.

Many in the West criticize Russia’s treatment of its LGBTQ citizenry (and rightly so), but Russia has been able to gain traction against the West with the recent attention to given to police killings of African Americans in America. Russia has a point, as they had in the past: how can a nation call others out for human rights abuses when their own house is not in order?

But whataboutism has also been used in a far more effective and dangerous manner by Russia. Take for instance the reactions to the seizure of Crimea in 2014. The West cried foul and condemned Russia for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine. Russia was able to fire back though, claiming that the United States had no right to talk since it had violated Iraqi sovereignty in the years prior with a unilateral invasion.

As with Cold War era whataboutism I don’t think we should be quick to dismiss this. Many in the West seem to be eager to discount Russia’s claims or undermine their rhetoric. While Russia is by no means justified, it still raises critical issues that are dangerous to ignore. In the 1950s Russia brought attention to the plight of African Americans. In the present, Russia raises question of US hegemony and what limits it might have. But I think  that Russia’s use of whataboutism in this context is more dangerous than it previously has been. Whataboutism isn’t just used as a defense mechanism but rather as a weapon of foreign policy used to justify Russian interventionism. It becomes even more dangerous for the US to answer to when one considers Russian rhetoric claiming that the US destabilized the Middle East, which led to the rise of ISIS. The West has shown cohesion thus far in confronting Russia with sanctions and recriminations, and I think that their is a remarkable and dangerous amount of sycophancy. It is great that the NATO alliance members can actually stand up to Russia, but I feel like by ignoring or dismissing the Russian side of the story we risk crafting a weaker foreign policy.

Whataboutism should not be treated as a joke or a formality that comes in dealing with Russia. Whataboutism should be a call for intensive introspection and an engine for self-improvement. Creating a more harmonious domestic and foreign policy will greatly benefit the West, while granting them more leverage against Russia.

Drezner, Daniel W. “Ferguson, whataboutism, and American soft power.” The Washington Post. 20 August 2014.

Lucas, Edward. “Whataboutism.” The Economist. 31 January 2008.

Schmitz, David F. The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships. New York: Cambridge, 2006.

Are Sanctions Working?

Define Working? 

I accidentally turned my car radio on AM and found myself listening to an edition of Encounter on Voice of America that was discussing the efficacy of US policy towards Russia (click here for the link)… “My this is awfully convenient.” It was a nice ride home.

War is a nasty business. Modern warfare doubly so. Maybe that is why the West relies on sanctions as a means of subduing nations we deem as rouges. We have used them against N. Korea, Iraq, Iran, and, most recently, Russia. Economic sanctions, such as embargoes, are relatively potent in an age of economic globalization. States can also be diplomatically sanctioned by being removed from or have their roles reduced within certain IGOs. Why are sanctions put into place?

1. To dissuade a state from undertaking certain actions, such as harassing a neighbor or developing nuclear weapons
2. To cripple a state’s capabilities to perform these actions
3. To pillory a state and reduce their standing  and prestige in the world
4. To create domestic hardships among the state so as to make citizens of these states less supportive of their leaders and more revolutionary (neoliberals love this one…)
5. To save face and show commitment
6. To prevent a situation from growing worse: 
this was one of the interesting points brought up in Encounter and is probably the most effective consequence of sanctions. Sanctions may not fix situations but they at least force the sanctioned state to pause before making additional moves.
7. Deterring other states from acting out

Having studied the Cuban Missile Crisis I understand and respect the logic of sanctions. You are passing on the burden of decision to your opponent and giving them the chance to make the right choices and redeem themselves or else face continued withering. The West has a tendency to love sanctions, in part because the West has enough stability to sacrifice some economic activity to achieve political goals, but I tend to disagree with their efficacy. Most American’s seem to agree with me, disliking the indirect course sanctions offer. It should be noted that Putin’s Russia has a tendency to employ sanctions against Eastern European states who rely on Russia for natural gas.

We have a pretty long history of sanctioning Russia. Efforts were made to restrict trade with the Soviets in the 1920s although investment occurred regardless. The Cold War resulted in the formation of separate and somewhat isolated economic blocs (the Soviets had COMECON [sounds like Comic-Con]). We  did not extend Marshal Plan support to the Soviets when they requested it. The United States was later more willing to trade with the Soviets in the 1970s although there were still certain reservations. For instance, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment put economic pressure on Russia for not letting Soviet Jews emigrate to Israel. It would eventually have some impact and bring about results, although certainly not immediately.

There have been quite a few sanctions erected against Russia in the last few years. The Magnitsky Sanctions were levied against Russian elites in response to their presumed involvement in the death of the titular Magnitsky. Recently there have been prominent US and EU sanctions against Russia as punishment for the latter’s involvement in Ukraine. Russia’s active role in the NATO-Russia Council has been suspended while Russia has also been removed from the G-8. Putin has generally opted for a tit-for-tat strategy. The Magnitsky Sanctions likely inspired Putin to ban US adoption of Russian orphans in 2012. In response to economic pressure in 2014 and 2015 Putin has put several economic barriers up against the West.

Regardless Putin is generally presumed to have the weaker hand. Sanctions have hit the Russian economy hard and the second half of 2014 was a merry-go-round of ruble inflation. Of course no one seems to be sure if this was the result of sanctions or the devaluation of oil caused by Saudi Arabia flooding the market, so who knows. Oil prices have gone up and Putin’s predictions of doom and gloom in last year’s State of the Union seem to have been avoided. Russia seems to have bounced back slightly although the standard of living has certainly taken a hit. Will sanctions be effective? Who really knows. According to Encounter they will be in the long run, although this is a big “if”; EU members need to vote unanimously for the application of sanctions, a unity which is looking increasingly tenuous.

I don’t really believe that sanctions will be all that effective. In some ways they may even be exacerbating the issue:

1. Sanctions do not undo what is already done. Putin has Crimea and Ukraine has been temporarily prevented from joining NATO or the EU. If these were his goals he has already won. Sanctions may restrain and weaken him, but he likely would have been weaker if he had simply given up they key Russian naval base at Sevastopol (Russia’s lease on this would have expired in 2017). Putin weighed the costs and benefits and did what he set out to do.
2. Sanctions strengthen resolve. Putin is a well-known macho man (muzhik). Saddam and Kim Jong-Il, among other leaders of sanctioned countries, also try to project this tough guy image (although lets face it Putin does it best). If you slap them and tell them to back down do you really think they are going to? They are just going to become more unruly. To step down would betray the nationalism on which their regimes are built. Stepping down is never an option.
3. Sanctions hurt citizens most. Feminist IR theorists are especially big on this point, and for good reason. States that are sanctioned are usually fairly corrupt, meaning that elites can adapt while burdens are shifted onto citizens. Small business owners are hurt. Iraqi mothers can’t receive adequate healthcare for their children. North Koreans starve and die. Iranian teenagers suddenly find that they are unable to log into World of Warcraft. Far from hating your corrupt regime, citizens may just hate the nation levying sanctions, thus perpetuating a siege mentality and further building nationalist resolve. Targeted sanctions levied against elites may be more effective and humane, especially in a country like Russia where elites has inordinate power and influence. Of course, does it really matter if you are barred from entering the United States when you can just stay in Russia and swim in a bathtub full of rubles a la Scrooge McDuck?
4. Sanctions disrupt economic activity on both sides. Not only are businesses in the targeted country hurt, but businesses in nations levying sanctions are hurt. German companies in particular are being hit by the sanctions and counter-sanctions which is putting Chancellor Merkel in an increasingly awkward position. Sanctions become unpopular and ineffective in such circumstances. If you can’t ensure that they are maintained then they lose a great deal of teeth.
5. People are already used to hardship. N. Korean’s have it rough regardless of whether or not sanctions are in place. Anyone who study Russian history and literature will be happy to remind you that the Russian’s have an unparalleled ability to take abuse. What is the last year in comparison to the economic collapse of the 1990s which saw a decline in the Russian standard of living only surpassed by the decline following the Great Patriotic War and/or the Russian Civil War. Some optimists point to growing protests and labour strikes that have appeared in Russia but these seem unlikely to change anything. A strong middle class never really appeared in Russia, and therefore there are few people who would be willing to become politically radical in order to save what they have.
6. Diplomatic Sanctions Undermine International Cooperation. If you are going to humiliate and marginalize a country they will almost certainly be less cooperative on other critical issues such as counter-terrorism. Russia has had its active involvement in the NATO-Russia Council suspended. I can only assume that this means that Russia and NATO are no longer engaging in the sharing of air traffic information (the Cooperative Airspace Initiative). This gravely undermines Eurasian security, especially at a time when terrorism is highly active due to the rise of the ISIS. Incidentally this only gives more fuel for Russia to use against the West; Sergei Lavrov has said on several occasions that the West is placing a premium on political issues at the expense of real issues.
7. Diplomatic Sanctions only go so far. Applying diplomatic pressure to Iraq and N. Korea is fairly simple. For Russia diplomatic pressure is just a slap on the wrist. Nothing can wrest the Permanent Seat on the Security Council from Russia. Is it even feasible to apply diplomatic sanctions to states so embedded in the international system?

So are sanctions working? Who knows? We will never really know until they work or fail. Who knows when that might be? Personally I don’t think they are working and I don’t think they will ever work. Putin has enough popularity and control, and Russia enough economic vitality, to keep trudging on through sanctions. He likely believes, as I do, that Russia can outlast the unanimously supported sanctions put into place by the EU. Putin rose to power on nationalism and for his firm stance against the West. Sanctions are likely just making him stronger and more influential than ever by confirming the fears of the West among the people that he has played on. At the same time though, and this is yet another major point of discussion on Encounter, Putin has not taken every possible step in Ukraine. He has paused and blinked at times where he could have taken decisive action. Sanctions at the very least make effective damage control, but they are all for nothing if they cannot be followed up by a more effective, firm, and consistent foreign policy. Of course, it is hard to imagine what such a policy would look like. The same logic of the old Churchill quote rings true here: sanctions are the worst possible instrument of foreign policy except for all the others…