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…

Advertisements

Red Armies and Paper Tigers: Unpacking Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat”

I love old books, and not just for that quaint, musty smell of vanilla and cigarettes that accompanies them; old books are literally time machines, transporting us into earlier contexts and perspectives. Once the dust of history has settled we can fairly analyze them. How well has the book aged? Was it accurate at the time? Is it relevant in the present? What insights into the future can it give us?

Today we’re going back in time to 1983.  Americans look back on the 80s with tremendous nostalgia. The malaise of Vietnam had worn off, the hazy 70s were behind us, and voters threw their bipartisan approval behind the stone-faced Reagan. Technology and hair size were on the rise. Meanwhile on the other side of the Iron Curtain the Soviet Union was in decay. Misguided spending and the incredible lethargy of Brezhnev and his cadres had led to total stagnation.

The writing was on the wall, although this fact was obscured by a rise in tensions. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan sent red flags to the U.S., leading to a vast increase in defense spending. The arms race showed no signed of stopping, and the Europeans trapped between the two superpowers were holding their breath as new medium range missiles were being deployed on their soil. The mood was tense, and the spectre of nuclear war was lingering in the background. Two great armies warily eyed each other, waiting for the order.

Given this background, you can imagine what I expected when I picked up this book at a thrift store.

Displaying 20161009_133147.jpg

I anticipated a gloom-and-doom inflation of the Soviet threat. Thankfully, Andrew Cockburn pleasantly defied all expectations, masterfully employing evidence to not only deflate the Soviet bear but also draw the entire military industrial complex into doubt.

A few words on Andrew Cockburn. From what I gather he is an Irish expat living here in the United States. Cockburn has spent much of his career writing about military and security establishments. Suffice it to say that he is not a friend of militarism or the military industrial complex; he is a tenacious skeptic of official claims and public perceptions. His investigations have followed U.S. foreign policy trends, and he seems to have accommodated well to the fall of the U.S.S.R. by switching to the War on Terror and U.S. hegemony. His writing style varies from straightforward and technical to clever and sometimes even brilliantly descriptive, and he knows exactly when to adjust his style.

Cockburn soundly reveals in the Threat that the Soviet armed forces of the early 1980s were a shambling corpse. Far from Reagan’s “Evil Empire,” the Soviets were almost laughably incompetent and hapless at all levels. Cockburn organizes his book well, starting by summarizing the perceptions both superpowers had of each other and then progressing into an analyses of the individual branches of the Soviet military.

The military of the U.S.S.R. had five branches: the Red Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Air Defense, and Strategic Missile Forces. Each branch is generally staffed by a mandatory draft of young men (who had to serve 2 years in the armed forces, or 3 years if they were in the Navy), who were supplemented by officers. While the U.S.S.R. had an apparent numerical edge, Cockburn shows how these advantages were undercut by the total lack of morale and unity among men. Officers had difficulty in motivating forces, and their desire to earn benefits and promotion led them to ignore or cover up issues. Cockburn smashes the myth that the Soviet Armed Forces were merely a puppet of the Party. The Soviet military was an active player in politics, using a control of information and close ties to leaders to accomplish goals. The Soviet military is not unlike the military industrial complex (MIC) that Ike warned us all about.

Cockburn draws numerous parallels between the Soviet and American military bureaucracies, claiming that both are plagued with corruption, ambition, and the extreme inefficiency that naturally follows bureaucracy. These parallels ultimately feed into his broader thesis, where he accuses both sides of “threat inflation.” The Soviets, he writes, intentionally cultivated deception and mystery in order to force opponents to overestimate their capabilities. This fear of inadequacy (the security dilemma for you neorealists) led to the U.S. bulking up their forces, which in turn prompted the Soviets to made tangible updates to their own military forces (often following the example set by the U.S.). What followed was an arms race mirroring the one that preceded World War I. Ultimately the military industrial complexes of both superpowers assumed the worst about each other and manipulated public fears and policy makers in order to get the requisite resources and deference they wanted. Along the way Cockburn believes that military efficiency was degrading, with each side increasingly relying on unreliable and untested advance technology, which seemed like the logical solution to meeting the threat posed by the other side.

In terms of the individual military branches, the Soviets were clearly lacking. The legendary armour that beat the Nazi machine is plagued by faulty engines and a wide swath of other technical and training issues. Brezhnev’s vast pet project, the Soviet Navy, was mostly just for show. Soviet air power suffered from the same issues of reliability and range. I almost feel like Cockburn is too skeptical at times; he even finds fault with the legendary Mi-24 “Hind” gunships that were made famous by the Soviet-Afghan war. Still I have to commend his approach, he often focuses strictly on details rather than conjecturing about World War III, and the technical issues alone (which exist for both U.S. and U.S.S.R.) are startling. Basically the only weapon systems he does not find fault with are the ever reliable AK-47, the classic T-34, and the user-friendly RPG.

Cockburn’s book reaches full stride in the section on nuclear forces, and he finds tremendous fault with the idea held in both East and West that nuclear war could be won. Nuclear weapons more or less invalidate all other weapons or competition between East and West, although even the assured destruction wrought by ICBMs is up to some debate. Ultimately the uncertainty of how a nuclear war would progress and the imperfect ability of each side to destroy the other’s second strike capacity are enough to ensure continued reliance and expenditure on weapons. It was especially interesting to read the parts dealing with how the Soviets prepped their citizens for doomsday: they seemed to share the dark humour held by many Americans.

Cockburn draws upon a wide swath of sources to reinforce his argument. He relies upon official public statements, interviews with military men and Soviet expats, and Soviet papers such as the official publication of the Soviet armed forces, Red Star. Ultimately I would say that his research is solid, and his conclusions and extrapolations were more or less confirmed once the U.S.S.R. actually fell and their records became available. There are still some inaccuracies to be sure. The Soviet expats obviously left the U.S.S.R. for a reason and are liable to carry bias. The most glaring flaw I found in the book was the claim that Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 1972 (he actually made it to 2013). These seem more like issues with editing and fact checking than anything else, and given the veil of secrecy under which militaries and Communist bureaucracies operate this is no easy task to begin with.

The covers of my copy have something scrawled on them; something about the book being out of date since 1991. I would have to disagree, I think the Threat stands the test of time as a great look at the Soviet and American militaries at a key time. Furthermore, I think the book has caught its second wind with the revival of Russia in recent years. The American military machine (and the Russian one for that matter) are both still in tact, still using their standard ploys to manipulate public opinion and secure a continued role in politics. The American MIC has only grown in size and proportion since finding hegemony and the War on Terror, and their continues to be an inflation of the Russia threat. Politicians here still treat Putin like Hitler for annexing Crimea or taking action in Syria and they try to predict future Russian aggression in the Baltic states. Sometimes they even read Russian tests of missiles as a sign that a nuclear strike is possible: the myth of limited nuclear war is still alive. In many ways it is still business as usual, we even see newfound alarmism about Russian capabilities as Putin plots a course of military updates. The T-14 Armata, a new tank for the cyber age, was rolled out on parade just last year, and nearly all arms of the Armed Forces are up for an upgrade. Still, the harrowing truth is that Russia is under immense economic pressure; spending more on the military at the expense of other areas would be repeating the Soviet mistake. Likewise, is it possible that Russia could have possibly updated its forces and overcome its historic deficiencies? Is the Armata really a supertank?

The book raises some questions as well about the realm of cybersecurity. With apparent Russian hacking aimed at impacting the U.S. election, cyberwarfare looks like the latest and most dire front. The line between hacking and war is still blurry, and this is shaping up to be the next great arms race. There is constant talk of investing in our cybersecurity, and there are even talks of launching cyberattacks of our own (we already retaliated against N. Korea after the Sony incident). Is this worthy or just another example of threat inflation? We will see…

As an aside I should also say that the book appeared to me in terms of ideology and methodology as well. In my own personal studies I am interested in both neorealist and constructivist theories and how they interact. Neorealism dictates that conflict is an inevitable product of international anarchy. Constructivism states that what actually matters is identity forming and interaction between states, with anything being possible. I lean more towards constructivism, but I personally am fascinated by the concept that free social interactions (of the kind constructivism is based on) can lead to realist assumptions. Cockburn explains threat inflation and the security dilemma as a product of perception and uncertainty, so his book entertained the ideological intersections I am interested it.

Andrew Cockburn’s tireless criticism and well grounded cynicism are contagious, and I will certainly be looking into his modern works.

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.

 

This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Two of Us

Americans weren’t the only ones thinking about how to cook Turkey this week…

Sovereignty, the idea that a state alone has absolute jurisdiction over its borders, has been the lifeblood of international politics ever since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. For better and for worse, the modern world is defined by sovereignty.

Russia loves the concept of sovereignty, and it constantly throws the word around whenever its policies come under fire.

Sovereignty is far from a perfect modus operandi. This is increasingly apparent in an era of increasing globalization where non-state actors (ISIS for instance) factor heavily into the international calculus. But we don’t have to look at the challenges to sovereignty to realize that its flawed; states regularly fight over sovereign rights. There are the obvious grey areas surrounding irredentism. This is a term used to describe a situation nation or state feel at odds with a given nation-state and with to redefine or re-carve borders. Prominent examples of this include the Franco-Prussian rivalry over Alsace-Lorraine, the desire for statehood among Palestinians, and the recent Russian annexation of Crimea.

But we don’t have to introduce arcane words to prove a point against sovereignty. Some of the largest problems with sovereignty are inherit in the concept itself. For example, let’s say that State X has complete sovereignty over the land, waters, and sky within its borders. Now lets say that State Y is conducting military operations nearby and accidentally flies a plane over State X, which responds by shooting the plane down. Strictly speaking in terms of sovereignty, State X is justified. Of course, try telling this to State Y…

Sure, Russia loves sovereignty, but how do they feel about having a plane shot down?


Romancing Doomsday?

No. I don’t believe that World War III will ever happen. Nation-states generally don’t like committing suicide, and therefore a war between nuclear powers is as unlikely as it is undesirable.

That being said, it still sent chills down my spine to hear that a Russian jet was brought down by a member of NATO this past week.

24 November 2015. An Su-24 was shot down by Turkey.

Turkey claims that the fighter entered its territory. NATO stood by Turkey.

Russia claims that the fighter remained in Syrian airspace. It claims that Turkey is betraying the anti-terror cause and Russia is planning on using sanctions to punish Turkey.

What actually happened?

I would like to posit that theory that it absolutely doesn’t matter what happened. NATO will say one thing. Russia will say another.

The downing of wayward planes happens infrequently. Usually they are isolated incidents that just evaporate; lets agree to disagree. The Soviets downed a U-2 plane conducting espionage in 1960. They downed another U-2 above Cuba during the Missile Crisis. In 1983 they brought down civilian flight KAL007, alleging (likely correctly) that the flight was being used by the US to spy.

States have a sovereign right to bring down foreign planes within their airspace, even if this can also be construed as an act of war. Most times these “accidents” don’t lead to any sort of conflict. A war between NATO and Russia would be especially messy, so its unlikely that either side will pursue the matter further. Turkey will probably not repeat the incident. Russia has moved SAMs near the border to make sure of that, even if it is also likely that Russia will be a little more careful with where its planes fly.

Generally the most tangible outcome of a plane being brought down is that one side gets political capital. In 1960 the US was caught spying over the USSR and Khrushchev was able to point and laugh. In 1983 the Soviets were shamed for recklessly killing citizens. In 2015 Russia now has more fuel to throw around in its complicated game with NATO.

We can expect an immediate frosting of Turkish Russian relations. Russia is definitely looking to make Turkey pay, and is placing new restrictions on tourism as a big part of this.  But what does this event mean in the bigger picture?


The Context: Poking and Prodding

A Russian plane getting shot down was bound to happen given Moscow’s increasing use of aircraft to harass NATO. Russian fighters have forced several states on alert. I don’t think it was Russia’s intention to test the readiness of NATO (lets face it, NATO has been on a hair trigger ever since Crimea was annexed), but Russia is certainly trying to make NATO uncomfortable and show that it still poses a formidable threat.

If any NATO member was going to shoot down a Russian plane, Turkey was probably in the best position to do so. Turkey occupies a unique niche in NATO; not only is it the most Eastern member but it is also culturally and religiously distinct. During the early Cold War Turkey was used by NATO for a forward strike capability, although JFK was willing to sacrifice this in order to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Turkey also enjoys a rivalry with Greece, which complicates NATO, and is on the front line of the battle with ISIS. Had a Russian plane been downed over, say, Denmark or Alaska the repercussions would likely be more serious than what we are seeing now.

Turkey has a distinct identity that, like Russia, is between East and West. Russian is therefore likely to be less enraged by a Turkish action than a US or British one. Another factor that helps to soften the blow is that, as a guardian of a valuable warm water access route, Turkey has a long standing geopolitical rivalry with Russia. Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also breeds some level of tolerance. Of course the Turks downed one of our planes! Of course!” 

Aside from growing distrust between Russia and Turkey (and, less so, NATO) we can also expect that Russia will be a little more cautious in flying planes around. We will see a lot less NATO jets being scrambled to counter Russian thrusts, which may actually help relations in the long run.

Regardless of what happens Turkey will not try the same thing twice, especially with Russian SAMs close-by now. The more interesting question is what effect this might have on Greek-Turkish relations. Turkey loves doing flyovers of Greek territory, and they will likely have much more difficulty justifying these now. Incidentally this event may actually push Greece closer to Russia. The two are already on better terms since the debt crisis, and some mutual hatred of Turkey can’t hurt the relationship.


 

And Now For Something Completely Different…

In other news ISIS recognized Taiwan. This is absolutely hilarious.


Looking Forward: Reconciliation?

I predicted a few posts ago that Putin would take his time to commit to any policy option following the terrorist attack on a Russian flight in Sinai. The attacks in Paris two weeks ago however forced Putin’s hand on the issue: Russia has attributed the attacks to ISIS and has been increasing pressure, both against ISIS in the form of bombs and against NATO in the form of calls for coalition. A Franco-Russian axis seems liable to form, and an improvement in NATO-Russian relations would be desirable in the fight against ISIS. A multi-lateral effort is the most likely to end with a good outcome. I don’t see Russia and Turkey making up though, so any NATO-Russian axis is predicated on  NATO’s willingness to distance itself from Turkey.

Putin continues to call for multilateralism and greater collaboration, and, ever the pragmatist, has taken advantage of the Paris attacks and Turkey incident to retain the initiative in the Middle East. A few weeks ago, following the attack on a Sinai flight by ISIS, most people seemed to be predicting that Putin would remain far more cautious in the Middle East and would rethink his operations in Syria. No more of that talk. The surprises of Paris and Turkey, along with the acknowledging that ISIS downed the Russian flight, have enabled Putin to double-down. He now has far more leverage against NATO; he has a friend in Hollande and can demonize Turkey. He also now has a great excuse to send additional equipment to Syria ostensibly with the goal of keeping Turkey in check.

And thus we end at the beginning. Putin remains slippery and smart as he plays crisis after crisis to his advantage. So far he has been able to weather fortune, but the last few weeks have shown that things can change at a breakneck pace. Putin has proven that he can keep up so far.

Sports, War, and Doomsday: A Week in Retrospect

What was originally intended to be another post relating the intervention in Syria to the Soviet-Afghan War has been hijacked by a dynamic week in news ranging from scandal to tragedy to farce. The occurrences of the past week have significant bearings for the current and future course of Western-Russian relations and all of them merit a fair assessment.

Scandal: The Agony of Defeat

I’ll be honest, international sport is not my field of study. Hopefully I can at least string together what has happened.

Essentially Russia has been under intensive scrutiny over doping. A World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) report was released which accused Russia of running a vast state-funded doping ring which included bribing and intimidating testers. If the allegations are true than this casts a massive stain on Russia’s successes in the 2012 and 2014 Olympics. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was also incriminated although they seemed eager to push much of the mess onto Russia. In an attempt to retain credibility for the time, a nearly unanimous vote by the IAAF has banned Russian track-and-field from participating in competitions. The 2016 Rio games are included in this ban, which is indefinite until Russia can clean up its act (although the details are fuzzy; what would happen if the Russian athletes simply register as independent as this Telegraph article points out). 

Obviously my mind first jumped to the FIFA scandal that exploded earlier this year. Washington uncovered and tackled rampant corruption among the leaders of the FIFA scandal. This move was odd since generally Americans have little investment in football/soccer/ball-kicking-game but I felt like it was a politically motivated move engineered to cast a shadow on the upcoming FIFA games in Russia. My feelings seemed validated by Moscow’s response: Putin defended FIFA head Blatter and didn’t seem moved by accusations of corruption. Putin himself prevails over a corrupt system, so its only logical that he would want to downplay corruption as a problem. Furthermore, it seems evident that Putin wants to reclaim Russia’s Brezhnevite glory; international sports make a fine arena to show off national strength. 

In light of the FIFA scandal I was therefore surprised by Putin’s reaction to the IAAF scandal as it unfolded. Putin seemed open to cooperation with the IAAF, calling for an investigation into the issue and calling for punishing individuals rather than Russia as a whole. While it is dubious that any investigations will be fair, Putin’s relatively compromising line comes off as an off-colour move. Why miss a chance to reinforce the Western-Russian tension that he has been carefully cultivating?

Again, I really don’t care much about sports to engage the literature as much as I should but I strongly side with this piece by the Guardian about Russian cooperation. The various big-wigs of the international sport world are all linked in more ways than one, and Russia has been especially active in courting and working with international sports agencies as part of its drive to make an international comeback. Putin likely won’t fire his sports minister who has been very successful in playing the game of international sports politics, and I can only assume that Russia, the IAAF, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will work on some sort of compromise.

If there is corruption it sounds like it goes a lot deeper than Russia. International sports groups and other nations are likely at risk. All parties have a desire to come out of this scandal with clean blood tests, and they’ll likely work for a quick solution. Far from using the allegations as a means of isolating itself from the world, Putin may use them as a means to sling mud on other countries or show that Russia is more agreeable than other nations might suggest. Similarly, Putin’s main goal is to ensure that Russia can participate and show off in the 2016 Olympics, so he likely just wants to put this behind him as quickly as possible. Based on the friends Russia has made with the international sports movement I agree with the aforementioned Guardian article when it says that Russia will likely just receive a brief slap on the wrist. The ban on participation seems tenuous at best; it is merely an attempt by the IAAF to overcompensate for inaction up to this point.

Putin likely already has this fight won, and therefore he can afford to be amenable to addressing the problem. If worst comes to worst he can simply force a few ministers to resign. That generally seems to be how these sport scandals go. Russia doesn’t seem to have responded yet to the decision of the IAAF to banish Russian athletes, although a brief and non-inflammatory story on RussiaToday confirms my suspicions that Russia will be able to navigate the crisis.

Tragedy: Article V

In my last post I predicted that Putin would play dumb about the downing of a Russian flight over Sinai and not attribute it to ISIS. Putin didn’t fold and he didn’t raise, he would merely call. So far my prediction has ranged true, and yesterday’s unfortunate events have assured that Putin has made the right choice. Presto, Putin has a winning hand in the Middle East.

I don’t think the attacks on Paris need much introduction. They are all over the news now. Over 120 dead, and climbing. Hundreds more wounded. France closed its borders in an unprecedented move (a retreat from the European norms which have been developing ever since the Coal and Steel Commission), and ISIS gloats over another victory. I won’t go into much detail about the tragedy or the horror that was unleashed on Paris, but there are a number of important conclusions for Russia.

  1. The West is now unable to capitalize on the Sinai crash. Before yesterday the West attempted to undermine Russia’s position by suggesting that the plane was brought down as a reprisal against Russian intervention. Russia can now justify its military operations in Syria while criticizing the West for a lack of cooperation. I need not mention as well that now people will talk about Paris, not the Sinai crash. The news has a short attention span.
  2. The West is now in a position to enter the Middle East. NATO already has operations in the region (and are making some important gains), but the perception is that Russia is the more dynamic power there. President Hollande has declared the attacks by ISIS to be “an act of war.” This is a bold statement that carries a commitment, and it reminds me of 9/11 when the US responded to the attacks by invoking Article V (collective defense) of the NATO treaty and launching the War on Terror. I predict that NATO, and France in particular, may now be more involved in the Middle East. Russia will still have the upper hand since they are working through Assad, but the calculus in the Middle East is much more complex and will grow more convoluted as ground forces enter.

I would like to see a NATO-Russian alliance (through the NATO-Russia Council) but I doubt this will come to pass. Yet again, Putin mentioned it in his condolences.

This tragedy is additional proof of the barbaric nature of terrorism that is posing a challenge to human civilisation. It is obvious that to counter this evil effectively the entire international community needs to truly join efforts.

I would like to confirm the readiness of the Russian side to closely cooperate with our French partners in investigating the crime committed in Paris. I expect both the originators and perpetrators to be justly punished.

Putin will continue to push for joint efforts as this is the best way to re normalize relations and holds the best chance for sanctions relief. Western-Russian relations might still be frosty, but both sides would only gain from temporarily toning down their rhetoric and cooperating. At the very least I hope that the NRC can resume its active counter-terror operations to increase intelligence sharing.

Regardless, the deadly Paris attacks do not hurt Moscow. Quite the contrary; no tragedy goes missed as a political opportunity.

Farce: Cobalt-60

Russian Ambassador: When it is detonated, it will produce enough lethal radioactive fallout so that within ten months, the surface of the Earth will be as dead as the moon!

Turgidson: Ah, come on DeSadeski, that’s ridiculous. Our studies show that even the worst fallout is down to a safe level after two weeks.

Russian Ambassador: You’ve obviously never heard of cobalt thorium G!

Turgidson: (pauses) Well, what about it?

Russian Ambassador: Cobalt thorium G has a radioactive halflife of ninety three years. If you take, say, fifty H-bombs in the hundred megaton range and jacket them with cobalt thorium G, when they are exploded they will produce a doomsday shroud. A lethal cloud of radioactivity which will encircle the earth for ninety three years!

This exchange is from Dr. Strangelove serves as an excellent introduction to the final news story to discuss. Apparently Russian military intel was ACCIDENTALLY leaked on television. Russia was quick to suggest that this was a mistake. The rest of the world just said sure and then laid awake at night quaking incessantly.

Ever since the US announced an interest in putting anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems in Eastern Europe, Russia has been skeptical. The US maintains these are to prevent strikes from N. Korea or Iran. Russia however quickly realized that these ABM systems threatened their own nuclear capacity, and they have been vocal critics ever since.

ABM systems were considered very dangerous during the Cold War, enough so to be banned. ABM systems undo deterrence as they allow one side to potentially survive a first or second strike and for this reason they were taboo. While Russia has been increasingly flaunting its nuclear capacity, with little regard to the START treaty, its really just a reaction to America’s ABM systems.

The military intel being released was no accident, but rather a carefully calculated warning shot. Russia is showing the US it is more than capable of adapting to ABM systems.

So what exactly was unveiled?

Oh nothing really. Its only the superweapon featured in Dr. Strangelove. You know. Just a nuclear torpedo that may or may not be tipped with Cobalt-59.

Really. Its fine.

Cobalt bombs have long been a theoretical construct but until now no one, that we know of, has really tried building one. They are supposed to be able to produce a deadly, thick, and long-lasting fallout. In the long run, these bombs would do far more damage over a far larger area. If anything could trigger nuclear winter, it would be a cobalt bomb. This is why no one tried building one before. Cobalt bombs are less of a weapon and more of a several megaton middle finger to the human race. Nukes are already tactically unwieldy. While the neutron bomb was an attempt to render nukes more viable in combat, a cobalt bomb is a development in the opposite direction: it is not so much an instrument of war as an agent of extinction.

Suffice it to say that humanity could probably walk away from a nuclear war, so long as cobalt-59 isn’t involved.

So there you have it folks. You can’t trust international sports. ISIS is continuing to reap a bloody harvest. And Russia may or may not be working on a way to kill everything – literally everything.

Needless to say, I had trouble falling asleep last night…

Pax Putina

Click here for a BBC Article on Putin talking about war with NATO

Russian leaders have the absolute best quotes. Putin in particular has a lot of great ones. Here is one that recently came out:

“Only an insane person and only in a dream can imagine that Russia would suddenly attack NATO”

Although we might love to fantasize about Russian armour pouring into the Fulda Gap while the German’s lay down suppressing fire to buy time for U.S. Strategic Air Command, the likelihood of any of this happening is pretty much nil. Russia has never and will never seek a confrontation with NATO for the same reasons that NATO would not seek a confrontation with Russia. Nuclear war is not on anybody’s to-do list. A lot of people in the West still fear Russian aggression however and NATO is offering token resistance to Russia’s token involvement in Ukraine. Everyone is playing their roles quite well aren’t they? Some people are skeptical of Putin and might still feel that he is just lying through his teeth. Russian fighters have harassed NATO bases and pulled off a few scares after all. I think Putin is being honest though. He is surprisingly straightforward in his candid speech and he also is much smarter than most American’s feel comfortable admitting. Russia has no real desire to fight NATO, that makes sense. They are justifiably afraid of NATO, just as NATO is justifiably afraid of them (there is a message to be had about Constructivism and identity based politics). But why then is Russia remaining prickly? Why are they involving themselves in Ukraine?

They are simply acting out on their main fear: NATO. Russia does not wish to see its neighbors join NATO. While Ukraine is not as generically amicable as Belarus, Ukraine and Russia still have extraordinarily close historical and ethnic ties that would make it impossible for Moscow to stomach Ukraine joining NATO. Should we also mention that Russia continues to fear encirclement? Talk of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO make Russia very uncomfortable. Euromaidan may have been more about the EU than NATO, but the EU is often used as a vehicle for NATO admission. With every wave of new admissions Russia feels not only more constrained but also more betrayed. George H. W. Bush allegedly promised Gorbachev that NATO would not expand. Russia throws this in the face of NATO every time expansion season comes around, although the US just plays dumb. Perhaps we don’t realize that the Russians truly believe in this promise, regardless of whether or not it was actually made. The fact that NATO has a tendency to go out-of-area and got involved in Afghanistan probably only makes them more worried about the Central Asian and Caucasian Republics.

All of this perpetuates a cycle though. As Russia seeks to shore up its interests in the region it makes NATO more hostile and more willing to expand and work towards containment. How do we break the cycle? Russia already has the means to do it. By stressing the importance of the NATO-Russia Council and past collaborations Russia can likely help to smooth over NATO and provide definite assurances that they mean no harm. NATO would also benefit from this although the alliance must remain wary of attempts by Russia to use the premise of cooperation to actually encumber and restrain the alliance (this is called soft-balancing).

Of course NATO should first ask itself some important questions. What is its reason for existing in a post-Soviet world? What exactly does NATO fight for? Where should NATO be active? NATO tried to redefine itself in the 90s, with the London Declaration being the first attempt at self-discovery. NATO has become involved in the Balkan conflicts, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and was briefly considering action against Syria before being convinced not to by Putin. NATO has, in many ways, returned to some of the same rhetoric as the Treaty of Brussels: it works to promote Western ideas, capitalism, human rights, and so on. Admittedly it is appropriate to redefine security to meet the growth of terrorism, but NATO still needs to continue to ask itself big questions. Similarly, NATO’s members also need to ask if they are committed to the alliance and why. This last question is huge for the alliance as a whole since many members engage in bandwagoning and fail to contribute as much as the United States, United Kingdom, and other nations.

Putin has another great quote from the same recent interview that needs to be aired out:

“The world has changed so drastically that people with some common sense cannot even imagine such a large-scale military conflict today. We have other things to think about, I assure you.”

I think this is an especially piercing observation. Can we really even fathom war anymore? Do we even want to after World War II? Are great power wars even possible given nuclear weapons and abundance of power concentrated in the United States? Are we over war? I think that to some extent: yes we are. One of my favourite political scientists, John Mueller, writes a lot on this subject in books I need to make time to read. States prefer diplomatic jabs and economic warfare now. We definitely have other things to think about…What about terrorism? Ethnic conflict? Wars between smaller powers? Genocide? Is there even any point to war games in Europe or the Korean peninsula? Where does cyber-warfare fit into all this? Are we powerless to stop cyber-warfare if we cannot employ conventional warfare? We live in a strange age and it is getting stranger all the time. Putin has shown that he is aware of this, but what the future holds is anyone’s guess.