Our Man in Havana: Castro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


L’appel du Vide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

For Russia, the Iran Deal Is All about Europe

You might remember a previous post I made about sanctions and how their efficacy is limited. As of today Russia is still being sanctioned. Iran is also being sanctioned although, if the deal reached today turns out right, it won’t be for much longer. It is too early for us to judge if sanctions against Iran actually worked but for the time being it would seem like they have. So maybe we should reassess the sanctions against Russia. We also need to recognize that Russia had an important stake in the discussions at hand and that the recent deal between the P5+1 and Iran may change things substantially.

Before delving into the material lets establish a few things.

  • Russia did not want to see a nuclear Iran. If you have a big world ending stick the last thing you want is for other people to have one. Nukes are a nigh-perfect deterrent that radically alter power structures.
  • That being said, Russia doesn’t mind selling raw materials to Iran. Russia likes using its role as an energy provider to gain leverage. This gives them good power in Europe. It also gives them potential links with S. America and the Middle East. Russia has been contemplating selling nuclear reactors to Egypt. A friendly Iran also creates stress for the United States and for Armenia and Georgia.
  • Russia doesn’t really view Iran as a bad guy. They don’t consider Hizbullah or any Iranian backed groups to be terrorists.
  • Russia and Iran still aren’t best friends though. The USSR held onto part of Iran during WWII and only gave it up after an American threat of force. The Soviet-Afghan War did not engender warm feelings between the Soviets and the Ayatollah (also note that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan shortly after the Iranian Revolution; the distrust is mutual). Ayatollah Khomeini at the very least considered the USSR to be the lesser Satan (guess who the greater Satan was…) which, in the bipolar Cold War, meant a lot. Russia and Iran are still sorta friends although at times they squabble over oil in the Caspian sea.

So  what does Russia have to gain from an Iran with subdued nuclear ambitions? It seems like they are giving up a lot of leverage in the area. Still, Russia can’t miss the talks. Why give up an opportunity to be relevant and show that you are up there with the great powers? The Iranian deal also has certain provisions that bring the Security Council into play. Per Obama the SC will apparently be a gatekeeper for adding or removing sanctions as Iran defies or complies with orders. Russia will be able to have a continued say on matters. Keep in mind that Russia has a veto power so it has some leverage here. Overall though I think the Iranian-Russia deal hurts Russia. Iran, for the time being, cannot be utilized to give the US a hard time. I’m curious to see where some of Russia’s other nuclear clientage will stand after these decisions. Russia may very well recoup its losses in Iran by redoubling efforts and agreements elsewhere in the region. Or maybe Russia will just start selling more conventional military equipment to Iran. Russia may also make itself available to Iran as a means of storing or disposing enriched Uranium.

There is also talk that oil prices will fall. This does not bode well for a Russia which is facing continued economic stress.

So what does Russia have to gain from the Iran deal?

The answer is fuel. Not nuclear fuel. Not oil. We’ve already discussed how that works out. No. Russia gets propaganda fuel.

I’m less interested in the Middle East side of things though. I think the Iran deal has a much more important meaning for Russia in Europe. Russia is primarily focused on Europe at the moment and so will seek to maximize leverage there. The deal in Iran will bolster Russia’s domestic and international propaganda regime. How? Well lets consider Russia Today, which wasted no time in publishing a story about how Lavrov expects that the US will remove anti-missile systems from Europe.

So it all comes together…

The US makes Russia nervous. It expanded NATO despite alleged promises made to Gorbachev. To add insult to injury the US has decided to put anti-ballistic missile systems in some of the new NATO members (mostly good ol’ Poland). This makes sense to the US. Iranian missiles might not be able to reach the US, but they could develop ones that would reach Europe. ABM systems are therefore seen as a way to protect Europe from a nuclear Iran. Here is where the fun begins: the ABM sites aren’t really completed. I don’t even know if construction began, but I do know that the US is now at a critical juncture. With Iran allegedly pacified what will the US do with its ABM plans?

Just a note on ABM systems. Russia doesn’t like them. No, it’s not because they thwart Putin’s complicated invasion plans. I don’t believe that Putin means any harm to NATO. No, it’s not because they make Russia’s ICBMs useless. Russia still has PLENTY to go around and the ABMs could not hope to shoot them all down. Russia also has ballistic subs parked all over the place, so they could still assure mutual destructive in the advent of war. There is a much more fundamental reason why Russia, and many people, dislike ABMs. Put simply, they disrupt deterrence. Recall the security dilemma discussed in an earlier post: when a nation gets a new toy it makes other nations uncomfortable, driving them to get new toys that in turn make the original innovator uncomfortable, and so on and so on. Nukes are a great deterrent and produce remarkable stability. ABMs would upset this delicate balance and drive states to build better nukes, something that even a nuclear power would shudder at. Massive price tag aside, I don’t think any leader or sane man would really want to roll out a new line of harder/faster/better/stronger nukes.

Without the original impetus of the Iran threat, the United States therefore has a choice to make in Europe.

  1. Maintain plans to build ABM systems in Poland. This would make Russia unbelievably uncomfortable, heightening their perception of encirclement by a threatening NATO. It may drive Russia to focus more on its military budget and start doubling down.
  2. Pull the plug on ABM systems in Poland. This would enhance US-Russia relations and make the two states more likely to begin to wind down sanctions and the current period of tension. Conflict won’t vanish but it will simmer down.

The Russia Today article I brought up mentions that the US made a promise not to build missile sites now that the Iranian situation has been dealt with. I would like to find where the US made this promise, if at all. I suspect that this may be a repeat of the promise made by Bush to Gorbachev not to expand NATO; a promise believed by some to be Russian propaganda, hearsay, and/or misunderstanding. Regardless the Russians believe that Bush said he would not expand NATO; it is after all convenient for them to believe this. It doesn’t matter if Kerry promised Lavrov that the US would cancel its missile project; the Russians will believe it happened simply because it is a good alibi.

And here is the danger. Now we are entering the strange realm of politics that centers on public image. Now that the Iran deal is reached Russia can begin to leverage massive pressure against the US to cancel its ABM systems. Russia may care about its economic ties to Iran, but it is willing to sacrifice these in exchange for security.

So now it is up for the US to decide what to do. I fear that this is a difficult decision with no right answer. There are two outcomes based on the decisions outlined above.

  1. If the US builds ABM systems than Russia will be deeply alarmed and have a great chance to attack the US with media. Perhaps they will say “the ABM systems are really aimed at Russia!” or “the US isn’t serious about the Iran deal and still deems Iran to be a threat.” Either claim would make us look bad, especially to the Russian people and the Iranians.
  2. The United States pulls the plug on ABMs and Russia is satisfied although Europe/NATO may feel abandoned and Republicans will accuse Obama of being soft on Communism Russia.

I feel that Obama, due to his desire to avoid criticism and placate Europe, may choose the first option and leave ABMs in Poland. Obama may rationalize this decision as a “dynamic reassessment in light of changing realities.” That sounds like something a president would say…

And think of where Obama is coming from. He just forged a deal with Iran after having them under sanctions. For Obama, sanctions worked and are the main reason for the success of negotiations. Currently we are sanctioning Russia, so Obama may feel the need to continue pressing sanctions against Russia. Building ABM systems would heighten this pressure by forcing Russia to make very difficult economic decisions: “do we modernize our military further or give in and make peace with the West.” Russia may be taking a beating but Russians are proud and Russia has more contacts and resources than Iran did, so they may hold out until the EU cracks and lets up its sanctions on Russia. Putin, who built his power base on nationalism, risks unwinding his whole regime by backing down in the face of sanctions. Iranian power though is also built on a sort of antipathy for the West, and they were willing to back down and deal with the West, so maybe applying pressure to Russia may work…

Regardless of what America does it needs to be aware of the power of alleged promises and of the Russian capacity to capitalize on reversals and perceived hypocrisy. The US holds the cards and can grind Russia into submission with sanctions, but it may not be worth opening new fronts with Russia that may only generate greater distrust and dislike of America among Russian citizens.

I can see it now. President Obama coming on television and saying that we will continue to build ABMs in Europe due to the threat posed by Russia. Oh the irony of Putin’s actions. Such is the security dilemma…

Flirting with Midnight or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?

I have always been fascinated with atomic weapons and the politics surrounding them. Why were they first built? Why do we spend so many resources building weapons that cannot be used? How do we prevent other states from getting them? Should any states have them at all? Regardless of your perspectives you have to treat nuclear weapons as a fait accompli. The United States and Russia built a lot of them. Despite agreements to limit building of or destroy warheads and delivery methods there are still plenty of nukes to ruin everything. Each nation has their preferences. The United States prefers a tripartite (bomber/missile/sub) delivery method that offers flexibility. Russia likes to build really really big missiles, and they are generally pretty good at it. Russia also apparently has a system not unlike the doomsday machine from Dr. Strangelove. Perimetr (aka the Dead Hand) is capable of automatically launching nukes is it detects signs of a nuclear attack on Russia (light/heat/radiation spikes and seismic activity). There is no confirmation that this exists although there have been several insiders who have mentioned it and there are a few books out about it. I personally believe that it exists. I believe that America has something similar (why not?). We may shudder out of fear of machine takeover or, as the Clash would put it, a nuclear error, but I would just like to remind everyone that Britain’s last resort system involves submarines and some element of human judgment which I find a little less comforting.

I hope everyone sleeps well tonight. If you still think that you will then its time to bring up the central reason for this post. As you know Russia and the United States do not get along very well. Where relations will be next year is anyone’s guess. At times it seems like we are seeking rapprochement; at times it seems like NATO is looking to take more substantive action. I am not sure if this is intentional or not. Strategic ambiguity is a legitimate approach in certain cases but with a nation like Russia, which has realpolitik and security concerns ingrained into its DNA, sending mixed messages is likely going to result in them assuming that we are merely stalling or, worse, that we are actually belligerent. What do you do when the West comes knocking and threatens involvement? What do you do when anti-missile systems are being built in Poland and you fear that they are aimed at you? You probably do something like this.

Realist scholars of international relations often talk about the security dilemma. All states what to bolster their security, but in the process of making myself secure (lets say by buying a gun) I make you less secure. You in turn feel the need to buy a bigger gun, which just makes me insecure again. This is the key problem with anti-missile systems and exactly why the ones we have in Poland may be doing us more harm than good in trying to keep Russia calm. If I know you can shoot down my ICBMs I am just going to build better ones, which just leads into an arms race. Things have been heated for a while now and our nuclear agreements with Russia are becoming increasingly tenuous. I won’t go into the history of our arms control agreements, that would recover several posts to cover, but the New START treaty (the latest arms control agreement) may have been abrogated. Please note that Russia would probably not be violating treaty obligations by building 40 ICBMs. I believe that this is within the parameters of the treaty as long as they don’t go over the missile caps. I am interesting to see if Russia actually adheres to the limits if it goes forward with expanding its arsenal: a respect for the terms of the treaty may reveal that Russia at least honours its international obligations.

Please note that 40 more missiles doesn’t just mean that Russia can hit 40 more targets. A single ICBM can be loaded with several warheads. These Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs) are capable of exceptional destruction: one missile can effectively take out a handful (or more) cities. The Russians, as previously mentioned, really likes big missiles and therefore would get along just fine with MIRVs. Building potent MIRVs that can make it through ABM systems is therefore a massive problem.

Now let us turn to the reasons why Russia looks to update its nukes. Analysis will reveal that this recent announcement by Putin is generally in part of the strategy he has adopted thus far in Europe. Why does Putin want 40 minty fresh missiles?

1) Good old fashion deterrence. Nukes are scary and can conceivable kill a nation-state and possibly end the world. I sure as hell wouldn’t attack a nuclear power just due to the risks involved. Deterrence is powerful and likely kept the Cold War from going hot. The Russian military is good but could not beat NATO. ICBMs make all sides equal. 40 new missiles is not only a good insurance plan but a stark statement. Putin is willing to revive the darkest spectre of the Cold War, the arms race. Will we follow him down the rabbit hole? Perhaps Putin is trying to deter us from further developing our ABM systems? Russia has firmly committed itself and we would likely feel week if we did not make a firm commitment ourselves to preserve our credibility, so there is a real risk of falling into an arms race again and of completing the helter-skelter slide into the security dilemma. Regardless an arm’s race with enhanced nukes is just more likely to reduce the chances of conflict; no matter what way you cut it a nuke is a nuke. I don’t believe that Russia wants to restart a Cold War arms race; it would be far too expansive to maintain. Russia would ultimately be unable to beat the West in making a stronger deterrent, so something tells me that this is a more immediate strategy with short-term goals. There is more to Russia’s strategy of deterrent than just 40 more nukes…

2) Throw dirt on NATO.  NATO has been amassing weapons in Eastern Europe and erecting ABM systems. In a twisted way NATO may actually be more likely to start war than Russia with its new nukes. Nuclear weapons will probably never be used and are just for show. Conventional arms though have a use. Building nukes is a relative tame and sane strategy in comparison to amassing conventional arms. Russia is of course amassing its own conventional arms on the border and working to develop them, so we shouldn’t demonize NATO and celebrate Russia for its commitment to international peace (yes there is sarcasm in some places here). Russia is not trying to raise any broad dialogues regarding the efficacy of nuclear vs. conventional weapons, Russia seeks results. Nukes may kill fewer people each year than conventional weapons but they carry far more fearful connotations. Putin is seeking to put NATO in an awkward position by forcing them to respond to an awkward problem. NATO will need to tread very carefully in forming a response. An eagerness to counter Russia weapon for weapon will likely make Europe shudder and begin to doubt US strategy. By the same token a retreat would simply reveal NATO to be a paper tiger. NATO needs to simply continue what it has been doing and not feel obliged to respond to Putin’s nuclear ambitions. Modern ICBMs will take years to manifest away so we have all the time we need to feel Russia out on this. Making no changes in our policy will likely just put Putin in an awkward position, more on this later.

3) Adapt to economic challenges. Russia has faced increasing economic pressure but it has shown that it can continue to be dynamic. Russia has continued to develop and modernize its military, recently unveiling the new T-14 Armata tank just over a month ago. This has significant symbolic meaning both as reassurance for citizens and as defiance of the Western sanction regime. The symbolic meaning of the Armata is worth much more than its actual use on the battlefield. With current economic conditions Russia is unlikely to be able to modernize its massive conventional army. Developing new ICBMs circumvents this problem. Russia can develop a new generation of rockets to keep on hand without the need to mass produce them.  Enhancing the nuclear option carries the same symbolic power as a new tank but at a much more reasonable price tag. Nukes however also carry greater symbolic ramifications than conventional weapons. Due to their destructive potential nukes are somehow more threatening and grim than conventional weapons, even if they see virtually no use. Russia may choose updated nukes to adapt to economic times, but by doing they are raising the stakes to a point that heightens hostility and makes rapprochement with the West, and the lessening of economic sanctions, less likely.

Can it be said therefore that Russia is acting rationally?
NO. Russia is not making a very rational decision if its aims are to reduce tensions and reduce NATO relations to a simmer. This means two things. Either A) Russia has different goals with a different sort of rationality that I am missing or B) Russia is intentionally courting chance and has deemed irrationality as the best strategy. I am more inclined with the latter explanation. By giving an impression of irrationality and uncertainty Russia is playing a strong strategic card. Russia is perfectly rational in assuming an “antic disposition” not unlike that of Hamlet. Threatened with action by NATO, perhaps restricted perhaps not, Russia is raising the stakes as high as they can go and then poking and prodding. We find ourselves in Cuba. The year is 1962. We are playing nuclear chicken all over again.  What do we do? Do we continue to raise the stakes further? Do we retreat and seek diplomatic solutions?

I wrote a game theoretic analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I will likely post it at some point, but for now I will talk about it. When confronted with a seemingly irrational Khrushchev and attempts by the Soviets to arm Cuba, Kennedy decided to neither pursue a military option nor a diplomatic one. He did not give in to UN urges or the convictions of his more military-minded advisers. Kennedy carefully analyzed the situation and reviewed the policies given to him by ExComm and decided on a middle road option: a quarantine. A peaceful option would have done nothing to curb Russian ambition while a military option would have been unable to destroy all nukes and had too many variables that may have resulted in escalation. A quarantine, that is, a blockade around Cuba that barred atomic weaponry from the island, circumvented this choice. Khrushchev thought he put Kennedy in a corner; imagine his surprise when Kennedy just took a very restrained but still forceful option and delivered an ultimatum to him. Kennedy forced the burden of decision back on Khrushchev, who found that he could no longer fake irrationality and had to take responsibility in resolving the crisis. The United States left room for the Soviet Union to contribute to an effective solution.  This is not to say the quarantine was not dangerous. There were still many close calls that could have sparked war, but the risks were arguably reduced the most with the quarantine option. Risks are precisely why Putin’s strategy is so dangerous.

He doesn’t like NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe and will push us as much as he can. By flying Russian planes near our bases he is almost daring us to respond, knowing full well that we won’t. By building nukes he is reminding us of what will happen if we would respond to wayward Russian planes. He is trying to make us and all of our allies uncomfortable and trying to make a NATO presence in Eastern Europe undesirable. It would behoove NATO leaders to look towards Kennedy and his actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When there is no willing solution, sometimes the best strategy is a vigilant and firm status quo. We both have very few options on the table, so the best strategy is to leave them on the table and hope that Russia will burn through her options until she has no other recourse but to seek a diplomatic compromise.

It should be noted that the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t just an act by evil Soviets. Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs that he was very concerned of Cuba’s safety and was just trying to promote the security of the Castro regime by lending military aid. Had we not tried to kill Castro or invade Cuba Russia would likely never have tried to station troops there. Let that be a lesson to us. Had we not tried to expand NATO or create ABM systems perhaps US-Russian relations would be more positive and constructive than they are today…

For more on nuclear politics I recommend Mueller’s Atomic Obsession. For more on Cuba I recommend Allison and Zelikow’s Essence of Decision.