One thing that Trump hasn’t done today yet (which he should have if he wants to stay in Putin’s good graces) was to congratulate Russians with Victory day. It’s an incredibly important holiday in contemporary Russia and its commemoration dynamic can help understand a large chunk of Russian foreign policy.Continue reading
Cue in the Twitter hot-takes in which Ukrainians elected themselves “a TV show star” with “no political experience”. Relax, not all TV stars are racist ignoramuses who want wall and try to spoon state flags. Despite winning the elections with a whopping 73% (and beating his own onscreen presidential score in his hit TV show), this one is different.
Somewhat cranky and slightly under the weather Putin graced the foreign journalists with his presence for almost 4 hours. Starting right off the bat with some optimistic economic indicators (that he used to be able to juggle without any papers), the conference progressed with its predictable pace and predictable plot points: a bunch of questions on economy, token booed Ukrainian question, some dad jokes and good tsar, bad boyars excuses. There was no panache, pizazz or punch. Putin is tired (at some point he was off by 20 million when talking about the Russian population) and his whataboutist rhetoric expected. His cough has got better since last year though.
At the beginning, Channel One gleefully pointed out that all accredited journalists are welcome at the press-conference (not really) and there are absolutely no restrictions. Press Secretary Peskov started with the Kremlin press pool soft ball questions (as though they don’t get enough access to the body of the sovereign on a regular basis). Crimea came up almost right away and kept coming up throughout the press conference. Putin got himself some rally-around-the flag theory ready and angrily pointed out that the only reason there was a “provocation” in the Kerch Strait is because presidential elections are coming up and President Poroshenko was looking to boost his failing rating. Moreover, Russia will increase its military presence in the Azov Sea the way it sees fit, especially given that some governmental officials in Ukraine are threatening to blow up the pained Crimea bridge. Putin forcefully denied that an “annexation” of the peninsula took place (despite having used that word himself several days prior). It was the citizens who came and voted to re-unite with Russia and now they are being punished for their vote by Western sanctions.
There is a spat of ecumenical proportions brewing in the Eastern hemisphere: Patriarch Krill of Russia stopped praying for the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The reason for that is simple: the patriarch of Constantinople is rumored to consider granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an autocephalous status that would potentially carve out a third of Russian Orthodox Church curacies severely damaging Moscow’s status as the third Rome* not to mention financial repercussions.
I am (sort of) on vacation and visiting the Motherland. In the meantime, I allowed myself a couple of days of couch potato mode that included some Russian TV. A political scientist in me is never on holiday so while flipping through some mainstream channels I made a little Russian TV digest for the Duck. I am not repeating Gary Steyngart’s experiment of watching Russian TV for a week at the Four Seasons, mostly because early career researchers don’t have money for 5* hotels and my mum cooks better than Michelin restaurants. Let’s skip the morning shows that, fortunately, don’t include the benefits of urine therapy anymore and just try to persuade Russian women to wear high heels otherwise they won’t find a man and will never be happy.
Footage of toppled Confederate statues all over cities in the US reminded me of the events my homeland went through a couple of decades ago and might go through again in some years. Some experts already compared the toppling of Confederate statues with “Leninopad” – razing of Lenin statues in Ukraine, but renaming streets and bringing down monuments was a la mode in newly independent Russia as well. Most Westerners might be familiar with the iconic footage of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s downfall in 1991 among the jubilant crowds gathered in front of the KGB building. The infamous founder of NKVD lost his base and never came back to the square in front of the now FSB. For the record though, my music school still has the Dzerzhinsky street address and his monument nearby sports fresh flowers every now and then. But I am from the Deep South that consistently voted for the Communist Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union until Putin managed to sway the electorate his way. That Dzerzhinsky is not going anywhere.
Three years ago, on this day, the Malaysian Airliner MH17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine. 298 people died. In October 2015, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) concluded that the airliner was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine. These findings were also confirmed in September 2016 by a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT). The Russian government disputes these findings.
Let’s go back 3 years to the Russian mass media and examine what passed as “truth” about the crash.
After Donald Trump won the elections in the US, Twitter was abuzz with the picture of potential UN Security Council country leaders that included Theresa May, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Marine Le Pen. So now all eyes are on France and its upcoming presidential elections. The possibility of ‘Frexit’ in case of Le Pen’s win is alarming enough, but Russia is also on the agenda. Russian-French relations have been strained since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, but have got even worse after President Hollande accused Russia of war crimes in Syria that purportedly prompted Vladimir Putin to cancel his trip to France. While in American elections Russia had a clear favorite, and did not really have a plan B for Hillary Clinton’s win, French elections seem to be much more comforting.
In the recently finished primaries on the right, the losing candidate Alain Juppe criticised the winner Francois Fillon for leaning too close to Russia. Fillon did defend Russia’s actions on a number of occasions and even wished for a Putin-Trump alliance. Putin admitted himself that he cultivated a good relationship with Fillon in 2008-2012, probably because they both belong to the J. Mearsheimer’s ‘I don’t give a damn about small countries’ sovereignty’ school of thought. On top of that, Fillon fits well with the conservative turn of the Russian government, being a vocal supporter of la Manif Pour Tous (anti-gay marriage movement in France), whose ‘traditional family’ poster has also been adopted by Russian anti-gay activists.
Marine Le Pen managed to shift Front National further to mainstream by purging some of her father’s most racist friends and allies and settling on a more conventional anti-migrant xenophobia. After all, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government expelled Roma migrants and closed borders way before the refugee crisis. Ms. Le Pen has been a welcome guest in Moscow and received a large loan from a Russia-affiliated bank for her party. Eurosceptic, pro-Trump and anti-NATO, Le Pen would be a perfect partner for Putin and the worst nightmare for the EU. At the same time, Sputnik News, a pro-Russian propaganda outlet, puts Fillon and not Le Pen into their IR dream ménage à trois with Putin and Trump. [dirty joke edited]
‘I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in my car. If I find one. Join me! They have earned it‘. If you were wondering who else was celebrating Trump’s win, it was the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan. Overnight, a deep-seated Russian Anti-Americanism and disbelief in American democracy was turned into almost unending love, although Russian Prime-Minister Medvedev still finds the name ‘Americano’ too unpatriotic for coffee and proposed to rename it into ‘Rusiano’.
The US election results came as a big surprise in Russia as well. According to many sources, most Russian TV talk shows had already prepared panels of ‘experts’ that were supposed to prove how democracy in the US is dead, how the elections were rigged, how American mass media were unfair to Donald Trump and how Clinton cash bought everything. Sound familiar?
These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however. Putin’s appearance of strength is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position. Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions, and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as U.S. weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless—sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.
Go check it out (paywalled).
Jeff Stacey has a new piece at Foreign Affairs that is basically a re-skinned version of his post at the Duck of Minerva. It should come as little surprise that I don’t find either piece particularly persuasive.
Overall, I agree with Jeff’s basic assessment of Russian moves as destabilizing. In Syria, where Moscow seeks to save the Assad regime, Russian intervention in a country that the US and its allies are already mounting military operations carries with it significant risks. Also, as Jeff writes:
Indeed, Russia has been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with allied planes and ships across Eurasia for many months now. Among other things, it has been both flying in the flight paths of Western commercial and military aircraft and using ships and submarines to intermittently sail into Western countries’ territorial waters. In addition, Russia has staged a series of large-scale military exercises just across the border of Poland and several Baltic states, and its intelligence service actually seized an Estonian agent during last year’s NATO Summit and held him for several days.
I see this ‘muscle flexing’ as a mixture of ham-handed coercive diplomacy and reversion to Cold War great-power repertoires. It would obviously be better for everyone if Moscow stopped, insofar as they increase the risk of military and diplomatic incidents. But, as I noted a few days ago, these efforts have generally backfired. Continue reading
The Russian Federation covers more territory than any other country. It has a large nuclear arsenal, skilled weapons designers, and the world’s fourth largest military budget—after the United States, China, and Saudi Arabia. But it maintains that budget—which comes it at roughly 12% of US military expenditures—by spending a larger percentage of its GDP on defense than does the United States, China, Britain, France, Japan, or Germany. Indeed, if the major European economies boosted defense spending to 3% of GDP—still short of Russia—they would each have larger military budgets.
Of course, military spending is a poor proxy for capabilities. Russia has a larger population than any other European state, along with a big army, extensive air-defense network, and other indicators of martial prowess. But it also has a smaller economy than the state of California, and still cannot indigenously produce much of the high-tech accruement of modern warfare. Moscow can certainly overwhelm many of its neighbors, but it isn’t a political-military juggernaut.
Thankfully, a wave of cooler heads have started to push back against the hyperventilations of #resolvefairy acolytes. But the whole notion that Putin is a master strategist, and that whatever goes down in Syria is a result of his outmaneuvering the West in Ukraine, needs a reality check.
Let’s review. Continue reading
The ominous Russian military buildup in Syria represents the most significant projection of force beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union since the old Cold War. It will allow Russia to keep the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria, effectively negating the new diplomatic path toward resolution of the regional sectarian war that has been opened up by the Iran nuclear deal.
In addition it will further enable Russia to build and retain a major forward operating base for Russian military forces. At first it will be used to keep Assad in power. Then, as a cover, Russia likely will initiate sustained use of force ostensibly against ISIS, but actually to act as if Russia is in vanguard with the West and Middle Eastern powers in combating the world’s most dangerous insurgent group.
Beyond this, there is little guarantee that Russia won’t use its most high end military weaponry in other destabilizing ways that are contrary to western interests, such as attacking U.S.-backed opposition fighters (alarmingly, Russian drone flights have been scouting those areas, not ISIS areas). Offensive hardware including fixed wing Su-24, 25, and 27 fighter jets, attack helicopters, drone aircraft, main battle tanks, and SA-22 surface-to-air missile batteries have already been deployed at Russia’s new base in Latakia Syria in the backyard of Assad’s stronghold. Continue reading
A recent Pew poll says that they are. According to Pew, “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” Indeed, the news is grim. The public release informs us that, “Americans and Canadians are the only publics where more than half think their country should use military action if Russia attacks a fellow NATO member (56% and 53%, respectively). Germans (58%) are the most likely to say their country should not.”
Clearly, Pew thinks this is a big deal. How do we know? They provided a one-click solution for anyone wanting to publicize the finding on Twitter: “Germans (58%) most likely to say their country should not defend NATO allies against Russian military conflict https://pewrsr.ch/Rus-Ukr2015”
That certainly sounds distressing. Is it true?
Unfortunately, we can’t tell. Because that’s not the question Pew asked.
There has been much focus, and deservedly so, on the economic sanctions hitting Russia hard. The problem is whether they hit those who support Putin or not, and whether they create economic opportunities for those who are good at evading the law (the police, organized crime) who also happen to be tied to Putin.
With Russia’s incursions into Ukraine becoming more aggressive, there has been a lot of chatter about whether or not the U.S. government should arm Ukraine with lethal weapons. Defense Secretary Nominee Ash Carter has signaled his openness to such a move. Ivo Daalder, Strobe Talbott, Steven Pifer, and collaborators have issued a call for such support. There has been push back from Sean Kay and Jeremy Shapiro, other establishment foreign policy types. (With Talbott, Shapiro, and other folks from Brookings weighing in on opposing sides, there has been interesting discussion of this being an internal food fight there).
What are their arguments? How can we adjudicate who is right? In other words, what kinds of empirical and theoretical arguments can we draw on to assess these differences in judgment? Continue reading
Welcome to the second edition of “Tweets of the Week.” It was a busy seven days for news and my twitter feed provided much useful information — in micro-form.
The Scottish independence referendum featured especially prominently in my feed. This was perhaps my favorite tweet about the final result:
The Empire prevails. pic.twitter.com/pmLME4LmAg
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) September 19, 2014
Prior to the vote, my feed was filled with some great tweets about the #indyref. Here are a few of the shorter ones that I found especially helpful:
The #indyref is not 'too close to call'. Pollsters have called it. They might be wrong, but they've called it for No.
— John McDermott (@johnpmcdermott) September 17, 2014
The Scottish referendum, of course, was not the only interesting issue in global politics this week. And, over the long haul, it almost assuredly wasn’t the most important either.
For example, the continuing spread of Ebola might be the biggest near-term threat to international security — depending upon how we define “security.”
— David Dobbs (@David_Dobbs) September 15, 2014
No matter how depressed you might be about the prospect of new war in the Middle East, this tweet helps provide context:
— Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) September 14, 2014
But read this too, on ISIS/ISIL:
— Rodger Payne (@RodgerPayne) September 14, 2014
It also seems appropriate to be worried about Ukraine:
— Jerry Popowicz (@JerryPopowicz) September 12, 2014
Finally, here’s a blast from the past that might be quite helpful in a class that is discussing renewed war in Iraq:
— Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) September 15, 2014
Russia may have agreed to a ceasefire with Ukraine the week before last, but in addition to regular violations of it by both Russian forces and pro-Russian rebels, it is important to understand that what not long ago was considered an irregular conflict has transitioned into open warfare between Russia and Ukraine. Most of the fighting ended in a ceasefire when President Poroshenko — weakened by the West’s refusal to provide lethal equipment and the failure of the NATO summit to address the Kremlin threat in a fully comprehensive fashion — accepted Putin’s terms.
This ceasefire is unlikely to hold, however, as Putin is feeling his oats. Not only did he ignore NATO warnings not to send regular troops into Ukraine, he undermined President Obama and NATO’s efforts to reassure its Eastern members by abducting an Estonian intelligence officer the day the summit ended. With his regular troops, Putin has expanded and reinforced his position in the Donbass and has approached the port city of Mariupol. There are credible reports that Russian agents are at work in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, and Odessa.
If the West continues to react slowly and weakly to Kremlin aggression, Putin will face no serious obstacles to moving further west in Ukraine to Odessa and even the border with Moldova. Doing so would provide a land bridge to Crimea and Transnistria, the frozen conflict in Moldova that Moscow has nourished since the fall of the Soviet Union. Continue reading
The evidence that President Putin has lost Ukraine in the most important senses has been around for months–Ukrainians want to be western even more now, eastern Ukrainians in majority terms continue to want this as well, Ukrainians elected a pro-western President, the EU trade deal is going forward, and Poroshenko is pushing for NATO membership with NATO not ruling this out–but crucially what was not in place until recent days is credible conventional deterrence against additional territorial annexation by Russia. In an even more substantial indication of Putin disastrously overplaying what not long ago was a pretty good hand, Russia’s invasion/annexation of Ukraine was all NATO needed to renew and reinvigorate itself in addition to successfully reassuring eastern European allies and deterring Russia from serious intervention in them. NATO is stronger and more vigorous than it was even 6 months ago, and Sweden and Finland are likely to join its ranks in the near future.
I called for this in my pre-summit Foreign Policy piece, and we now have two examples of Russia heeding the redrawn strategic landscape. First, the incredibly harsh response from Moscow and a slew of empty threats of retaliation (with the expected nonadmission that Russia’s aggression caused the NATO response in the first place) and second an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine that Russia called for, that was verbatim from Poroshenko’s ceasefire proposals from last month, that occurred despite rebel/Russian advances on the ground, that caused Russia to admit and demonstrate it does have influence over the rebels, and that occurred before the NATO summit Wales even ended. [Note in the Foreign Policy piece, I did not title it “How to Beat Down a Bully”; the editor did that without telling me in advance; the original title was “How to Oppose the Putin Doctrine”] Continue reading
Seeing reports in the New York Times today on further Russian aggression in Ukraine has me thinking about Ely Ratner and Elizabeth Rosenberg’s recent article entitled “Pointless Punishment?” where they argue that Western sanctions on Russia are at best pointless and at worst counterproductive. I think Ratner and Rosenberg (R&R henceforth) have a valid point in looking at the ways in which sanctions might produce unexpected negative consequences for the US. But also I think the events being reported today, and some other lines of analysis that they do not include in their article, suggest that not only is the punishment not pointless, but that it is important for the stability of the international system and the health of the rules that underpin it that all states, or as many as possible, impose a significant cost of Russia.
To be fair, R&R argue that eventually isolation of Russia would be counterproductive. It would in the long term weaken Japan (which needs access to Russian gas supplies) and push Russia and China closer together by weakening Russia’s ties with states like India, Vietnam, and Japan that see China in a negative light. So while R&R do not say the international community should do nothing, since Russia shows no signs of backing down in Ukraine the suggestion does seem to be that punishment (i.e. sanctions) should be rethought now and probably abandoned.
There are some parts in their argument I find problematic. First, isolation of Russia in the long term is not inevitable, even with sanctions. Europe and the US have given Russia a clear path out of the crisis, and it doesn’t even involve returning Crimea to Ukraine. So it is possible that increased sanctions will push Putin to reconsider, particularly since he has thus far used military force in ways that allow him a level of deniability, which dramatically decreases the domestic cost to him of a policy reversal.
Also, in the long term Russia’s economy is going to push strongly in favor of selling hydrocarbons to Japan. Russia needs diversified customers. While it is true that Russia just signed a gas deal with China, it is not entirely as R&R characterize it (that Russia and China can cooperate when they have nowhere else to turn). Russia inked the agreement at the lowest possible price they had indicated acceptable, suggesting that while Russia had nowhere to turn, China apparently had enough options to drive a hard bargain. That imbalance will only continue to get worse as Russia’s economy suffers under sanctions and lost investment while China’s continues apace. My guess (and it is only that) is that Russia’s business leaders if not political leaders understand this reality. So it is unlikely that Japan will pay a serious long-term cost for participating in the sanctions regime now. And in the short to medium term, the United States may step in to the breach if LNG exports are approved by the Obama administration (thus strengthening ties between the US and Japan).
Second, R&R seem to ignore the political reality in Europe, where important NATO member states are increasingly nervous about Russia’s behavior, and what it means for them. Abandoning sanctions or any efforts to oppose/correct Russian behavior may lead to a weakening of the transatlantic relationship as some of the most stalwart Atlanticist countries come to doubt the resolve of US to help hold Russia in check and in general support European allies. So while sanctioning Russia may isolate it in the short to medium terms, not doing so may damage the most world’s most successful security alliance in the long term.
Third, R&R overlook the ramifications of Russia’s behavior in terms of nuclear proliferation. No mention is made of the fact that Russia violated an explicit legal agreement (the Budapest Memorandum) lodged with the UN by which it bound itself, the US, and the UK to observe the territorial integrity of Ukraine in perpetuity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its legacy nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War. Russia has completely violated that agreement. Failing to punish Russia undermines the international legal basis for assurances given to all non-nuclear states. The potential damage in terms of the nonproliferation regime is clear. So while isolation of Russia may be problematic, so to is the potential that the US might undermine sensitive negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program by appearing to dismiss the rule of international law and thus undermining the credibility of any promises given in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions.
All of this comes on top of the flagrant violations of the legal norms of sovereignty Russia has perpetrated in Ukraine. As with any policy, sanctions now and possibly enhanced sanctions in the future have a cost. But so does doing nothing, and in my reading the cost of the latter is far higher than the former. The solution, if there is any, to Russian transgressions in Ukraine is for the international community to come together with as broad a coalition as possible to impose sanctions on Russia, thereby undermining both an element of Putin’s legitimacy at home (economic growth) and defusing his nationalist narrative that he is leading Russia against Western oppressors. China may not participate, but if India, South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil, and other major states outside the ‘West’ do, that gives the best chance of short-circuiting the narrative Putin is using domestically to legitimate his policy while aligning material incentives to encourage him to stand down on Ukraine.