Russia 31 July 2017.

Russia’s reclaiming of Crimea and its support for breakaway groups in eastern Ukraine led to American-led economic sanctions.  Putin’s sudden increased support for the Assad regime in Syria helped turn the tide in the civil war against American proxies.  Putin’s intervention in the American presidential election to the disadvantage of Hilary Clinton, led, first, to the expulsion of a number of Russian “diplomats” and, now, to the passage of further sanctions.

Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump elected president of the United States.  This is the gist of much of the explanation of the Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election.  Trump had said many positive things about Putin, especially in comparison to President Barack Obama.  As President, Donald Trump would take a softer line toward Putin’s effort to get Russia back on its feet.  In particular, Putin hoped for an easing of the sanctions imposed after the Crimean and Ukrainian initiatives.[1]  “That bet has now backfired spectacularly.”  A huge majority in Congress supported the new sanctions.  Putin responded by ordering 755 American “diplomats” out of Russia.

That order has been portrayed as a dramatic further step in a downward spiral of Russo-American relations.  However, there is a certain dissonance between the American and Russian discourse on these developments.  Putin’s public announcement of the reductions “was free of bombast,” said one White House official.  Putin’s order on staff reductions doesn’t take effect until 1 September 2017.  So, there’s time to talk.  Then the staff reductions could be accomplished in a number of ways.  David Sanger calculates that there are 1,279 people employed at the American embassy in Moscow and three consulates.  Cutting 755 people from 1,279 would leave 524 people.  Of the 1,279 current total staff, 934 are “locally employed” people (i.e. Russians in non-sensitive areas).  That would leave 345 “diplomats” in place along with 119 over-weight, chain-smoking cleaning ladies.  Then there are all sorts of other American government employees from non-diplomatic agencies.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former American intelligence official and now director of intelligence and defense projects at the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School of Government, took a dispassionate approach.  He told Sanger that “We’ve been in a new Cold War for some time now.”  In his view, on the American side, “emotions took over the [Russo-American] relationship” late in the Obama administration.  First “fear,” and now “anger” drive American policy toward Russia.  “The Russians would have preferred not to head down this path, but Putin didn’t feel he had a choice but to respond in the classic tit-for-tat manner.”

In contrast, the American discourse emphasizes grave dangers.  Angela Stent argues that “One of Putin’s greatest goals is to assure Russia is treated as if it was still the Soviet Union, a nuclear power that has to be respected and feared.”  Dan Coats, the former Republican senator and current Director of National Intelligence (DNI), says that Russia is “trying to undermine Western democracy.”  James Clapper, predecessor to Coats as DNI, warned of “the very aggressive modernization program they’re embarked on with their strategic nuclear capability.”

Putin is wicked, but he doesn’t seem stupid.  He seems to hate Hilary Clinton, but he couldn’t have her killed.  So, he settled for trying to harm her chances of becoming president.  He could hardly have supposed that Russian intervention in the American election would not be discovered.  So, he was willing to suffer the consequences.  Where do we want the Russo-American relationship to go from here?

[1] For one recent example, see David Sanger, “Putin’s Hopes for Relief Under a Trump Presidency Backfire Spectacularly,” NYT, 31 July 2017.

Advertisements

Vlad the Impaler Putin.

Vladimir Putin has proved an adept politician in several unforgiving systems.  Under Communism, Putin spent five years as a KGB officer in East Germany, then rose quickly through the intelligence bureaucracy.  When in August 1999, the ailing and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin looked around for a prime minister, the intelligence service pushed forward Putin.  The previously unknown Putin swiftly bolstered his claim to power by battering the rebellious Muslim province of Chechnya into ruins before Christmas.  Yeltsin soon designated Putin to be his successor.[1]  (Already post-Communist Russian “democracy” had begun to fail.)

American leaders soon took a strong dislike to Putin.  From the banks of the Potomac, this is easy to understand.  In domestic policy, he began transforming Russia from a proto-democracy into an authoritarian state.  He replaced the oligarchs who had seized wealth and power during the collapse of the Soviet economy with men loyal to himself.  A “free” press now exists only to the extent that it allows him to claim that everyone else has not been muzzled.  Elections have been ended for the regional governors and rigged to an uncertain extent for the national legislature, so his party now dominates the legislature.  Many of his opponents are in prison or dead under circumstances that would be “mysterious” only to a child.

In foreign policy, Putin has alarmed those who believed that Russia being “down” meant that Russia was “out.”  In addition to the blitzkrieg on Chechnya, Putin has ground away at the territory of the post-Soviet states.  First Georgia, then Ukraine felt Russian power.  In Ukraine, Putin took advantage of a revolutionary situation to seize the former Russian territory of Crimea, then sponsored a rebellion in the heavily Russian eastern districts.  Western countries imposed economic sanctions, but Putin shrugged them off and so did ordinary Russians.  In Summer 2016, Putin allied with Iran and Iraq to support the Assad regime in Syria.

Putin is deeply hostile to the United States.  The immediate roots of this hostility lie in events since 2011.  When the “Arab Spring” uprisings began, the United States abandoned its long-time ally, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, in favor of currying favor with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  When a copy-cat rebellion began in Russian-allied Syria, President Obama said that President Bashar al-Assad had to be removed from power.  When yet another rebellion began in Libya, the United States intervened to ensure the defeat of the dictator Ghaddafi, then walked away while the country burned down.  Then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that there had been irregularities in the Russian parliamentary elections.  Existing Russian protest movements quickly expanded in scope.[2]  Then they were clubbed into submission.  Recently Putin launched a cyber-attack on the Clinton presidential campaign.

In the official American view, Putin is trying to discredit democracy as an alternative to authoritarianism.  The American official explanations don’t persuade.  He’s a guy who believes in vendettas.  Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Nemtsov head a long list of Putin’s critics and opponents who have wound up dead.  Hillary Clinton couldn’t be killed, but she could be hampered in her desperately needy run for office.

More broadly, Putin is playing a classic game of great power politics.  Syria is a Russian client-state; he’s made a clear choice in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war; Crimea used to be part of Russia; and Ukraine is to Russia as Mexico is to the United States.  For the moment, he’s winning.

[1] “Putin’s Purpose,” The Week, 20 January 2017, p. 11.

[2] One recent study has calculated that, since 1945, the United States has tried to influence elections in 45 foreign countries.  “Noted,” The Week, 20 January, 2017, p. 16.

Erdogan in 2017.

Donald Trump is not a fascist, but there is good reason to think that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is a fascist.  He became prime minister as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002; then became president; then campaigned for much stronger powers for the president; then, in June 2015, saw the AKP blocked from winning an outright majority for the first time; then played the anti-Kurdish/antiterrorism card to regain a majority for the AKP in November 2015 elections; then ruthlessly exploited a failed in July 2016 to purge Turkey’s civil and military institutions of purported supporters of the coup; and then proposed a referendum on greater powers and time in office for the president.

One of Erdogan’s closest advisers told the Wall Street Journal that “In these lands [i.e. the Middle East], if you need to survive, you need a very strong system.”  The proposed constitutional changes include getting rid of the prime minister and transferring powers from parliament to the president.  If the voters in the referendum–tentatively scheduled for June 2016–approve his plan, Erdogan could remain president until 2029—or until the cows come home.[1]

The AKP has 316 seats in the legislature.  It needs 14 more have number required to win parliamentary approval for the referendum.  Where will Erdogan find the votes he needs?  One theory is that the conservative MHP party will support the legislation in hopes of gaining a voice in the new government.  However, between May and November 2015, Erdogan refused to form a coalition government when his party lacked a majority.  Why would the MHP view the offer of a vice-presidency in the new government for its leader as anything other than a short-lived transaction to get the referendum approved?  The MHP would soon find itself discarded.  Erdogan seems more likely to use national security issues to stampede support.

In the mellow, holiday-induced state of mind, it might be possible to view the prospects for the Middle East in 2017 with a certain optimism.  The horrible Syrian civil war appears to be grinding to an end with an Assad victory in western Syria.  In Iraq, the Shi’ite majority, with the backing of Iran and a lot of American airpower, are battering at the eastern borders of the ISIS caliphate.  The caliphate seems likely to collapse entirely in the coming year.[2]  The Iranian nuclear agreement has muted the drum-beat for a new war for the time being.

However, Erdogan’s justification for strengthening the powers of the president rests on a belief that things are going to get worse, not better in the Middle East.  First, there is the Kurdish problem.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq created an autonomous proto-state in northern Iraq.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have played an important part in the containment of ISIS.  Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a grave threat to its national existence.  The Shi’ite majority in Iraq takes a similar view.  The Kurds are likely to rise to the top of their opponents’ To Do list once the fate of the Assad regime is settled and ISIS is defeated.  Attacks on the Kurds will pose problems for American diplomacy.

Second, there is the problem of Turkey’s future orientation.  Will Turkey remain in NATO and continue to press for membership in the European Union (EU)?  In 2016, Erdogan unleashed a flood of refugees and economic migrants on the EU in a bid to extort financial aid and revived negotiation on Turkish entry into the EU.  On the other hand, recently Turkey has patched up its several quarrels with Russia.  What real inducements can Vladimir Putin offer Turkey to shift its alliance?  Aside from the psychological affinity of two authoritarian leaders?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Violence Bolsters Erdogan’s Power Play,” WSJ, 23 December 2016.

[2] Surviving fighters are likely to flee abroad.  Many of these refugees will become a counter-terrorist policing problem in Europe and elsewhere in Arab countries.  ISIS itself will cease being a military problem.

Turk’s Head Knot 2.

Since the foundation of the Turkish Republic by Mustapha Kemal, the military has been the guardian of the secular, Western-oriented policy laid down by “Ataturk.”  On many occasions, most recently in 1997, this has led to military coups against elected leaders.  When Recep Tayyip Erdogan first came to power in Turkey in 2003, he presented himself as the champion of a democratic Islamism.[1]  However, he took care to cripple the ability of the military to intervene in politics.  His efforts included what is now recognized to have been a faked prosecution of military leaders for planning a supposed coup in 2008.  After 2011, je also supported the Egyptian Islamist Mohammad Morsi of Egypt, another democratically elected leader.  Morsi had faced down Egypt’s military dictatorship for a time.  When, in 2013, the Egyptian generals overthrew Morsi, Erdogan had to give thought to his own desperate position.  Since 2013, Erdogan has been on a rampage as he sought to shore up his claim on power.

In mid-July 2015, some members of the military of the Turkish Republic got fed up with President Erdogan and tried to overthrow him.  They missed their punch.  Not the least part of the key to Erdogan’s survival came in the support he received from pro-democracy opposition parties.  Ever since, there has been Hell to pay.

The failed coup will have a tremendous impact within Turkey.  Erdogan has launched a sweeping purge that targets the military, the bureaucracy, the schools, and the kinda-free media.  Alleging involvement in the coup, Erdogan has either dismissed from employment or arrested thousands of people.  He has bruited it about that his one-time ally Fethullah Gulen conspired in the coup.  The American reluctance to extradite Gulen on what may well be specious charges adds fuel to the fire of Erdogan’s rising hostility to the United States.  Turkey is in danger of becoming a “normal” Middle Eastern country.

What impact will these events have in the region?  Since 2011, Erdogan has opposed Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[2]  Turkey has provided the chief conduit for foreign-fighters of all ideological commitments to reach Syria.  Turkey has provided the main road for supplies from elsewhere (i.e. Saudi Arabia) to reach those who are willing to fight against Assad.  This seems to have included many people bound for the ISIS caliphate.

Erdogan has turned even more emphatically against Turkey’s Western allies.  He had already unleashed a tidal wave of Syrian (and other) refugees on Western Europe in order to extract various concessions from the Europeans.  Even more dramatically, Erdogan’s government has accused the United States of complicity in the failed coup.

Furthermore, Erdogan has shifted his stance on the civil war in Syria.  He has sought to mend fences with the Russians.  The Turkish air force pilots who shot down a Russian strike-fighter over a penny-ante invasion of Turkish air space in November 2015 have suddenly found themselves accused of involvement in the coup.  Erdogan’s sweeping purge of the military leadership has dragged down the commander of the Second Army, which controls the border with Syria and Iraq, along with many of his subordinates.

The Assad government might hope that the Turkish supply route for fighters may be closed, while the anti-Assad government might fear that their main supply route would be cut.  So, the Russo-Assad alliance took heart.  They launched a long-prepared assault to cut the last life-lines into Aleppo.  In desperation, many of the rebel groups combined to launch their own counter-attack.  It continues, with little chance of success.

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Political Foes Stood by Leader,” WSJ, 18 July 2016.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Upheavals in Turkey Threatens Rebels in Syria,” WSJ, 5 August 2016.

The Great Game.

Under the tsars of the 19th Century, Russia greatly extended its territories.[1]  Some incidents in this expansion caught the attention of Westerners: the “Great Game” played between Britain and Russia in Afghanistan and Persia (now Iran); Japan’s humiliating defeat of Russia in 1905; and the rivalry in the Balkans between Russia and Austria-Hungary that helped bring on the First World War.  Less noticed, at the time and since, Tsarist Russia conquered many small Muslim states in Central Asia.  This gave Russia, and later the Soviet Union, a huge Muslim population.  What was to become of these people if Russia, and later the Soviet Union, broke up?  As with Russia’s original expansion into the region, recent events here have not been much noticed by Western media or much discussed by Western officials.  For both the Russkies and the local peoples, however, the issues are important.

One example comes from the Turkic region.  Back in the First World War, the Ottoman Government had vast visions of a central Asian Empire that encompassed the Turkic people inside the Russian Empire.  Defeat in war and the victory of the Communists in the Russian Civil War put paid to that fantasy.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of the Turkic peoples created various “stans” as independent states.  Turkey revived its dreams of extending its influence throughout the region.  Turkey spread its influence by fostering cultural, educational (lots of exchange students), and business connections (investment).[2]

However, the particular emphasis—“pro-Muslim Brotherhood, rather than pan-Turkic”—given to this long-term effort by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to rankle.  Russia remains far more important the region than is Turkey.  The attitudes toward Islam are more varied among the Turkic peoples than Mr. Erdogan’s own preference.

So problems had been developing.  Then the Turks—foolishly—shot down a Russkie fighter-jet that had briefly over-flown Turkish territory while attacking Syrian rebels.  The Russkies weren’t too pleased.  They slammed on all sorts of sanctions.  Russian police and immigration officials continually harass Turks working in or visiting business in Russia itself.  Turkic Russians resist burning bridges.

Another example comes from Chechnya.[3]  Russia fought several gory wars to retain possession of the little territory in the North Caucasus, then put in a former rebel, Ramzan Kadyrov, as the ruler.  Since then, the government has “Islamized” Chechnya.  It’s almost impossible to buy alcohol, women wear the hijab, and the mosques are packed.  However, Chechnya’s Islamists are Sufis, rather than Wahhabists.  Saudi Arabian-sponsored Wahhabism is what inspires ISIS and similar movements.  Among those similar movements were the jihadis who initially fought for Chechen independence from Russia.[4]

There are two points worth pondering.

First, Turkey is a member of NATO.  Do the Russians have a right to think of Erdogan’s forward policy among the Turkic people—like tighter links between the European Union (EU) and Georgia or Ukraine—as a hostile act?

Second, have the Russians found a means of defusing radical Islam by embracing an equally intense, but less radical, version?

[1] There is a greater similarity here to the simultaneous expansion of the British Empire and to American “Manifest Destiny” than English-speaking peoples like to admit.

[2] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Turkey’s Rift With Russia Frays Ties With Turkic Kin,” WSJ, 24 June 2016.

[3] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Under Putin Ally, Chechnya Islamizes,” WSJ, 3 June 2016.

[4] See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamil_Basayev and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_al-Khattab

Ending the Syrian Civil War.

Preliminary peace talks for the Syrian civil war got underway in November 2015. Neither the Assad government nor its opponents have been represented so far, just the other powers for whom they serve as proxies. The peace process seems likely to occupy a good deal of news attention in 2016. What do the major participants want?[1]

Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria. Assad is a fellow Shi’ite and his opponents are Sunnis in the midst of a larger Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. Syria borders on Lebanon, where Iran supports the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement. Iranian troops have been fighting in Syria, as have large numbers of Hezbollah fighters. So Iran will want at least an Alawite post-Syrian successor state in the western parts of the country. The Shi’ite government of Iraq seems to have demonstrated a greater willingness to cooperate with Iran than with the United States.

Russia supports Assad, a long-time ally. Russia and Iran (and the Shi’ite government in Iraq) have been co-operating to air-lift troops, aircraft, and materiel from Russia to Syria. Russian aircraft and artillery are now fighting in support of the Assad regime. The Russians are not necessarily committed to Assad remaining in power over the long term, but they will want a diplomatic victory and they will want a friendly state in control of the coast.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are deadly enemies. Saudi Arabia is deeply hostile to Assad’s Alawite (Shi’ite) government. It has been supporting hardline Sunni groups (read radical Islamists) fighting against Assad. They want him gone and a Sunni-majority government in place. That is, they want a Sunni victory in this phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.

Turkey wants Assad gone and a majority Sunni government in place. Turkey’s policy in pursuit of this goal has been emphatic. However, Turkey also wants to suppress Kurdish nationalism, which has profited from the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as viable states. Turkey has been using the Syrian refugee crisis to exert pressure on the European Union (EU) for—among other things—greater engagement against Assad.

The position of the United States is very awkward. It has already declined to play any active role in the Syrian civil war. Its real concern is to roll-back ISIS as a factor in Iraq, so that it can withdraw once more. The Saudis, the Turks, and the Russians haven’t shown much interest in this problem. With regard to Syria, the US has backed down in its demands. From demanding that Assad be removed as part of the solution, the US retreated to saying that Assad can have no long-term role in governing Syria to desiring to limit whether Assad can run for re-election. Also, the US has agreed to allow Iran to participate in the talks. This has infuriated the Saudis.

What is going to be negotiated? First, what form will a transitional government take? Second, who gets to participate in that government? The Russians want to pick and choose between “terrorists” and “moderates,” with only the latter allowed to participate in a transitional government. The Saudis want the reindeer games to include their clients/proxies (many of whom are Islamists). Having angered the Saudis by allowing Iran into the talks, the US probably will have to back the Saudis in their demand that Islamists be defined as “moderates.” Even if some of them are linked to Al Qaeda.

What will happen to Lebanon in the aftermath of a partition of Syria? The place is awash in Syrian refugees and Iran’s client Hezbollah is very powerful. Will it get absorbed into the Assad-ruled rump-state? That’s likely to scare the living daylights out of Israel. It’s always something.

[1] “Syria Talks: What Countries Want,” NYT, 14 November 2015.

The Eastern Question(s).

In what language were the warnings to the Russian pilots issued? The Turks claim that the warnings were made in English (which I understand to be the international language of air traffic control). Still, the Department of Defense needs to release the recordings and soon.

Who cares what the President of Turkey wants? On the one hand, Erdogan has been attacking the EU through the refugee crisis. Domestically, he’s been playing the nationalist card in order to increase his own authority and re-design the constitution. First, his hostility was directed against the Kurds. Now he’s getting into air-battles with the Russians and calling on NATO to back him up. On the other hand, he’s deeply worried about the rise of a Kurdish proto-state in northern Iraq. He has legitimate reason to be worried about this danger to the future integrity of Turkey. The US attack on Iraq in 2003 looks worse and worse with the passage of time. Which is saying something.

ISIS made its spectacular gains last summer in operations against two states (Iraq and Syria) rotted by internal conflicts in which many people were estranged from their governments and the governments forces were back on their heels. Despite the bitterness in the press announcements, there is a certain congruence of policy. American policy has been to try to reduce internal strife in Iraq by evicting the Shi’ite president and getting his Shi’ite successors to tone down their anti-Sunni policies. Russia has chosen to try to reduce the internal strife in Syria by helping the Alawite government defeat their Sunni opponents. Both the Americans and the Russians are doing much the same thing, if only the Americans would see it: stop the further collapse of the front-line states opposing ISIS. The chief difference here is that the Russians have made a clear choice to back the Shi’ite side in that civil war in alliance with Iran and the government of Iraq, while the Americans are trying to straddle the Shi’ite-Sunni civil war. President Obama’s proposal to stage a new Libya in Syria—overthrowing the government, then walking away as the place burns, which is what the US did a few years ago—is not going to improve the situation. (See: Obama versus Putin.) The Russians aren’t the ones who need to get their act together.