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.

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.

Clinton versus Putin.

While a majority of Republicans once believed that fair-play meant that the Republican convention should nominate the candidate who had won the most votes in the primaries, a majority (54 percent) of Republicans now wish that the party had not chosen Donald Trump as the candidate.  About a third (35 percent) believes that Trump was the best choice available.  Obviously, the latter figure doesn’t mean Trump alone.  It may be more of a statement about the Republican candidates who ran against Trump.  The Democrats aren’t in much better shape about Hillary Clinton.  Almost half (47 percent) of those who plan to vote for her will do so chiefly to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.  Scarcely a third (32 percent) are actually pro-Clinton.  More broadly, two thirds (66 percent) of all voters believe that HRC is dishonest, while less than a third (29 percent) believe that she is not dishonest.  Again obviously, the “Hillary is dishonest” camp includes every single Republican and a bunch of Independents.  Amidst the Viking funeral of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, people should attend to the recent poll reporting that 74 percent of Trump’s supporters think that Hillary Clinton should be in prison.[1]  How deeply that view has penetrated the minds of ordinary Democrats is unknown.[2]

This could have consequences for the 2016 presidential election.  A lot of people will vote for Hillary Clinton in order to keep Donald Trump out of the White House.

Unless, perhaps, they think that she is crooked.  “Crooked Hillary” has become a standard phrase in the speeches of Donald Trump.  This charge arises from Trump’s abrasive discourse and datcourse.  However, it gains traction from the perception that Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation engaged in unseemly practices during her time as Secretary of State.  The release of several documents from the investigation of Clinton by the EffaBeeEye has poured gasoline on this particular fire.

Earlier reports indicated that HRC’s e-mail had probably been compromised.  Trump invited the Russians to reveal what they had learned from the 30,000-plus “personal” e-mails that Clinton had ordered deleted from her private server.  Some people misconstrued this as an invitation to “hack” her private server.  The server seems to have been shut-down long ago, so it cannot now be hacked.  Trump’s hope seems to be that the Russians will reveal damaging information about Clinton’s private dealings with donors to the Clinton Foundation while she served as Secretary of State.

It seems reasonable to expect such “revelations.”  There is a lot of bad blood between Clinton and the Russian soon-to-be-tsar Vladimir Putin.  While serving as Secretary of State, Clinton challenged Putin’s authority in a country where being on the wrong side of the government can get you killed.  In early 2011, she, among others, deceived the Russians about American intentions in Libya.[3]  In December 2011, she described Russian elections as plagued by “electoral fraud.”[4]    If the Russkies have incriminating evidence, they may dump it.

Now the New York Times seems to be lighting “back-fires” in preparation for an “October surprise.”[5]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 12 August 2016, p. 18.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 9 September 2016, p.17.

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[4] See: http://dailycaller.com/2016/07/25/dec-2011-hillary-clinton-angers-putin-demands-investigation-into-russian-electoral-fraud/

[5] Neil MacFarquhar, “A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories,” NYT, 28 August 2016; Jo Becker, Steven Erlanger, and Eric Schmitt, “How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets,” NYT, 31 August 2016.

The Great Game–latest round.

“What do Russians want?”—Sigmund Freud.

One theory holds that the pursuit of foreign policy gains is driven by domestic concerns.[1] Russian actions in Syria and Ukraine are intended to distract Russians from their current economic hard times by reviving Russian parity with the United States. However, even though Russia remains burdened by economic sanctions imposed over the Ukraine and constantly assailed by Western leaders, Putin has called for new parliamentary elections in April 2016. That doesn’t look like a worried man. More likely, Putin’s chief concerns are international rather than domestic.

Vladimir Putin habitually gloms together a range of international events as evidence of the malign effects of American interventionism: Iraq (2003), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Libya (2013). Georgia and Ukraine may seem like a bad case of emotional sunburn, but it’s hard to argue with the examples of Iraq and Libya. As Putin made clear to New York Times reporter Peter Baker some years ago, he wants the Americans to stop it.[2] Apparently, Syria is the place where he intends to make his point.

Russia is trying to show that it is a better ally and worse foe than is the United States. In essence, the Russians want Assad to stay in place until they agree that he should go and that he be replaced by a regime friendly to Russia. At the moment, the Russians are willing to fight and the Americans are not, so Putin is likely to get his way.

The Russian intervention in Syria has been modest: 50 aircraft; 6,000 troops to service and protect the planes; and about $3 million a day. With that backing, however, Assad’s forces have expanded their territory at the expense of their foes. The anti-Assad forces approved of by the West often fight cheek-by-jowl with the anti-Assad forces disapproved of by the West (the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front). The Russians don’t seem much inclined to fine distinctions and the most-recent cease-fire agreement allows for attacks on both ISIS and the Nusra Front. The current fear in Washington seems to be that the Russians will continue their attacks on a broad swathe of anti-Assad forces after the cease-fire nominally goes into effect. If past performance is any guide, the US will not do anything more than protest as its nominal clients are killed.

However, now Assad’s troops are close to encircling the rebel city of Aleppo. If they can cut the main supply routes into the city before the cease-fire begins, then the cease-fire will allow a siege to run forward undisturbed. Any attempt by Assad’s opponents to break out of or break in to Aleppo would constitute a violation of the cease fire. Seen in that light, Putin’s insistence that he will honor the cease-fire may be “sincere.” The fall of Aleppo might put the last nail in the coffin of the non-ISIS part of the insurgency.

That still would leave ISIS. Would the Russians back a Syrian effort to reconquer the eastern part of the country from the Caliphate? If they did, what sorts of questions might that raise for other countries? The United States would have to decide if it would co-operate with such an attack. After having complained that the Russians have not been attacking ISIS, it might be embarrassing to refuse to join an attack on ISIS. If the Syrians did attack eastward, would they navigate around the Syrian territories held by Kurds? Leaving the Kurds in place would pose a problem for Turkey’s President Erdogan, who has been after Assad’s head for years. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision!”[3]

[1] Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Wins Policy Points. Now What?” NYT, 24 February 2016.

[2] See: “Obama versus Putin.” https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] Joel, 3: 14.

On the Road to Damascus.

For a guy who played a lot of Chicago rec league basketball, President Obama seems to get taken to the hoop a lot by Vladimir Putin. First it was the Ukraine crisis. Now it is Syria. Tomorrow …

A couple of “realist” Republicans—Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates–have recently spelled out the foolish notions that have guided President Obama in dealing with Russian actions.[1] It appears to come as a surprise to the Obama administration that other countries have foreign policy goals that are different from those that the United States wants to establish as the norm.[2] It appears to come as a surprise to the Obama administration that not everyone views Nineteenth Century great-power politics as “bad old days.” The United States does not want to launch a military intervention in Syria. Consequently, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry insist that there is no military solution possible. Both Russia and Iran beg to differ.

In contrast to the president’s derision of Russia as “just a regional power,” the “fact is that Putin is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well because he knows exactly what he wants to do.” In the view of Rice and Gates, the Russians are using military power to bolster the situation of their Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. As a first order of business, they plan to tip the balance in favor of the regime and against the non-ISIS rebels. Whether Russia and Iran will then extend the campaign to crush ISIS is an open question. What the Russians can hope for is to insure Assad’s grip on the western, more heavily populated parts of the country. Russian intervention has also startled the Turks, who have been living with two civil wars (Iraq, Syria) and a Kurdish insurgency on their southern border for years.

Implicit in this analysis is a harsh judgement by Rice and Gates about the United States: it is playing a strong hand badly because its decision-makers have no idea what they want to do. The two critics see “a vacuum created by our own hesitancy to engage in places such as Libya and to stay the course in Iraq.” They favor creating “no-fly zones and safe harbors” in Syria to protect the civilian population from harm. They favor “providing robust support for Kurdish forces, Sunni tribes, and what’s left of the Iraqi special forces.” In short, the U.S. needs to do what Russia is already doing: “create a better military balance of power on the ground on the ground if we are to seek a political solution acceptable to us and to our allies.”

At first glance, this sort of hard-headed thought can only be welcomed by anyone who has studied Nineteenth Century diplomacy. (See: “What Would Bismarck Drive?”) However, the Rice-Gates polemic raises as many questions as it answers.

First, the op-ed piece reads like a “realist” Republican manifesto for the coming election. (That supposes that a “realist” Republican will get the nomination, rather than one of the exhibits from a political Mutter Museum[3] who now crowd the stage.) “Who lost the Middle East?”

Second, “no fly zones” enforced against whom? Just Syrian military helicopters dropping barrel bombs, or Russian strike jets as well? Lot of “de-confliction” will have to go on.

Third, Rice and Gates totally ignore the reality of a Shi’ite-Sunni civil war now ablaze. For the moment at least, the Russians have picked the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle the divide, which it did so much to create by its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Back when Condoleezza Rice served as National Security Adviser.

[1] Condoleezza Rice and Robert M Gates, “See Putin for who he is,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 October 2015, A15.

[2] Woodrow Wilson had the same sense of unreality at encountering Great Power politics at the Versailles Conference in 1919. However, a sense of unreality is not a legal defense.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCtter_Museum

The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

Ukraine1.

I’ve been reluctant to write about the Ukraine. I find myself totally out of step with opinion. I don’t like Vladimir Putin[1], but I think that someone should try to make a fair case for understanding his actions.[2]

For one thing, if you look at maps of Ukraine, you see that Crimea and the two eastern “oblasts” (administrative districts) of Donetsk and Luhansk are predominantly Russian-speaking: 77.0%, 74.9%, and 68.8%. In the referendum on independence from the Soviet Union the south-eastern “oblasts” all voted for independence like the rest of Ukraine, but the opposition vote was much higher than elsewhere and so was the abstention rate. In the 2006 and 2007 parliamentary elections, Viktor Yanukovich’s Russian-oriented “Party of Regions” carried a huge swath of south-eastern Ukraine. The Yulia Timoshenko bloc had carried a huge swath of western and central Ukraine. In the presidential elections of 2010, Yanukovich narrowly defeated Yulia Timoshenko by mobilizing the same pro-Russian electoral base in the south-east.

The opposition to the Yanukovich government’s decision to halt the process of integration with the European Community (EU) centered in the west and center of the country. These regions had voted for Timoshenko in the 2010. In contrast, there were few demonstrations or protests in the southeast. Only five protests were identified for the two eastern “oblasts” and Crimea combined. In contrast, there were large pro-Russian protests in the two eastern “oblasts,” Crimea, and elsewhere in the southeast. Finally, supporters of the “Euro-Maidan” protests seized control of local governments in western and central Ukraine, but never even made a stab at it in Crimea or the two eastern “oblasts.”

According to “polling data by [the German polling agency] GfK taken from 4-18 March [2014] in all regions of Ukraine (including Crimea), 48% of Ukrainians support[ed] the change in power while 34% oppose[ed]. In the Eastern and Southern regions the revolution is supported by 20% of the population, whereas 57% or more of the population in the rest of the country supports the change in government. Also, only 2% of those polled said they fully or partially trusted former president Viktor Yanukovych.”[3] So, while Yanukovich was widely unpopular, a clear majority of people in the southeast opposed the revolution in Kiev.

Crimea has been annexed to Russia; the continuing “insurgency” in eastern Ukraine is limited to the two eastern “oblasts” where real opposition to the Kiev revolution was very strong for ethno-cultural reasons.

Is it possible that Vladimir Putin is doggedly[4] pursuing very limited aims with regard to Ukraine? His aims at the moment appear to be to take control of the two eastern-most “oblasts.” Will he desire to push beyond this to open a land bridge to Crimea? Would he wish to take all of the territory that voted for pro-Russian parties? Would he settle for a Ukraine “neutralized” as was Austria[5] during the Cold War? It’s hard to know unless someone asks him.

[1] As Joseph Joffe said on NPR: “he’s a nasty son-of-a-bitch.”

[2] “I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side. We have none but evidence for the prosecution and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English. It is un-American; it is French.”—Mark Twain, “About the Jews.”

[3] Wikipedia. Reference misplaced.

[4] Putin isn’t much inclined to turn loose of something once he has engaged with it. Russians are still fighting in Chechnya in an insurgency that has gone on in fits and starts since 1994.

[5] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austrian_State_Treaty