Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Muse: Tracking the Kremlin's Course to World Confrontation

The Buffalo

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent address to his national parliament accusing the west of orchestrating his nation’s most troubling misfortunes merely illustrates the sad reality which the western world faces in dealing with a government that has openly committed itself to an autocratic course of international subversion and confrontation. Putin’s latest harangue against the west now leaves no doubt that the rest of the Russian government has now fully bought into the Kremlin’s shameful denunciations of its peaceful neighbors and that most of its misinformed population is equally prepared to blindly follow wherever the Soviet strongman dares to take them. What is perhaps most disturbing about Moscow’s antipathy is that Putin has resorted to utilizing a noxious strain of virulent jingoism unseen in the west since 1930’s Berlin to portray his nation’s woes as one of distinctly external origins. By emphasizing a purely fabricated Russophobia as the main motive of his regime’s foreign detractors, Putin can only be preparing the Russian people for the inevitable confrontation he now is determined to create.

If the western world hasn’t taken notice by now than Putin’s recent accusation blaming the west for his military’s illicit intervention in Ukraine should be all the evidence the west needs to realize how far the Kremlin is prepared to go in deceiving its own people to justify its newfound proclivity for armed aggression. But what’s worse is the fact that the west’s inability to sway the Kremlin away from its Ukrainian venture can only mean Russia will undoubtedly use the same tact again when it moves on to threaten its other neighbors with sizeable Russian minorities. And that scenario is no longer a question of ‘if’ but rather ‘when’. Putin’s latest xenophobic address to parliament more than hints at the course the Kremlin is prepared to take. This was not an isolated diatribe to indict the west for Russia’s economic woes but rather a calculated attempt to sway Russia’s political establishment that the Kremlin’s foreign policy is now obstinately framed to an ‘us versus them’ mentality and that the fate of Russia’s historical precedence in the whole Slavic world is very much at stake and in danger of being eclipsed by the democratic free world. 
Vladimir Putin

Putin’s one character trait that should most alarm the democratic free world is his willingness to outright lie to the rest of the world to conceal the extent of his bellicose foreign policy or the limits he will go to in order to repudiate Russia’s duplicity in undermining the sovereignty of its democratic neighbors. This more than illustrates his contempt for the international community, especially the west which he has always viewed as the major impediment to achieving Russian greatness. But more significantly, it signifies the Kremlin’s reluctance to afford the same international statutes governing national sovereignty to those nation’s that used to reside within the former Soviet orbit as it does to those nations that did not. In other words, Putin’s desire to return Russia to its former status as a military and economic superpower state is most likely unachievable without a return to the overarching Soviet system that made postwar Russia the sage of Eastern Europe. Putin’s political future now depends on his ability to restore that harsh and contentious institution. 

In the last five years Putin has made a compelling effort to resurrect the former Soviet behemoth by instituting the kind of political constraints that enable a totalitarian state to develop and thrive. None of these changes could have been possible without the help of a blatantly partial and invasive, state security service. Putin has continued to etch his stamp all over Russia’s domestic security service, the FSB, ever since he directed the KGB’s predecessor agency under former President Boris Yeltsin. By personally placing a number of professional cronies into senior positions in the FSB hierarchy, Putin gains a free hand in directing the vast apparatus of an all-encompassing police state however he sees fit. Thus political enemies and other domestic opponents of his regime must walk a fine line in the way they express their disapproval of Kremlin policy. Inevitably as Putin has consolidated his hold over the FSB and Russia’s other police agencies the breadth and substance of that opposition becomes increasingly muted and perilous.
Russian Chief of Gen. Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov

With Putin’s relationship with Russia’s security apparatus solid and secure, he can now move onto eliminating another vestige of Russia’s fleeting experience with capitalist democracy by returning it to the one-party system that once embodied the Soviet state. This particular facet of democracy has already been widely censored by the Kremlin over the last six years. In that time frame Putin’s United Russia Party has gradually come to dominate political rule at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Ever since the launching of United Russia in 2008 many of Russia’s other independent political parties have either been marginalized to the point of irrelevance through corruption at the ballot box, contempt from the state-sponsored media or by harassment from security and electoral agencies servile to a Kremlin agenda. Many political watchdog groups, investigative reporters and international human rights monitors have been expelled from the country; imprisoned on trumped-up charges and even murdered for delving too far into the Kremlin’s excesses. Naturally this type of scrutiny goes a long way in squelching some of the more hostile political parties or driving them underground. Currently that is where most of the more pertinent anti-Putin resistance circles must disseminate its message from.

The most critical obstacle to the Kremlin’s transformation back to the days of Soviet yore is their increasingly suffocating stranglehold over Russia’s media establishment. Controlling the message emanating from Moscow and stifling the dissemination of news from abroad was always the central priority of the Soviet system. It worked quite effectively for more than six decades under the communists and no doubt has made a strong impact on the way Putin views his regime’s relationship with today’s news media. This holds especially true in the information age, where access to international news can be readily gathered through the internet by a bevy of computing devices. Although controlling that output in today’s day and age is truly a daunting task for any totalitarian regime, the Kremlin seems quite adept at manipulating Russia’s information technology to the regime’s advantage. Although they can’t completely suppress every bit of news that emanates from cyberspace, Putin’s formidable hold over Russia’s major media outlets at least assures that a large majority of the news available to the Russian people is circulated with a distinctly pro-Kremlin slant. 
Russian forces moving into the breakaway Donetsk Republic

With the scope of Russia’s audience firmly attuned to the Kremlin’s perspective, Putin can inject his virulent propaganda to the Russian people in ways that could cast even the most passive of bystanders as the most intimidating threat. By arousing his people’s deepest nationalistic passions Putin has taken a page right out of Josef Goebbels’ playbook by presenting Russia as the main victim of western manipulation since the fall of the Soviet Union. Mix those caustic invectives with malicious tales of western racial bias against the Slavs and other examples of foreign Russophobia and the Kremlin accomplishes its main task of invigorating the masses toward an impending conflict. And by portraying Russia as a nation under virtual siege from NATO encroachment and western economic blackmail, the Kremlin can ultimately control the level of furor of the nation’s fabricated, mass hysteria by invoking the Soviet Union’s Cold War nemesis as being up to its old tricks once again. This is exactly what the Nazis’ did in the interwar years by depicting the Great War victors as the root cause of Germany's desolation. 

The biggest question that remains unanswered is just how far Putin is prepared to go in order to satisfy Russia’s return to global superpower status. The fact of the matter is; Russia is fairly limited to what it can get away with politically and economically in the international markets. With economic sanctions gradually tightening around the Russian economy the Kremlin’s ability to invoke its own form of economic blackmail on energy-starved Western Europe is seriously mitigated. This leaves only the military option as the way to redeem Russian greatness. Of course, Putin is well aware of this limitation thus he must carefully pick and choose how, why, when and where he uses his military resources. Although it is quite plausible that Russian forces from their Central Military District will be consigned to monitor the volatile borderlands along the Ukrainian frontier for the foreseeable future, the Russian Armed Forces are perfectly capable of projecting military power in many separate areas of the globe at any given time. And its muscle-flexing Commander-in-Chief is quite prepared to give its rambunctious commanders an extended length of leash for which to propagate Russian power abroad.
Ukrainian victims of a Russian artillery barrage

Russia’s military intervention in the disputed Georgian enclave of North Ossetia was probably just a trial run for their provocative land grab in Ukraine. But make no mistake about it; the Kremlin’s interest in the Ukraine greatly preceded their concern for the Russian minority in Georgia. The intervention in North Ossetia simply verified the tact the Kremlin would take in offering aid to the Russian minorities as the justification Putin has concocted to begin his reconstruction of the Soviet Union. If it sounds similar to Adolf Hitler’s imperial summoning of the German Volksdeutsche into one all-inclusive German Reich that’s because it truly is just another veiled attempt at empire-building in the fa├žade of militant nationalism. In case we haven’t noticed already, many of Putin’s most recent public speeches have proudly invoked the historical significance of Russian imperialism as the decisive factor in projecting the supremacy of Russian culture abroad. This is precisely why Russia’s neighbors have historically kept a wary eye on the Slavic behemoth to the east. 

In invoking a pledge to come to the immediate aid of all Russian-speaking minorities within striking distance of Moscow, the Kremlin has given notice to every Eastern European country with sizeable Russian communities that they have an obligation to adjudicate their ethnic rifts with an eye to appeasing Kremlin sensitivities. Putin has made it abundantly clear that this type of ethnic indifference was the main transgression that Kiev stands accused of committing. Although it is merely a pretext for Russian military intervention, Russia’s other western neighbors are warned to pay heed; that the spark which will ignite tension with the Kremlin will most likely appear from within their Russian minority groups. Like their counterparts from the Russian expatriate communities in Eastern Ukraine, many of these agitators are masquerading as fifth-column provocateurs in the employ of the Russian FSB or their more militant comrades in the GRU. Once again these very likely scenarios seem to elicit a striking resemblance to the activities of the Nazis’ during the 1938 Sudetenland Crisis and the prewar ethnic rivalries between German and Pole in Danzig and Upper Silesia.
NATO Security Council in session, Brussels

So where does this leave Ukraine? The sad truth is Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin cronies have no intention of ever leaving Ukraine. It is also quite doubtful that the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are the only regions that the Kremlin is interested in. The whole history of Russia’s post-Tsarist, military industrial complex has been closely tied to the Donetsk Industrial Basin, which runs roughly from the Sea of Azov to the Lower Dnieper River. A large portion of Russia’s military-grade, heavy metal ore and coal deposits lie within this region. Much of the heavy industry that resides there, although turned over to Ukraine in accordance with the political agreements that granted Kiev independence from Moscow in 1992, have had their commercial trade agreements structured largely to Moscow’s advantage. These are not about to be renegotiated or simply abandoned by the Kremlin. More significantly though is the Kremlin’s belief that Russia, by virtue of its magnanimous, centuries-long hold over all economic development in the lands of the former Russian Empire, is entitled in perpetuity to reap the fruits of their administrative labors by manipulating most of the interstate commercial trade agreements in the former Soviet lands unfairly in Moscow’s favor.

Based on these assumptions it is most improbable that Moscow is about to leave Kiev with a free hand to run its own affairs when so much lies at stake for Russia’s strategic future. Putin himself has already made it a point to emphasize Ukraine’s future as being forever intertwined with Mother Russia’s. Thus it seems highly unlikely that Moscow’s appetite for Ukrainian land can be sated by consuming just the eastern provinces now in dispute. Moscow’s ambitions run much farther west and in all likelihood stands to run right up to the right bank of the Dnieper. If Russia can reach this formidable geographic barrier than for all intents and purposes the dismemberment of Ukraine will be complete. It might also be noteworthy to point out that Russia still harbors grand designs on affecting a land link to their newfound province in the Crimea. This puts most of Southern Ukraine in the line of fire; a scenario not lost on Kiev’s southern neighbors in Romania and Moldova. While most of Eastern Europe anxiously awaits the outcome of the Russian-Ukrainian border war, many of these states are beginning to distance themselves from Kiev in the hope that Moscow will be swayed from encroaching further west. But this can be nothing more than wishful thinking.
Polish and US Special Forces on joint combat exercises

In Putin’s grand scheme of things Ukraine is just a steppingstone to far more strategic land acquisitions with better outlets to the sea. These lie to the north in the Baltic States, where Russia’s restless minority has already begun to stir. Estonia and Latvia, both standing members in the NATO alliance have everything to fear from a resurgent Russian military, unshackled by the constraints of its post-Soviet downturn. Both these countries have quite sizeable Russian minorities, many of them who regularly travel to and fro the mother country. The danger to these lands rises exponentially the more Ukraine’s hard-pressed armed forces weaken due to armament deficiencies. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case should the west resolve to supply Ukraine the means to compellingly defend their sovereignty from the Kremlin-sponsored insurrectionists but it is increasingly doubtful the west wants to force Putin’s hand by opening up the floodgates to outright invasion. Thus NATO must state unequivocally that Putin’s line in the sand lies smack dead across the frontier of the Baltic States.

The next few months will prove crucial to the west in interpreting the Kremlin’s long-term military goals. The increased military posturing and reckless saber-rattling by unrestrained Russian warplanes is sure to continue throughout Europe and the far northern longitudes as long as the Kremlin is content to showcase the Russian military’s latest expansion. This is the posture Russia is most comfortable projecting since it heralds back to the days when Soviet might was right. Yet as blatant and counterproductive as it is, it still is merely bluster akin to a child showing off his newest toys. The real test will come when the child no longer fancies those childhood games and moves on to challenge the big boys in a new game that matches wits and resolve with stamina and strength. In the meantime we here in the west must firmly acknowledge the Kremlin’s prompt renewal of the Cold War while doggedly preparing for the clash to heat up.                                                                   

Friday, November 21, 2014

Guest Editorial: From our good friend, Proffessor Stephen M Walt


The Top 5 Foreign Policy Lessons of the Past 20 Years

From Russia to China to the United States, from hubris to ultimatums to power plays, the good, the bad, and the ugly of (recent) world politics. 

Tell me, friend: Do you find the current world situation confusing? Are you having trouble sorting through the bewildering array of alarums, provocations, reassurances, and trite nostrums offered up by pundits and politicos? Can't tell if the glass is half-full and rising or half-empty, cracked, and leaking water fast? Not sure if you should go long on precious metals and stock up on fresh water, ammo, and canned goods, or go big into equities and assume that everything will work out in the long run? 

Today's world is filled with conflicting signals. On the one hand, life expectancy and education are up, the level of violent conflict is down, and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty over the past several decades. Private businesses are starting to take human rights seriously. And hey, the euro is still alive! On the other hand, Europe's economy is still depressed, Russia is suspending nuclear cooperation with the United States, violent extremists keep multiplying in several regions, the odds of a genuine nuclear deal with Iran still look like a coin toss, and that much-ballyhooed climate change deal between the United States and China is probably too little too late and already facing right-wing criticisms

Given all these conflicting signals, what broader lessons might guide policymakers wrestling with all this turbulence? Assuming governments are capable of learning from experience (and please just grant me that one), then what kernels of wisdom should they be drawing on right now? What do the past 20 years or so reveal about contemporary foreign-policy issues, and what enduring lessons should we learn from recent experience? 

No. 1: Great-power politics still matters. A lot.
When the Cold War ended, a lot of smart people convinced themselves that good old-fashioned power politics was a thing of the past. As Bill Clinton said when he first ran for president, the "cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era." Instead of being roiled by power politics, the world was going to be united by markets, shared democratic values, and the Internet -- and humankind would concentrate on getting rich and living well (i.e., like Clinton himself). 

There's no mystery as to why this outlook appealed to Americans, who assumed this benign vision would unfold under Washington's benevolent guidance. But the last 20 years teaches us that this view was, as usual, premature, and great-power politics has come back with a vengeance. 

Of course, the United States never abandoned "power politics," and Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all emphasized the need to preserve the U.S. position as the world's most powerful country. They understood that their ability to exercise "global leadership" depends on U.S. primacy and especially America's privileged position as the only major power in the Western Hemisphere. That position gives U.S. policymakers the freedom to wander around and meddle in lots of other places -- something they would not be able to do if the United States were weaker or if it had to worry about defending its own territory against serious dangers. 

But the United States isn't alone. China's increasingly assertive policies toward its immediate neighborhood shows that Beijing is hardly indifferent to geopolitics, and Russia's assertive defense of what it sees as vital interests in its "near abroad" (e.g., Ukraine) suggests that somebody in Moscow didn't get the memo about the benign effects of globalization. And regional powers like India, Turkey, and Japan are taking traditional geopolitical concerns more seriously these days. Bottom line: If you thought great-power rivalry was a thing of the past, think again.

No. 2: A lot of global politics is (still) local.
A related element of the initial post-Cold War optimism was the idea that the world was gradually being united by globalization and that societies with very different values and histories would gradually converge on a set of similar institutional forms (i.e., some form of market-driven democracy). Identity politics would be handled within representative institutions, and the big political questions would be mostly global in nature (e.g., trade and investment regimes, labor standards, human rights norms, arms control, macroeconomic management, etc.). Messy local issues like minority rights or border disputes would gradually disappear from the global policy agenda and we'd all converge into one big and mostly happy global family. 

But surprise, surprise: Local identities and issues keep reasserting themselves. Israelis and Palestinians still fight over who gets to pray where in Jerusalem. Catalans, Kurds, and Scots clamor for independence. Minorities in Myanmar, China, Russia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa face violent discrimination. Outside efforts to create a centralized state in Afghanistan and to build effective governments in Iraq and Libya founder over ethnic, sectarian, or tribal divisions. And opposition to outside interference in distant lands inspires both local and transnational terrorism.
America's melting-pot mythology tends to blind U.S. leaders to the enduring power of these local identities, because Americans tend to view such affinities as pre-modern traits that will get discarded once education, markets, democracy, and modernity take hold.
America's melting-pot mythology tends to blind U.S. leaders to the enduring power of these local identities, because Americans tend to view such affinities as pre-modern traits that will get discarded once education, markets, democracy, and modernity take hold. But the past 20 years suggest that this view is dangerously naive, and any foreign-policy initiative that doesn't take local identities and conditions into account is likely to fail. 
  No. 3: The only thing worse than a bad state is no state.
U.S. foreign-policy elites routinely blame foreign-policy problems on the supposedly evil or illegitimate nature of other governments. In this view, international politics isn't a clash of competing interests; it is a morality play between good states -- America and its allies -- and bad states, or anyone who disagrees with us. During the Cold War, the problem was revolutionary communism led by the evil Soviet empire. After the Cold War, the United States blamed trouble on various "rogue" states such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Serbia. These states were bad because they were dictatorships and had poor human rights records, revisionist aims, and, in most cases, an appetite for weapons of mass destruction. The obvious solution to the rogue-state problem, of course, was regime change: get rid of these very bad rulers and create governments that treat their own populations better and cooperate with the United States. 

But as the sorry results of regime change in Libya and Iraq suggest, getting rid of really awful leaders isn't an improvement if the result is anarchy or a weak, corrupt, and highly divisive regime. One might add Yemen and Somalia to the list as well, and that's where Afghanistan is likely to be once the international community stops propping it up. Creating effective governments in post-totalitarian societies turns out to be very, very hard, and especially after a violent overthrow. It is even harder when the society in question is divided and relatively poor, and the lack of any legitimate or effective authority creates power vacuums in which the worst sorts of extremism can flourish. What's the lesson for all you unrepentant regime-changers out there? Be careful what you wish for.

No. 4: "Take it or leave it" is bad diplomacy.
Over the past 20 years, the United States has also shown a regrettable tendency to issue demands and make threats but not to engage in genuine diplomacy, which is properly understood as the mutual adjustment of competing interests for mutual benefit. Because they saw their opponents as evil and believed the United States held most if not all of the high cards, Americans tended to view any concessions on their part as a form of surrender, even if they ended up getting much of what they wanted. Instead of real bargaining, the United States tended to tell others what it wanted them to do and then ramped up the pressure if they didn't comply. 

This take-it-or-leave-it approach produced a war over Kosovo in 1999, and it also took us from zero Iranian centrifuges in 2000 to over 11,000 operating today. It also appears to be driving the Western response to Ukraine: The basic EU/United States/NATO position is that Russia should cease all of its activities in Ukraine, withdraw from Crimea, and let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it ever meets the membership requirements. In other words, we are asking Moscow to completely abandon every single one of its own interests in Ukraine, full stop. That outcome might be highly desirable in the abstract, but given Russia's history, its proximity to Ukraine, and its own long-term security concerns, it is hard to imagine Russian President Vladimir Putin capitulating to the West's demands without a long and costly struggle that will do enormous damage to Ukraine itself. Like that infamous village in Vietnam, both sides appear to be prepared to destroy Ukraine in order to save it. 

Of course, the United States isn't the only country that has adopted this approach to key diplomatic issues. China seems uninterested in genuine diplomacy over the South China Sea, and Benjamin Netanyahu's government in Israel has made it clear that it is willing to negotiate with the Palestinians only if the talks never lead to an agreement or if the Palestinians formally abandon the creation of a viable state of their own.
Unfortunately, diplomacy conducted primarily through threats, ultimatums, and a steadfast reluctance to compromise rarely produces successful or durable outcomes.
Unfortunately, diplomacy conducted primarily through threats, ultimatums, and a steadfast reluctance to compromise rarely produces successful or durable outcomes. First, even much weaker parties usually have some residual bargaining power, which means that even the most powerful states will have trouble getting absolutely everything they want. Second, when the weaker side is forced to capitulate under duress, it ends up being resentful and will look for opportunities to reopen the issue when conditions are more favorable. To make diplomacy work, you have to give the other side enough of what it wants so that it has an interest in abiding by the deal over the long term. Finally, failure to negotiate with appropriate flexibility also allows problems to fester and deepen, which often makes it harder to resolve the problem later on. 
  No. 5: Beware hubris.
The ancient Greeks warned about hubris -- that fatal combination of arrogance or overconfidence that leads foolish mortals to challenge the gods -- and we've seen ample reminders of its pernicious consequences ever since. It was hubris that drove the United States to expand NATO with scant regard for its long-term consequences. It was hubris that has led U.S. diplomats to think their personal charm and powers of persuasion were sufficient to produce a two-state solution in the Middle East. Hubris took George W. Bush into Iraq, and hubris convinced European leaders to create a common currency despite ample warnings that the institutional requirements for a currency union were missing. Hubris lay behind then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's grandiose hopes that Turkey would become the linchpin of a new Middle East order while having "zero problems" in foreign policy. There was even a hint of it in Obama's belief that he could overcome intractable problems with a single well-delivered speech. It remains to be seen whether Putin has overreached in Ukraine, but if it ends in disaster for Russia, hubris will have played a role there too. 

There's an enduring lesson here. In a world with no central authority and many independent if unequal centers of power, the realm of foreign policy remains one where competition is endemic and where even the strongest of actors find it hard to impose their will at little or no cost. It remains a realm where chance and contingency loom large and where grandiose schemes and ambitious crusades usually fail. Like with mutual funds, past success is no guarantee of future performance, and countries riding high at one moment can find themselves in serious trouble without much warning. 

The post-Cold War era proves this beyond all doubt: If the mighty United States could stumble with such relentless frequency, that was surely a reminder that statecraft should start with realistic goals and with an eye toward possible pitfalls. And if they are smart, prudent leaders will always have a Plan B at the ready.
That's my list of top five lessons. What's yours? 

Photo by Feng Li/GETTY