Commentary Magazine


Topic: Georgia

Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

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Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

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The Putin Doctrine

Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

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Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

“There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language,” Marten explained. “One way, ‘Rossisskii,’ refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be ‘Rossisskii’ if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.” That was how Putin had been referring to Russians. He was the leader of the Russian state, and his language reflected that. But then, Marten wrote, “Instead of sticking to the word ‘Rossisskii,’ he slipped into using ‘Russkii,’ the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian.”

This was significant especially because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to Marten, Putin was signaling that he was driven by ethnic Russian nationalism–a figure to whom ethnicity, not borders, is the key determinant of his behavior toward others. The consequences could be severe, Marten wrote:

It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia, as German journalist Jochen Bittner argued in Tuesday’s New York Times. The possibility of ethnically motivated violence there looms on the horizon.

It is useful to look back on Marten’s post in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. The plane was, it appears, shot down by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Putin who had supplied them with the weapon that shot down the civilian airliner. It resulted in the deaths of about 300 innocent travelers whose plane might have been mistaken by the rebels for a Ukrainian military plane.

Putin, of course, blamed the West. But now it seems Putin the ethnic nationalist has taken yet another step toward war with Ukraine. While the downing of the plane involved Russian weapons and commanders crossing the border into Ukraine and then firing away, Reuters reports that the State Department has evidence the Russian military is shelling the Ukrainian military from Russian territory.

The erasure of borders, of course, started long ago–before Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Russia did, after all, invade Georgia in 2008 in the culmination of a decade-long escalation of Russian hostilities and attacks against Georgia, which included installing Russian commanders in Georgian separatist communities. Putin’s playbook has been relatively stable, so perhaps Marten’s linguistic analysis shows that Putin is not changing tactics but aligning his rhetoric with action.

And even if ethnic nationalism provides an explanation for Putin’s actions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strategy. In a jarring cover story for Time, Simon Shuster lays out the Putin approach to managing world affairs:

The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

It’s a strategy that has so far worked. And this afternoon’s news fits right in. When Putin needs a distraction–and he certainly needs a distraction from MH17, which has caused ripples of outrage in his direction–he simply causes more mischief.

The West routinely gets caught off-guard by Putin’s provocations. And while he may not be totally predictable, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His strategy of causing trouble in one place to distract from the mayhem in another tells us what he might do, and his ethnic nationalism gives us at least a ballpark estimate of where. If Shuster and Marten are correct, Putin is far from finished.

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Putin’s NATO Justification

To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

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To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

But it is disingenuous to suggest that Putin’s desire to reassemble the Russian empire is fueled by fear of NATO, a purely defensive alliance. Only someone who has been binge-watching RT (formerly Russia Today)–the Kremlin’s propaganda organ–could possibly imagine that, absent NATO’s expansion, Putin would be behaving in a more neighborly fashion toward Georgia, Ukraine, or other neighboring states that he still considers to be Russian satrapies. 

NATO expansion may be an excuse for Russian aggression but it is not its cause. Actually, NATO expansion has been a great force for peace and stability, helping to lock in the democratic gains in Eastern Europe and to impose limitations on Russian bullying. 

Far from backing away from NATO, the U.S. and its allies should double down. Ukraine and Georgia may not be ready for membership, but Sweden and Finland could easily be absorbed into the alliance as Swedish commentator Jan Joel Andersson argues in Foreign Affairs. “From a military standpoint, Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance,” he argues, and “it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences.” 

Such a bold step makes eminent sense to counter Russian aggression and to signal that the West will not accept Putin’s attempts to blame NATO for his own misconduct.

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Ronald Asmus’s Extraordinary Legacy

Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

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Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

Part of the reason NATO was an option at all in the early days was that the existing European structures were simply not up to the task of integrating and protecting the post-Soviet states. Initial hopes were that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could take stewardship of such an integration. But it was heavy on the cooperation and light on the security. Then there was the European Union, but France was opposed to opening its doors to full membership. “That left NATO,” Asmus writes.

There were a few turning points in NATO’s favor, some more famous than others. For Asmus, it was the Foreign Affairs article he authored along with two other colleagues at RAND in 1993 making the case for NATO enlargement. Another was a speech given around that time by Volker Ruehe, an up-and-coming German politician who had taken the defense portfolio in the German governing coalition. Ruehe, apparently without even telling the country’s foreign minister, gave a speech calling for NATO and the EU to put Central and Eastern European countries on the path to full membership. Asmus writes:

On the plane during the flight back to Cologne, one of Ruehe’s top military advisors remarked that it had been a mistake to give the speech and it would take Germany years to recover from the damage caused by the Minister’s comments. He was mistaken. Within several years every one of Ruehe’s core ideas would be embraced by the U.S. and would become official Alliance policy.

It was one of many examples that showed support for the alliance was always higher than it appeared, but also that the West (especially Europe) needed a good shove in the right direction every so often. The rest is, as they say, history.

Bill Clinton, too, deserves a fair amount of credit. Not only was he receptive to the ideas that led to NATO expansion, but he was a compelling spokesman for the cause. As the events in Ukraine this year and Georgia a few years ago showed, the countries most likely to be attacked by Russia are those without security guarantees from the West. Clinton made this point repeatedly. In 1997, Asmus notes, Clinton gave a speech to West Point graduates and declared that he wanted to expand NATO “to make it less likely that you will ever be called to fight in another war across the Atlantic.” Later that year Clinton met privately with a group of senators to gauge their support. “Extending a security guarantee is important,” Clinton told them. “No NATO member has ever been attacked.”

Joe Biden, too, made a powerful argument, telling skeptics like Jack Matlock and Michael Mandelbaum that not to enlarge NATO simply because there was no immediate threat from Russia was “a prescription for paralysis.” As we’ve seen in recent years, such complacency does indeed set in and grind progress to a halt.

And that is key to truly grasping the significance of what Asmus accomplished. Letting opportunities slip by, when it comes to European integration, often means there will be no second chance. Asmus saw an opportunity, made his case, and accomplished something historic before it was buried in bureaucratic inertia.

After the Senate overwhelmingly approved the expansion, Jan Nowak, the famed courier between the Polish underground resistance and Allied governments who was 84 years old at the time of the vote, approached Asmus from the Senate’s visitor’s galley. “I never thought,” he said with broad smile, “that I would live to see the day when Poland is not only free—but safe.” That was Asmus’s monumental achievement, and thanks to his determination it is America’s legacy.

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What Will It Take to Maintain Putin’s High?

Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine hasn’t been simply about uniting ethnic Russians; just as with the 2008 Georgia invasion, it has also been about the economy. Too many Western diplomats and policymakers—especially those who do not regularly follow Russia—are behind the curve with regard to Russian perceptions of Putin. True, Putin won plaudits for picking Russia up by its bootstraps in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s terms, but much of his economic success was less than met the eye and due more to the steep rise in oil prices. As oil has leveled off, the Russian economy has stagnated.

The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) had a great piece a few years ago looking at Russia’s economic vulnerability against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In short, Russia’s economy is stagnant. Rather than fix the problems and address the corruption from which he personally benefits, Putin has discovered that it is easier to whip the flames of nationalist fervor. But every time he makes a land grab–Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea and perhaps soon eastern Ukraine in 2014–he must subsidize the new territory, creating an even greater drain on Russian resources, all the more so since he also subsidizes client states like Belarus to keep them in line.

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Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine hasn’t been simply about uniting ethnic Russians; just as with the 2008 Georgia invasion, it has also been about the economy. Too many Western diplomats and policymakers—especially those who do not regularly follow Russia—are behind the curve with regard to Russian perceptions of Putin. True, Putin won plaudits for picking Russia up by its bootstraps in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s terms, but much of his economic success was less than met the eye and due more to the steep rise in oil prices. As oil has leveled off, the Russian economy has stagnated.

The European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure: my wife) had a great piece a few years ago looking at Russia’s economic vulnerability against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. In short, Russia’s economy is stagnant. Rather than fix the problems and address the corruption from which he personally benefits, Putin has discovered that it is easier to whip the flames of nationalist fervor. But every time he makes a land grab–Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and Crimea and perhaps soon eastern Ukraine in 2014–he must subsidize the new territory, creating an even greater drain on Russian resources, all the more so since he also subsidizes client states like Belarus to keep them in line.

Therefore, with every territory he grabs, the speed with which the Russian economy unravels increases, forcing the need for even more land grabs to stay ahead of the issue. It’s analogous to a cocaine addict who must constantly up his dose to get the same high.

As diplomats and analysts consider what might be next in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cross hairs, it would be a mistake to focus only on eastern Ukraine, the Baltics, and Moldova because if he really wants to bolster his economy, he must retain its energy monopoly. Here, pro-Western Azerbaijan, a neighbor to Georgia, may actually have cause for concern. Azerbaijan is a major energy hub, and last summer announced that it would direct its new pipeline to southern Europe, bypassing Russia. The completion of the project will undercut Russian leverage and the Kremlin’s ability to blackmail Europe. Russia knows this, of course, and has worked to permeate the opposition to President Ilham Aliyev, who has stood firm against both Russian pressure and Iranian attempts to infiltrate and radicalize Azerbaijan.

President Obama tends to play checkers instead of chess, but it’s time to think several steps ahead, and bolster Azerbaijan. It may really be the most crucial piece in the new great game.

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Biden’s Disingenuous NATO Promises

Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.

First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.

But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.

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Foreign-policy watchers on Twitter had some fun with the Associated Press when the newswire tweeted this morning: “BREAKING: Vice President Biden says US will respond to any aggression against NATO allies.” It wasn’t exactly “breaking” news that an attack on NATO would elicit a response from NATO. But I think Biden’s proclamation–“breaking” or not–is in fact worth discussing, for two reasons.

First, it should be a given that the U.S. will defend its NATO allies, but in the Obama era of resets and red lines, Washington has sought any excuse possible to avoid confrontation, even if it meant reneging on promises or obligations. Add to that the fact that the Obama administration has undercut America’s relationship with strategic allies–such as Poland, with which Obama has picked unnecessary diplomatic fights–and NATO countries probably do need to hear an explicit promise from the White House that this administration would fulfill its obligations.

But the other reason is that this promise–empty or not–is still a disingenuous sleight of hand. The recent crisis took place in Ukraine, which is not in NATO. This is not a coincidence. In recent years, Putin’s Russia has taken to invading and occupying foreign countries in Russia’s near-abroad under the pretext of “protecting” Russian or pro-Russian populations. These invasions are carried out against non-NATO countries. Had they been against NATO countries, Putin would have sparked wars involving stronger countries–such as the U.S.

The previous instance was Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. In seeking to differentiate the Ukraine invasion from the Georgia invasion–which elicited outrage mostly from the right, as the American left’s anti-Bush hysteria got the better of them and extended to pro-Bush foreign leaders–even some knowledgeable observers have taken refuge in the notion that Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili was goaded “into firing the first shot.”

This is preposterous, and it’s worth reviewing why in order to understand how Putin’s Russia treats its non-NATO neighbors. A good summary of the preceding events is contained in Andrei Illarionov’s essay in a book on the 2008 war, in which Illarionov reviews the Russian preparation for eventual war.

Russia began supplying one breakaway region, South Ossetia, with military equipment–including tanks and ammunition–before Saakashvili became part of the Georgian government. In fact, almost as soon as Putin joined Yeltsin’s government Russia began taking hostile measures against Georgia, which only increased as Putin became president and consolidated power. With tensions rising in 2002, Russia bombed Georgian territory. Soon after that, Putin claimed the right to take military action against Georgia under the guise of anti-terror missions.

Russia then staffed up South Ossetia’s government with Russian defense officials and sent more military equipment. Russia’s defense minister then echoed Putin’s threats to attack Georgia. More military goods along with Russian advisors would follow. The next year, Russia distributed Russian passports to South Ossetians with the declaration that it had an obligation to defend its citizens. More shelling of Georgian territory took place as well as a well-publicized attack on Georgian peacekeepers. Later that year, Georgian power lines were successfully attacked. The following year, a bombing traced to Russia at a Georgian police headquarters killed three.

Russia increased its construction of military bases and its transfer of arms and ammunition to breakaway Georgian territory. The following years had more of the same, with 2007 bringing major shelling of Georgian civilian territory and sustained military attacks. In the days before the war broke out in 2008, South Ossetian forces had begun sustained attacks on Georgian targets and territory. Georgia responded to South Ossetia, and Russia invaded Georgia.

To those who weren’t paying attention, the Russian attack on Ukraine came as something of a surprise. But this is how Russia behaves toward non-NATO states. So Joe Biden’s assurances to NATO states that the U.S. will stand by them is not a show of strength in the face of Russian expansionism. It’s a show of weakness, because it’s an implicit, but unmistakable, declaration that nothing has changed. If you’re not in NATO, you’re on your own. And by the way, the Obama administration doesn’t want you in NATO, whoever you are.

It’s nice to promise protection to states like Poland, which we have a record of betraying and whose leaders probably don’t find it so inspiring when Obama’s fans compare him to FDR. But the question is what to do about non-NATO states. George W. Bush’s preference was to put states like Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership and fuller democratization. The weak states in the region should ask Biden what he and his boss think they should do since they’re specifically excluded from the White House’s guarantees.

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Where Were Mistakes Made on Russia, Turkey, and Iran?

One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

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One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

The same holds true with Turkey: Warning signs extend back well over a decade, but the State Department refused to recognize them. In 2004, I researched a piece—based on a lot of leakage and documentary contributions from Turkish journalists and government officials who could not speak publicly—about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s money laundering schemes and slush funds. The piece upset the Turkish government. According to Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara assured that there was nothing to the report. How comforting, except that they did not apparently do anything other than ask government officials who had every interest in covering up the financial irregularities. The ambassador at the time blindly accepted the idea that Erdoğan was a reformer; he did not ask who the sources were and upon what the allegations were based.

Hindsight, however, shows the initial concerns warranted and the specifics of the article accurate. Likewise, Daniel Fried, a senior American diplomat, described Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as little more than the Turkish version of a Christian Democratic Party. This, too, was nonsense but it would be useful to see how diplomats came to reach such a conclusion. Many other former ambassadors to Turkey, some of whom had long been cheerleaders for the Erdoğan experiment, have now come around to the recognition that there is rot in Ankara, and there is not a democratic bone in Erdoğan’s body. The question for the State Department is not about the fact that they were wrong—there is no shame in that—but, with the benefit of hindsight, what were the warning signs they missed? Where was trust misplaced? Where did sources mislead? Absent such introspection, it is unclear why anyone should expect more accurate reporting or analysis from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey or Bureau of European Affairs in the future.

Iran is a more politicized topic but, given what is at stake, a more serious one: It is wrong to suggest that there were no negotiations with Iran in the decades between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: There was plenty, but John Kerry and negotiator Wendy Sherman seem intent on reinventing the wheel without consideration to how the same people upon whom they now rely have in the past lied and cheated. That does not mean that history is bound to repeat, but repetition is much more likely if senior American officials do not care to learn from past mistakes.

Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to the State Department everything seems a subject for talks. It should not surprise that Foggy Bottom does not want to consider its mistakes, because to do so might undermine the drive to dialogue. Introspection, however, does not diminish diplomacy; it simply makes it more effective. Perhaps, however, if the State Department is unwilling to do what’s necessary, it is time for Congress to exercise its oversight.

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The Crimea Precedent

As of this writing the Russian stock market is up more than 4 percent today after a 3.7 percent bump up yesterday. At this rate the annexation of Crimea is going to spark a major rally for Russian stocks.

Wonder what the Communist leadership in Beijing is thinking now as they contemplate the possibility of making an armed grab for the Senkakus or some other piece of coveted real estate? Perhaps they’re thinking that the consequences of such a move would not be all that deleterious–a few days of bluster from the U.S. followed by sanctions on fewer than a dozen individuals. Why not go for it?

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As of this writing the Russian stock market is up more than 4 percent today after a 3.7 percent bump up yesterday. At this rate the annexation of Crimea is going to spark a major rally for Russian stocks.

Wonder what the Communist leadership in Beijing is thinking now as they contemplate the possibility of making an armed grab for the Senkakus or some other piece of coveted real estate? Perhaps they’re thinking that the consequences of such a move would not be all that deleterious–a few days of bluster from the U.S. followed by sanctions on fewer than a dozen individuals. Why not go for it?

It is imperative that President Obama not stop with the extremely mild sanctions announced Monday. He needs to go after the assets of major Kremlin powerbrokers and their oligarch allies–and he needs to send a shot across Putin’s bow by barring at least one Russian bank from conducting cross-border transactions, as suggested by Mark Dubowitz. That is the way to really hurt Putin–to go after his assets and those or his cronies and to prevent the financial institutions they operate from functioning as per normal. Obama should also be providing military aid to Ukraine, to make clear that further Russian aggression will meet a determined response.

That, however, runs the risk of Russian retaliation which the U.S. and EU so far have not been willing to run. So the Russian stock market continues to waft ever upward and Putin is no doubt congratulating himself for his successful bout of Realpolitik. Having transgressed all international norms, Putin has prudently signaled that he is not preparing to go any further at this time, that he will leave eastern Ukraine alone for the time being, causing Russia’s neighbors to breathe a palpable but premature sigh of relief.

Once again the tsar in the Kremlin appears to be running rings around the leaders of the West, who appear to be weak and confused by comparison. If he can do it twice (in Georgia and Ukraine) he can do it a third time and a fourth. That is a terrible precedent to be setting, and one that the entire world will be taking note of.

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Putin Expects Western Inaction

Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

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Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

So what has the Western policy of restraint gotten us so far? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Crimea is preparing to vote this Sunday on an illegal referendum under the guns of Russian occupiers which will result in a predetermined endorsement of Anschluss with Russia. Meanwhile Russian troops are massing for maneuvers on Ukraine’s border, raising fears that Vladimir Putin is planning to annex more of that unfortunate country which most Russians regard as part of their empire. Oh and to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic criticism, Putin has just blocked the websites used by his critics Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny.

Only those who are unfamiliar with history can be surprised by Putin’s actions. Autocrats like him habitually keep pushing further and further as long as they sense weakness on the other side–and Putin obviously senses that today since he, like Bashar Assad, is able to violate our red lines with impunity. First we told him not to invade Georgia and he did. Then we told him to abide by a ceasefire and he did not; far from pulling his troops back, Putin has maintained effective control of significant chunks of Georgian territory. More recently we told him not to invade Crimea and he did. We told him not to annex Crimea and he seems to be in the process of doing just that.

It is well past time for the West to respond with serious sanctions that will inflict real damage on the Russian economy. For a start, block Russian financial institutions from access to dollar-denominated trades. Freeze the assets, held in the West, of so many of Putin’s oligarch pals. And block those same oligarchs from visiting their properties and families in the West. Already the Russian stock market is down more than 20 percent this year; that could be only the beginning of a free fall that will slice billions of dollars out of the value of Russian companies, most of them (given the nature of the crony capitalism in Russia) closely linked to the Kremlin.

None of that is likely to make Putin disgorge Crimea, which he sees as Russia’s historic territory, and unfortunately it will also inflict some pain on Western economies. But at least it will make him think twice about going any further. At the moment, the tyrant in the Kremlin no doubt feels like he has a green light for further aggression.

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Russian Aggression Merits a Response

Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.

This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.

Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.

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Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.

This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.

Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.

Certainly John Kerry’s warnings about Russia “crossing a line in any way” cannot carry much weight with Putin, who remembers all too well how President Obama allowed Bashar Assad to cross a previous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But the issue is not just Obama’s credibility or lack thereof; George W. Bush was still president in 2008 and he did precious little about Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

The more general issue is that Russia, while no longer a superpower, remains an important power that Washington hesitates to antagonize because of a general feeling that we need Russian help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and other important issues—and a sense that there is not much we can do anyway against a nuclear-armed state. Such sentiments are understandable but they should not be a bar to serious non-military action—for example imposing sanctions on either the Russian economy as a whole or on particular individuals, i.e., senior members of the government and their business world cronies who have built up hefty bank accounts and real estate portfolios in the West. At the very least the Russian elite must be made to pay a price if Putin does not stop his aggression against yet another former Soviet republic. More than that, the West must rally to the cause of the new government in Ukraine and provide the kind of support it needs–beginning with a financial lifeline–to withstand Russian intimidation.

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The Kremlin Responds

It didn’t take the (Russian) empire long to strike back. Having won a passel of medals at Sochi, but lost a country at the same time, Vladimir Putin is predictably perturbed. And when the tsar is angry, his own people and his neighbors feel his wrath.

With Ukrainians having overthrown Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin has ordered a riposte: Russian army units in western Russia and air forces across the country have been scrambled for an unscheduled “exercise.” At the same time, the pro-Russian population of the Crimea, home to an important Russian naval base, has been talking about secession from the rest of Ukraine–no doubt with the Kremlin’s encouragement.

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It didn’t take the (Russian) empire long to strike back. Having won a passel of medals at Sochi, but lost a country at the same time, Vladimir Putin is predictably perturbed. And when the tsar is angry, his own people and his neighbors feel his wrath.

With Ukrainians having overthrown Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin has ordered a riposte: Russian army units in western Russia and air forces across the country have been scrambled for an unscheduled “exercise.” At the same time, the pro-Russian population of the Crimea, home to an important Russian naval base, has been talking about secession from the rest of Ukraine–no doubt with the Kremlin’s encouragement.

It is by no means inconceivable that the two events could be linked–that Putin could send his troops into part of eastern and southern Ukraine on the pretext of “protecting” the Russian minority, much as Hitler did with Czechoslovakia.

This is muscle-flexing or saber-rattling–choose your metaphor–of a very old-fashioned kind seldom seen in Europe since 1945. But then Putin does not play by the rules that have governed much of the continent since World War II–witness his invasion of Georgia in 2008.

This is hardly a 1930s-style test for the West: Putin is no Hitler, and Russia is no Nazi Germany, bent on endless conquest. But it is a test nevertheless, and an important one. Putin is very much a tsar in temperament and action, and he seems bent on trying to resurrect as much of the Russian Empire as possible–if not as a formal state then as a Russian sphere of influence.

The West failed Georgia, but at least there the argument can be made it is a small country far away from the center of Europe and there was not much that could be done. Not so Ukraine: It is a large country (45 million people) located on the border with NATO members Poland, Hungary, and Romania.

The stakes are large, and the West must be prepared to send a clear signal that Russia has to back down. The clearest way to send such a signal would be (a) to finally offer a large financial package to Ukraine to prevent its economic spiral from getting out of control and (b) to offer, or at least talk about offering, Ukraine membership in NATO.

So far Europe and the U.S. prefer to talk about what to do rather than doing something. Putin is not bound by such scruples, and he is acting in ways that require a counter, lest Ukraine once again fall under the Kremlin’s control.

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Zurab Adeishvili and the Trouble with Interpol

Interpol is in many ways a strange organization. Strange, because most of what people know about it is wrong. For example, it’s not an international police force; it’s more like an international police bulletin board. Strange because, unlike too many international organizations, it exists more for what it does than what it says. And strange because, though like the U.N. it’s numerically dominated by the autocracies, it has escaped being organizationally dominated by them: the secretary general of Interpol has always been French, British, or–as today–American.

The democratic dominance of Interpol likely reflects the fact that it does something useful. Democracies have no great incentive to invest scarce diplomatic capital in reforming the various U.N. talking shops, but if Interpol goes badly awry, terrorists, fraudsters, and child molesters will have a much longer leash. To my mind, the democratic lack of interest in the U.N. is short-sighted, because talk does have consequences. But it’s clear that the U.S. is willing to give the U.N. a pass on bad behavior that it would never countenance from Interpol.

Unfortunately, in recent years, thanks to the machinations of its autocratic members, Interpol itself has begun to go slightly off the rails. The problem began in 2003, when Interpol brought its I-24/7 network into operation. This electronic system has made it easier for law enforcement agencies to cooperate internationally–which is good–but also easier to submit requests for official Interpol circulation (in the form of Interpol Red Notices) of national wanted notices.

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Interpol is in many ways a strange organization. Strange, because most of what people know about it is wrong. For example, it’s not an international police force; it’s more like an international police bulletin board. Strange because, unlike too many international organizations, it exists more for what it does than what it says. And strange because, though like the U.N. it’s numerically dominated by the autocracies, it has escaped being organizationally dominated by them: the secretary general of Interpol has always been French, British, or–as today–American.

The democratic dominance of Interpol likely reflects the fact that it does something useful. Democracies have no great incentive to invest scarce diplomatic capital in reforming the various U.N. talking shops, but if Interpol goes badly awry, terrorists, fraudsters, and child molesters will have a much longer leash. To my mind, the democratic lack of interest in the U.N. is short-sighted, because talk does have consequences. But it’s clear that the U.S. is willing to give the U.N. a pass on bad behavior that it would never countenance from Interpol.

Unfortunately, in recent years, thanks to the machinations of its autocratic members, Interpol itself has begun to go slightly off the rails. The problem began in 2003, when Interpol brought its I-24/7 network into operation. This electronic system has made it easier for law enforcement agencies to cooperate internationally–which is good–but also easier to submit requests for official Interpol circulation (in the form of Interpol Red Notices) of national wanted notices.

The volume of traffic has since grown more than tenfold, and it is now too large for Interpol to apply effectively its constitutionally-mandated standard of avoiding involvement in political and religious cases. Since Interpol operates on the presumption that all of its members–Iran and the U.S. alike–are legally equal, the potential for abuse is obvious. Autocracies have realized that they can use the Interpol system to harass dissidents, political opponents, and unlucky businessmen, and they have done so with avidity. And since Interpol wants to keep everyone in the boat, it unfortunately also has an incentive not to uphold its own standards.

A Red Notice makes it dangerous to travel and difficult to keep a bank account open, and in the eyes of much of the world, it brands its subject as a wanted criminal. For places like Russia, that has been a godsend. The British NGO Fair Trials International two weeks ago published a damning report on cases of Interpol abuse, and–with my co-author, Dave Kopel–I have released a Heritage Foundation paper on Interpol’s achievements and dilemmas. It is hard, thanks to the secrecy that–to an extent understandably–surrounds Interpol to get an accurate sense of the number of abuse cases as a percent of the total. But problems occur with depressing regularity.

The case of Zurab Adeishvili illustrates the point. Adeishvili was a Georgian reformer and a leading member of the pro-Western government of Mikheil Saakashvili. Just before the elections of October 2012 that resulted in the defeat of Saakashvili’s party and the victory of the pro-Russian Georgian Dream party (led by Bidzina Ivanishvili), Adeishvili was accused of responsibility for abuses in the prison system, an accusation that likely played a role in the election’s outcome. In late 2012 and early 2013, Adeishvili was charged in absentia with a wide-ranging set of crimes, including the “attempted bankruptcy” of Cartu Bank, which by a curious coincidence was owed by now-Prime Minister Ivanishvili and his family.

It’s dangerous to pronounce on guilt or innocence in a pending case. But the evidence that the case against Adeishvili was predominantly political is strong. Georgia’s new foreign minister defended the prosecution of Saakashvili’s supporters on the grounds that they were “criminals and guilty.” A wide-ranging group of Western political figures, including the secretary-general of NATO, a series of U.S. senators and congressmen, many European politicians and newspapers, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concerns that the new Georgian regime was selectively prosecuting opposition leaders. The charge of “attempted bankruptcy” is also a warning sign: under Putin, Russia and its friends have been fond of using charges of corruption to smear anyone who gets in their way.

All of this should have been enough to prevent Interpol from acting in the Adeishvili case, especially as he has since been granted refugee status by Hungary. Interpol had been warned that the case against Adeishvili bore the marks of a political prosecution. But in mid-November 2013, it issued a Red Notice on Adeishvili, in much the same way as it acted against U.S. businessman Ilya Katsnelson in 2008 (targeted by Russia), Iranian exile Shahram Homayoun in 2009 (Iran), and Estonian politician Eerik-Niiles Kross (Russia again) earlier this year.

The latest twist in the Adeishvili case came last week, when a major witness was himself arrested and recanted his evidence. A year ago, Max Boot commented on the Red Notice case of former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi that, even if al-Hashemi is guilty, the fact that Iraqi courts are not credibly independent creates the perception that the case is a political vendetta. The same is true here: the question for Interpol is not whether Adeishvili is guilty, a matter that it is neither its job nor ours to assess. It is whether the case appears to be sufficiently political to create reasonable doubt. If there was not enough doubt before, there certainly is now.

In cases like this, Interpol may deem it safer to give the benefit of the doubt not to the accused, but to its member state. But that involves Interpol in political cases and makes it into an agent of the autocracies. It also imperils Interpol’s standing in the democracies. This is how international organizations go bad, and while Interpol is far from bad today, it is time for the democracies to take action to make sure it continues to serve a useful and proper role.

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How’s That Reset with Russia Going?

It was during the 2008 Presidential race that Russian forces invaded the Republic of Georgia, and even then-Senator Barack Obama’s advisors were shocked by how weak his reaction was. Still, five years after the Russian invasion, Obama’s drive to better relations between Washington and Moscow has shown few if any results. Obama seems unable to understand that far from seeking to reset relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the world as a zero-sum game and seeks to humiliate the United States.

White House attention might be on Russia’s behavior in Syria, especially in light of the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical weapons strike, but Putin’s trip on Sunday to the Russian puppet state of Abkhazia should be seen in the same light.

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It was during the 2008 Presidential race that Russian forces invaded the Republic of Georgia, and even then-Senator Barack Obama’s advisors were shocked by how weak his reaction was. Still, five years after the Russian invasion, Obama’s drive to better relations between Washington and Moscow has shown few if any results. Obama seems unable to understand that far from seeking to reset relations, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the world as a zero-sum game and seeks to humiliate the United States.

White House attention might be on Russia’s behavior in Syria, especially in light of the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical weapons strike, but Putin’s trip on Sunday to the Russian puppet state of Abkhazia should be seen in the same light.

In the aftermath of the war, Russia formally recognized both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway regions of Georgia, as independent states. No one but Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Nauru have recognized the two breakaway states, and Nauru only did after Russia gave them a substantial bribe to do so. That Obama cannot even leverage his influence for a U.S. ally when the international community is so firmly on the same side says a lot about how unsuccessful Obama’s strategy has been, and why so many countries have become so reticent to stick their necks out as loyal allies for the United States.

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Is Armenia a Weak Link in Iran Sanctions?

Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:

  • According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
  • Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
  • In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.

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Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Europe and Eurasian Subcommittee, which was investigating Iranian strategy, influence, and interests in the Caucasus. As always, there’s good news and bad news from the region. Azerbaijan remains a stalwart U.S. ally intolerant of Iranian approaches. Georgia is as well, but after its October election remains very much in play. Turkey’s efforts to subvert sanctions are well known. The greater problem today is Armenia:

  • According to a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, in 2008, U.S. diplomats concluded that Armenia shipped Iran weaponry, which Iran then used to kill Americans.
  • Bank Mellat, a sanctioned Iranian bank, operates in Yerevan, and Iranian businesses dot the city.
  • In October 2011, a member of Armenia’s Nuclear Energy Organization told the Iranian press that Tehran had enticed several Armenian nuclear scientists to work in Iran’s nuclear program.

The Armenian community in the United States is fortunate to be both vibrant and organized. It is unfortunate that organizations representing the Armenian Diaspora in the United States and the congressmen who partner with them do not do more to encourage change in the Armenian government’s geopolitical behavior. Certainly, Armenia is between a rock and a hard place. Russia looms large, both culturally and politically, and Armenians are loathe to unravel that relationship in an age when no one believes U.S. guarantees of continued commitment.

Cultural links are also strong to Iran; when I first studied in the Islamic Republic in the mid-1990s, my apartment was in Julfa, Isfahan’s chief Armenian neighborhood. The Armenian community need not drop its advocacy for recognition of the Armenian genocide, but by ignoring Armenia’s pro-Iranian orientation, the Armenian-American community squanders an opportunity to build a true strategic partnership between Washington and Yerevan, a partnership which would certainly be to both countries’ benefit.

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Will Obama Mourn Georgian Ally’s Defeat?

I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

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I share the two cheers Max seems to offer for the slight forward march of democracy, especially in Georgia, where longtime American ally Mikheil Saakashvili has yet again proven his detractors in the global left wrong and his supporters right. Saakashvili’s behavior was exemplary to the point of uniting in thought and praise Max and the Economist, and I join them. The Economist, long a skeptic of Vladimir Putin’s intentions and supporter of post-Soviet demokratizatsiya, writes:

Peaceful political and constitutional change is routine in much of Europe. But it is rare (the Baltic states aside) in the old Soviet Union. By conceding, Mr Saakashvili has admirably secured his reformist legacy, demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness. Westerners who trusted him can feel vindicated. For his part Mr Ivanishvili stoked suspicions about his own judgment when he demanded that Mr Saakashvili step down immediately (he quickly backtracked). The constitutional position is clear: Mr Saakashvili has another year to go. He is ready to work with his victorious opponent, despite the deepest of disagreements. Mr Ivanishvili should reciprocate.

That is well said, and also underscores the withholding of that third cheer for Georgia, since Saakashvili has behaved far better (and more democratically) than his ascendant pro-Russian rival. But here is where I diverge slightly from Max, who writes (my emphasis): “The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.”

Those new policies may not be what Max would prefer, nor those of us who have recognized the importance of Georgia’s pro-Western leaning, from its role in the disintegration of the Soviet Union to its sending troops to Afghanistan. But I think it is wishful thinking to assume that the current administration sees it that way.

The Obama administration has shown less interest in expanding NATO–that is to say, none at all–than his predecessors. The most recent NATO conference, which we hosted here in the U.S., was a historic meeting, in that it took not a step toward the inclusion of allies who have made progress at each meeting until this one. In fact, the NATO conference was notable in that it displayed an organization that seemed to have no interest in itself.

Georgia has sent more troops to Afghanistan than some NATO members (and was apparently the highest per-capita troop contributor to the effort). But the Obama administration remains unmoved. Russia is currently occupying chunks of Georgian sovereign territory, violating the ceasefire that ended the 2008 war, which Russian leaders had been planning for about a decade and which included documented cases of anti-Georgian ethnic cleansing. The Obama administration admitted to the New York Times that it was fully aware of Russia’s violations, but that raising the issue would have imperiled the imaginary “reset” that was, at that time, still one of the administration’s prized delusions.

That border dispute was one reason Georgia held fast to its one piece of leverage over Russia: the latter’s accession to the World Trade Organization. U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul wisely made Russia’s WTO membership one of his primary goals–getting Russia to play by the same rules as the international community will bring a certain degree of accountability to Putin’s management of “Russia, Inc.” and give American businesses a boost in new markets as well. But the border dispute remains, even after McFaul strong-armed Georgia into letting go. Both Russia and the U.S. got what they wanted; Saakashvili got an insincere pat on the back.

Because the “reset” was based mostly on Western rhetoric toward Russia, Saakashvili’s bombast proved an annoyance to the administration. So when Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party bested Saakashvili’s in the recent parliamentary elections, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to outline his vision for the country he hoped to lead, he knew exactly how to make his pitch. “If elected, my Georgian Dream coalition will drop Cold War rhetoric and do a better job of defusing the real causes of the explosive situation in our region,” he wrote, echoing the hollow nonsense of the Obama administration’s persistent complaints that criticism of Putin is evidence of a mind “still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

A better relationship with Russia seems to be exactly what the Obama administration would want for Georgia, since Obama and McFaul have now gotten everything they needed from Georgia and no longer have much use for our ally. Georgia hasn’t been treated much worse than the rest of our allies by the Obama administration, but that’s still pretty terrible. In any event, I would guess the Obama administration is willing to offer all three cheers for the Georgian election.

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Two Uneasy Steps Forward for Democracy

Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

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Recent days have brought dispiriting news for those us who believe that democracy is the best form of government and that the U.S. government should be doing its utmost to promote its spread around the world.

In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

Now in Venezuela, the anti-American demagogue Hugo Chavez, who has already been in power since 1999, has won reelection to yet another term in office, taking 55 percent of the vote over his more moderate leftist challenger. Considering that Chavez has worked to develop alliances with unsavory states such as Iran and Cuba, and with unsavory movements such as Hezbollah and FARC, and that he has done great damage to the Venezuelan economy with his nationalizations of industry, imposition of price controls, and other socialist measures–well this is certainly not the outcome that U.S. officials would have preferred.

For neither the first nor the last time, the outcomes in Georgia and Venezuela show that democratic systems are hardly perfect–at least from the standpoint of U.S. policy interests. But they also show that the best cure for a “bad” election outcome is to have another election.

That is something that Chavez allowed to occur–even if he did use the full resources of his government, which controls the radio and television broadcasts, to turn out of the vote for his candidacy. Still, this was Chavez’s lowest winning margin, and it suggests that he could conceivably lose a future election, should he live that long–or if not, at least upon his demise there is a good chance of Venezuela returning to more competitive elections.

As for Georgia, the loss suffered by Saakashvili’s party (the president himself remains in office) could actually be a blessing in disguise: Although Saakashvili has been an effective reformer, he has also been in office since 2004, and it is always healthy in any democracy to see a change of power. Indeed, that is the very test of whether a country is truly a democracy or an autocracy with fixed elections. The ability to peacefully transition authority from one party to another is crucial, and if Georgia can pull it off, that will be a boon for its nascent democracy, even if the policies advocated by the new government are not those that American policymakers would prefer.

If I had a vote in some cosmic election, I would vote for the democratic systems of Venezuela and Georgia, imperfect though they are (especially in the case of Venezuela), over the faux stability of countries such as Saudi Arabia where dissent is impossible to express in public and the only way to change the government is to overthrow it. As we have learned in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt (and as we previously learned in South Korea, the Philippines, the Shah’s Iran, and other once-authoritarian countries), the stability imposed by dictatorships comes with high costs. And in any case, it is a faux stability that only lasts until the coming of the revolution.

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The Georgian Election and Democracy

The electoral defeat of the ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — which helped usher in Georgia’s Rose Revolution — is being greeted with mixed feelings from democracy promoters. On one hand, the free and fair election and Saakashvili’s concession were a remarkable success in a region that’s known for its rigged votes. On the other hand, the party that won the parliamentary elections, and gets to choose a new prime minister and cabinet, is run by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who supporters of Saakashvili and others worry is a cutout for Russia.

Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. Ivanishvili made his billions in Russian state-owned industries, and was recently able to sell off these assets at a fair rate, something that just doesn’t happen without the green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin. As James Kirchick explains at the Wall Street Journal:

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The electoral defeat of the ruling party of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili — which helped usher in Georgia’s Rose Revolution — is being greeted with mixed feelings from democracy promoters. On one hand, the free and fair election and Saakashvili’s concession were a remarkable success in a region that’s known for its rigged votes. On the other hand, the party that won the parliamentary elections, and gets to choose a new prime minister and cabinet, is run by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who supporters of Saakashvili and others worry is a cutout for Russia.

Whether or not that’s true remains to be seen. Ivanishvili made his billions in Russian state-owned industries, and was recently able to sell off these assets at a fair rate, something that just doesn’t happen without the green light from Russian President Vladimir Putin. As James Kirchick explains at the Wall Street Journal:

Announcing entry into Georgian politics last year, Mr. Ivanishvili promised to sell off his assets in Russia. He began selling to Russian state-owned concerns and other Kremlin-friendly businessmen, an option not afforded to oligarchs (such as Alexander Lebedev) who have run afoul of the Kremlin. One doesn’t become a billionaire in Russia in the 1990s, maintain that wealth and sell those assets at a fair price without the approval of President Vladimir Putin.

What’s clear is that Ivanishvili has pushed for much more favorable relations with Russian than Saakashvili, an arch adversary of Putin’s. And Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s enthusiastic response to Ivanishvili’s party’s victory certainly raises red flags:

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday said the opposition’s victory showed a desire for change and offered a chance for dialog with Georgia.

“We can only welcome this as it likely means that there will be more constructive and responsible forces in parliament,” Medvedev told reporters in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the Russian region neighboring Georgia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry today said Saakashvili’s defeat may allow the Black Sea nation to bring about the “normalization” of ties with its neighbors and to establish “constructive and respectful relations.”

It’s reasonable to be concerned about Ivanishvili’s victory, but it’s also too early to say that Georgia’s democratic reforms will be rolled back or that it will devolve into a Russian satellite. While Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party will now choose a prime minister and cabinet, Saakashvili will still hold the presidency until the 2013 elections. It will be important to watch how the current transition takes place, who the Georgian Dream party elevates to key roles, what policies they pursue in office, and how the relationship with Russia changes. Saakashvili has set a critical example in the region for how a democratic leader acts, and Ivanishvili’s party should be expected to follow that lead.

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Georgia’s Position on Iran Sanctions

Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, responds to my post from Monday asking whether Georgia was helping Iran skirt sanctions. Ambassador Yakobashvili writes:

“This is simply not true. The Government of Georgia would never allow this or be complicit in any effort to undermine international sanctions. Whoever claims to have seen Iranian oil being transported through Georgia was mistaken or misinformed. To the question of whether Georgia is helping Iran skirt sanctions, the answer is unequivocally no.”

I am grateful for Ambassador Yakobashvili’s response. While Iranian tanker truck traffic—and the explanations of transit fees offered by Georgians to recent visitors—is curious, the ambassador’s response to the question “Is Georgia helping Iran skirt sanctions” shows the seriousness with which Georgia takes U.S. interests.

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Temuri Yakobashvili, Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, responds to my post from Monday asking whether Georgia was helping Iran skirt sanctions. Ambassador Yakobashvili writes:

“This is simply not true. The Government of Georgia would never allow this or be complicit in any effort to undermine international sanctions. Whoever claims to have seen Iranian oil being transported through Georgia was mistaken or misinformed. To the question of whether Georgia is helping Iran skirt sanctions, the answer is unequivocally no.”

I am grateful for Ambassador Yakobashvili’s response. While Iranian tanker truck traffic—and the explanations of transit fees offered by Georgians to recent visitors—is curious, the ambassador’s response to the question “Is Georgia helping Iran skirt sanctions” shows the seriousness with which Georgia takes U.S. interests.

His statement regarding Iranian sanctions is definitive. If only other countries in the region—neighboring Armenia, Turkey, and Russia, for example—expressed the same seriousness of purpose regarding Iran and embraced the same pro-Western, liberal values, then the regional situation would be far better. It would also be better if the United States would make it clear to these countries, as this administration has not always done,  that friendship and loyalty matter.

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Is Georgia Helping Iran Skirt Sanctions?

Recent visitors to the Republic of Georgia say they saw roads packed with trucks transporting Iranian oil. When they asked multiple Georgians about the traffic, they were told that the Iranians are transshipping sanctioned oil through the Caucasus and then loading it onto ships in the Black Sea in order to conceal its identity. The Georgian government, for its part, appears perfectly happy to collect transit fees for the oil.

Georgia is an American ally. While it has the misfortune to border Russia, its president Mikheil Saakashvili has worked hard to reorient the country into the West. Georgia has stamped out once rampant corruption. Saakashvili has ordered all road signs to be bilingual, in Georgian and English, a symbolic move in a country where most citizens also speak Russian and one designed to wrest Georgia from the Soviet orbit.

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Recent visitors to the Republic of Georgia say they saw roads packed with trucks transporting Iranian oil. When they asked multiple Georgians about the traffic, they were told that the Iranians are transshipping sanctioned oil through the Caucasus and then loading it onto ships in the Black Sea in order to conceal its identity. The Georgian government, for its part, appears perfectly happy to collect transit fees for the oil.

Georgia is an American ally. While it has the misfortune to border Russia, its president Mikheil Saakashvili has worked hard to reorient the country into the West. Georgia has stamped out once rampant corruption. Saakashvili has ordered all road signs to be bilingual, in Georgian and English, a symbolic move in a country where most citizens also speak Russian and one designed to wrest Georgia from the Soviet orbit.

Alas, true to the Obama doctrine of turning a cold shoulder to allies while genuflecting toward adversaries, Obama has had little time for Georgia, even referring to the tiny country as “Russia” in a meeting with Saakashvili. From his days as a senator campaigning for president, Obama has appeared to be embarrassed by if not disdainful of Georgia’s unabashed pro-Americanism.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the failure of Obama’s foreign policy more than the Georgian smuggling of Iranian crude. Spurned dates will only stand waiting for the knock at the door for so long before they find another dance partner. Hopefully Governor Romney understands what Obama does not: First, friendship is not one way; allies must stand together. Second, the United States needs all the allies it can get in an increasingly hostile world and cannot afford to spurn them. Third, slapping sanctions on Iran and then giving a speech about a tough Iran policy is not enough.

No U.S. ally—let alone any U.S. adversary—believes the White House is serious on Iran. Until Obama demonstrates seriousness of purpose, even the closest U.S. allies will cash in on short-term interests rather than stand firm.

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Is NATO Expansion Really More Dangerous Than the Status Quo?

Daniel Larison responded to my post yesterday in which I argued that Georgia should be considered for NATO membership. I recounted that the stated reasons for keeping Georgia out in 2008 were Foggy Bottom’s concern such advocacy would prompt Russia to turn against our Eastern European missile defense plans, and the hypocritical warning from Germany–which endured quite a significant territorial dispute with the Russians for the first 35 years of its NATO membership–that countries with territorial disputes with the Russians should be kept out of NATO.

The first concern has obviously vanished, since those missile shield plans were scrapped. Germany’s position–which is refuted most effectively by its own history–should be reexamined now that Georgia and Russia have signed a border-control agreement. Larison disagrees, but I think ends up strengthening my original point. He writes:

Trying to bring Georgia into the alliance does not enhance European security in any way, and Russia would still regard it as an intolerable provocation. Just as it did not in April 2008 during the Bucharest summit, Georgia still does not have full control of its territory. It is ridiculous to ask members of the alliance to extend an Article V guarantee to a country with ongoing territorial disputes.

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Daniel Larison responded to my post yesterday in which I argued that Georgia should be considered for NATO membership. I recounted that the stated reasons for keeping Georgia out in 2008 were Foggy Bottom’s concern such advocacy would prompt Russia to turn against our Eastern European missile defense plans, and the hypocritical warning from Germany–which endured quite a significant territorial dispute with the Russians for the first 35 years of its NATO membership–that countries with territorial disputes with the Russians should be kept out of NATO.

The first concern has obviously vanished, since those missile shield plans were scrapped. Germany’s position–which is refuted most effectively by its own history–should be reexamined now that Georgia and Russia have signed a border-control agreement. Larison disagrees, but I think ends up strengthening my original point. He writes:

Trying to bring Georgia into the alliance does not enhance European security in any way, and Russia would still regard it as an intolerable provocation. Just as it did not in April 2008 during the Bucharest summit, Georgia still does not have full control of its territory. It is ridiculous to ask members of the alliance to extend an Article V guarantee to a country with ongoing territorial disputes.

The latter point echoes the Germans’ concern about the “frozen conflicts” of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Larison also faults Georgia for “escalating” the 2008 conflict with Russia. But to me, this seems to incentivize exactly the wrong behavior on both sides.

One point I made yesterday was announcing the “frozen conflicts” were reason enough to keep Georgia out of NATO encourages Russia to continue to stir up trouble. The Germans said this in April 2008, and Russia invaded in August of that year, and has since admitted that of course keeping Georgia out of NATO was exactly why they did so.

NATO has never considered itself exclusively a club for countries with no natural predators, so I’m not convinced the Russia-Georgia dispute should disqualify Georgia anyway. I’m not arguing it would absolutely prevent war, but our current position has instigated war already, and set a pattern of such conflict. So it cannot be argued that keeping Georgia out of NATO contributes in any meaningful way to conflict prevention.

Larison and I disagree on whether Russia or Georgia is more to blame for the 2008 war, and I don’t want to relitigate that entire discussion. But it’s worth noting that before that war, Russia had already stacked South Ossetia’s government with ethnic Russians who were trained by the Russian military and security services. (Russian General Vasily Lunev, who was installed as South Ossetia’s defense minister a few months before the war, is but one such example.) Led by such men, Russian forces had been shelling Georgian territory for years prior to that war. Russia, therefore, “escalated” the conflict several times prior to the 2008 war, which was itself a Russian escalation of the conflict.

So let’s take Larison’s point of view for a moment. If Georgia were a country looking for excuses to “escalate” the conflict, wouldn’t keeping them out of NATO on their lack of full control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia be likely to trigger a Georgian “escalation”? Would it not, that is, encourage Saakashvili to keep trying to replicate his success in exiling Aslan Abashidze from Adjara and getting the Russians to remove their base from Batumi?

And wouldn’t this require a major war, since Russian personnel run so much of South Ossetia’s government, and therefore Saakashvili might get the impression that nothing less than a full de-baathification of those provinces would resolve this conflict enough for Germany to consider the border matter settled? I think the answer is yes–I think our current posture toward the conflict as the justification for excluding Georgia from NATO is one that incentivizes war, whether you believe Russia or Georgia is more likely to be the aggressor.

Now, you may argue we can still keep Georgia out of NATO because, as Larison suggests, Russia would consider it an “intolerable provocation.” So it would make Russia angry. And what would they do in retaliation? Perhaps they would sell Iran upgraded radar jammers; suppress the UN nuclear watchdog’s report on Iran’s nuclear program; sell weapons to Bashar al-Assad; prevent even token action against Syria at the UN Security Council. They could not do any of this in retaliation, because they are already doing all of those things.

Is Russia’s cooperation on the Afghan supply route the only chip left to play? Of course it’s not nothing–we greatly appreciate it. But can that be the trump card to any Russian provocation? And who in their right mind thinks Russia wants us out of Afghanistan? They unambiguously do not.

Larison suggests Georgia isn’t democratic enough for NATO. But it’s hardly Belarus, let alone Ukraine. And isn’t that why we have membership action plans in the first place? No one is suggesting we leave NATO’s front door wide open for just anyone to waltz in. They have to earn it. And isn’t the prospect of NATO membership a better way to encourage such democratization than leaving such nations to Russia’s sphere of influence? Again, I give you Belarus.

Ironically, I don’t think Larison’s suspicion of NATO enlargement in general is all that unreasonable; I just think in this case it has been overtaken by events. Putin’s behavior has not earned him the benefit of the doubt, but you can certainly make the argument that the reverse was true with regard to Ron Asmus’s manic push to enlarge NATO as the Soviet Union was dissolving. Indeed, I asked Gorbachev’s adviser, Pavel Palazchenko, about that a few months ago, and he said their impression of that push for NATO enlargement was built on a misunderstanding of whether a new “union” of former Soviet republics might form, and that NATO’s eastward march made the transition more difficult for everyone involved. (I’m not endorsing the criticism; just noting that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had more credibility then than Putin does now.)

So I remain convinced that of the three options–bringing Georgia into NATO, permanently excluding Georgia from NATO, or forcing a more concrete resolution of Georgia’s breakaway provinces–Georgian inclusion in NATO (provided, of course, they meet democratization criteria) is the best.

UPDATE: Larison responds here.

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