Commentary Magazine


Topic: NATO

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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Obama Invades Strawmanistan While Rubio and Others Offer Ideas

President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

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President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

We should encourage the establishment of a Ukrainian currency board, an institutional arrangement that anchors the value of national money to a more stable currency. Under a currency board, the hryvnia would be convertible into the dollar or the euro at a fixed rate, and backed by Ukraine’s own hard currency reserves. The International Monetary Fund would supplement the reserves with a special-purpose loan arrangement.

A currency board would help Ukraine’s money become as reliable and stable as the world’s dominant reserve currencies. The effects would ripple throughout the economy: Foreign investors could have confidence that the hryvnia is not in a death spiral, and Ukrainians would know that Mr. Putin cannot annihilate the value of their personal savings. Such stability would encourage the nation under siege to maintain its faith in free people and free markets.

Equally important: Moscow would immediately face the dismaying reality that Ukraine’s money is suddenly far more dependable than its own. Russia is already on a spending blowout to save the ruble as economic conditions deteriorate: Russia’s central bank has spent more than $23 billion intervening in foreign exchange markets since January. On April 25, the bank raised its key interest rate by 50 basis points to 7.5%, a desperate attempt to tamp down the inflationary effects of a weakening ruble. Monetary policy is not Russia’s forte in global affairs, and so the U.S. and Europe should use their advantage strategically to hurt a vulnerable adversary.

Such a plan would get Europe and the U.S. working with the International Monetary Fund to not only help stabilize Ukraine’s economy but ensure that financial aid to Kiev wouldn’t be obliterated by a collapsing currency. If someone in the White House passes this along to the president, he might be amazed not only at the options at his disposal but the fact that Rubio was able to explain all this without invading any countries. Again, this is a fact that bears repeating: it is Obama, not his conservative opposition, who thinks war is the only alternative.

Another suggestion comes from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Jan Joel Andersson–probably not someone the president blames for America’s intervention in Iraq. Andersson goes back to the question of how to channel a response to Russia through NATO. It’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s not as though Ukraine is in any shape to join NATO now nor does the new government appear interested in doing so anyway. But Andersson has come up with a twist on the idea of expanding NATO: add Sweden and Finland. Andersson explains:

Expanding NATO to Sweden and Finland would achieve several important aims. From a political standpoint, it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences. Sweden and Finland’s nonalignment has offered Russia a comforting buffer zone along its northwestern border ever since the end of World War II. If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO now, that buffer would be gone, and the alliance would gain two of the world’s most democratic, politically stable, and economically successful countries. NATO would also pick up two very active proponents of transatlanticism that have consistently argued for strong U.S. involvement in Europe.

“From a military standpoint,” Andersson continues, “Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance.” Nor would the historical significance of Sweden and Finland joining the Atlantic alliance be lost on Russia. “Given the upsides, bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO seems like a no-brainer,” Andersson writes. “But the two countries have to agree to it.”

These are but two examples of policy choices on offer that would strengthen alliances and forge transatlantic cooperation without being too costly (or warmongering). They are also examples of the growing chorus of politicians and analysts who seem to be taking the Ukraine crisis far more seriously than the president is.

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Ukraine Admits Defeat

Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

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Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

Just as depressing as Russia’s aggression is the toothless response from the West. The U.S. has been willing to sanction a few more Russians than the EU, but neither the U.S. nor EU is willing to target entire sectors of the Russian economy–not even the financial sector, which is especially vulnerable to being barred from doing business in the West. Thus the targets of the sanctions react with insouciance. Typical is this throwaway line:

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest the U.S. delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the recipient of a U.S. asset freeze and travel ban, said Tuesday, referring to the international space station. The United States relies on Russian space shuttle flights to launch astronauts into orbit.

Ha-ha. But the fact that Putin and his cronies are laughing at us tells us why they’re winning. They are not afraid of us, and we–especially the Europeans–are afraid of them. 

At this rate, the Baltic republics can expect their existence as independent and sovereign states to be threatened before long, notwithstanding their membership in NATO. In fact their very membership in NATO could prove a lure to Putin who may be tempted to confront the Western alliance with a fresh crisis to expose its haplessness. 

It’s still not too late to impose sanctions with bite. Whatever happens in Ukraine, it is vitally important to make Russia pay a steep price for its aggression if only to deter potential imitators around the world.

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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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Obama’s eBay Diplomacy in Action

“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” President Obama said yesterday of the deal to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.” Such skepticism was warranted; as the Washington Post reports, the deal requiring pro-Russian forces to end their occupation of government buildings in Ukraine is being amended on the fly by those protesters. They’ll leave, they say–if the Ukrainian government does too:

“It is an illegal junta,” said Anatoliy Onischenko, of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization that has occupied the regional parliament building. A separate group is occupying the Donetsk City Hall.

Other pro-Russian activists also said they would not leave the occupied buildings as long as pro-government protesters still were massed in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Obama seemed to anticipate this, which is a good sign. But it’s worth asking why such deals are signed in the first place, knowing that Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker and that there is really no enforcement mechanism for such agreements. As the president also said yesterday, he’s “been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.” Force isn’t needed, the president said, when Secretary of State John Kerry can simply wave a magic wand instead: “What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians — not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians — takes place.”

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“My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days,” President Obama said yesterday of the deal to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine, “but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that, and we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.” Such skepticism was warranted; as the Washington Post reports, the deal requiring pro-Russian forces to end their occupation of government buildings in Ukraine is being amended on the fly by those protesters. They’ll leave, they say–if the Ukrainian government does too:

“It is an illegal junta,” said Anatoliy Onischenko, of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the organization that has occupied the regional parliament building. A separate group is occupying the Donetsk City Hall.

Other pro-Russian activists also said they would not leave the occupied buildings as long as pro-government protesters still were massed in Kiev’s Independence Square.

Obama seemed to anticipate this, which is a good sign. But it’s worth asking why such deals are signed in the first place, knowing that Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker and that there is really no enforcement mechanism for such agreements. As the president also said yesterday, he’s “been very clear that military options are not on the table in Ukraine because this is not a situation that would be amenable to a clear military solution.” Force isn’t needed, the president said, when Secretary of State John Kerry can simply wave a magic wand instead: “What we have to do is to create an environment in which irregular forces disarm, that the seizing of buildings cease, that a national dialogue by Ukrainians — not by Russians, not by Americans or anybody else, but by Ukrainians — takes place.”

This is classic diplospeak, in that it says absolutely nothing of substance but sounds nice. And that, in many ways, is the crux of the matter: the current American diplomatic team is being routed by their Russian counterparts. Why is that? Earlier this week James Bruno, a retired Foreign Service officer, argued that the politicization of American diplomacy has reached a point at which expertise becomes a luxury. Obama has essentially been auctioning off even high-level ambassadorships, which is no surprise considering the revelations that Obama has politicized the Foreign Service to an unprecedented degree.

Bruno expanded the argument:

Three-quarters of the top policy and management positions at the State Department currently are occupied by non-diplomats, mainly Democratic Party activists or liberal think tankers. “Most are competent, but must pass an ideological test to be appointed,” a former senior official who worked with Obama’s appointees at State told me. “These positions,” she added, “are handed out based on party connections and loyalty.” In the hands of these decision-makers, all major foreign policy issues are viewed through an “ideological prism as opposed to an eye toward the long-term interests of the United States,” she said. The White House’s National Security Council staff, furthermore, has ballooned from about four dozen three decades ago to more than twice that today, a shift that has had the effect of concentrating power in the White House, and infusing key decisions with political calculations.

The answer, according to this logic, is simple: Russia takes international affairs seriously, and the Obama administration doesn’t. But the U.S. and Russia are not the only actors in this drama, and this is where managing American alliances–another glaring weakness of the Obama administration–could make up some of the difference.

Those opposed to American defense alliances complain that the U.S. props up NATO, especially former Soviet or Russian satellite states. But those states’ relationships with Russia have their own advantages. One common myth of NATO enlargement to Russia’s near abroad has held that the process is adversarial enough to prevent negotiations instead of military confrontation. This is untrue, of course. As Vincent Pouliot writes in International Security in Practice: The Politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy, according to Polish officials, Poland’s accession to NATO was driven in large part by fear of Russian military invasion. Once in NATO for purely defensive reasons, Polish officials became “less allergic to Russia.” NATO facilitates dialogue between otherwise mutually suspicious actors.

“Among NATO’s international military personnel,” Pouliot writes, “I met a Lithuanian colonel who was a Red Army conscript in 1987; his dispositions were obviously heavily influenced by that experience.” In one meeting Pouliot was told Lithuanians can read Russians’ minds; he was then told a similar thing about officials of the Baltic states. This may not be the norm, at least with regard to officials’ past service in Russian armed forces. But it does reveal how, when negotiating with Russia, the perspective of NATO allies can be of value.

The Obama administration is perhaps less likely to agree than both his predecessors in the post-Cold War era, which is why Obama is also far less inclined to make any progress toward upgrading the alliance. But his eBay diplomacy of auctioning off ambassadorships and other foreign-policy jobs means Obama would have far more to gain by listening to our allies who take European affairs and the maintenance of the international order a bit more seriously.

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Edward Snowden, Putin Propagandist

Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

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Back in September, I described Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he lectured Barack Obama over Syria, as an example of Putin’s trollpolitik. He is an exceptional practitioner of concern trolling, and he has taken particular delight in criticizing Obama over his supposed military adventurism. Edward Snowden’s eastward defection with damaging American intelligence secrets was a boon to Putin’s trollpolitik.

Snowden’s defenders preferred to pretend he was a public servant; his leaks did, after all, win his correspondents the public service Pulitzer. But their arguments began to fall apart when Snowden made them look like fools by leaking all sorts of information that had nothing to do with Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights and everything to do with providing strategic advantages to the American adversaries who took turns hosting Snowden before Putin’s Russia gave him a more permanent home.

And now Snowden has further humiliated his defenders. Putin hosts an occasional call-in question-and-answer session with the public, often playfully referred to as the Putin telethon. Today’s edition featured a very special guest:

NSA leaker Edward Snowden put a direct question to Vladimir Putin during a live televised question-and-answer session Thursday, asking Russia’s president about Moscow’s use of mass surveillance on its citizens.

Speaking via a video link, Snowden asked: “I’ve seen little public discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance, so I’d like to ask you: Does Russia intercept, store or analyze, in any way, the communications of millions of individuals?”

Putin replied by stating Russia did not carry out mass surveillance on its population, and that its intelligence operations were strictly regulated by court orders.

“Mr Snowden, you are a former agent, a spy, I used to work for the intelligence service, we are going to talk one professional language,” Putin said, according to translation by state-run broadcaster Russia Today.

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law so…you have to get a court permission to stalk that particular person.

“We don’t have as much money as they have in the States and we don’t have these technical devices that they have in the States. Our special services, thank God, are strictly controlled by society and the law and regulated by the law.”

He added: “Of course, we know that terrorists and criminals use technology so we have to use means to respond to these, but we don’t have uncontrollable efforts like [in America].”

Edward Snowden: esteemed public servant by day, craven Putin propagandist … also by day. It’s a long day.

Much of Putin’s telethon, to judge by the translations offered by Putin’s more experienced propagandists at RT, was a mix of threats and spin. According to RT, Putin was asked if Russia would invade other parts of Ukraine to claim territory for Russia, as was done in Crimea. His response was a barely-veiled warning that he would be happy to take by intimidation rather than force. “The point is that with the understanding how important the force is, the states could develop and strengthen reasonable behavior rules in the international arena,” he responded.

The same transcript also gives readers a glimpse at the whiny, aggrieved brat lurking inside the ostentatious tough-guy façade (italics in the original):

Referring to the 2009 “Reset” in relations, Putin said the agreement ended after the US and NATO intervened in Libya and plunged the country into chaos.

“We believe this is not our fault. This double-standard approach always disappoints us. Behaving like the US did in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is allowed, but Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” said Putin. He added that Russia was not trying to sour its relations with the EU and hopes this feeling is reciprocated.

The idea that all was well in U.S.-Russian relations until the spring of 2011 is utterly ridiculous, but this is standard fare from Putin. In fact, however, Putin’s own statement (if the translation is correct) refutes itself. It wasn’t really the intervention in Libya that ended the reset, Putin hints, because NATO has intervened before. It’s that, according to Putin, “Russia is not allowed to protect its interests,” despite NATO’s actions. What Putin wants is to be able to invade his neighbors at will. If he can’t do that, well then the reset is off. Which is why it was never really extant in the first place.

This agenda, of invading and destabilizing neighboring states, is what Snowden is propagandizing in service of. And Putin’s lies about domestic surveillance are what Snowden, who supposedly stormed off to China and Russia over his need to protest such actions at home, are what Snowden is helping to feed the Russian public. The real public service Snowden has done, then, is to make it clear just how much of a hypocrite and an authoritarian tool he really is.

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The West Is Emboldening Putin

It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

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It has been almost exactly two months since mysterious “self-defense” forces in unmarked uniforms began appearing all over Crimea—a prelude to the annexation of the Ukrainian province by Russia only a few weeks ago. The U.S. and the European Union reacted to this unprovoked aggression—of a kind rarely if ever seen in Europe since 1945—with almost comical self-restraint. They sanctioned a few dozen Ukrainian and Russian individuals associated with this aggression, along with one Russian bank, and suspended—rather than simply kicked out—Russia from the G-8.

Ukrainian pleas for military aid were met by President Obama with a laughable offer to send MREs (meals ready to eat), which were dispatched by civilian trucks rather than by U.S. Air Force cargo aircraft, which were deemed too provocative to employ. Requests from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe, to share intelligence with the Ukrainians and to provide them with enhanced training and communications equipment were apparently rebuffed by the White House. Requests from Poland, the Baltic Republics, and other frontline NATO states for the dispatch of more NATO troops, including American troops, to their soil have been ignored. 

U.S. and European leaders have made clear they are so paralyzed by fear of provoking Vladimir Putin that they dare not do more. Only if Putin went further and extended his aggression to the rest of Ukraine would the Russian dictator suffer more severe “repercussions.” Or so we were told by Secretary of State John Kerry and his European counterparts.

It is by now obvious that the West’s self-restraint—so reminiscent of similar self-restraint after Adolf Hitler’s military buildup, militarization of the Rhineland, Anschluss with Austria, and seizure of the Sudetenland—has not convinced Putin to exercise self-restraint in response.  Instead he has, correctly, read the West’s non-response as an expression of weakness that he can exploit to make further territorial gains toward his ultimate dream of reestablishing the Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a satrapy until 1991.

So over the last week mysterious masked gunmen, reminiscent of those seen earlier in Crimea, have been appearing all over eastern Ukraine where they have been seizing police stations and other symbols of governmental authority. As American officials have made plain, these are not spontaneous demonstrations organized by aggrieved Russian-speaking locals. Rather these are carefully planned provocations organized and abetted by Russian security forces even if the on-the-ground Russian special forces presence has been less numerous, so far, than it was in Crimea.

The new, pro-Western government in Kiev stood by as Crimea was wrested away by Russia. It cannot stand by and lose the entire eastern part of the country without a fight. So Ukraine has mobilized what scant military forces it has and threatens to pacify the increasingly wild east by force if necessary. This, of course, is catnip to Putin. By responding in kind to semi-covert Russian aggression, Ukraine risks provoking a confrontation which would provide an excuse for Russian troops—an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 are deployed on Ukraine’s borders in a high state of readiness—to come pouring across the frontier on the pretext of protecting Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minority.

On the other hand if the government in Kiev does nothing, Russian allies would simply declare the region’s independence from Ukraine, as many have already been doing. Heads you lose, tails I win: Ukraine is a no-win confrontation with its much bigger and better-armed neighbor.

The only hope that Ukraine now has of emerging as a whole and democratic state aligned to the West is to see dramatic action on the part of the U.S. and Europe to demonstrate to the Kremlin that the cost of further aggression is too high to be borne. What would this mean in practice? Practical steps would extend from rushing military aid to Ukraine, to reversing the dangerous drawdown of U.S. military strength, to rushing U.S. army brigades to Poland and the Baltics, to expelling every Russian financial institution from access to the Western financial system and seizing the ill-gained loot that Putin and his cronies keep in Western banks.

Simply to lay out what a serious response from the West would look like is to make obvious how unlikely it is to be implemented by the feckless leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Ukraine, I fear, has pretty much no chance of prevailing, because it is clear that the spirit of Neville Chamberlain, rather than that of Winston Churchill, is in charge of the Western response. The most that Ukraine can hope for is that Putin will choose not to annex its eastern territory outright, at least not yet, preferring for the time being to keep the region in an uproar to blackmail Kiev into remaining in the Russian orbit. (Nice country you have, he may be saying implicitly, in the fashion of movie gangsters, it would be a shame if anything happened to it.)

Alas the consequences of Western pusillanimity will be felt far outside Ukraine’s borders. Letting Ukraine be dismembered, even after the U.S., UK and Russia had guaranteed its territorial integrity, will send a signal to Putin that he can repeat the same stunt elsewhere. First Sevastopol, now Donetsk, next Tallinn? Likewise it will send a message to China’s leaders that they can act in similar fashion. If Putin can get away with aggression in Ukraine, why can’t China do the same in the South China Sea and East China Sea where it is locked in numerous territorial disputes with its neighbors?

With every fresh act of aggression by Russia which is met by Western confusion, hesitation, and weakness, the world becomes a more dangerous and unstable place.

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Obama Loses Complete Touch with Reality

Last week I wrote that President Obama, having been bested by Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn, has retreated into a world of his own making. “He’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak,” I said.

I’m here to report that Mr. Obama’s dissociative disorder has become more, not less, acute. As evidence I would point to an exchange the president had yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, in which Mr. Obama made this claim: 


Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness… The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

This is–and I want to be properly respectful here–crazy. Does the president really and truly believe that Russia has less influence now that it has seized Crimea without a single Russian casualty? Does he believe that in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia they consider Russia less influential and weaker since the conquest of Crimea? 

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Last week I wrote that President Obama, having been bested by Vladimir Putin at virtually every turn, has retreated into a world of his own making. “He’s created a fantasy world where disengagement translates into influence and we’re strong and Putin is weak,” I said.

I’m here to report that Mr. Obama’s dissociative disorder has become more, not less, acute. As evidence I would point to an exchange the president had yesterday with ABC’s Jonathan Karl, in which Mr. Obama made this claim: 


Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness… The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and laid bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

This is–and I want to be properly respectful here–crazy. Does the president really and truly believe that Russia has less influence now that it has seized Crimea without a single Russian casualty? Does he believe that in Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia they consider Russia less influential and weaker since the conquest of Crimea? 

According to a story from the Washington Post, titled “NATO general warns of further Russian aggression,”

Ukrainian officials have been warning for weeks that Russia is trying to provoke a conflict in eastern Ukraine, a charge that Russia denies. But Breedlove [U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe] said Russian ambitions do not stop there.

“There is absolutely sufficient force postured on the eastern border of Ukraine to run to Transnistria if the decision was made to do that, and that is very worrisome,” Breedlove said.

That’s not all. 

Russia has increased its influence in Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Indeed, Russia’s position in the Middle East hasn’t been this strong since Anwar Sadat expelled the Soviet Union from Egypt in the 1970s. Yet the president continues to make his preposterous claims. In public. Repeatedly.

I’m starting to be convinced this isn’t simply a talking point by a president on the defensive. I think he actually believes what he’s saying. Which means he is losing touch with reality. Which may be the most worrisome thing of all.

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Putin, the Baltics, and NATO

Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.

Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.

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Vladimir Putin seems to be bent on resurrecting the Russian Empire using as his excuse the supposed mistreatment of Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. At least that was his rationale for the annexation of Crimea. It is not only Ukraine, which has already lost one province and has a sizable Russian-speaking population in other provinces, which has cause to be worried. So does Moldova, where Russia has already sponsored a breakaway province in Transnistria. Russian troops are maneuvering now on the borders of both countries.

Ukraine and Moldova might seem particularly inviting targets for Russian aggression given that neither is a member of NATO. But the really worrisome scenario, at least from our perspective, should be what would happen if Putin were to set his sights on the Baltic republics. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are postage-stamp size countries on Putin’s doorstep which are members of NATO–and they have significant Russian minority populations whose grievances could be exacerbated and exploited with Kremlin manipulation.

As this Reuters story notes, the Baltic republics are worried, and with good cause: “Russian speakers make up about 35 percent of Latvia’s 2 million population. In Estonia, around a quarter of its 1.3 million people are Russian speakers. In neighbouring Lithuania, which does not border Russia, ethnic Russians make up about 6 percent.” As these figures would indicate, Latvia has particular cause for concern. Reuters notes: “In the Latvian town of Daugavpils, where a Russian Tzarist-era fortress and barracks meet grey Soviet-era apartment blocks, you are more likely to be greeted in Russian than Latvian, with 51 percent of the city’s residents Russians.”

What exactly would NATO do if Putin were to move against the Baltics employing armed men with no insignia? This would be a crisis of the first order, which would confront the West with the unwelcome choice of either letting NATO’s collective security guarantees become a dead letter–or else getting embroiled in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia. The U.S., rapidly drawing down its military forces and especially its forces in Europe (where only two Army brigades will be left, if we are lucky), is not in a good position to defend the Baltic states. The other NATO states have more forces nearby but less willpower to act.

Putin knows this and it could well tempt him to further aggression. The best way to head off such a dire emergency would be to (a) increase the size of the U.S. army by cancelling a planned drawdown and (b) to position U.S. ground forces in the Baltic republics to act as a guarantee of American assistance in the event of invasion. By not doing this we are tempting Putin to exploit our perceived weakness–as he has previously done in Georgia and Ukraine.

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How Rational Is Putin’s Threat Perception?

During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

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During the Ukrainian election of 2004, Angus Roxburgh sat down with Sergei Markov, who was helping the pro-Putin candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, at the behest of the Kremlin. Roxburgh, who describes the encounter in his book on Vladimir Putin, asked Markov what he thought of the opposition candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He could hardly believe the answer. Markov told him that he believed Yushchenko was completely controlled by his wife, who was a radical Ukrainian nationalist in league with Nazis and with Polish instigators who, through his wife, were installing Yushchenko in order to most likely start a war with Russia.

This is, to put it mildly, not the most rational assessment. Roxburgh continues: “These are quite astonishing claims, but they are important, for it is highly likely that Markov’s apocalyptic view was shared by his masters in the Kremlin.” That is, Vladimir Putin probably believed this nonsense. Putin is nothing if not paranoid–that chapter of Roxburgh’s book is called “Enemies Everywhere”–and his policies are often based on these kinds of ludicrous conspiracy theories. It’s worth recalling at this point that Yushchenko was poisoned during the election.

This is a recurring problem for the West in trying to predict Putin’s behavior. I noted yesterday that the idea that NATO expansion can or should be blamed for Putin’s behavior is not only amoral–those nations should have a say in their own affairs independent of the Kremlin–but nonsensical. And yet, after Russia invaded Ukraine in order to seize the Crimean peninsula and destabilize Ukrainian politics, we heard this canard again from various quarters. Today’s New York Times contains an important response to that claim in what is one of the best articles on the Ukraine crisis yet. The Times writes about European self-delusion toward both Russia and Ukraine, and adds with regard to the expansion of the European Union:

“But once a country signs up, it is in Weight Watchers and, if they follow the regimen, they change,” she said. “Russia realized this and did not like it.” Indeed, she added, Russia had already been deeply alarmed by the transformation of countries like Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania after they entered the European Union in 2004.

Their joining the European Union was followed swiftly by their admission to NATO, a sequence that strengthened Moscow’s view that Brussels served as a stalking horse for the American-led military alliance.

In the case of Ukraine, Europe never offered even the possibility of it one day joining the European Union, and NATO dropped Ukraine as a potential future member back in 2008. This raised hopes in Brussels that Moscow might not object too strongly. Russia initially expressed little unease about Europe’s Eastern Partnership plans, lulling Europe into a false sense of clear sailing ahead.

After Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012, after a four-year stint as prime minister, previous talk of shared interests in free trade and close cooperation gave way to increasingly forceful calls for the establishment of a Moscow-dominated rival to the European Union called the Eurasian Union.

By last summer, Moscow embarked on a sustained campaign of pressure to dissuade former Soviet lands, including Ukraine, from siding with Europe.

The whole article is worth reading, especially for its portrayal of Brussels as hopelessly naïve to the point of negligence in its conduct of foreign affairs. But the point about economic ties throwing up red flags in the Kremlin is an important one. Russia had been “deeply alarmed” by the financial success of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It proved, it seemed, that breaking away from Moscow in favor of the West was the way to improve life for your citizens.

Latvia, no matter when it was admitted to NATO, has no plans to invade Russia. And anyway the argument that Putin’s Russia reacts to perceived threats to its security is not one that should govern the West’s conduct, for two main reasons: first, Putin’s perception of risk is not rational, and second, Putin includes economic integration and improvement in his overall assessment of foreign security threats. Hence the Eurasian Union proposal. Putin sees countries as either collaborators or competitors. There is no such thing as neutrality, there is only loyalty and disloyalty.

If Putin sees economic cooperation as a prelude to military cooperation, should the West also cease expanding economic ties with countries Putin wants to control? Ukraine is in Europe; should Europe not be permitted to trade freely with a European country if that’s what both want? What this saga (and the Times piece) makes clear is that Putin does not want to see his neighbors thrive economically or their living standard improved independent from Moscow’s direction.

In other words, what Putin wants is not a multipolar world but a bipolar world; he simply exploits the West’s desire for a multipolar world in order to draw the line as far from Moscow as he can. The Times suggests this whole incident is a wake-up call for Brussels. It should also be one for Washington, which has not been free of its own wishful thinking toward Putin’s Russia.

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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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In Defense of Victoria Nuland

The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

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The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

Kenneth Weisbrode has written a piece for Foreign Policy’s website comparing Nuland to the tradition of proconsuls going back to ancient Rome, and then suggesting that to Nuland “it may be that the Cold War never really ended.” It’s an entirely unconvincing piece, in part because the phone call showed Nuland to understand the nuances of Ukrainian politics while it is Weisbrode who can’t help but see the Cold War anytime Americans and Russians disagree. But Weisbrode gives an indication of his perspective on this when he reviews Nuland’s experience:

Nuland’s work for Talbott coincided with a NATO project called Partnership for Peace, similar to today’s E.U. Eastern Partnership, although it was offered publicly (as even the Marshall Plan was) to anyone east of the old Iron Curtain, including Russia. For reasons that are still opaque, Talbott and his team came instead to endorse a policy of enlarging NATO itself, which in effect supplanted the Partnership for Peace. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum, who had been well disposed toward the Clinton administration, called this nothing less than a “bridge to the nineteenth century.”

Quoting Mandelbaum as an authority on this is strange, because Mandelbaum’s judgment on this issue, as we now know, was wrong. (Though it should have been clear at the time that he wrong.) NATO isn’t a bridge to the nineteenth century but a bridge to the twenty-first, by enabling states to move toward democracy, independence, and self-sufficiency. It should actually be considered complementary to Nuland that she understood the future post-Soviet power structure so much better than her critics at the time. And it appears she still does.

It’s worth quoting here the portion of the phone call that raised such suspicion. Here is the relevant segment about Vitaly Klitschko, a prominent but inexperienced opposition figure:

Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess… in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I’m sure that’s part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.

You can see how this makes it look like the uprising is being stage managed by the U.S., but it’s not as though Nuland provoked the unrest. If the opposition didn’t want her there, she’d be locked out of the process. What she’s offering is guidance–even if it appears heavyhanded at times–to an inexperienced opposition group representing a significant movement in favor of more democracy.

One lesson of the Arab Spring, and of many popular uprisings before it, is that the transition to a post-authoritarian government is really quite challenging, and that a failed transition to a more democratic model can result in harsh authoritarian backsliding and the discrediting of political liberty. Nuland, to her credit, has been on the ground in Kiev since the early days of the protests supporting those who want her help. That doesn’t make her a Roman proconsul or a Cold Warrior, but a principled American diplomat.

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Abbas’s NATO Gambit Is a Nonstarter

It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.

That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”

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It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.

That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”

To understand why this proposal is a nonstarter just think about how such a force would work. Imagine a force of, say, Americans, Brits, French, Germans, and Italians patrolling the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They might as well have a “kick me” sign on their backs–their very presence will make them an irresistible magnet for jihadists who want to score points against the Great Satan. If history is any guide, they will either suffer casualties which will drive most of them out (a la the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or attacks on Spanish forces in Iraq in 2004) or they will hunker down in a “force protection” mode which will make it utterly impossible for them to police the borders.

It is hard to know, in any case, how the multinational force could possibly stop arms smuggling or incursions by terrorists. Certainly U.S. troops, deployed in far greater numbers, with far more firepower and looser rules of engagement, have had little success in policing the borders of Afghanistan or Iraq.

Border interdiction, in any case, is only a small part of a more comprehensive security strategy which must involve gathering intelligence (including running agents) and arresting suspects. Would this NATO force have such powers and, even if it did, would it really exercise them? It’s hard to imagine, because if the outside peacekeepers were actually effective in stopping militant operations they would make themselves an even bigger target for suicide bombers. More likely the presence of foreign troops would hinder and deter effective action by Israeli forces to defend their own homeland.

Israel, of course, knows all this, and it is for this reason that it is unlikely to agree to any such force if it requires the pullback of Israeli troops from the borders of the West Bank. Israel has had experience before with international peacekeepers and it well remembers how little such forces did to protect Israel when deployed to protect against attack from Egypt (before the 1967 Six-Day War) or from Hezbollah when deployed in Lebanon more recently.

Abu Mazen’s proposal is a nice fantasy, and one embraced by ardent “peace processers” who think it will resolve the deep and understandable security concerns that Israel has about ceding power to an entity that continues to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But it is not a workable solution, even assuming (which we cannot know for sure) that the West Bank will continue to be overseen by the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority rather than fall to the more radical Hamas. The U.S. should not agree to put ground troops in harm’s way on such a nebulous mission and Israel should not agree to accept them.

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Turkey Endangers NATO

While the U.S. media focused for much of the past two weeks on President Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the government shutdown, Turkey has made some moves which should raise alarm bells at both the Pentagon and in Brussels.

Three months ago, I blogged here about how Turkey was considering a Chinese bid for an anti-aircraft system. Integrating a Chinese missile system into NATO’s early warning network would require giving the Chinese company access to top secret NATO software. Earlier this week, however, Turkey announced that it would award a $4 billion air defense contract to co-produce a long-range missile defense system with a Chinese firm sanctioned by the United States for its proliferation activities with Iran.

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While the U.S. media focused for much of the past two weeks on President Obama’s “bromance” with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the government shutdown, Turkey has made some moves which should raise alarm bells at both the Pentagon and in Brussels.

Three months ago, I blogged here about how Turkey was considering a Chinese bid for an anti-aircraft system. Integrating a Chinese missile system into NATO’s early warning network would require giving the Chinese company access to top secret NATO software. Earlier this week, however, Turkey announced that it would award a $4 billion air defense contract to co-produce a long-range missile defense system with a Chinese firm sanctioned by the United States for its proliferation activities with Iran.

This is not the first time that Turkey has undercut NATO security to the benefit of the Chinese. The Turkish Air Force has held war games with the Chinese Air Force without first alerting NATO. Turkey has also turned its back on the European Union and sought to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a club for anti-Western dictatorships.

With even the Turkish press questioning the wisdom of the deal, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz has defended the purchase. “We had asked for joint production and a technology transfer,” Yılmaz said. “If other countries cannot guarantee us that, then we will turn to ones that can.”

How sad it is that, as Turkey pivots to China, and endangers U.S. security, the Obama administration not only proposes no consequence, but continues to share technology with an untrustworthy regime.

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What Would Scottish Independence Mean for NATO?

In just over a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain. At issue is the emotional desire of many Scots for independence versus the realism of other Scots that Scotland gets more financially from the United Kingdom than it contributes: Most paved roads in rural Scotland are a symbol of British largesse that many Scots ignore or forget. Some Scots counter this argument by noting that they stand to gain more in assistance from the European Union if they have full independence than if they are merely part of Great Britain.

Another aspect of devolution could have profound impact on the British navy: Most British submarine bases are in Scotland. This has been discussed in some British papers. Here is an article from The Guardian, for example:

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In just over a year, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain. At issue is the emotional desire of many Scots for independence versus the realism of other Scots that Scotland gets more financially from the United Kingdom than it contributes: Most paved roads in rural Scotland are a symbol of British largesse that many Scots ignore or forget. Some Scots counter this argument by noting that they stand to gain more in assistance from the European Union if they have full independence than if they are merely part of Great Britain.

Another aspect of devolution could have profound impact on the British navy: Most British submarine bases are in Scotland. This has been discussed in some British papers. Here is an article from The Guardian, for example:

The British government is examining plans to designate the Scottish military base that houses the Trident nuclear deterrent as sovereign United Kingdom territory if the people of Scotland vote for independence in next year’s referendum. In a move that sparked an angry reaction from the SNP, which vowed to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons as quickly as possible after a yes vote, the government is looking at ensuring that the Faslane base on Gare Loch in Argyll and Bute could have the same status as the British sovereign military bases in Cyprus. The move would be designed to ensure that the Trident fleet would continue to have access to the open seas via the Firth of Clyde. Under Britain’s “continuous at sea deterrent”, at least one Vanguard submarine armed with 16 Trident nuclear missiles is on patrol at sea at any one time.

If the British military decides to keep the bases as sovereign territory, there is not much the Scots will be able to do about it, but the notion of a diplomatic fight between independent countries over British nuclear weapons and military facilities will quickly sour other aspects of the British-Scottish relationship and could both invite unwelcome diplomatic attention from other European quarters and also raise questions about the many shipyards upon which British shipping depends both for new ships and refurbishments of existing ships.

As President Obama and Defense Secretary Hagel increasingly look to share the burdens of defense, it is important to recognize that the capabilities of some of our staunchest partners in NATO are, at best, uncertain. What happens in Scotland may not be the stuff of headlines right now, but independence and partition within NATO countries—perhaps Turkey will be next should the Kurds there achieve their national desires—will have ramifications far beyond their borders.

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Germany Again Seeks to Cheat on Iran Sanctions

Germany has certainly been among Europe’s weakest links when it comes to upholding sanctions against Iran. While the White House continues to grant waivers to Germany, German companies have attended trade and investment fairs in Iran. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce has also helped shepherd German companies through the process of investing in Iran’s energy sector, never mind the sanctions regime. Now it seems the German government is at it again. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

Under the patronage of German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Federal Minister of Economics Philipp Rösler, on 10 July 2013 a conference will be held with the title “Energy Security – How to Feed and Secure the Global Demand.” Among the speakers are Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards… According to a press release on the conference “high level policy maker” will discuss “political developments in producing countries” and “geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes.” However, the EU imposed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is as an entity on the EU sanctions list.

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Germany has certainly been among Europe’s weakest links when it comes to upholding sanctions against Iran. While the White House continues to grant waivers to Germany, German companies have attended trade and investment fairs in Iran. The German-Iranian Chamber of Commerce has also helped shepherd German companies through the process of investing in Iran’s energy sector, never mind the sanctions regime. Now it seems the German government is at it again. According to Germany’s “Stop the Bomb” campaign:

Under the patronage of German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Federal Minister of Economics Philipp Rösler, on 10 July 2013 a conference will be held with the title “Energy Security – How to Feed and Secure the Global Demand.” Among the speakers are Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Iranian Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi, a General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards… According to a press release on the conference “high level policy maker” will discuss “political developments in producing countries” and “geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes.” However, the EU imposed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector and the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum is as an entity on the EU sanctions list.

Alas, it seems that the erosion of American credibility has occurred not only among U.S. adversaries but also with regard to U.S. allies. What to do? Germany wants its defense minister to take the helm of NATO. If the Obama administration wanted to be taken seriously, it would make German seriousness regarding one of the greatest collective security threats the West faces a condition of signing off on any such appointment. Alas, it seems, Obama’s strategy appears to assuage Berlin by undermining U.S. credibility even further.

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Turkey Betrays NATO Again

Two years ago, I blogged here about how Turkey had held secret air force war games with China, much to the surprise of both the Pentagon and NATO. The cooperation with China was especially unnerving considering the access to NATO secrets and U.S. technology that Turkey had and which it wanted. Now it seems Turkey is at it again. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s western allies look puzzled by a looming decision by Ankara to select Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense systems which they think cannot be integrated into the NATO-sponsored early warning architecture currently deployed on Turkish soil. “That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.” A NATO ally defense attaché in Ankara said that deploying a Chinese air defense system to protect Turkish airspace could have political repercussions. “Questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory would then be legitimate,” he said.

Indeed. Then, again, Turkey’s leadership has been changing Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory for quite some time.

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Two years ago, I blogged here about how Turkey had held secret air force war games with China, much to the surprise of both the Pentagon and NATO. The cooperation with China was especially unnerving considering the access to NATO secrets and U.S. technology that Turkey had and which it wanted. Now it seems Turkey is at it again. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s western allies look puzzled by a looming decision by Ankara to select Chinese long-range anti-missile and air defense systems which they think cannot be integrated into the NATO-sponsored early warning architecture currently deployed on Turkish soil. “That would certainly leave many of us speechless,” said one senior diplomat from a NATO country. “Turkey has every right to choose its own air defense system but we do not quite understand the logic of opting for a Chinese system with no interoperability with the existing [NATO] assets.” A NATO ally defense attaché in Ankara said that deploying a Chinese air defense system to protect Turkish airspace could have political repercussions. “Questioning Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory would then be legitimate,” he said.

Indeed. Then, again, Turkey’s leadership has been changing Turkey’s geopolitical trajectory for quite some time.

Turkey’s decision to become a “Dialogue Partner” with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was as blatant a hint as could come. If the European Union is a club of democracies, then the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is a club for one-party, strongman dictatorships like Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Iran, as an observer. Unfortunately, as the tide has turned in Turkey, it looks increasingly like Ankara belongs in the latter camp, not in the former. Let us hope that neither the Pentagon nor NATO allows Turkey to do significant damage as it reorients itself to the autocratic east. Here, Congress could have much more of a role, if it requires significant Pentagon reporting to explore the damage the Turkish leadership could do should it leak new technologies to the Chinese.

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Israeli Strike Shows Potential for U.S.-Led Action in Syria

Details about the Israeli air strike in Syria last week remain elusive, with various reports describing an attack on both a Syrian military research center on chemical and biological weapons and a convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that both were targeted by the Israeli Air Force. Either way the Israelis are doing a good turn, not only for themselves but also for the U.S. and other regional allies by trying to limit the fall-out from the Syrian civil war. Would that we were doing as much.

The ease with which the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian air space–which replicates a similar Israeli bombing mission in 2007 to take out a Syrian nuclear reactor–shows that it would not be all that hard for the U.S., acting with NATO and Arab allies, to likewise intervene to establish a no-fly zone. The U.S. military has been opposed to such a mission, for understandable reasons, because it could bring about considerable complications and because resources are already being strained by budget cuts. But from a military standpoint there is little doubt that a no-fly zone could be established relatively quickly and easily–the Syrian air defenses, which have raised such alarms in Washington, are not all that formidable after all when attacked by a U.S.-equipped air force.

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Details about the Israeli air strike in Syria last week remain elusive, with various reports describing an attack on both a Syrian military research center on chemical and biological weapons and a convoy carrying SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that both were targeted by the Israeli Air Force. Either way the Israelis are doing a good turn, not only for themselves but also for the U.S. and other regional allies by trying to limit the fall-out from the Syrian civil war. Would that we were doing as much.

The ease with which the Israeli Air Force penetrated Syrian air space–which replicates a similar Israeli bombing mission in 2007 to take out a Syrian nuclear reactor–shows that it would not be all that hard for the U.S., acting with NATO and Arab allies, to likewise intervene to establish a no-fly zone. The U.S. military has been opposed to such a mission, for understandable reasons, because it could bring about considerable complications and because resources are already being strained by budget cuts. But from a military standpoint there is little doubt that a no-fly zone could be established relatively quickly and easily–the Syrian air defenses, which have raised such alarms in Washington, are not all that formidable after all when attacked by a U.S.-equipped air force.

And the Israelis did not even bother to take out the missile-defense system; they probably used electronic warfare to jam the system for a period to allow their aircraft to get in and out. The U.S. and our allies, if we were to undertake a campaign in support of the rebels, would take out the entire air-defense network, as they previously took out similar networks in Iraq and Libya. That would make follow-on sorties as close to risk-free from the American standpoint as anything gets in the inherently risky and dangerous realm of warfare.

Yet, despite the military feasibility of such a project and the strategic imperative of ousting Assad to end his nation’s suffering and deal a blow to his Iranian backers, there is basically no chance that such an operation will take place. A no-fly zone would require American leadership and there is no sign of such leadership in the second Obama administration, which has lost the most forceful advocates for a strong American role in the world: Secretaries Gates and Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus. The Syrians are on their own, it seems, and the conflict shows no sign of burning out anytime soon.

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Strategy, Not Politics, Should Dictate Troop Levels

The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.

As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.

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The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.

As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.

Why the decrease? If you believe administration spokesmen, it’s because the Afghan National Security Forces are performing far better than expected and the security situation is far better than envisioned. If that were indeed the case, I, too, would favor keeping substantially fewer troops: drawdowns should be conditions-based. But conditions on the ground are not rosy enough to permit massive troop decreases.

True, there have been some encouraging trends–according to official NATO figures, enemy-initiated attacks fell 7 percent during the January-November 2012 period compared with the same months in 2011. But enemy attacks were rising as recently as May and June and overall attack levels are still higher today than they were when the surge began in 2009.

While Taliban fighters have been routed out of many strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, they have proven resilient thanks to their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and similar progress has not been seen in the eastern part of the country. There are still Haqqani sanctuaries located only an hour’s drive from Kabul–and that is with 66,000 U.S. troops still in the country.

While the ANSF are more capable than before, their ability to hold onto, and expand, recent gains without substantial support is highly questionable. The Defense Department’s own “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” notes that the ANSF still have considerable deficiencies in areas such as logistics, planning, and air support that will require coalition backstopping for a long time to come; Afghanistan will not even have a functioning air force until 2017 at the earliest.

In reality, the gains that have been made are extremely fragile and dependent on massive U.S. support. Pull that support and there is considerable risk of the Taliban once again extending their control to the gates of Kabul. There is, quite simply, no reason to imagine that Afghanistan could remain reasonably secure with 6,000 or fewer U.S. troops remaining post-2014.

That is why General Allen has recommended a higher troop figure. But there is a very real risk that his recommendations will be overridden not for strategic reasons but for political ones.

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U.S.-Russia Relations Keep Plummeting

Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.

At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:

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Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.

At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:

Russia will stop cooperating with NATO over Afghanistan after 2014 unless the alliance gets U.N. Security Council authorization for its new training mission in Afghanistan, a senior Russian diplomat said on Wednesday.

A NATO official said only that it would be “helpful” to have a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the post-2014 training mission, but stopped short of saying it was essential.

Nikolay Korchunov, Russia’s acting ambassador to NATO, did not specify what any halt to Russian cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan after 2014 would mean, but Russia will be an important transit route for NATO as it ships out billions of dollars of equipment from Afghanistan in the next few years.

This morning, the New York Times also reported that Turkish authorities forced a Syrian plane en route from Moscow to land in Ankara, and the Russians–perhaps feeling they were caught red-handed–lashed out in response. “I think that tension will now develop in the relationship between Russia and Turkey,” a Russian Foreign Ministry official told the Times.

Turkey claims there were materials on the plane that violate international regulations, but there were also passengers on the plane, leading a Russian arms export official to offer a quote that is both amusingly arrogant and ominous: “If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way.”

Of course Russia will help a dictator murder thousands of his own people in broad daylight–but they’d never do anything illegal.

The question lingers, however: What does Putin want from Obama? The answer is, the last concession remaining: the plans for a missile shield in Europe. Yet regardless of Obama’s decision on that front, Putin’s habit has been to simply pocket concessions and then renegotiate. Which means despite the administration’s attempts to placate Putin, the U.S.-Russia relationship, at a low point during the first Obama term and in many ways since the fall of the Soviet empire, will remain where it is. The new low will become the new normal.

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