Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

What Is the Greatest Threat to U.S. National Security?

Gen. Joe Dunford, nominated to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created some headlines in a Senate confirmation hearing by naming Russia as the No. 1 threat that the U.S. faces. “They present the greatest existential threat,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.” He then cited China and North Korea as other top-tier threats, followed by Islamic State. Read More

Gen. Joe Dunford, nominated to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, created some headlines in a Senate confirmation hearing by naming Russia as the No. 1 threat that the U.S. faces. “They present the greatest existential threat,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing. “If you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.” He then cited China and North Korea as other top-tier threats, followed by Islamic State.

Some commentators have noted that his answer diverges slightly from that of James Clapper, director of national intelligence, who told Congress earlier this year that cyber-attacks were the No. 1 threat that we face. “Cyber threats to U.S. national and economic security are increasing in frequency, scale, sophistication and severity of impact; [and] the ranges of cyber threat actors, methods of attack, targeted systems and victims are also expanding,” Clapper testified before Congress. His words have gained additional resonance as the size of the computer breach at the Office of Personnel Management has become clearer.

So which is it: Russia or cyber? North Korea or China? ISIS or Al Qaeda? And don’t forget Iran and the potential of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons. What’s our greatest threat?

For what it’s worth, I would cite terrorists with WMD as our top threat, but there is a strong case to be made for all of the others as well.

Debating that question is a nice parlor game, but it is divorced from the real world reality that as a superpower the U.S. has to be ready for all these threats — and more. Indeed, the greatest danger could emanate from a quarter that we can barely perceive as of yet, what Don Rumsfeld called “the unknown unknowns.”

In the face of so much risk (and today’s geopolitical environment is the most volatile in my lifetime), security comes from having armed forces ready at a moment’s notice to respond to a host of contingencies. But we are depriving ourselves of that capability through ill-advised across-the-board budget cuts that will reduce defense spending by roughly a trillion dollars over the course of this decade.

Those cuts are already beginning to bite, with the army announcing that it is laying off 40,000 troops to shrink to 450,000 active-duty personnel, its lowest level since 1940. Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, has just warned that his service can’t get any smaller and still meet its obligations, but it is likely to shrink to just 420,000 personnel unless sequestration is repealed. The Air Force, meanwhile, is down to 315,000 personnel, its lowest level since the service’s creation in 1947. And the Navy, which needs to have well over 300 ships to meet existing requirements, has only 273 ships deployable at the moment.

Little wonder that Dunford told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “What keeps me up at night is our ability to respond to the unexpected. On balance, our force can deal with the challenges that we have now. But there is very little residual capability.” And what little capacity we have is rapidly shrinking.

This should be — but isn’t — one of the top issues in the presidential campaign. Whatever one may think of how to deal with this foreign policy crisis or that one, one truth remains eternal: Every problem will become harder to manage if the U.S. does not have the military capacity to back up its diplomacy.

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The Islamic State and Russia’s Soft Underbelly

For decades, Russians associated Islamist terrorism with Chechen separatists and the North Caucasus. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin can trace his rise to a counter-terrorism crackdown on Chechens perhaps aided, in part, by some false flag attacks on Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999. With the 11th anniversary of the Beslan school massacre nearing, the scars of Islamist terrorism in Russia remain fresh.

Increasingly, however, Chechnya, Daghestan, and other Russian-controlled but Muslim majority areas in the North Caucasus may be the least of Moscow’s concerns. Read More

For decades, Russians associated Islamist terrorism with Chechen separatists and the North Caucasus. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin can trace his rise to a counter-terrorism crackdown on Chechens perhaps aided, in part, by some false flag attacks on Moscow apartment buildings in September 1999. With the 11th anniversary of the Beslan school massacre nearing, the scars of Islamist terrorism in Russia remain fresh.

Increasingly, however, Chechnya, Daghestan, and other Russian-controlled but Muslim majority areas in the North Caucasus may be the least of Moscow’s concerns.

On May 27, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) released a new video featuring Gulmurod Halimov, commander of Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry Special Forces and a recipient of counterterrorism training in the United States. In the video, Halimov condemned the secular-oriented Tajikistan government and called on Muslims across Central Asia to join with the Islamic State.

Now, Tajikistan and the other Central Asian Republics have not been part of Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, but they remain largely in the Russian orbit and Russia considers republics like Tajikistan, where it deploys troops, to be its first line of defense in the fight against radical Islam rising up along its southern flank. If key, vetted leaders like Halimov can defect then so can anyone else in the region, especially given the noxious poverty, rampant corruption and persecution.

But it’s not just Central Asia. A large number of Tatars live in the Volga Basin, having long ago been displaced there. Some remained in the Crimea, where they originated, but, by invading and annexing the Crimea, Russia absorbed the remainder. Then, there’s the Bashkirs, who live in the Urals. Over the last decade or two, there’s been a revival of religious identity among the Tatars and Bashkirs, and an increasing tendency toward radicalization among a smaller proportion.

Demography, of course, is crucial. Fertility rates in Russia are falling, and Russia’s population is in decline despite the Kremlin’s efforts to bolster Christian immigration. (One-third of the Armenian population in the Republic of Armenia, for example, has migrated to the rusting factory towns of Siberia since Armenia’s independence, largely to replace Russians who have migrated away or died. But the Russian Muslim population continues to increase. Will that mean Russia will become Muslim? No. But given the coming youth bulge, this will impact the demographics of the Russian Army. So, here’s the nightmare situation for Russia:

  • Poor governance and increased radicalization make Central Asian Republics vulnerable to Islamic State recruitment. Radicalism is nothing new in the area — think the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan — but the Islamic State provides a shot of adrenaline.
  • A Muslim youth bulge against the backdrop of a stagnating economy and traditional Russian discrimination against its Muslim population benefits Islamic State recruitment in the heart of Russia, and not simply along the periphery.
  • At the same time, the Muslim youth bulge will disproportionately impact the demographics of the Russian army. Already, at least ten percent of Russians are Muslim. If the proportion of conscripts reaches 20 percent Muslim, how might that impact the ability of the Russian army to put down Islamist-inspired insurgencies in the North Caucasus or elsewhere?

The Islamic State knows this, of course. Russia has a soft underbelly that the Islamic State will exploit. The tragedy is that Russian President Vladimir Putin has had well over a decade and a half to address some of the factors adding fuel to the fire but instead failed to effectively reform the economy and relied only on repression. He’s transformed Russia into a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers explode; they don’t bring long-term stability. Perhaps the era of apartment building explosions is not over; it may be just beginning.

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Will Russia Revoke Recognition of Baltic Independence?

On July 3, Max Boot wrote here asking whether Russian aggression could trigger the next great war; he is right, of course. Russia is increasingly aggressive. Vladimir Putin is feeding off President Obama’s weakness. And Boot is right to frame the question as “What’s the best way to avoid the risk of war with Russia?” He suggests three options. First, kick the Baltics out of NATO, essentially condemning them and perhaps other states in Eastern Europe to Russian dominance. Second is a policy of ambiguity, but given the widespread beliefs that Obama’s red lines are meaningless, adversaries don’t see much ambiguous in what the White House might see as strategic ambiguity. The third option, should Russian forces move into the Baltics is war with Russia. Deterrence, after all, is a military and not simply a rhetorical strategy.

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On July 3, Max Boot wrote here asking whether Russian aggression could trigger the next great war; he is right, of course. Russia is increasingly aggressive. Vladimir Putin is feeding off President Obama’s weakness. And Boot is right to frame the question as “What’s the best way to avoid the risk of war with Russia?” He suggests three options. First, kick the Baltics out of NATO, essentially condemning them and perhaps other states in Eastern Europe to Russian dominance. Second is a policy of ambiguity, but given the widespread beliefs that Obama’s red lines are meaningless, adversaries don’t see much ambiguous in what the White House might see as strategic ambiguity. The third option, should Russian forces move into the Baltics is war with Russia. Deterrence, after all, is a military and not simply a rhetorical strategy.

The problem the West will face is that the moment Russia launches its campaign against the Baltics will never be clear-cut. To invade the Crimea, the Kremlin initially used spetsnaz soldiers wearing no insignia to provide enough plausible doubt to those unwilling to believe that Russia would invade another country in the 21st century. By the time those in denial recognized what had happened, it was too late.

The Russian annexation of the Crimea violated the Budapest Memorandum, the 1994 agreement in which Moscow, Washington, and London agreed that Ukraine would forfeit its inherited nuclear program in exchange for full recognition of its borders by all parties. The United States gave Ukraine security guarantees which the Obama administration ignored and, so, today, the Crimea is effectively Russian territory.

The problem with allowing the violation of red lines is that it seldom ameliorates conflict; rather, it catalyzes it. Obama’s willingness to cast aside American security commitments has convinced Putin that he loses nothing by challenging other international agreements.

The Open Source Center has just published new analysis describing how the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office is considering the validity of the 1991 Soviet recognition of the Baltic countries. It was the same office that previously had determined that the 1954 Soviet transfer of Crimea to the Ukraine was illegal.

Russian officials on 1 July minimized the significance of news reports that the Prosecutor General’s Office is investigating the legality of the Soviet Union’s 1991 recognition of the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The reporting followed an earlier determination by the Prosecutor General’s Office that the Soviet Union’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was illegal. Dmitriy Peskkov, the presidential press secretary, has like a true press flak, denied direct knowledge of the investigation. This is not credible, however, given that it was Putin’s United Russia party that initiated the legal query.

Baltic leaders are right to be furious with the Russian provocation. But if they believe that the United States has their back, they are naïve. Over the past six years, security commitments and alliances have ceased to have any meaning in Washington. Sophisticated diplomats now rationalize provocation rather than confront it. The danger is not war while Obama is in office. Putin may be weak, but Obama is weaker. Rather, the true danger is how adversaries will test the next president should he or she ever seek to restore American credibility.

 

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Europe’s Horrible Choice

It’s high noon in Europe. In Greece, the far-left Syriza had long promised the Greek people auspicious outcomes that they could never deliver. When the government in Athens failed to muscle their way out of a debtor’s obligations through sheer force of personality and overwrought rhetoric, they sought a plebiscite that would allow them to evade making the tough choices a government often confronts. Unsurprisingly, when asked if they would prefer the harsh reality imposed on them by the nation’s creditors to a fantasy, the Greeks resoundingly voted “No.” The standoff the Greeks inaugurated appears set to resolve itself in the worst of ways. They have presented Europeans with a horrible choice: Follow up on their threats and invite the conditions that could lead to Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, or fold in the face of threats and sow the seeds of political chaos that could tear the continent apart.

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It’s high noon in Europe. In Greece, the far-left Syriza had long promised the Greek people auspicious outcomes that they could never deliver. When the government in Athens failed to muscle their way out of a debtor’s obligations through sheer force of personality and overwrought rhetoric, they sought a plebiscite that would allow them to evade making the tough choices a government often confronts. Unsurprisingly, when asked if they would prefer the harsh reality imposed on them by the nation’s creditors to a fantasy, the Greeks resoundingly voted “No.” The standoff the Greeks inaugurated appears set to resolve itself in the worst of ways. They have presented Europeans with a horrible choice: Follow up on their threats and invite the conditions that could lead to Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, or fold in the face of threats and sow the seeds of political chaos that could tear the continent apart.

According to Syriza’s preferred whimsy, the “No” vote would demonstrate that democracy would always triumph over the cruel burdens imposed upon the Greek people from far-flung creditors in Northern European capitals. The referendum would compel Greece’s benefactors to forgive some or all of their debt to preserve the integrity of the Eurozone, and would forestall reforms in the form of pension benefits cuts and tax increases. The wide-eyed academic-turned-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis promised his country that, in the wake of the referendum, not 48 hours would pass before a new and more favorable deal with the country’s creditors would be inked. Less than 24 hours after all the ballots had been counted, Varoufakis resigned.

For weeks, Europe’s leaders had been issuing stinging condemnations of Greek profligacy and threatening that a “No” vote would likely lead to Greece’s forced expulsion from the European Union’s common currency. Today, that scenario is no longer a troubling prospect but a terrifying reality. Writing in the New York Times, Neil Irwin identified the horrible choice Europe now faces: Let Greece go and endure the destabilizing effects that will follow, or retreat from their position and usher in an era of ultimatums and extremism in the E.U.’s debtor nations.

As Irwin observed, the Greek crisis is no longer a matter of monetary policy. The debate over whether the European Central Bank’s terms can be altered to a point at which they are mutually agreeable, or Athens can secure a bailout, debt relaxation, and favorable new loans is irrelevant. “The fact is that the time for those debates is over for now,” he wrote. “[W]e’re in the realm of power politics, not substantive economic policy debates.”

Already, European leaders are growing visibly uncomfortable about the prospect of essentially forcing Greece out of the Union. If the Eurocrats acquiesce to Greece’s ultimatum, they will invite similar tactics in countries like Portugal, Spain, and Italy; nations that have substantial debt burdens and have embraced the politically costly financial reforms imposed on them by their creditors. “Parties of the left in Italy, Portugal and Spain will have a new argument to make against the reforms that have begun to show some progress: Vote to reject the reforms that creditors demand, and the creditors will reward you anyway,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board fretted. “This could doom the center-right Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy as it goes to the polls later this year.”

The response to Greece’s “No” vote has been hailed as a welcome development by an unlikely union of far-left and fringe right political leaders. No doubt, a capitulation to the Greeks’ unreasonable demands will only facilitate the rise of extremist political elements on the continent.

The alternative to this course is to stand strong, cut off funds, force the Greek banking system into collapse, and compel the country to reinstitute a currency that they can value as they see fit to attract new investors and tourists from abroad. The easy part of this lamentable state of affairs would be the reprinting and reintroduction of the Drachma – and that will be a substantial challenge. A financial hardship of a kind unknown in a developed nation for generations will soon descend across the archipelago. A Greece that is suddenly untethered to Europe for the first time in nearly 70 years will present an inviting target for revanchist powers intent on overturning the present geopolitical order.

Near the open of America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder from Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, he relates an anecdote that serves as an illustration for how the Pax Americana began. Shortly after the end of World War II, as Greece and Turkey were descending into a crisis that many feared would lead both nations to tip into the Soviet sphere of influence, the British informed members of the Truman administration that they could no longer maintain their traditional role as guarantors of financial and military stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. The urgency of the crisis led to the development and practice of what became known as the Truman Doctrine, which held that the United States would support any nation threatened by Soviet communism in service to Kennan’s policy of containment. Just as a crisis in Greece heralded the beginning of America’s embrace of its global hegemonic status, a new crisis in Greece could signal the start of a new geopolitical epoch.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an irredentist who is acutely vexed by the lost Soviet empire, is surely aware of all that Greece represents. He has spent political and hard capital reintegrating the “near abroad” into Moscow’s orbit by any means necessary and is busily doing the same for those nations that were once Soviet vassals. Moscow recently cajoled Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, chafing from what he perceives to be the rejection of Cairo’s allies in Washington, to request military aid from the Kremlin and to join Russia’s competing free economic zone, the Eurasian Economic Union. The EEU, a single market of nearly 200 million people with a GDP of over $4 trillion, is going to appear an attractive alternative to the European Union if Athens is suddenly cast adrift.

While Scandinavian countries openly flirt with the prospect of NATO membership in response to Russian threats – a possibility they did not seriously indulge even at the height of the Cold War – the Kremlin has to view demonstrating the fragility of at least one European alliance as a chief foreign policy priority. For their part, the Greeks may willingly aid Moscow in this pursuit. Given Syriza’s friendliness toward Russia and the Greek cultural affinity for its Orthodox brethren, the choice between East and West might not be all that difficult.

The choice facing Europe is a terrible one. There is no good option before them; do they invite the disintegration of their Union from within or allow it to be newly and uniquely assailed from without? In either case, dark days are ahead for the continent.

 

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Will Russian Aggression Trigger a New Great War?

Over at Vox, Max Fisher has a long and interesting article suggesting that the risk of a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. is growing.

He quotes pundits close to the Kremlin suggesting that Vladimir Putin feels genuinely threatened by the U.S. and that he may try to stage a Ukrainian-style revolt in Estonia or one of the other Baltic states in order to confront NATO with an unpalatable choice: Either risk World War III or allow the alliance to disintegrate, thus letting Russia regain its traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Read More

Over at Vox, Max Fisher has a long and interesting article suggesting that the risk of a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. is growing.

He quotes pundits close to the Kremlin suggesting that Vladimir Putin feels genuinely threatened by the U.S. and that he may try to stage a Ukrainian-style revolt in Estonia or one of the other Baltic states in order to confront NATO with an unpalatable choice: Either risk World War III or allow the alliance to disintegrate, thus letting Russia regain its traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe.

The possibility of such a conflict spinning out of control is all the greater because Russian military doctrine is fairly permissive in the use of nuclear weapons to compensate for a conventional disadvantage such as the one that the Russian military currently suffers from when arrayed against NATO. Fisher even quotes experts comparing the current situation to Europe on the eve of World War I.
There is, to be sure, an element of Russian information warfare evident here which Fisher does not mention: Putin wants us to think he’s crazy enough to trigger a nuclear war if he doesn’t get his way. That makes it much less likely that we will do anything serious to stop him. But the concerns raised by Fisher cannot be entirely dismissed. In fact, I heard similar warnings not long ago from a senior NATO general.

The question is, what should the West do about it? Or, put another way: What’s the best way to avoid the risk of war with Russia?

One obvious alternative would be to abrogate the NATO treaty, kick the Baltic States out, and make clear to Putin that we will do nothing to risk war over their fate. But this would have the effect of dismembering the alliance, as Putin intends, and it risks undoing all of the progress seen in Eastern Europe since 1989. The region is stable, democratic, and relatively prosperous for the first time in its long and troubled history. States such as Poland are enjoying a golden age that would have been impossible to imagine in centuries past when their territory was the plaything of neighboring autocrats. Abandon the Baltics, and you effectively abandon Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and all the rest, because then NATO guarantees will be meaningless. The political stability that has been necessary for the region’s development will collapse, and we are likely to see the rise of extremist parties of both left and right — a development already evident to some extent in Hungary.

Assuming that we are not ready to destroy NATO and abandon Eastern Europe, what then should we do to avoid conflict with Moscow? We can continue on our present path of exercising U.S. forces in the NATO states of the Baltics and Eastern Europe without permanently stationing them there, and of providing non-lethal aid to Ukraine but refusing to provide the arms necessary to stop Russian aggression. This is designed to be a middle path of reassuring allies without unduly alarming Russia. But it isn’t working: The U.S. is doing just enough to provide fodder for Putin’s propagandistic claims of “encirclement” but not enough to effectively dissuade Russia from further aggression.

It can, in fact, be argued that the U.S. is repeating the mistake that Britain made on the eve of World War I. In 1904, Britain entered into an Entente Cordiale with France, but it was unclear what this actually meant. In 1911, the British diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe wrote:

“The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.”

The key ambiguity that the Entente Cordiale created was whether, in the event that France was attacked, Britain would come to its aid. The fact that Britain might leave France to her fate — and the fact that the British Army pre-1914 was laughably small — encouraged the German General Staff to conclude that it could carry off its famous Schlieffen Plan unchecked: That is, that the German army could invade France and knock it out of the war swiftly, and then turn to deal with the Russian armies in the east. If the Germans had been convinced that British forces would block their designs (as in fact happened), they might never have launched the attack in the first place and the Great War might have been avoided.

The risks of ambiguity were made clear once again in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea after Secretary of State Dean Acheson had proclaimed the south outside the American “defensive perimeter.” The Korean War, too, might have been prevented by sending a clearer signal in advance that aggression would be met with a substantial response.

The lesson that I draw for the present day is that we had better make clear to Putin that aggression against the Baltics will, in fact, trigger a war with NATO. Given that Putin is hardly suicidal, he will presumably shy away from a conflict he must know he cannot win — and one that could well lead to the incineration of much of the Russian population. But to deter Putin will require taking steps — such as stationing substantial U.S. ground forces in eastern Europe, providing arms to the Ukrainians, and stopping the reduction in U.S. military spending in general and army end-strength in particular — that the Obama administration has refused to take. There are, to be sure, risks in this course of action, but the greatest risk of all, I believe, is to continue on our current path of drift, which exacerbates strategic ambiguity (will NATO fight for the Baltics or not?) and thus increases the risk of a catastrophic conflict that no one wants.

 

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Russia Outmaneuvers Obama in the Middle East

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it. Read More

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it.

In February, when Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi chose Russia as the first non-Arab state to which he would make a formal trip, it set off alarm bells in Washington. America’s bilateral relationship with that flawed but nevertheless critical nation’s military leadership had long been strained. Relations between American and Egyptian officials grew tense when President Barack Obama demanded Washington’s ally of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak, leave office amid anti-government protests and spiraling violence. At first welcoming the election of Mohamed Morsi and then standing by him when it became clear that he and his political allies would use every lever of Egyptian democracy at their disposal to destroy it, Barack Obama alienated the members of the Egyptian military with whom America had once had firm relations since the late 1970s. Finally, after being visibly paralyzed by events in Egypt following Morsi’s ouster – vexed by the notion of whether to punish the putsch leaders by calling the events they welcomed a “coup” – Obama’s government eventually withdrew a significant amount of the military aid the world’s most populous Arab country had come to rely upon.

The result of this fecklessness was to alienate Egypt’s democrats, frustrate its Islamists, and terrify the members of its military establishment. It’s one thing to have an idealistic foreign policy that eschews legacy obligations to unsavory actors established by foreign policy realists, but it’s quite another to adopt an approach to international affairs that apparently has no philosophical moorings whatsoever. Obama embraced the latter course.

“Washington’s rather limited criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood during its year in power, as well as the intensifying swirl of conspiracy theories about the U.S. role in Egypt, have fostered a severely anti-American political atmosphere that may welcome a shift away from Washington,” The Washington Institute’s David Schenker and Eric Trager observed.

If the alarm bells were ringing in February, they screamed like an air raid siren by March. It was then that the Sisi government announced that it had secured a deal to purchase $2 billion in arms from Moscow. The arrangement represented the ruination of the post-Sadat status quo, in which the former Egyptian leader and American administrations under three successive presidents over the skillfully disentangled Egypt from the Soviet sphere of influence. Indeed, the importance with which Russia viewed Egypt was revealed when Sadat flamboyantly expelled Soviet advisors and he was subsequently rewarded with even more military aid from Moscow. Putin had effectively reversed Leonid Brezhnev’s folly in Egypt.

But this would not be the end of the West’s humiliation on the Nile. According to a report via the Egyptian Independent, Cairo has agreed to establish a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone dominated by Russia and comprised of the former Soviet Republics Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia.

“Egypt’s trade agreement with the EEU would ideally give it preferential access to the integrated single market of 176 million people and a GDP of over US$4 trillion,” The publication wrote of the trade zone designed to serve as a counterbalance to the European Union. “A Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and a number of other joint projects in the areas of transport, manufacturing, and energy are on the table, and the upcoming free trade agreement, expanding the scope of cooperation, would undoubtedly contribute to increasing EEU’s influence…”

As Washington makes no secret of its desire to see Iran rise and become the region’s prohibitive stabilizing power, it isn’t just Egypt that has turned its jilted eyes toward Moscow. “Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman visited St. Petersburg in the last week and signed several agreements with the Russians concerning cooperation on oil, space and peaceful nuclear energy, as well as nuclear technology sharing,” Al-Monitor reported on Wednesday. Between the Saudis proxy war in Yemen against Iran-backed Shiite rebels and its speedy pursuit of nuclear technology from countries like France and Russia, the Saudi Kingdom’s behavior a virtual textbook example of how sovereign powers react to shifting regional dynamics and alliance structures.

In fact, the effects of the Obama administration’s approach to regional power politics in the Middle East might have been pulled directly from one of the late University of California, Berkeley, Professor Kenneth Waltz’s lectures. As the United States has become an unreliable ally, propping up a revisionist aspiring hegemon in their neighborhood, the region’s Sunni states have gone in search of some insurance. This real world experiment in international relations theory is actually quite fascinating. If only it were not so extremely dangerous.

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Losing the Eastern Mediterranean to Russia?

While Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952, anti-Americanism has often run high in Greece. In 1974, Greek leftists assassinated the CIA’s station chief in Athens (after the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank still operating in Washington, DC, outed him). During the various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, popular Greek sentiment often leaned toward the fellow Orthodox communities rather than the Catholic or Muslim communities often supported by NATO members. Read More

While Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952, anti-Americanism has often run high in Greece. In 1974, Greek leftists assassinated the CIA’s station chief in Athens (after the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank still operating in Washington, DC, outed him). During the various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, popular Greek sentiment often leaned toward the fellow Orthodox communities rather than the Catholic or Muslim communities often supported by NATO members.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras is openly flirting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For Putin, foreign policy and diplomacy are zero sum games. Flipping Greece, withdrawing it from NATO or, more dangerously, keeping it in NATO as a consensus-busting Trojan horse at a time when political tension if not conflict looms between Putin’s Russia and many European states and NATO members formerly under Soviet tutelage.

Much of the discussion about losing Greece to Russia, however, overlooks some major issues. The United States has exactly one naval facility in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it is on the Greek island of Crete at Souda Bay. It is not unreasonable that a price Russia would demand in exchange for keeping Greece solvent would be the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Crete. After all, Putin previously used financial leverage to force American forces out of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia has also been putting the moves on Cyprus, which also finds itself in dire financial straits. Earlier this year, for example, Russian officials floated the idea of a base on Cyprus, a move that would enable it to project power more regularly in the region. While the Russian navy withdrew from the Eastern Mediterranean in 1992 in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, in May 2013, Putin announced a permanent 16-ship Russian Mediterranean task force. A base in Greece or Cyprus would also provide useful backup to the existing Russian base at Tartous, in Syria.

Of course, it’s not simply a matter of grabbing territory wherever it might. The Eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly strategic and valuable for energy purposes. Eastern Mediterranean gas is not simply theoretical but is now a fact of life. It also provides the best mechanism, whether through off-shore gas fields or the pipeline terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey, for Europe to bypass the stranglehold Russia has on gas to Europe.

President Obama can talk about a “pivot to Asia,” but increasingly it’s not a simple choice about whether to emphasize defense in the Persian Gulf or Asia: The whole world is in play and adversaries—Russia, China, and Iran—smell the blood of American weakness in the water and prepare to launch a strategic feeding frenzy unseen in half a century, if not more.

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Obama’s Move Won’t Deter Russian Aggression

A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is pressing President Obama to provide weapons so that Ukrainians can defend themselves against Russian aggression.  As the New York Times noted June 11: “The Senate has included provisions in its military policy bill to arm Ukraine with anti-armor systems, mortars, grenade launchers and ammunition to aid in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. It would also prevent the administration from spending more than one half of $300 million in aid for Ukraine unless 20 percent is earmarked for offensive weapons. The House has passed a similar measure.”

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A bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is pressing President Obama to provide weapons so that Ukrainians can defend themselves against Russian aggression.  As the New York Times noted June 11: “The Senate has included provisions in its military policy bill to arm Ukraine with anti-armor systems, mortars, grenade launchers and ammunition to aid in its fight against Russian-backed separatists. It would also prevent the administration from spending more than one half of $300 million in aid for Ukraine unless 20 percent is earmarked for offensive weapons. The House has passed a similar measure.”

At the same time there is growing pressure from our NATO allies in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, in particular the states that border Ukraine, for more U.S. military personnel and systems to help defend them against the growing threat of Russian aggression.

Obama, however, remains opposed to helping the Ukrainians fight back and to permanently stationing U.S. combat troops in the Baltic states or Eastern Europe. So what does he offer instead? A new plan to preposition a brigade’s worth of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and other heavy equipment in various Eastern European states. According to the Times, “As the proposal stands now, a company’s worth of equipment — enough for about 150 soldiers — would be stored in each of the three Baltic nations: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Enough for a company or possibly a battalion — about 750 soldiers — would be located in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and possibly Hungary.”

Prepositioning U.S. military equipment isn’t a bad idea. In an exercise or crisis, it allows troops to fall in more quickly on the equipment—much faster than lugging tanks, etc., from the United States. But it’s no substitute for a presence of U.S. military presence.

The chief problem the U.S. faces vis-à-vis Russia (and every other bad actor on the planet) is a lack of credibility. Putin simply doesn’t believe we are going to make a substantial commitment to stop him—any more than Ayatollah Khamenei or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi imagine we’re gong to stop them. The only way to restore American deterrence and credibility is by putting U.S. troops on the frontlines, as we did in Germany during the Cold War and as we are still doing in South Korea. You don’t have to deploy a lot of American troops—certainly not enough by themselves to stop the Russian Army or even the North Korean army. Just enough to serve as a tripwire and delaying force, ensuring that any aggression will put American personnel in danger and thus require an American military response. Empty tanks and APCs aren’t the same—no one imagines that we would go to war to protect them.

And that’s why the Obama plan will fall far short of its objective, of deterring Russian aggression. Doing that effectively requires arming the Ukrainians and stationing U.S. brigade combat teams in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

Some—including the president himself—would no doubt argue that this would raise the risk of war with Russia. But what really raises the risk is uncertainty about American responses to Russian aggression. Putin may be tempted to send his “little green men” to invade, say, Estonia, because he doesn’t believe the U.S. and our other NATO allies would meet their Article V obligations under NATO. Putin may well find that he is mistaken—that just as the U.S. responded to the North Korean invasion of South Korean in 1950, so too we might well respond to Russian attacks today. But rather than risk a confrontation based on uncertain levels of commitment, it’s better to signal up front that we will defend our allies no matter what. We learned during the Cold War how American military deployments could keep the peace. Alas, that seems to be a lesson we’ve forgotten or rather choose to ignore. Stalin wouldn’t have been deterred by empty U.S. tanks from seizing West Berlin—and for that matter, all of West Germany–and neither will Putin be deterred from seizing whatever real estate he has his eye on next.

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Would NATO Really Go To War With Russia?

It’s a question they have been asking in the Kremlin for generations, although apprehensions are perhaps more pronounced today than they were even during much of the Cold War: Would NATO members really commit to a third great war in Europe? That question grew more pressing when Russia invaded and carved off portions of Georgia in 2008. It became paramount when Moscow repeated that feat in Ukraine. Some began asking it aloud in the West last July when a civilian airliner packed with the citizens of NATO-allied nations was shot out of the sky over Ukraine by pro-Russian militants using Russian hardware. But while it is presumed by many in the West that the Atlantic Treaty’s mutual defense trigger mechanism is sacred and automatic, some are beginning to wonder whether NATO would truly mobilize for another total war in the event that an allied nation invoked Section 5. Read More

It’s a question they have been asking in the Kremlin for generations, although apprehensions are perhaps more pronounced today than they were even during much of the Cold War: Would NATO members really commit to a third great war in Europe? That question grew more pressing when Russia invaded and carved off portions of Georgia in 2008. It became paramount when Moscow repeated that feat in Ukraine. Some began asking it aloud in the West last July when a civilian airliner packed with the citizens of NATO-allied nations was shot out of the sky over Ukraine by pro-Russian militants using Russian hardware. But while it is presumed by many in the West that the Atlantic Treaty’s mutual defense trigger mechanism is sacred and automatic, some are beginning to wonder whether NATO would truly mobilize for another total war in the event that an allied nation invoked Section 5.

In the summer of 2012, the presidential election in the United States was just ramping up when the increasingly deteriorating security environment in the Middle East threatened to derail Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Mere weeks before the president would set his infamous “red line” for action in Syria amid increasing reports that Bashar al-Assad was regularly using chemical weapons on rebel-dominated population centers, the Syria Civil War threatened to explode over that nation’s borders. On June 22, Syrian armed forces intercepted and shot down a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet. Four days later, Ankara turned to the NATO alliance for support following what Turkish politicians had begun calling an “act of war.”

Turkey invoked NATO’s Article 4 on June 26, a largely symbolic provision that requires Atlantic Alliance member states engage in consultations following a threat to any one member’s security and independence. There was speculation that Ankara might also invoke Article 5, as was its privilege, but it never did. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the issue simply didn’t come up, but it would have sparked a crisis within the alliance that might have resulted in its dissolution if it had. The invocation of this provision requires the consent of all 28 member states, only the United States has ever appealed to that provision, and that extraordinary move followed the equally extraordinary September 11 attacks. The West would not have gone to war in Syria in defense of Turkish sovereignty in 2012, and Ankara knew it.

Fast-forward three years, and NATO again faces a crisis of legitimacy. This time, the aggressor state is the alliance’s old adversary, Russia. If one of the NATO member states on the alliance’s periphery in the Baltics were to encounter a crisis similar to that confronted by Turkey in 2012, would NATO respond with force? In considering this, the results of a new Pew Research Center survey of adults in primarily Western NATO member states are instructive.

That poll found that Western NATO members including the U.S., Canada, Spain, Germany, the U.K, France, and Italy remain supportive of the effort to provide Ukraine with economic assistance as it struggles to repel a veritable Russian invasion. As for the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, a project began in the last decade but has since stalled, and only North American NATO-allied countries remain broadly supportive of that prospect. Finally, it seems clear that the citizens of NATO member states are deeply suspicious of the notion that Ukraine should be provided lethal aid. Only 46 percent of Americans support sending arms to Kiev, but those totals are far lower in Europe. Just 19 percent of Germans, for example, support arming the Ukrainians.

The exception to this consensus was the nation of Poland; the only state Pew surveyed that was a former member of the Warsaw Pact or a Soviet Republic and which perceives itself to be genuinely threatened by Moscow. In January, the Polish government began circulating pamphlets to citizens instructing them on how to both survive and resist a Russian invasion. “Poland should be armed to be able to defend itself as long as possible,” said Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in a March interview. “There is no reason to wait; we have to act.” Disturbing dispatches indicate that Poles are organizing into rough-and-ready militias under the assumption that Russian armed aggression is imminent and Western assistance is not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Polish views on the question of NATO’s utility and commitment to collective defense differ from those of the citizens residing in its more insulated Western member states. Only 49 percent of Poles surveyed say they believe NATO would come to the defense of a fellow NATO member if it were attacked by Russia. Still, there is general agreement that NATO’s mutual defense provisions are iron-clad. “When asked whether the United States would come to a NATO ally’s aid, majorities or pluralities in every country said the U.S. would defend the nation against Russian aggression,” Pew revealed.

But would NATO go to war with Moscow if the Kremlin engaged in Ukraine-style provocations in eastern portions of, say, Estonia? Would London, Washington, Paris, and Berlin mobilize for conflict with a nuclear power in defense of Latvian sovereignty? Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has already called a September, 2014 operation in which Russian forces using smoke grenades and radio jamming technology abducted an Estonian border guard at gunpoint during an invasion. Russia has made no secret about their involvement in that operation and the border guard in question remains in Russian custody, but the West’s reaction to that violation of sovereignty has been unnervingly muted.

Russia’s testing of NATO’s defensive parameters has only grown bolder in the wake of the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. If Vladimir Putin’s aim is to shatter the NATO alliance and resurrect the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe, it is perhaps logical if a bit risky to provoke the Atlantic Alliance into living up to its commitments. If Ankara had invoked Article 5 in 2012, it would have demonstrated that the alliance was a paper tiger and its mutual defense provisions were not worth the paper upon which they were written. That revelation would have effectively neutered the alliance and possibly paved the way for its dissolution. Putin would no doubt find that development a welcome prospect. And all it might take is a little push.

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Reports that Russia Has Blinked in Ukraine Are Greatly Exaggerated

For a few hopeful days last week, it seemed as though Vladimir Putin had abandoned Russia’s campaign of adventurism in Ukraine. A promising report in the Wall Street Journal observed that the Tsarist era term “Novorossiya,” a word used to reintegrate the portions of Ukraine Moscow had destabilized and covertly invaded last year back into the Russian sphere, had suddenly gone missing from the Putin’s vocabulary. Applying a Kremlinologist’s powers of deduction, Journal reporter Paul Sonne speculated that Russia was moderating its behavior ahead of a June European Union decision on whether to renew sanctions on the Russian Federation based on whether or not it was complying with the February ceasefire accord signed in Minsk. But with the fighting in Ukraine again raging, that bit of speculation seems unfounded. Read More

For a few hopeful days last week, it seemed as though Vladimir Putin had abandoned Russia’s campaign of adventurism in Ukraine. A promising report in the Wall Street Journal observed that the Tsarist era term “Novorossiya,” a word used to reintegrate the portions of Ukraine Moscow had destabilized and covertly invaded last year back into the Russian sphere, had suddenly gone missing from the Putin’s vocabulary. Applying a Kremlinologist’s powers of deduction, Journal reporter Paul Sonne speculated that Russia was moderating its behavior ahead of a June European Union decision on whether to renew sanctions on the Russian Federation based on whether or not it was complying with the February ceasefire accord signed in Minsk. But with the fighting in Ukraine again raging, that bit of speculation seems unfounded.

Sporadic skirmishes in Ukraine have been reported virtually the minute the winter snows began to melt, but what shattered the early morning calm on the outskirts of rebel-held Donetsk on Wednesday quickly became the fiercest fighting yet this year. Kiev accused the pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine of mounting a “large-scale offensive” aimed at capturing new territory, to which the government responded with heavy artillery and even tanks.

If Moscow willed it, there would be no renewed offensive in Ukraine. While Russia continues to maintain that it is not supplying, training, and equipping the pro-Moscow separatists fighting on sovereign foreign soil, and that the thousands of Russian soldiers engaged in combat operations are merely “volunteers” over whom the Kremlin has no control, foreign observers disagree. “The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO all say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation,” a BBC report read.

But even that BBC report displayed a lamentable credulity that has come to typify the international media’s coverage of the new ground war in Europe. That news outlet noted that this heavy fighting between government forces and pro-Russian elements in Ukraine was ongoing “despite [the] truce.” What truce? One day after the Minsk accord supposedly went into effect, pro-Russian forces inaugurated an offensive aimed at capturing the key railway hub of Debaltseve. The Russian-backed rebels eventually surrounded a large group of Ukrainian soldiers, compelling them to evacuate their positions or to endure a humiliating surrender.

While it remains unclear as to whether the fierce fighting that was carried out by no fewer than 1,000 rebel soldiers on Wednesday portended a more sustained offensive, Moscow’s statements on the battle should give those who still contend that the Minks accord remains in effect pause. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian news agency Interfax that Moscow remains “extremely concerned about the provocative actions of the Ukrainian armed forces, which as far as we can judge have largely provoked this situation.”

In truth, Vladimir Putin has pulled off a marvelous trick. By conducting a war of conquest in Ukraine at a snail’s pace, he has bored the West into complacency. Though it appeared as though Russia had miscalculated when, in July of last year, a Russian-made anti-air missile shot a civilian airliner packed with Western citizens out of the sky, it is apparent nearly one year later that Russia has acted cautiously enough in carving off portions of Ukraine that the Western public and their elected representatives simply lost interest in the conflict.

Meanwhile, the administration still clings to the notion that financial sanctions have had a measurable effect on Russian behavior and will deter further aggression. “Any attempts to seize additional Ukrainian territory will be met with increased costs,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, paraphrasing State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf. But has there been any indication that those costs, whatever they may be, are so onerous that the Kremlin would not pay them?

And while the West may so desperately want the latest European war to disappear, Putin almost certainly does not. “Putin is allocating unprecedented amounts of secret funds to accelerate Russia’s largest military buildup since the Cold War,” Bloomberg revealed on Wednesday. “The outlays on new tanks, missiles, and uniforms highlight the growing militarization that is swelling the deficit and crowding out services such as health care. Thousands of army conscripts will be moved into commercial enterprises for the first time to aid in the rearmament effort.” With the economy now reordered on a war footing, expect the pace of the forcible reunification of Little Russia with Big Russia to accelerate.

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The Tide of History Rises in the East

President Barack Obama was almost certainly trying to de-escalate the alarmingly high tensions characterizing Sino-American relations on Monday as the crisis in the South China Sea grew more dangerous. “We think that land reclamation, aggressive actions by any party in that area are counterproductive,” the president said, addressing the nascent crisis in unduly mild terms. “China is going to be successful. It’s big, it’s powerful, its people are talented and they work hard. And it may be some of their claims are legitimate. But they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.” The president probably thought he was helping, but his suggestion that China’s provocative maneuvers are being made in defense of legitimate territorial claims will likely have the opposite effect. Read More

President Barack Obama was almost certainly trying to de-escalate the alarmingly high tensions characterizing Sino-American relations on Monday as the crisis in the South China Sea grew more dangerous. “We think that land reclamation, aggressive actions by any party in that area are counterproductive,” the president said, addressing the nascent crisis in unduly mild terms. “China is going to be successful. It’s big, it’s powerful, its people are talented and they work hard. And it may be some of their claims are legitimate. But they shouldn’t just try to establish that based on throwing elbows and pushing people out of the way.” The president probably thought he was helping, but his suggestion that China’s provocative maneuvers are being made in defense of legitimate territorial claims will likely have the opposite effect.

It is no coincidence the globe’s revisionist powers have begun to press their outstanding claims on contested lands in the waning days of Barack Obama’s administration. In the wake of the president’s aborted “red line” for action in Syria, Russia became the first European power since 1945 to invade and annex portions of sovereign territory in Europe. Similarly, the People’s Republic of China has rediscovered its irredentist claims on portions of the Senkaku Islands. Perhaps more frightening, Beijing’s decision to construct airstrip-capable islands from nothing in the disputed Spratly Island chain has the most potential to draw in the myriad international actors that also lay claim to those islands.

On Monday, Dennis Richardson, Australia’s Secretary of the Department of Defense, warned that the military buildup China has begun in the contested archipelago is unlike anything the region has ever seen. “The land reclamation activity by China in the South China Sea has been at a pace and scale in the last two years beyond anything we have previously seen. It dwarfs what the other claimant states have done, and the size of the land reclamation does raise questions about its purpose,” he warned.

There should be no questions about the purpose of this man-made island, and the United States does not apparently believe that there are. The project Beijing began in the autumn of last year finally provoked a forceful response from the United States in mid-May when the Pentagon dispatched a Navy flotilla to an area 12 nautical miles from the new People’s Liberation Army base and ordered surveillance aircraft to perform overflights. The display of force from the United States in response to China’s unilateral provocation in an archipelago claimed by virtually every nation in the region prompted a bitter response from the Chinese government. But the ire of officials in Beijing was nothing when compared with the stoked nationalism displayed by influential Chinese commentators, as Foreign Policy’s Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reported:

The official trading of barbs has also spurred a barrage of nationalist comments on China’s web spaces, where grassroots nationalism flourishes. “Where is the Chinese airforce?” Yue Gang, a military commentator with more than 750,000 followers on microblogging platform Weibo, demanded in a May 21 Weibo post. “Isn’t intercepting airborne bandits part of its mission?” A number of Weibo users expressed frustration that the Chinese response to the U.S. plane had been merely to issue warnings. “The United States is feeling out China’s bottom line,” commented one user on May 22. “Repeatedly issuing warnings only encourages America’s reckless provocations.” And a May 26 PLA Daily article — also popular on military fanboy forum Tiexue — deemed the U.S. surveillance flight “bare-naked provocation.” The most popular comment in the related Tiexue discussion called for China, in response, to “slowly tighten the economic squeeze [on America], politically isolate it,” and militarily to “screw America over” until it “calls for a halt.”

Perhaps the most disturbing indication that these intemperate remarks reflect the thinking inside the PRC’s most influential circles was an editorial published in the state-run Global Times warning that a “US-China war is inevitable.”

The rhetoric should not be dismissed as mere bluster, wrote American Enterprise Institute scholar and COMMENTARY contributor Michael Auslin. “All it would take is one hotheaded action by a Chinese fighter pilot to ignite an armed confrontation between the two sides,” he wrote in the New York Post. “Unlike during the Cold War days, when Moscow and Washington established important crisis-management mechanisms, there are almost no working relations of trust between China and the United States. It is not assured that an accident or encounter could be prevented from spiraling out of control.”

Auslin further noted, however, that China has set into motion forces beyond its control. Without a face-saving way out, Beijing will not back down from the crisis it ignited lest it see its claims on other disputed territory in the Asia-Pacific region challenged.

Militaries in close proximity make mistakes, they miscalculate, they react rashly, and they start great, spiraling wars. On the other side of the world, according to a video released by the U.S. Navy on Monday, a Russian Su-24 fighter plane performed a highly provocative pass by a U.S. guided-missile destroyer off the coast of occupied Crimea. Meanwhile, Chinese and American assets come into semi-regular contact over the South China Sea as both powers stare the other down in a particularly treacherous game. Every time these assets come into contact, they are rolling the dice.

It’s going to be a dangerously hot summer.

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America Deals A Heavy Blow to FIFA

Doubtless, there will be some soccer fans who, this morning, are grimacing at the news that fourteen top officials of FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, have been indicted on corruption charges brought against them by, of all countries, the United States. I am not one of them.

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Doubtless, there will be some soccer fans who, this morning, are grimacing at the news that fourteen top officials of FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, have been indicted on corruption charges brought against them by, of all countries, the United States. I am not one of them.

Americans are widely mocked for referring to the game that everyone else calls football as “sawker.” But that cultural anomaly aside, it is thanks to American efforts that soccer, dogged for years by allegations of corruption and bribery, just may be on the cusp of recovering its integrity.

A mere two days before FIFA is due to begin its 2015 Congress in Switzerland, plainclothes Swiss police swooped upon the five star Baur au Lac hotel near Zurich, where they arrested seven of the fourteen indictees, who will now be extradited to the United States on federal corruption charges. A few hours after those arrests were carried out, the Swiss authorities seized computers and electronic data from FIFA’s headquarters.

American involvement in stamping out corruption in FIFA’s corridors stems from the 350-page report compiled by Michael J. Garcia, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which exposed astonishing levels of corruption in the bidding process that resulted in Russia and Qatar winning the hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. Garcia spent almost two years on the investigation, but the publication of his conclusions was suppressed by FIFA in October last year. It’s safe to assume that Garcia – who, by all accounts, has no interest in soccer as a sport – is having the last laugh today.

Garcia’s report pointed out that many of the bribery transactions were allegedly carried out on American soil, thereby enabling U.S. jurisdiction over the case. According to a statement released by the Swiss Office of Justice, “these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks.” Among the seven officials who will stand trial in an American courtroom is the former FIFA Vice-President Jack Warner, a particularly nasty anti-Semite who put the blame on “Zionism” when he was compelled to resign from his post in 2011, shortly before Garcia began his investigation.

Indeed, until today’s news broke, “Zionism” was poised to become the main item on the FIFA Congress agenda, due to the attempt by Jibril Rajoub, a convicted Fatah terrorist who heads the Palestine Football Association, to have Israel suspended from FIFA. As the Israeli legal NGO Shurat HaDin pointed out in a letter to FIFA, among Rajoub’s many inflammatory statements was his declaration that if the Palestinians “had nuclear weapons, we’d be using them” against Israel.

Rajoub’s initiative – formally predicated on the accusation that Israel has prevented Palestinian soccer players from participating in international matches on security grounds – is more properly understood as an element of the wider Palestinian strategy to isolate Israel in international bodies ranging from the UN to FIFA. As my colleague, Aiden Pink, observes in an article for The Tower magazine, Rajoub’s gambit,

 …is another facet of the Palestinian Authority’s escalating efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel in bodies like the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court—politicizing organizations that could theoretically serve a noble purpose if they weren’t so consumed with anti-Israel animus. One of FIFA’s only saving graces over the past few years has been that it has done a decent job at staying neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while successfully working to develop soccer in both countries: In the last two years, FIFA has invested $4.5 million in infrastructure and stadium upgrades in the West Bank, and selected Israel to host the Men’s Under-21 and Women’s Under-19 European Championships. Approving the Palestinian proposal would mean that, like a brilliant goal-scoring run called offside, it was all a lot of effort with nothing to show for it.

While there was always doubt over whether Rajoub would succeed in his quest, today’s arrests at FIFA, coupled with the news that UEFA, the powerful European section of FIFA, will oppose the Palestinian proposal, should hopefully mean that Israel is in the clear. I say “hopefully” because one should always be careful when it comes to predictions over FIFA’s behavior, but the portents for Israel now look much more positive than they did earlier this week.

The aim now should be to demand that FIFA revoke both Russia’s and Qatar’s hosting rights for the next two World Cups. FIFA has already stated rather weakly that it has ruled out such an outcome, but the organization’s President Sepp Blatter – a dictatorial figure currently seeking a fifth term at FIFA’s helm – is likely to face unprecedented pressure to revise that decision.

For all its talk of “respect” and “equality,” soccer, and sport more generally, has never been wary of cozying up to the world’s most repugnant regimes. The Nazis hosted the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, and the Soviet Union and China were given the same honor in 1980 and 2008. In 1978, the World Cup was hosted by Argentina when that country was in the grip of a horrendous military dictatorship. Awarding Vladimir Putin the World Cup despite his invasion of Ukraine, and extending the same privilege to Qatar, which uses slave labor to build soccer stadiums, is therefore simply more of the same. But because of the tenacious efforts of American law enforcement officials, the writing is, at long last, on the wall.

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Where They Burn People

Where they burn books, the maxim goes, they will ultimately burn people. This prescient quotation predated the rise of the German National Socialists by over a century, but Heinrich Heine did not need a Nazi foil to identify where the authoritarian mindset that outright prohibits objectionable thought ultimately leads. Today, the international community’s cowed reaction to Russian aggression both on the foreign and domestic fronts seems to have reduced the axiomatic admonition “never again” to “well, maybe once in a while.” One of history’s greatest insanities threatens to repeat itself, and we dare not address the warning signs in the stark terms they deserve lest we acknowledge the gravity of the threat to our comfortable existences.

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Where they burn books, the maxim goes, they will ultimately burn people. This prescient quotation predated the rise of the German National Socialists by over a century, but Heinrich Heine did not need a Nazi foil to identify where the authoritarian mindset that outright prohibits objectionable thought ultimately leads. Today, the international community’s cowed reaction to Russian aggression both on the foreign and domestic fronts seems to have reduced the axiomatic admonition “never again” to “well, maybe once in a while.” One of history’s greatest insanities threatens to repeat itself, and we dare not address the warning signs in the stark terms they deserve lest we acknowledge the gravity of the threat to our comfortable existences.

The government of the Russian Federation long ago committed to a policy that embraced the revisionist reconstruction of recent history and the remaking of Russian culture in the mold of an idealized past. For years, it was understood that journalists critical of the conduct of the Russian government were gambling with their lives. It seems likely that the next target of the Kremlin’s campaign to dismantle the reforms of the Gorbachev era will be the nation’s artists and visionaries.

The Russian government has already gone about the process of reintroducing Soviet-style bans on undesirable artistic content. For filmmakers, novelists, bloggers, and playwrights, to write provocative content with explicit language is to risk being charged a substantial fine. Moscow has also begun to censor evocative imagery. The graphic novelist Art Spiegelman was dismayed to discover last month that the Russian Federation has banned his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of books about the Holocaust, Maus, which ran afoul of the nation’s ban on the publication of the Swastika.

Calling it a “harbinger of a dangerous thing,” Spiegelman warned that Russia is attempting to sanitize the horrors of that period. At least, those that do not relate to the Soviet Union’s victory over the Nazi menace. “We don’t want cultures to erase memory,” he added.

The Russian government’s crackdown on dissent has been so thorough that few dare to challenge it. “[A]lmost a quarter-century on, only remnants are left of that golden media era, and the few outlets still publishing bold, independent work are under constant threat,” The Committee to Protect Journalist’s Ann Cooper wrote of the demise of the Glasnost reforms. “Vladimir Putin, now in his 15th year as Russian leader, has systematically dismantled independent media and rolled up press freedoms within his own country.”

Having figuratively burned books, the Russian Federation now literally burns bodies.

To hide the evidence of the illegal war Russia is waging and supporting in neighboring Ukraine following the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, American lawmakers allege that Moscow is using mobile crematoriums to destroy the evidence of their involvement in the fighting.

“The Russians are trying to hide their casualties by taking mobile crematoriums with them,” Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin. “They are trying to hide not only from the world but from the Russian people their involvement.”

The U.S. and NATO have long maintained that thousands of Russian troops are fighting alongside separatists inside eastern Ukraine, and that the Russian government is obscuring not only the presence but also the deaths of its soldiers there. In March, NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told a conference, “Russian leaders are less and less able to conceal the fact that Russian soldiers are fighting — and dying — in large numbers in eastern Ukraine.”

Thornberry said he had seen evidence of the crematoriums from both U.S. and Ukrainian sources. He said he could not disclose details of classified information, but insisted that he believed the reports. “What we have heard from the Ukrainians, they are largely supported by U.S. intelligence and others,” he said.

This is not the only grotesquely familiar anecdote to emerge from the devolving Russian Federation within the last 24 hours. According to reports, the Kremlin is seriously investigating the use of prison labor to help prepare the nation for its showpiece World Cup games.  Though that labor would not be entirely uncompensated, the use of prisoners to construct the facilities that will house members of the international soccer community is eerily reminiscent.

If this sounds alarmist, it should. There is no shortage of observers who will scoff at those who warn that Russia is going down a very dark road and opening a Pandora’s Box in the process. There is not much risk and even less virtue by adopting this outlook in regards to a still nascent crisis. And while the 21st Century’s scolds jealously preserve and enjoy the benefits of their pleasant and secure lives, the echoes of the 20th Century reverberate relentlessly, growing louder by the day.  We dismiss them at our peril.

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Obama Insists It’s ‘Not a New Cold War,’ But It Sure Looks Like One

It is a testament to the persistent influence of hard power and the dominance that state actors enjoy in the international arena that the Obama administration’s fondest hopes for Russia’s rehabilitation have been thoroughly and permanently dashed. The president took office with the hope that props acquired from a local Staples and an obstinate commitment to overlook the Kremlin’s revanchism would transform Putin’s government into a responsible global actor. That naiveté has been dispelled, but not before hundreds if not thousands of lives were lost and America’s approach to global grand strategy suffered a variety of debilitating setbacks.

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It is a testament to the persistent influence of hard power and the dominance that state actors enjoy in the international arena that the Obama administration’s fondest hopes for Russia’s rehabilitation have been thoroughly and permanently dashed. The president took office with the hope that props acquired from a local Staples and an obstinate commitment to overlook the Kremlin’s revanchism would transform Putin’s government into a responsible global actor. That naiveté has been dispelled, but not before hundreds if not thousands of lives were lost and America’s approach to global grand strategy suffered a variety of debilitating setbacks.

It seems like a generation ago that the president embarked on an effort to “reset” bilateral relations with Russia. The administration imagined that Moscow had mounted a cross-border invasion of neighboring Georgia and carved off Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a response to George W. Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy.” The White House was shown the error of their ways when Russia invaded another neighboring country, this time outright annexing occupied territory rather than erecting the complicated fiction that these provinces had been liberated from their oppressive former parent states. In the interim, Barack Obama leveraged Russia’s desire to preserve their client Damascus so as to help extricate him from his commitment to enforce his “red line” for action against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad by force. In doing so, Barack Obama consigned that country to years of a bloody civil war characterized by the repeated use of chemical weapons on civilian populations.

While the administration steadfastly refuses to address the conflict in Ukraine outside the context of financial sanctions, none of which have had an appreciable effect on Russian behavior, the United States appears to be getting serious about the threat posed by Moscow’s irredentism.

On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin revealed that the United States is preparing to respond aggressively to alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The West believes that Russia violated the terms of that Soviet-era treaty by developing and pledging to forward deploy nuclear delivery vehicles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. “The State Department admitted publicly last July that the U.S. government believes Russia is violation of the treaty,” Rogin observed. “Privately, top administration officials have known that Russia was in violation since at least 2012, because it has tested ground-based cruise missiles with the prohibited range.”

Two U.S. officials briefed on the options said that the Pentagon has submitted a list of potential countermeasures to the National Security Council, but the White House has yet to schedule a high-level NSC meeting to discuss and decide what to do. Some of the more aggressive options would include deploying more land-based military hardware to NATO allies for missile defense near the Russian border, to counter the new Russian cruise capability. Expanded targeted sanctions and added patrols near Russian space are less aggressive options on the table.

The European theater is not the only space in which the West and Russia are waging a sub rosa conflict. On Monday, American officials were informed that Russia had closed a key military transit corridor that allowed NATO allies to support and resupply forces serving in Afghanistan with non-lethal aid. Russia determined to close that transit route that had been in use since 2008 due to the fact that NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December of last year, although over 12,000 foreign servicemen and women remain deployed there.

“Russian observers said there was a clear political element to Mr. Medvedev’s order, in light of Russian unhappiness with Western sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea and suspicions that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is being extended indefinitely,” the Washington Times speculated.

Just days after pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine used a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missile to shoot MH 17 out of the sky, taking the lives of 298 primarily Western civilians in the process, Obama assured the press that America and Russia were not entering into a “new Cold War.” But with military balancing and counterbalancing ongoing in Europe and Central Asia, the return of nuclear brinkmanship, and diplomatic offensives designed to de-escalate tensions becoming an increasingly pressing priority, it sure looks like one.

The United States and Russia have always maintained a divergent set of strategic objectives, but the theaters in which Moscow and the West are coming into conflict are rapidly proliferating. If the president had entered office with a reasonable understanding of Russia’s perspective and its long-term strategic aims, much of the threat the Kremlin presently poses to the geopolitical order might have been managed more effectively.

Better late than never, I guess.

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Snap Back Sanctions on Iran? Nyet!

In the weeks since the announcement of the framework nuclear deal with Iran last month, President Obama and other senior U.S. officials have said that the economic sanctions on the Islamist regime would be lifted only gradually and then snapped back into place if it was shown to be violating its terms. But Russia, whose participation in the sanctions was claimed by the administration to be one the keys to the success of its diplomatic strategy has a clear answer for those expecting the president to keep his word about snap back sanctions: Nyet!

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In the weeks since the announcement of the framework nuclear deal with Iran last month, President Obama and other senior U.S. officials have said that the economic sanctions on the Islamist regime would be lifted only gradually and then snapped back into place if it was shown to be violating its terms. But Russia, whose participation in the sanctions was claimed by the administration to be one the keys to the success of its diplomatic strategy has a clear answer for those expecting the president to keep his word about snap back sanctions: Nyet!

As Blomberg News reports, yesterday, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin made it clear that any plans for a snap back response was a figment of the president’s imagination:

The Obama administration is trying to sell a nuclear deal with Iran to skeptical Arabs, Israelis and U.S. lawmakers by saying that United Nations sanctions will be restored automatically if the Iranians are caught cheating.

Not so, say the Russians, who have one of five vetoes in the 15-member UN Security Council.

“There can be no automaticity, none whatsoever” in reimposing UN sanctions if Iran violates the terms of an agreement to curb its nuclear program, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told Bloomberg News on Wednesday. He didn’t  elaborate.

Russia’s role in finalizing the terms of the Iran deal will be crucial. The endless string of concessions to Iran in the talks was in no small measure the function of a P5+1 formula that gave Russia an implicit veto on every stand made by the West. When critics of President Obama’s strategy point out that tougher sanctions could still retrieve the situation and get a better deal, we were told that Russia and China will never go along with such a plan so the only thing to do is to make the best of it and take the bad deal that is on the table. Since Russia and China could effectively neuter the impact of sanctions by resuming full business ties with Iran, the administration felt it had no choice but to go along with whatever they wanted.

If that was true before, it’s even more to the point now since the existing sanctions are already crumbling even before a deal has been signed. If Russia says it wont go along with snap back, it is impossible to see how President Obama thinks such a provision can either be inserted into the final terms or implemented if it is not.

Let’s also remember that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also vowed that his country will not sign any agreement that does not lift the sanctions immediately and permanently. So if Iran won’t agree to it and Russia says snap back is off the table, how then is it going to happen?

With the June 30 deadline for finalizing the deal looming, the administration is clearly floundering. It entered into the negotiations determined to cut a deal with Iran at virtually any price and on any terms because the president believes that Iran can be brought back into the community of nations and become the lynchpin of a new U.S. strategy in the Middle East. That’s fine with Russian President Vladimir Putin who wants no part of a confrontation with Iran. He views the Obama approach as part of a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East that enables Russia to recapture some of the influence that the old Soviet empire used to have in the region.

But selling a weak Iran deal to Congress and the American people is already hard enough on the terms that President Obama has promised. It will be the United Nations, and not Congress, that will initially lift the international sanctions once the pact is signed. If there are no snap back sanctions put into the deal’s text and a Russian veto forecloses any possibility of them being implemented anyway, then an essential element of the president’s vision for ensuring that Iran will abide by it has just vanished.

No one who has seen this administration negotiate with Iran ever really believed that President Obama would stand his ground on any of the remaining sticking points, whether it involved the sanctions, forcing Tehran to open up its military research facilities to UN inspectors or the future of their stockpile of enriched uranium. He’s backed down at every previous point and with U.S. leverage over Iran reduced to zero the only card left in Obama’s hand is to walk away from the deal. That won’t happen.

It remains to be seen how Congress will react to this development. But chances are President Obama is counting on retaining the votes of at least 34 Senate Democrats who could sustain his veto of a vote rejecting the deal. If, despite his recent brave talk about forcing Iran to accept his demands, he is sure that he has those votes, it won’t matter that his promises about snap back sanctions will be thrown down the memory hole along with his 2012 re-election campaign promise that any deal would require Iran to give up its nuclear program. That’s a sobering thought for those members of Congress celebrating their “victory” in gaining the right to vote on a deal.

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Hillary Clinton’s Bribery Scandal

Earlier this week I referred to Hillary Clinton’s “tangle of corruption.” It turns out I was being generous.

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Earlier this week I referred to Hillary Clinton’s “tangle of corruption.” It turns out I was being generous.

As the politically explosive story in the New York Times demonstrates, the depths of the Clintons’ corruption and avarice is stunning. The facts in the Times story are utterly damning and prima facie evidence of a conflict of interest. If foreign governments, including adversarial ones like Russia, paid the Clinton Foundation and/or Bill Clinton huge sums of money, they assured themselves favorable treatment. (Mr. Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was pursuing the purchase of a Uranium One, a uranium mining company.) What we’re talking about looks very much like bribery, as former Governor Mitt Romney told Hugh Hewitt.

It’s worth placing this revelation in context: The Clintons have known for years that Hillary would run for president–and yet they still undertook this transparently unethical and potentially politically catastrophic action. The same is true of Mrs. Clinton’s deletion of 30,000 emails, another breathtakingly inappropriate, and possibly illegal, act. (It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that some of those deleted emails included a discussion of Uranium One, the company the Russians assumed control over.)

All of this confirms what many of us have long believed: The Clintons are, in important respects, unethical and unscrupulous. They think the rules apply to other people but not them. They are self-indulgent, narcissistic, out of control. There don’t appear to be moral guardrails in place. They oversee a brutal political machine that destroys those who threaten their political viability.

The Clintons are so brazen in their transgressions and corruption that they are like figures from a Robert Penn Warren novel. But in this case, we’re dealing not with fiction but real life, not with make-believe characters but real people. One of them wants to win the presidency. But being engulfed by a bribery scandal won’t help her.

A recommendation to my Democratic friends: It’s time for Elizabeth Warren to start warming up in the bullpen.

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Why China Won’t Support “Snapback” Iran Sanctions

No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

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No one can accuse the Iranian government of being stupid. They entered into negotiations with their economy tanking and very little leverage, and came out of talks with an outright victory. It was the equivalent of a pair of twos beating a full house in poker.

President Barack Obama has famously promised “snapback” sanctions: If Iran doesn’t meet its obligations, then the sanctions that brought Tehran to the table will simply be restored. What Obama ignores, however, is that the United Nations is not an institution in which members leave national interests at the door in order to embrace lofty values, but rather a tool by which the world’s dictatorships launder their cravenness through the illusion of principle.

Hence, for snapback sanctions to be successful, Obama will needs Russian President Vladimir Putin or his representatives not only to agree that the Islamic Republic is in violation but also that snapping sanctions back in place is in Moscow’s interests. That will be a tough hurdle, given Russia’s military and nuclear investment in Iran. Regardless, the Kremlin believes it has found a win-win formula: Support Iran’s nuclear program and make billions of dollars selling goods to the Islamic Republic. If, however, the situation collapses and Israel or some other power launches military strikes on Iran, sending the price of oil and gas through the roof, then Moscow laughs its way to the bank.

China has traditionally approached both the Middle East and Middle Eastern issues at the United Nations with exceeding caution. When most countries vote up or down on issues, China abstains. The Iranian government, however, recognizes that to make China into a reliable ally, it needs to rope China into the Iranian economy in a way that re-sanctioning hurts. And that is exactly the effect of the deal that Iranian authorities have just announced.

Today, according to this Fars News Agency article (alas, still only in Persian), Behruz Kamalvandi, deputy director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that China will help Iran build a new nuclear power plant, a multibillion dollar exercise. But with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry releasing nearly $12 billion in previously frozen assets, cash is no longer a problem.

Two years ago, I published an analysis for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office examining Iran’s diplomatic outreach toward Africa. What immediately became clear was that Tehran targeted those countries who sat as non-permanent members of the UN Security Council or were on the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In effect, Iran sought shamelessly to buy their votes.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Obama and Kerry may have overseen the normalization of Iran’s once-covert nuclear program, but the Islamic Republic knows that the United States is a democracy and that the diplomatic duo will soon be lounging in Hawaii or yachting off Nantucket. They do not know who will be in the White House next and so they want insurance; i.e., the Chinese vote in Tehran’s pocket. More importantly, Iran’s efforts to buy votes to ensure that sanctions never snap back is as good an indication as ever that Tehran plans to comply neither with the letter nor spirit of its nuclear agreements.

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Iran Sanctions and Missile Defense

That didn’t take long. It’s been less than two weeks since the unveiling of the “framework” agreement at Lausanne between Iran and the West, and already we are seeing one of the consequences of lifting sanctions, with Russia’s announcement that it would finally begin to deliver components of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran. The Iranians had bought the S-300 in 2007 for $800 million but the deal was suspended because of United Nations sanctions. Now, with the end of sanctions in sight, Russia is predictably rushing in to reap the benefits, regardless of the consequences of further beefing up Iran’s military might.

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That didn’t take long. It’s been less than two weeks since the unveiling of the “framework” agreement at Lausanne between Iran and the West, and already we are seeing one of the consequences of lifting sanctions, with Russia’s announcement that it would finally begin to deliver components of the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Tehran. The Iranians had bought the S-300 in 2007 for $800 million but the deal was suspended because of United Nations sanctions. Now, with the end of sanctions in sight, Russia is predictably rushing in to reap the benefits, regardless of the consequences of further beefing up Iran’s military might.

A couple of points are worth making.

First, this shows how easily sanctions crumble and how hard it is reassemble them in the future. The administration brags about “snap back” provisions in its negotiations with the Iranians, but does anyone seriously believe that a nation like Russia will ever vote on the UN Security Council to hold Iran accountable for violations of a nuclear accord, when by doing so Moscow would be hurting its own economic interests?

Second, this shows how much more formidable Iran will be with sanctions lifted. If Iran ever gets the S-300 operational, that will make air strikes on the Iranian nuclear complex much harder for the United States or Israel. And that’s just a start. Imagine how much military hardware—everything from rockets to tanks to complex cyber weapons—the Iranians will be able to buy with all sanctions lifted. Already Iran is a potent threat to its neighbors. Already Iran is on the verge of dominating the region from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. All of those trends will accelerate with Iran having billions more to spend on its hegemonic power grab.

As a result, the lifting of sanctions, should it occur, will be an irreversible step with momentous consequences for the future. No responsible leader in the West should contemplate such a drastic move unless Iran, at a minimum, makes a full accounting of its past nuclear-weapons work (without which it is impossible to judge its future compliance), agrees to export the uranium it has already enriched, agrees to permanent limits on its nuclear activities, and allows completely unfettered access to international inspections—none of which Iran has yet agreed to, at least not according to the public comments of the supreme leader.

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North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout: Canary in the Coalmine

Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

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Even a few months ago, nuclear war still seemed passé, an artifact of the Cold War, or derided as a fading dream for neoconservatives who want any excuse to increase defense budgets and meddle abroad. Sometimes, however, reality takes a bite out of comfortable establishment nostrums. Such was the case yesterday, when the commander of NORAD, Adm. William Gortney, admitted what many in D.C. have been whispering for months, that North Korea now has an “operational” road-mobile long-range ballistic missile, the KN-08, and that Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the [U.S.] homeland.”

Thus, the fundamental goal of three U.S. administrations, to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power that can threaten the United States and its treaty allies, has utterly failed. Two decades of intensive, repeated negotiation have resulted in the polar opposite of what Washington wanted. The nuclear non-proliferation model has been cracked, if not broken, and America’s ultimate security guarantee, “extended deterrence,” will now be called into question even more by nervous allies in Asia, and elsewhere.

Adm. Gortney’s announcement, which senior officials have been inching toward over the past year, now raises two distinct problems for U.S. policymakers, completely separate from the question of whether or not Pyongyang would ever use one of its nuclear weapons.

First, it is time to accept that we are moving into a future of nuclear proliferation, and therefore the increased likelihood of a nuclear event, be it an accident or a conscious act of aggression. In short, America’s holiday from nukes since the end of the Cold War is now over. In addition to smaller nuclear states, great power nuclear competition may well heat up. With Russia and China, two adversarial regimes, modernizing and increasing their nuclear forces, Americans and their allies will have to become used to nuclear saber rattling once again, as shown by recent comments from Vladimir Putin.

Will nuclear blackmail become a standard tool of statecraft in the 21st century? If so, will we simply ignore it, or decide to be more cautious in pursuing our interests? How do we begin thinking again about the unthinkable, yet also learn new lessons that may well have little connection to those from the Cold War, when there were primarily two stable nuclear blocs? We face, instead, a far more fragmented and complex nuclear future, in which aggressive, destabilizing rogue regimes will have control over the world’s most powerful weapons. What strategy will ensure the safety of the American homeland, and does the administration’s plans to slightly modernize, yet draw down our nuclear capability still make sense in this new world?

The second problem is how to deter would-be nuclear regimes, most obviously Iran, when the playbook for gaining nuclear weapons has now been written and published by the North Koreans. Pyongyang is the canary in the coalmine for nuclear proliferators. The failure of negotiation, the unwillingness of the United States to take serious steps to prevent proliferation, the wishful thinking on the part of diplomats and leaders from both parties, has led us to the threshold of a world far more terrifying than anything we’ve faced in a long time. The repeated assurances of U.S. officials that we would never permit nor accept a nuclear North Korea now ring hollow around the world. It can only be a balm to Tehran to look at our record, and to judge that both time and more sophisticated negotiating strategies are on their side.

Pundits are fond of saying that “elections have consequences.” So do policy failures. The consequences of two lost decades that have allowed one of the world’s most evil regimes to gain the ultimate weapon could be unthinkable. It is a black mark against the comfortable belief that “a bad deal is better than no deal.” Such statements only reveal the poverty of thinking among those who do not show the imagination to see how quickly the world can change for the worse, and how the spillover effects of our misguided approaches can themselves cause far greater disruption than the particular policy failure itself.

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Can U.S. Slash Military Budget When Russia’s Preparing for War?

The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

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The battle over sequestration continues, as Congress mandates that the Pentagon continue to slash the U.S. army down to pre-World War II levels. Meanwhile, the Iranian military is resurgent, peace deal or not, with the Islamic Republic increasing its defense budget by some 33.5 percent. Then, again, being militarily active in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq takes money.

Perhaps President Obama believes he has solved the Iran problem, or is well on his way to doing so. But even if his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to insist her “reset” policy with Russia worked, Russian President Vladimir Putin poses an increasing threat to international security, as anyone in Georgia or Ukraine can attest. Obama may believe the situation has stabilized—after all, press attention has moved on—but it looks like the situation might soon go from bad to worse.

According to this analysis in The Interpreter, Russian military spending has increased sharply. Of course, it is pretty certain that the real budget is even higher than the official, sanitized version. According to the article, based on the analysis of Russian economist Andrey Illarionov as published on opposition leader Garry Kasparov’s website:

Between the time that Putin came to power up to January 2014, the Moscow economist and commentator says, Moscow has spent on average 2.5 to 3.2 percent of GDP on the military, with the figure tending to rise over time. During the first 13 years of his rule, Illarionov says, spending in constant prices went up 2.6 times…. After Putin made his final decision to intervene in Ukraine in February 2014, he says, Moscow’s military expenditures “were increased by more than twice,” a figure that suggested the Russian government intended not only to seize and occupy Crimea but all of what it calls “Novorossiya.” In February, March and April of last year, Russian military spending amounted to 6.7 percent of GDP and 27.7 percent of all budget expenditures.

The situation is getting worse. Here’s the alarming section:

According to Illarionov, official Russian government figures show that “the situation radically changed” in the first two months of this year, the latest period for which figures are available. Average monthly military spending increased 2.3 times, compared to the May-December 2014 period, 3.3. times compared to the last pre-war period, and 8.8 times compared to 2000. For those two months alone, he says, military spending was more than 1.3 trillion rubles – that is, more than 20 billion US dollars – and it constituted 43.3. percent of the federal budget and 12.7 percent of Russia’s admittedly diminished GDP.

So, the Russian economy is getting worse, yet Putin is rapidly expanding his defense budget. The question is to what end? Alas, it seems not to be a question which the White House cares to consider, although certainly the leaders of the Baltic States and Poland are. Perhaps Congress should as well, because continuing sequestration is leaving the United States dangerously unprepared to face a mounting crisis which, if Illarionov’s analysis is true, seems to be looming ever larger. Vladimir Putin exploits weakness and indecision, characteristics which for too long Obama has projected. The United States cannot afford sequestration. Rather than resolve budget deficits, sequestration will make them worse because such weakness is encouraging dictators to aggression in a manner which no U.S. president will be able to long ignore.

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