Ukraine crisis

Georgia Russia

Putin Should Scare The Hell Out Of Just About Everyone

In April, Russia invaded Crimea.  Behind a smokescreen of propaganda, Putin made it out like he was liberating Crimea’s Russians from a proto-fascist regime in Kiev that was bent on butchering its opponents in the aftermath of its most recent revolution.  Western powers struggled to figure out a response; most of them hoped beyond hope that Putin’s demands were somehow reasonable, and that with Crimea, he would stop.

Last week, Russian forces invaded Ukraine proper to save the anti-Kiev insurrection from defeat.

And if that doesn’t freak you out, it should.

So goes 70 years of order, now to be replaced by whatever chaos comes 

The last time a European power was able to invade another country in order to take over its territory was 1945, when the Soviet Union gobbled up large swathes of Poland, Germany, and Romania during the final burning of the Third Reich.  While the Soviets did invade Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, neither action was meant to expand the territory of the Soviet Union.  Territorial expansionism seemed a dead letter; only in the mad Third World did states try to grab bits of one another’s territory.  Nuclear weapons, it seemed, made such moves incredibly dangerous.

The last time someone got bigger.

So it held.  Invading another country to overthrow its government was okay; invading another to take land was not.  (What if Saddam had invaded Kuwait, placed a pliable member of the royal family on the throne, and withdrawn?  Would there still have been war?  His odds certainly would have been better.)

Only in Germany did a state grow.  That was solely because Germans themselves always saw the separation as artificial and imposed; when that imposition ended, so too did the division.

But then Putin invaded Crimea in April.  And he got away with it.

The new rule: nuclear powers may grow again

The nuclear club can now assume that they may attack and grow into the territory of other states that are 1). Not nuclear armed and 2). Not allied with nuclear armed states.  Three of the nuclear powers have no interest in territorial expansion – Britain and France because they could never get away with it and the United States because expanding overseas would be expensive and fruitless.  As for India, Pakistan, North Korea, Russia, and China – well, therein lies a great deal of danger.

Why not settle a few scores while this uncertainty is the new rule?

For states like Vietnam, facing down China over the South Seas, or Kazakhstan, which has many, many Russians within its borders, bad times are ahead.  The U.S. will not protect either from nuclear bullying or even invasion.  As for minorities within Russia and China, forget it – they will remain under their overlords’ thumbs for the foreseeable future.  Tibet will remain occupied; Chechnya will have its paramilitaries.  It may have to be another generation that sorts those places.

Interstate conflict is likelier than at any time since the Cold War.  Should Thailand and Cambodia fall into all-out war, as they nearly have in the past few years, both governments can assume they’ll be overlooked.  There are bigger problems in the world now.

The red dot indicates a border or territorial dispute. Get ready for this map to get interesting.

And welcome back to the proxy wars between the nuclear club

With the U.S. now having fallen into a mini-Cold War with Russia, small proxy wars will become the way to try to weaken Moscow.  Ukraine is the most obvious place, but so too is Syria, where Russia’s last Middle Eastern ally has clung to power thanks to Russian arms, tanks, and helicopters.  Afghanistan could well go that way, too, with Russian factions facing down American ones.  Moscow can’t afford the same level of conflict as the Cold War; it’s simply not strong enough for the time being.  Equally, however, Mutually Assured Destruction is still a well-understood principal.  To weaken the Americans, the Russians must fight sideways.

Salvation may lay in what remains of Russian democracy, but so too could more conflict

Conventional wisdom holds that democracies don’t fight one another.  The assumption is that no body of people much like war and the accompanying sacrifices.  But the polls coming from Moscow indicate that Putin is being vastly rewarded by his electorate.  Putin has cleverly kept the war in Ukraine just small enough to avoid a backlash among the public while still appearing to be strong.  This is a delicate balancing act, one that he’s managed with great skill thus far.  But a military defeat, or a revamped Ukraine army capable of slowing or bogging down the Russians, could cause his poll numbers to bleed.  Russian democracy has been weakened by Putin, but not killed as of  yet.  There’s still a chance Russians themselves could turn on their president and save the world a lot of trouble.

Dangerously, however, the opposite holds true too.  Democracy should not be equated with pacifism; witness American military prowess.  If ordinary Russians revert to a Soviet mindset of nationalism and conspiracy, they could give Putin the political power to wage war without limit.  Worse, should they be so foolish as to think Putin is somehow a philosopher-king, they could give him the keys to subjugate them to dictatorship.  Then public opinion would hardly matter.

The good news: Russia shouldn’t be able to play this game as long as it did last time

Russia’s population is just a little under half of it what the USSR’s was (143 million Russians vs. 293 Soviets).  It has lost Ukraine’s industrial base, the Baltic republics’ access to the sea, and the gas, oil, and agricultural wealth of Central Asia.  Reconquering Ukraine would be a major boon to Russia, but this isn’t the 18th century, and foreign powers are watching.  Should a proxy war emerge in Ukraine (as seems likely), Russia will be on the back foot against NATO, which has, if anything, grown stronger since 1991.  American troops and officers have fought two grueling, long wars over the past decade, and defense spending has kept apace with defense needs.  If the U.S. arms and supplies Ukraine, it could build a relatively formidable army.  And if that army fails, it could still supply a dangerous insurgency that could do to Putin what Afghanistan did to the Soviets.

Still on top and keeping that lead for the next decade.

The bad news: the clock has ticked a bit closer to midnight

For those who aren’t in the know, that’s how the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists measures the time until doomsday.  They may have seemed irrelevant for about twenty or so years there, but the fact that Putin has reminded us all how he could end the world if he felt like it is not to be taken likely.  Miscalculation could start a general war; so too could a ratcheting up of tension to the point where decisions that once seemed crazy might seem kind of good.

It’s a new world.  And it’s not good.  Who would have ever thought we’d miss the quiet 90s this much.



Geopolitics Will Make It Hard to Get Even For What Happened to MH17

In Robert Fisk’s book The Great War for Civilization, a memoir of his time as a war correspondent in the Middle East, Fisk describes his visit to the morgue of those killed on Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988.  He imagines what it must have been like on board that plane: the sudden shake, the air being sucked out of their lungs, the free-fall to the Persian Gulf. According to certain experts, most likely they were knocked out by the rapid decompression and thankfully had no idea.  But the passage has bothered me ever since; when I sit on a plane, I always think about the floor opening up under me.

Having flown over Ukraine multiple times myself just makes this business far more uncomfortable.  For those who lost someone, there is doubtless a residue of pain and anger.  For their governments, the desire for justice – or, lacking that, revenge – is palpable.  But both will be hard to get.  This is where geopolitics gets its bad reputation.

The international system is still mostly chaos

And the downing of MH17 is a prime example of it.  An international flight full of civilians was given passage by European regulators to fly over a civil war.  Someone on the ground there fired a missile, thinking the plane was an enemy.  (It’s still too early to tell who shot it down, but the incentive lies with the Russian-back rebellion, who could have mistaken it for a Ukraine troop transport coming from the west).

Were this to have happened in, say, France, Canada, or Germany, the perpetrators would be hunted down by efficient police forces who would have the right to resort to violence if they felt the need.  Nobody anywhere would try to stop them; anyone who helped the missile crew would be labeled a criminal as well and brought to justice one way or another.

That’s because the nation-state system has mostly solved the problem of law and order within nation-states.  What it has totally failed to do is solve it between states.  A crime was clearly committed here, but getting the criminals will prove to be difficult, if not impossible.

Yeah, that’s pretty much right.

Problem number 1: the main victims are too small to do anything about it

The main victims in this case are Malaysia, owner of the airlines, and the Netherlands, where the flight originated.  Neither of them could, even if they wanted, deploy forces, police or otherwise, to Ukraine to find the missile crew.  The Netherlands is too small a country that has, under America’s protective aegis, slowly reduced its military footprint to the point where it can only really play a supporting role in NATO-run wars.

Malaysia has almost 30 million people and a larger military, but lacks the heavy hardware necessary to deploy forces abroad.

And even if they both could send troops to Ukraine to try to bring about some justice, they’d still have to face down a nation-state that will brook no challenger in the region.

Problem number 2: Russia and its nukes

In the 19th century, such a mass murder of a nation-state’s civilians would easily have sparked a war.  That war could have escalated into some murderous days, with many dead on both sides, but would not have ended the world.  Should anyone try to bring the missile crew to justice without Russia’s consent, they could easily do just that.

Up until now, Russia has pursued a strategy of a low boil in eastern Ukraine – not enough to bring the civil war to the levels of Syria, where international attention might grow to the point where Ukraine’s government might finally get access to the Western kit it seeks.  It’s been a delicate balancing act full of peril; the destruction of MH17 is proof enough that Russia does not control all that goes on there.

Yes, they’ve still got the damn things.

Problem number 3: the EU still needs Russian gas and oil

Case in point is Germany.  Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the relationship a “partnership” because she’s got little choice.  Germany cannot grow without Russian energy, and Merkel cannot afford to let Germany’s economy slip or else she risks losing her job to a justifiably angry electorate.  Tragedy or not, Russian fault or not, Germany’s hands are tied.  Germans may feel quite bad, but they will not rally the EU to do much.

Meanwhile, both Britain and France are both stuck in wobbly emergences from the Great Recession.  They don’t have the deep wells of power that once let them invade Russia in 1919 during the Russian Civil War.

A bit upset, but still at the table.

Problem number 4: the United States is busy retrenching

After 13 years of war in Afghanistan, 8 years in Iraq, and over a trillion dollars spent, the U.S. has no interest in solving civil wars for anyone.  To lose Ukraine to Russia will not break U.S. power worldwide, and so the urgency to keep it moving towards the West isn’t nearly as strong in Washington as it is in Kiev.   The U.S. under Barack Obama has little desire to poke the Russian  bear.  That’ll be the next president’s problem.

So what can be done?  Not much, besides, maybe, getting the missile crew to a local police force

Whoever fired that missile could be captured in the coming days or weeks and handed over to international prosecutors.  That seems unlikely; they were probably following orders, and during a trial they’d probably share who gave them said orders.  None of the elite in Moscow or Kiev would want that.

The long-term solution involves evolving past the nation-state system, but until then…

…soldiers, generals, prime ministers and presidents will do what they’ve always done: get away with murder.


The Russian Denial Strategy In Ukraine (Or: The “If I Can’t Have It, No One Will” Of Geopolitics)

What do you when some bro is way bigger than you, stronger than you, has more friends than you, and wants to start telling you what to do?

You could fight, but you’d lose.  You could run, except you still have to go to school everyday and your mom and dad just won’t listen.

Or you could get smart and start finding ways to chip away at this bro’s power, waiting for the perfect day where he fucks up and  you’ve won over enough friends to win in a confrontation.  And when that day comes, you will make him pay.  Oh, will you make him pay.

But before you can slaver over revenge, you’ve got to keep yourself alive.  As you struggle to win the influence wars of the playground without provoking a fight you’re destined to be destroyed in, you come to realize it’s not so important to get every kid to switch sides.  Sometimes, it’s good enough to just keep someone on the sidelines.

And that is the foundation of a denial strategy.

“Denial” ain’t just a river

Ha ha!  A good joke!  But also an essential truth.  A denial strategy doesn’t hinge itself on believing dumb things, but is rather a hyper-realistic way to keep you and yours from being wiped off the map.  Russian defense strategy currently revolves around the idea of trying to deny power to the United States as much as possible.

Power is broken simply into five areas: land, population, resources, military, and economics.  In all five, Russia is outclassed by the United States.  Russia may have more land, and potentially more resources, but lacks the population or economic system to harness them to the same scale as the U.S. This in turn has led to a weaker conventional Russian military that knows it cannot win a regular, non-nuclear war with the United States.  In a total war scenario, where both sides drive straight for the throat (short of nuking each other), the U.S. would eventually win so long as outsiders didn’t interfere.

And what better way to deter a war than having weapons that could end humanity?

The first element of Russian strategy has relied on its nuclear arsenal.  If you can’t have the ball, pop it if anyone else tries to take it.  Great powers can no longer settle their differences on the battlefield as they did prior to 1945. (For most of us, that’s a really good thing).

But that’s not to say competition has died out entirely.  Both the U.S. and Russia are still playing for keeps, but must now avoid a misstep that leads to a nuclear war.  They’re both well-rehearsed in this; that we’re not even remotely worried about nukes these days is proof of how well they’ve managed.

We all more or less want to avoid this.

So with all-out nuclear war no longer worth writing songs about, how do states decide the top dog?

These days, it’s all about influence, alliances, trade, and supra-national organizations like the EU, NATO, and Putin’s Eurasian Union.  Only two states remain outside of the U.S.-led international system that are powerful enough to potentially provide an alternative: China and Russia.  Both have elites that seek as much independence for themselves as possible.  Both do not want to allow the U.S. to start calling key shots for them, as other, former great powers like Britain, France, and Germany now do.

But Russia is a different position than China.  China may well end up being an equal of the United States in the next century (if all goes well within their borders, which should not be taken for granted).  Russia is stagnant on its best days.  To preserve what remains of Russian power, Russian elites must find ways to bring in countries to their fold.  But they currently lack much that might attract countries to it; Russia’s Eurasian Union will be no EU, and certainly no NATO.

So if they can’t have it, Russia’s elites, and Putin especially, find it easier to simply deny the U.S. entire countries.

That eastward creep keeps old men up all night in the Kremlin.

Case in point: the little broken republic of Georgia

Georgia is a fine example of this strategy at work.  Georgia was a country that was rapidly rushing to embrace both NATO and the EU until the Russian invasion in 2008 stopped such progress.  In 2004, the Baltic republics, all three of which are on Russian borders, joined NATO, making them not only bases for American troops and missiles but also now invulnerable to attack. (Remember, with nukes, war between the U.S. and Russia is never an option).  Their example set both Ukraine and Georgia down the road to the same end.

Any nation part of NATO empowers America and weakens Russia. In the 1990s, Russia, intentionally or not, froze several conflicts throughout the former Soviet Union, and have kept them cold with the ability to use them at will.  In 2008, that’s pretty much what they did as they heated up South Ossetia, a breakaway region inside Georgia.  The Georgians responded badly and provoked a full-scale Russian invasion.

But to conquer a whole country has still been taboo since 1945.  Rather than outright conquest (and an expensive, politically painful, and diplomatically nightmarish occupation), Russia opted to merely deny Georgia to both NATO and the EU.  Joining either right now is out of the question with Russian troops still inside Georgia’s pre-2008 borders.  After all, if Georgia did join NATO, wouldn’t a Georgian government use that alliance as a way to get rid of those Russian troops?  And would Russia go quietly just because they were asked?

So if Russia can’t have a pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine, it’ll be content with a broken Ukraine denied to everyone

Russia is acting in a way now that indicates it will try to break Ukraine up as much as possible.  Absorbing the eastern territories makes less sense when looked at like this; much better to let them simmer and stir them up if the Americans get too close to Kiev.  Conquering Ukraine is super dangerous and leads to nuclear confrontation, plus an expensive and likely unsuccessful occupation.  Instead, if Russia can’t have the ball that is Ukraine, it will deflate it as much as possible so that no one else can play with it.

This path is much safer, more likely to succeed, and does the next best thing to getting a new pro-Russia party back in power in Ukraine.  It’s proof of Russia’s weakened hand; they can’t bribe their way to power in Ukraine as Putin does with much of the Russian population.  It’s usage in Georgia has paralyzed Tblisi and ensured no U.S. bases have popped up there.  If Putin plays Ukraine as well as he did Georgia, he may yet get away with it.


Attention Americans! Yes, you should know where Ukraine is (and that’s just the beginning of where you should be informing your opinion)

Here now is a classic moment of why I started this website.  Americans, apparently, have stereotypically fuzzy knowledge of where Ukraine is.  If they can’t even figure out where the fuck the place is, how can they decide if it’s worth starting World War III over?  (Interestingly, the more ignorant, the more likely to support war.  Go figure).

So here we go.  A simple guide to all the Americans out there that may lack some of the most basic info on Ukraine.

It’s in Europe.

Specifically, Eastern Europe.  It was once part of the Soviet Union, which you may or may not be old enough to remember.  On the most basic of levels, the fact that it’s close to Russia makes it important to Russia.  Just as Canada is important to the U.S., Russia cares about who is in charge of Ukraine.  That’s common sense; you want to know thy neighbor.

It’s a medium-sized but poor country.  It’s corrupt, and its politicians have a nasty record of stealing taxes.  That’s made the people of Ukraine understandably pissed at government.  Some of them blame Russia for this corruption; others blame people within Ukraine.

Hi there! I’m the Red One!

So if it’s in Europe and its close to Russia, why then should you care?  You don’t give a shit about a weekend in Kiev.

Fair enough.  Ukraine is far away from your country and you most likely won’t have much interaction with products from there, people from there, or even pornography from there.  Why should you bother getting your head filled up with facts about such a place?

The most basic reason: no other country on Earth should be more powerful than yours.  We’ll get to why later.  But power is pretty easy to understand: it’s measured in land, population, size and equipment of militaries, and wealth.  But you can’t be the richest country on Earth and be the most powerful.  Just ask Qatar.  Nor can you have the biggest military and think you can do whatever you want.  You have to have all four in place to be considered Top Dawg.

By grabbing little Crimea, Russia has increased its land, population, and wealth.  By itself, that doesn’t matter.  Crimea is tiny.  So again, why care?

Because nobody knows if Russia is done.  Russia under Vladamir Putin wants to bring Russia closer to its old Soviet status of #2 most powerful country in the world.  To do that, he must increase all four measurements.  And he’s just bumped the rankings up a little.

Yeah, and?  Why should you bother being afraid of the Russians?

You shouldn’t be afraid.  There’s a big difference between FREAKING OUT OH MY GOD LET’S GET THAT SHELTER GOING AND MAYBE I’LL FINALLY ASK THAT HOT GIRL DOWN THE STREET OUT SINCE WE’RE ALL ABOUT TO DIE and “Oh, hey, that’s not good.  Perhaps we should send some F-22s to a Baltic republic?”

Russia should be slowed or even stopped from increasing its power as much as possible short of going to war.  Sometimes, that means acting like your country will go to war.  That sounds dumb because it is, and it’s a result of people in general being dumb by having created nation-states to begin with. Like much in life, however, the alternative to our bad system is worse.  I dare you to think it’s a good idea to bring our previous system of kings and emperors.

There’s a lot of reasons for nation-states being dumb, but the general rule is this: as soon you organize people in groups, they compete with one another.  Eventually, on a long enough timeline, they’ll fight each other, especially when they think they can get away with it.

No matter how hard we try, we won’t be doing this.

But what’s so bad about letting Russia have a go as superpower?  Isn’t America a horrible place full of fat people?

It’s a fun stereotype, but a world under Russian domination would be considerably worse than the current one under America’s.  Life is not about perfect places doing perfect things; it’s about flawed places doing as little harm as possible.

A world under Russia would be poorer, more corrupt, more violent, and generally rougher than the current one under U.S. domination.  (For a general take, see A World Without America.)  This really has nothing to do with culture or morality, the two things we focus on most when we try to slag off a country.  Rather, it has everything to do with ability.

Because it’s #1 in the four pillars of power, America can maintain an expensive military system that has helped prevent World War III or a return to imperialism.  I think we can agree those things were bad.  Remove America from the system, and the likelihood of one or the other happening  goes up.  This is the natural result of people being organized into nation-states.  Nation-states compete; sometimes, they compete violently.  And every there and again, a nation-state comes along that thinks it can end this competition for all time by having a massive throw down of violence in a world-shattering war.

What peace does America keep?

People slag off the U.S. as the “world’s policeman” quite often.  But just as saying “Fuck da police” doesn’t mean your neighborhood would be safer sans Da Police, neither too does saying “Death to America” mean that America has served no useful role in the world.  Thanks to American military might, both Germany and Japan have exited the world stage as dangerous powers.  That’s a huge deal; typically in human history, states dealt with threats by killing as many people as possible.  America may have dropped the bomb on Japan – twice – but then had the sense to rebuild it once the war was over.  That’s leaps and bounds ahead of what other hegemons have done.  Again – not exactly ideal to nuke people to make them into your allies.  But preferential over what the Romans did to the Gauls, the British (and later Americans) to the Native Americans, or the Russians to the Germans of Prussia.  When your options for permanent peace are limited nuclear war or outright genocide, you choose limited nuclear war.  It’s fucked up, but it has worked.

Okay, so just let Russia (and maybe China) run the show while those dogs in Washington whimper on home

This comes back to ability.  If America voluntarily gave up and withdrew worldwide, neither China nor Russia within the next decade could fill the gap.  China lacks military power; Russia lacks the right sized population and economy.  (China’s huge population is if anything a drain on its military spending, since more and more resources need to go towards modernizing its 1.1 billion+ people).  Neither could effectively lead a peacekeeping mission in Africa, or set up Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, or prevent Iran and Saudi Arabia from divying up the Persian Gulf states, simply because they don’t have the power to do so.  (China may someday, but that has yet to be seen).

If they could do this, they would be.  The fact that they’re not trying to do much more than complain about the U.S. is proof in the pudding that they aren’t up to the job of keeping the nastiest, most horrible wars under wraps.

This would also translate to trade.  Prices for just about everything would go up if America decided to stop interfering with planet Earth.  America’s navy keeps trade lanes open, ensures vital resources are as freely traded as possible, and organizes relief efforts for disaster-struck regions.  When the 2004 Asian tsunami hit, it was American warships that were a big part of the relief effort.  Take those ships away and more people would have died that year.  The irony of a ship built to kill saving lives shouldn’t be lost on you; but the world is not black nor white.

People who are trained to kill people using machines designed to kill people instead helping people. The world is weird, but beautiful.

But it just doesn’t feel right

Much of that is the natural result of people wishing they had complete control over their lives.  We all wish that.  But it’s not the case.  I challenge you to find one thing in the room you’re sitting in that you had complete control over as it was produced and sold.  You make compromises all the time; you trade off on price vs. quality with nearly every decision you make.

The U.S. is the best deal right now.  That doesn’t make it moral.  It doesn’t mean it’s infallible.  But like a third generation smart phone you buy second hand, sometimes it’s acceptable to have something that does the job.

Which brings us back to caring about Ukraine

In and of itself, if Russia swallows the whole of Ukraine back into its borders, the system won’t change much because there’s not enough land, people, and resources to change the balance.  Russia would still need to rebuild all the borders of the Soviet Union to get itself competitive.  But Ukraine is a massive first step because of all the ex-Soviet republics, it’s the biggest and most complicated.  From Ukraine, Putin could siphon up Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia comparatively easily.  By the end of the decade, a much larger and more assertive Russia would be busy causing trouble in many more places.

The best way to ensure peace is to nip what can be nipped now.  Nobody should be calling for war; Russia has nukes and that will kill us all.  But everything short of that needs to be used to make Russia’s conquest as painful as possible.  If Russians can get the sense to throw Putin out in the next election, all the better.  But to sit back and not care at all is not a responsible thing to do.

As the citizens, soldiers, and voters of the only nation on Earth that can be responsible for a problem like Ukraine, it falls to Americans specifically to be best informed – and not to do something dumb, like ride an atomic bomb into a Russian airbase.  Use the Internet; listen to some of the media and ask questions.  Find those answers on your own, and write to your leaders to support actions that keep Russia from further growth.

Someday, as cultures grow and generations mature, we can have a brotherly discussion with a new Russian government about what we can cooperate on.  But such a government is not in power in Moscow today.  Letting it get away with things will only make our world more dangerous.