Vladimir Putin


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.

What In The Hell Is Russia Doing? (Or, Mr. Putin Would Like a USSR, Please)

Okay, so they’re not 100% back to their “Let’s take over the world and put a statue of Lenin on the moon” ways.  But Russia is acting quite the bad boy recently; backing Bashar Assad in his murderous civil war, giving covering fire to Iran’s nuclear program, and now, seemingly grabbing up the Crimea and setting Ukraine down the path of secession and division.

Let’s begin where makes most sense – August 1991.

Mr. Gorbachev takes a holiday and ends up destroying the USSR

In August 1991, first and last president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was in the final stages of what might well have saved at least some of his country.  By that time in history, the USSR and communism were both discredited as terrible ideas; the former because it was too costly to maintain and the later because it was just a bad idea that didn’t take into account human greed.  So the upper echelons of Soviet leadership were trying to find a way to keep at least some of the bits of the USSR that helped them while ditching the parts that were a drag.

Back when Yelstein was just drunk enough to stand on tanks ordered to fire on crowds, but not so drunk that he’d fall off them.

The result was the New Union Treaty of 1991, which would have kept most of the USSR together as a loose federation of republics with a single defense and foreign policy but with otherwise autonomous states set free to sort the many problems of 70 years of communism.  This would have salvaged what remained of Russia’s empire that had been built to defend Moscow from invasion and conquest.  Under the circumstances, it was a pretty decent job.

But when Gorbachev went south for a holiday, Soviet hardliners launched a coup and fucked the Soviet Union. The coup failed because nobody but the Soviet Union’s most hardcore security men supported it; troops refused to open fire on crowds and eventually everyone had a good laugh at the expense of the KGB.  As they laughed, the death knell of the Soviet Union was heard; by December that year, all republics had gone their own ways and the hammer and sickle was no more.

But the dream did not die

Well, less of a dream than a necessity.  Russia needs wide buffers on various sides to secure itself.  It needs its Central Asian republics to absorb instability and chaos from the Middle East and Chinese adventurism; it needs its European buddies in Ukraine and Belarus to act as a barrier against invasion or encroachment from Europe.

The 1990s were a rough and horrible time for Russian power as civil wars erupted, presidents got super drunk, and kleptocracy took hold.  The low point was when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, historically seen by Russia as a fellow Slav and Orthodox power under their protection.  That year, President Putin was elected for his first term.

Getting the band back together was not as simple as a few “I’m sorrys” and “I promise not to starve half your population again in pursuit of rapid industrialization”

For Russia, a ring of buffer states is essential to secure themselves against the encroachments of other world powers.  They have zero reason to assume the United States, European Union, or China won’t support the collapse of their state if push comes to shove amongst Russia’s many ethnic groups and competing political classes.  Moreover, having been invaded by Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and Hitler has made Russian generals justifiably concerned the world doesn’t have their interests at heart.

And so getting these buffer states back has been a delicate game of manipulation, opportunity seizing, and outright bullying.  In the 19th century, Russia was free to invade and conquer its way to security.  But by 2000, with the United States the undisputed champion of the world and with the international system no longer tolerating annexing or invading other countries, Russia under Putin had to find a slow but steady way to win back the frontiers without arousing a coalition under American command that would thwart it.

So Putin first put his own house in order, then got to making sure everyone worldwide understood how well ordered his house was

One of Putin’s first acts as president was to invade Chechnya, which Russia had lost control of in the chaotic 90s.  The first order of business was simple: get Russia itself to calm the fuck down.  All ethnic republics and civil disturbances had to be put to bed to reorganize Russia back into the type of state  it historically has always been – a country dominated by a tough government that would kick ass, take names, and build massive railways across nightmarish tundra.  

Once that was more or less accomplished, Russia could and did focus on rebuilding its foreign image.  The laughing stock of the 90s, Russia under Putin began a reversal of perception that culminated in Russia beating up Georgia in 2008 to remind the world it could.  Ignored in 2003 when Bush marched to Baghdad, by 2013 Moscow was nearly dictating the terms of a paltry chemical arms disarmament treaty in Syria.

That’s a pretty stunning achievement.  High score for foreign policy goes to Putin.

Thus the Eurasian Union of…Happy Republics?

Putin’s Eurasian Union is a pretty overt step towards getting that dead Union Treaty back to life.  Russia cannot and does not want to have a traditional empire; with population densities as high as they are worldwide, Russia cannot afford to police and control the teeming masses of Central Asia and Eastern Europe.  That’s part of what eventually killed the Soviet Union.  It’s therefore much better to have local strongmen in charge who work with Moscow to ensure no American pig-dog military base is set up within Russia’s sphere of influence.

Surrounded and outnumbered. Yeah, that’d piss me off, too. (Source: The Daily Telegraph)

The model to follow is Belarus, a state so backwards its forgiveable to mistake you’re still in the Soviet Union when wandering Minsk.  Under a powerful autocrat who’s happy to crack skulls, Belarus signs economic deals that favor Kremlin cronies and keeps American forces the fuck out.  But all the messy business of crushing rival political parties or managing what passes for a local economy is Minsk’s responsibility – and is a whole lot cheaper and less risky for Russia.

In Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Belarus, dictators keep the lid on local tensions just as local communist parties once did while taking their real orders from the Kremlin.  Ukraine was supposed to be in that category.  No more.

Building neo-empires is not going to make anyone popular

Russia’s war in Georgia in 2008 was hardly a flattering moment for Russia.  Neither is this push to start informally breaking up Ukraine.  Nor is the fact that, to remain credible, Russia will have to stand up for all sorts of nasty but reliable governments that still count Moscow as Friend and Ally.

Moreover, it goes directly against America’s global geopolitical rule: thou shoult not make another Soviet Union.

The situation, therefore, is both dangerous and fluid.  Russia must push outwards to grab what it can when it can.  America must push back to keep it from grabbing too much.  In between will be places like Ukraine.  The situation cannot be settled Once and For All because such a moment would involve nukes going both ways and humanity coming to an end.  Instead, the struggle must be by proxy, just like the Cold War, only this time with a weaker Russia against a stronger United States.

Putin better have fun while the fun still lasts

Because Russia is no rising power.  But it will act like one until it can’t pretend anymore.

The Battle over Ukraine

Riots! Fires! Threats of higher import and custom duties!  Oh my!

Ukraine’s not been this interesting since the last time the media noticed that it’s Ukraine, not the Ukraine.  Russia is mightily pissed, and would like everyone to just rejoin the Soviet Union already because that wasn’t such a bad thing.  Meanwhile, the often-slagged bureaucrats of Brussels seem to understand a thing or two about what’s at stake.  In the middle are the Ukrainians themselves, divided over past, present, and future, and throwing petrol bombs in the streets in the meantime.

Ukraine as a historical entity was never much secure

Ukraine is situated in a pretty bad neighborhood.  To the south, the Black Sea can easily be closed by any power controlling the Dardanelles.  The Dneiper River bisects the country neatly in half and flows southwards, allowing invaders to set up boats and attack from the north rather easily.

Rather easy entry there.

No mountains exist as natural barriers to prevent Cossacks from a-rapin’ and a-pillagin’ – and so it should be no shock that, besides an impressive stint as Kievan Rus, Ukraine’s been under the domination of powers based from Muscovy.  Ukraine’s never been able to stand up to a power fielding forces bred in the same kind of climate – one reason why the Mongols, also from a steppe climate, had their way with Kiev in 1240 and ended its golden age.

What a lovely buffer state you have there

After the Mongol invasions, Kiev was never able to regain its footing enough to withstand successive invasions by Poles, Turks, and Russians, and thus relegated what might have been a great power to secondary status.  From that point, Ukraine was a buffer between various centers of political gravity – especially Moscow.  With its abundant cereal harvests, Ukraine was a lovely breadbasket to have as part of the Russian empire, and an even better buffer that could be sacrificed if necessary to save the Russian state.  Which is pretty much what happened in 1991.

The European Union sees a nice trade network extended; the Russians see a dagger pointed at their heart

We’ve been over Putin’s Russia’s psychology – paranoid and security-obsessed, believing that a good defense is a good offense.  But this is a conflict between a new form of international politics – the growth of a transnational organization vs. a traditional nation-state.  Russia does not see the EU as a friendly neighbor; rather, it sees a threat that, while not particularly menacing today, may eventually be subverted by another Hitler.  European governments, on the other hand, see themselves as well past that rather nasty past and desire open borders and open markets in the hopes of just making everyone richer.

Russian strategic interests in adorable form.

But the dagger isn’t just military.  Russia’s often described as a kleptocracy, and the robber barons who support Putin make plenty of money in Ukraine.  If Ukraine slides towards the EU, it will become more transparent, fair, and open – all of which will hurt their margins.  They’re not about to push Moscow to fight a war, but they’ll do what they can to preserve their interests.  Putin’s emerging social contract is based on letting these nasties get away with their business, and so he’s got incentive to stop Ukraine from drifting out of their economic orbit.

The people vs. the elites

The sitting elites in Kiev clearly would like to please Russia over the EU, but are having their hands tied down by mass protests.  Democratic systems are good at channeling this anger into action and policy changes; Ukraine’s democratic credentials have taken a hit recently but are still good enough to stay “partly free.”  Ukraine could slide into authoritarianism to survive this storm and keep Russia happy, but that’s a hard trick to pull off these days.

It’s a big sign of things to come

As the world organizes into supra-national set-ups, these sort of conflicts will happen more and more.  The EU has plenty of faults, but it’s potential power is staggering.  It’s an attractive group that might just offer that sweet spot of security and economic growth sought by every state out there.  Meanwhile, traditional nation-states will have to find their way in a world of declining nationalist sentiment.

Russia will not likely win this one

Alas for Putin, his country is too far gone to rebuild the Soviet Union.  The people of Ukraine will drift further and further westward and Russian defense will end up having to hinge on cooperation rather than strength.  That’ll mean adapting themselves to a European – and by extension American – way of living in the international system.  That’s a long way off.  But losing Kiev is just the first step.

  • A lot at stake for Russia in battle for Ukraine (onenewspage.us)
  • Putin’s Russia is too weak to stop Ukraine joining Europe. But it will try (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)

What We Think We’ve Learned From Syria

It’s been over a week.  That’s the appropriate time to draw lessons, right?  Alright, let’s make a quick run down of the situation.

Without warning, Putin offered something approaching a good idea

He did this to save Assad from an impending military strike (which despite Congressional resistance would probably have happened even without approval) and thus preserve some semblance of influence in the Middle East.   This is Putin’s gamble – he’s trying to appear more powerful than his country actually is.  Sweeping in with a chemical disarmament was a grand way to do this.

Everybody wins, wins, wins (except Syria’s civilians)

English: SOCHI. With President of Syria Bashar...

Laughing all the way to the chemical weapons storage facility. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obama gets to avoid a war and disarm some WMDs.  Putin gets to show how tough of a president he is, having forced the United States to back down by being reasonable.  Assad gets to avoid a bombing that would have hurt.  Everyone wins!  Oh, wait.  Except for the people of Syria, who will still endure a brutal civil war.

Will it work?  Well…

People, including me, have kept confusing Bashar for Saddam.  In my case, I assumed Assad would never, ever give up his chemical weapons for fear of looking weak, and therefore assumed a strike on Syria was inevitable.  But Assad seems to have learned a few lessons from America’s other interventions.  True, attacking Syria might give America some nasty blowback down the line, but by then Assad might be dead.  That’s hardly a rosy scenario for the man.

So considering how unpredictable this whole thing was, it’s safe to assume that compliance will be equally unpredictable.  Assad has shown he knows that America will use his chemical weapons as a casus belli, which might doom him.  So he means to deny America that.  The only sure way to do this is to actually give up his chemical weapons to both the UN’s and the U.S.’s satisfaction.

The lesson from Saddam was that prevaricating can still get you killed.  So if Assad has totally absorbed the lessons there, he’ll give up his weapons and just accept the loss of stature as a WMD-bearing strongman.

But Assad’s lied before.  In April 2011, he promised to end Syria’s emergency rule and reform the government. In November 2011, the Arab League sponsored a peace plan, supposedly accepted by rebels and government.  Then, Kofi Annan tried the same the following spring.  In both cases, regional and international diplomacy failed miserably.  Assad wasn’t about to give up power or even share it.  He understood such a thing meant being backed into a corner he’d never come out of.  Worse, he’d be weakened to Milosevic-like levels.  How long could he avoid The Hague?

So will he give up the weapons, considering his strong incentive to do so but also his proven record as a man who will happily lie to foreign powers to buy time?  If you feel like predicting, you ought to flip a coin.  Unless someone from the Syrian government’s highest echelons are reading this, we’re all going to be left guessing.

But we did learn Russia’s limits

The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in th...

Not about to drop the bomb. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Russia and China both dislike international interventions, especially American ones, because they fear such interventions may one day turn on them in their pursuit of killing dissidents and wiping out would-be ethnic republics.  They also like to limit American power whenever they can.  But both realize they can’t compete directly with American power.  Putin acknowledged as much by going the route of diplomacy.

Had Putin been a Soviet leader, he might well have welcomed the challenge to put Russian arms to battle against American ones.  He’d have stepped up military support, as well.  But Russian hard power – that is, it’s killing prowess – is limited to its frontiers these days.  Russian naval forces couldn’t have competed with American ones.  Russian military support couldn’t have stopped American airstrikes (and would have risked humiliating Russia if their best and newest defense systems failed).  And Putin was sure as hell not about to commit suicide by attacking America with the one thing Russia still does have in competitive numbers – his nuclear arms.

And we learned what the American people are thinking these days

Americans in general have now come to assume that any military conflict risks pulling the country into a nasty nation-building exercise.  This is a good sign, on the one hand, because Americans have now learned, hopefully for the last time, that nation-building is impossible.  But on the other, Americans have yet to separate nation-building from tactical strikes.  Syria was never going to become a nation-building exercise.  It was a strike designed to deter the use of chemical weapons worldwide.  Even if America did widen the war to ending Assad’s regime, the sitting president has no appetite for invading a country and trying to do what Bush failed to accomplish.

This means that neoconservatism is essentially dead.  It might return, someday, in some hideous form, like a zombie, but thankfully this terrible idea is, at least for now, buried.  That’s a great thing for American power.  Neoconservatism was a horrific waste of American talent, lives, and resources, because it’s underlying assumption – that every nation would embrace a liberal democratic state if given the opportunity – was fundamentally untrue.

But it’s not so great for America’s worldwide strategic responsibilities

Naval vessels from five nations sail in parade...

Ready to respond? Uhh…. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the other hand, America must still guarantee the global security system, or else we get chaos and everyone suffers.  This sudden bout of isolationism doesn’t bode well for either the world or Americans.  Temporarily, America’s resolve was not truly tested, but evidence existed that Congress, especially the House, was prepared to vote the authorization down to score political points in the next primary.  This goes to the heart of the growing dysfunction of America’s political system, but that’s another discussion.

Obama made it clear he would attack – and had the authority to do so – even if Congress shot him down.  But others who might challenge the status quo can take heart from this waver.  Worse, they know that even something as dramatic as a chemical attack won’t spur Americans to action, at least for the time being.  Expect someone, somewhere, to try to undermine the world system.  It needn’t be as dramatic as Iran’s nuclear program.  It could be your run-of-the-mill island dispute, an election rigging, or border skirmish.  Bad actors on the world stage will give America just a bit less attention than before.

Who knows what we’ll learn next

The game’s afoot; will Assad cooperate?  We will learn the hard way.  Meanwhile, Syria’s people will suffer, and few outside Syria will be much bothered by that.