Nine points on the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal

After chairing a meeting of the U.K.’s national security council earlier today, British Prime Theresa May read a prepared statement to the House of Commons in which she stated the following:

Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations, and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations, the government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal…

Either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others…

Should there be no credible response [from Russian authorities within 48 hours], we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom, and I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures we will take in response…

With that as backdrop, my take on where we’re headed with the Skripal incident is as follows. Continue reading

Why Putin is unlikely to change course after March 18 (Part 3: Foreign and Security Policy)

This is the third of three memos (posts) from an imagined Putin advisor to the Russian president on policy after he returns to office for his fourth term. This memo deals with foreign and security policy, and like the others it’s broad purpose is to show why I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see significant changes in Russia policy for at least the next several years (which is about as far as forecasters should try to forecast). As with the previous two memos, I make no fact claims in what follows that are deliberately false, although many facts are left out, and despite the fact that I disagree with some of the interpretations and conclusions.

My next post will summarize my own take on the three posts.


Strategic vision, tactical flexibility

Mr. President, our foreign and domestic critics frequently claim that you’re a masterful foreign policy tactician but lack strategic vision. That is wrong. On the contrary, you have a clearly articulated and longstanding strategic goal, which is to restore Russia to its rightful place as a great power, equal to the United States and China on the world stage. And you have been resolute, and remarkably successful, in implementing that vision.

In your early years as president, you attempted to work with the United States to realize this broad strategic goal. By around 2003 or 2004, however, you had concluded that Washington was intent on preserving its dominance and entirely unwilling to accept a balanced international system. Moreover, as the Iraq War made clear, the United States insisted that, while all other states had to abide by rules that it had largely written, it alone had the right to violate those rules, and it could and would do so at its discretion.

It was also clear that the United States, assisted by its mostly subservient Western allies, was intent on remaking the world in its own image, a utopian and revolutionary project promoting “liberalism” and “democratization” that was in fact destabilizing and immiserating large parts of the world. This is precisely what happened in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine in 2004: Western-instigated “colored revolutions” brought down governments while producing only chaos, social disorder, and economic hardship.

Accordingly, you concluded that Washington would have to be forced to accept a new, multipolar order, one in which its imperialistic ambitions would be contained by counter-balancing power. That order would be based on three key principles: (1) non-interference in the internal affairs of at least the three dominant powers; (2) reciprocal recognition of respective spheres of influence; and (3) disproportionate weight in decision-making in international institutions – disproportionate with respect to others, but equal among Russia, China, and the United States. Continue reading

Why Putin is unlikely to change course after March 18 (Part 2: Domestic politics and regime stability)

This is the second of two memos (posts) to Putin from an imagined advisor on strategic planning for his next six-year term as president.

A reminder that this is my take on how an advisor might think, and what he might tell Putin. It is not necessarily what I think myself. Also, the facts adduced are not “fake,” at least not deliberately so, but many facts are left out.

The election

Mr. President, you are certain to be reelected on March 18. What is uncertain is by what margin of victory and with what turnout. In effect, the election is between you and everything else – other candidates, none-of-the-above, and those who chose not to vote. The media has claimed that our goals are 70/70 – 70 percent for you, and 70 percent turnout.

Our campaign strategy has been, as in the past, to position you as the indispensable servant of the Russian state and the Russian people.

VTSIOM polling data: Putin at 73.2% among likely voters

You in effect stand above politics, which is why you’re running this time as an independent, not as head of United Russia. It’s also why you’ve done almost no campaigning, and why you’ve put forward almost nothing in the way of a program.

We are reasonably confident that you’ll win at least 70 percent of the vote in March. The challenge is turnout: your share of the votes will go up with lower turnout, but low turnout – say under 60 percent – would undermine your authority. Turnout that is well below expectations – say, 55 percent or lower – might delegitimize your reelection, both at home and abroad, and increase the risk of political instability going forward. Continue reading

Why Putin is unlikely to change course after March 18 (Part 1: The economy)

Note to readers: I plan to start blogging again, having recently retired from UC Berkeley and relocated to New York City. I will start with an exercise in empathy (which is different from sympathy), or if you prefer, red teaming or devil’s advocating (to coin a term). Specifically, I will try to imagine how a Putin advisor would likely assess Russia’s economic, political, and foreign/security circumstances on the eve of Putin’s all-but-certain reelection on March 18.

The main point of the exercise is to try to mitigate my own confirmation and preference biases, as well as those of other Western Russia watchers, many of whom suffer, in my view, from wishful thinking.

To be clear, I doubt some of the imagined advisor’s sanguine assessments, particularly on the foreign policy/security front. But I suspect it is the way that Putin and his kommanda see things. And it is why I think the Kremlin is unlikely to change course significantly, if at all, after March.

The advice takes the form of three memos (posts) from this advisor to Putin. I begin with a post on the economy. The next post will address domestic politics and regime stability. The final post will take up foreign and security policy.

None of the facts adduced in the series is intentionally inaccurate, although a great many facts are left out.


Our economy is recovering after two years of contraction following the oil price and sanctions shocks of 2014. After declines of 2.8 percent and 0.2 percent in 2015 and 2016, respectively, growth should come in at about 1.7 percent in 2017, or perhaps a little higher. The economy is expected to pick up this year, with most forecasts predicting growth of 1.5 percent to two percent, and then a little over two percent over the next several years. There is a reasonable chance that the economy will do better than consensus forecasts. A November 2017 analysis from Goldman Sachs predicted the economy would grow at 3.3 percent in 2018 and 2.9 percent in 2019. Continue reading

Liberalism: What it is and what it’s not

Following is a presentation I gave at a two-day symposium, “Beyond Dichotomies: Rethinking the Liberal Agenda,” at The Central European University on March 28, 2017. The day the symposium began the University was informed of government-sponsored legislation that, if adopted, would effectively shut down CEU. The legislation passed yesterday, April 4, and is currently pending signature by Hungary’s president. For background, see New law imperils Central European University’s future in Hungary,Inside Higher Education, April 5, 2017.


When I read that title for our symposium would be “Beyond Dichotomies: Rethinking the Liberal Agenda,” it struck me that participants were likely to have different understandings of what “liberal” and “liberalism” meant, which would make it difficult to collectively rethink the “liberal agenda.” So I thought I would take to take the opportunity to discuss “liberalism” as a concept, and clarify, at least for myself, what I mean by the term. I also thought it would be useful to consider how liberalism – again as I understand it – relates to other key concepts, including the obvious one, democracy, but also others such as Popper’s notion of the open society, neo-liberalism, the liberal international order, globalization, and multiculturalism.

To that end, I asked a Berkeley PhD candidate in political science, Melissa Samarin, to do a literature review for me and put together a sample of treatments of the concept by authoritative authors, as well as a smaller sample of definitions of those other related terms, which I’ll put up on blog as a PDF if anyone is interested. [Link: Samarin: Liberalism and related concepts.]

So let me start with a few general points about liberalism the concept. Continue reading

Risk, uncertainty, and black swans: Why Soviet socialism was forever until it was no more

Risk, Uncertainty, and Black Swans: Why Soviet Socialism Was Forever Until It Was No More 

Talk given at the Annual Berkeley-Stanford Conference

UC Berkeley, March 3, 2017

A few words to begin with about the title.

Many of you probably recognize the reference to Alexei’s terrific and influential book about late socialism, “Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More.” The book is framed around a particular observation, which is that in the late Soviet period Soviet citizens assumed that Soviet socialism would last forever, but after the fact they looked back and saw all sorts of reasons why it had to collapse.

It wasn’t just Soviet citizens who felt that way, however – outside observers did as well. Indeed there has been a great deal of criticism of academic specialists, and perhaps more importantly of the U.S. and Western intelligence communities, for having assumed that “everything was forever” and for failing to predict the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. In fact, just yesterday I read a piece in Foreign Policy claiming that Kremlinologists are “ haunted” by their “fabled inability to foresee one of the most significant geopolitical events of the 20th century — the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union.”

My argument that if indeed they are haunted – which I don’t think is true, at least I’m not – they shouldn’t be. On the contrary, the early assumption of both Soviet citizens and outside observers that “everything was forever” was entirely reasonable, and ex-post claims that what happened was predictable are not only wrong but reflect a typical cognitive bias highlighted in some of the research in psychology and behavioral economics on cognition and irrationality in decision-making.

In short, my argument is that the collapse of the Soviet Union shares at least one thing in common with Donald Trump’s election as president, which is that it was a highly improbable outcome with enormous consequences. Which is to say, it was a black swan.

A few general points before diving in. Continue reading

Putin’s dilemma: Why pushing back against NATO “encroachment” makes Russia’s NATO problem worse

As readers of this blog know, I believe that Putin and his advisors are convinced that the United States is trying to encircle, contain, weaken, exploit, and even destroy Russia as a unified state. They are also convinced that the West’s rhetorical commitment to democracy is a smokescreen for U.S. hegemonic ambitions globally and in Russia’s rightful sphere of influence particularly. This understanding of U.S. objectives is also shared by the bulk of the Russian public. It’s what many Russians believed before the Ukraine crisis (and it helps explain why the Kremlin reacted the way it did to the Maidan events), and it’s believed all the more now that Russia has lost Ukraine as an ally and NATO is reinforcing its eastern defenses.

That Russian officials and the Russian public think this would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. Russia, after all, is a nuclear superpower with a large and very capable conventional military. What makes it particularly dangerous is the fact that the Kremlin’s security problems with NATO are not only getting worse but are likely to continue to do so for years to come. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its role in destabilizing the Donbas, and its intervention in Syria have been very popular domestically, at least to date. But they have also produced an American military “repivot” to Europe, a steady but significant increase in NATO hard power capabilities close to Russian borders, and a surge in military spending by most of Russia’s increasingly worried neighbors. Continue reading