Five points about Friday’s Syria strike

1. It’s not over

The Trump administration has made clear that Friday’s strike was a one-off intended to (1) degrade the ability of Damascus to produce high-quality chemical weapons and (2) deter the regime from the further use of chemical weapons.

I’ll discuss whether these objectives were achieved below, but an initial point is that “degrading” is not “destroying” – hence the ongoing need for deterrence. That in turn implies a U.S. willingness to launch additional strikes should Damascus again use chemical weapons. Which is what U.S. and allied officials are saying – there will be more strikes if Damascus doesn’t get the message.

There is, however, an important ambiguity about the deterrence signal sent yesterday (more on this below). It’s not clear if the redline for the U.S. and its allies is the use of any chemical agent specifically banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (notably the nerve agent Sarin) or the use of any chemical weapon covered by the Treaty’s general prohibition (notably chlorine). Continue reading

Update on the Skripal incident

On the investigation

It is looking increasingly likely that the “novichok” nerve agent used in the assassination attempt was delivered, doubtless unwittingly, by Yulia Skripal, Sergei Skripal’s daughter. Yulia was picked up at Heathrow on Saturday afternoon, the day before Skripal and Yulia fell ill, by a friend of Skripal’s in an Isuzu pick-up truck. The truck was impounded by British authorities on Monday, the implication being that investigators are looking for traces of nerve agent in the truck. Also noteworthy is the fact that over two weeks have passed since the incident, and British authorities have yet to identify any suspects by name or ask for information based on physical descriptions. So they don’t appear to have anyone on CCTV who might have dispersed the agent. Continue reading

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 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

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

Ten points about where U.S-Russian relations are headed

I’ve been asked to attend a workshop next month that will “take stock of the economic, political and foreign policy developments in Russia and their implications for the United States.” In preparation, I’m going to post a long analysis of where I think U.S.-Russian relations are headed, but for now let me summarize my take as follows.

  1. The already dangerous U.S./NATO-Russian military relationship is getting more dangerous.
  2. A continuation or further deterioration of the West’s security relationship with Russia is not in the interest of the United States or its allies.
  3. Russia’s security problems with the West are not going to be solved by undermining the European Union, by promoting divisions within the West, or by improving ties to China.
  4. Russia’s security problems with the West are not going to be solved by turning Ukraine or Georgia into permanent political or economic basket cases.
  5. Russian military operations in Syria have added to tensions with the West and have increased the risk of a military clash with NATO.
  6. Russia’s overall relations with the West in general, and with the U.S. in particular, are not going to improve significantly unless and until there is a stabilization of the NATO-Russia military relationship.
  7. It is unlikely that Western economic sanctions on Russia will be lifted even partially in this year, and Crimea makes it highly unlikely that they will be lifted in full for years to come.
  8. Making Russia’s security relationship with the West less dangerous is going to require direct negotiations between Russia and the United States.
  9. Those negotiations should focus initially on arms control and security-related confidence building measures, and they should be comprehensive and include not just negotiations on strategic (START) weapons but also on theater nuclear weapons (INF), on ballistic missile defenses (BMD), and most importantly on conventional forces dispositions (CFE).
  10. Progress on arms control can make the NATO-Russia military balance less dangerous and contribute to a gradual normalization of political relations (a détente)—way down the road it might even give Ukraine and Russia the space needed to negotiate some kind of status compromise over Crimea (but don’t hold your breath).

US options in responding to Russia’s military intervention in Syria

Last spring, I argued in a talk at Berkeley that the Ukraine crisis was still very dangerous despite the signing of the Minsk II Agreement on the Donbas conflict. In brief, my reasoning was that (1) the Ukraine conflict is the product of an intensifying geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West in general and the United States in particular; (2) there is a powerful ideological component to that struggle, which is one reason why it is very likely to last for the foreseeable future; (3) the most dangerous dimension of the struggle is the military one; and (4) there is a non-negligible risk of a military clash between NATO and Russia.

I’m going to double down on my Chicken Little-ism today and make three points about Russia’s military intervention in Syria: (1) the immediate effect of the intervention is to increase the risk of a military clash between Russia and the United States or one of its allies; (2) it is very unlikely that Russia’s intervention will lead to a genuine “grand coalition” against ISIS or “terrorism”; and (3) there are no good options for Washington in Syria in general, and no good options in responding to Russia’s intervention in particular. Continue reading