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

Why the West should be pushing for a stable cold war with Russia

[Following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at UC Berkeley on Monday, November 23, 2015.]

Much has been written recently about whether the United States and Russia are once again in a “Cold War.” Somewhat more optimistically, the question is often rendered as “Can the United States and Russia avoid another Cold War?”

I suppose one could treat these as invitations to make a purely historical comparison between the current US-Russian relationship and the US-Soviet relationship during “The Cold War”? But I don’t think that is what most people have in mind when they raise the issue. Rather, I suspect that what most people want to know is how adversarial are U.S-Russian relations today, how dangerous is the relationship, is the high level of tension between the two countries likely to last, and what are the costs of hostility going to be over the long run?

It therefore strikes me that to answer the implied questions, one needs to break the problem up into at least four parts, as follows.

(1) What do we mean by the term “cold war”? (That is a conceptual problem about a category of events or states – hence no initial caps.)

(2) Are we already in a cold war with Russia? (This is a descriptive or empirical problem about whether the current relationship meets the definitional criteria.)

(3) How is the US-Russian relationship likely to evolve over, say, the next two years? (This is a predictive problem that will likely produce different answers depending on the forecast period – say five years instead of two.)

(4) Is there a way to return to a genuinely cooperative relationship in the foreseeable future? (This is a prescriptive problem in which it is perfectly possible to argue that such and such should be done but it is very unlikely that it will be.) Continue reading

A few more observations about France’s invocation of the Lisbon Treaty’s mutual defense clause

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has a useful “explainer” on Article 42.7 and the reasons why France invoked it, which can be found here.

To my mind, the section at the end of the ECFR’s article, which is entitled “How have other member states [of the EU] responded?,” highlights a point made in my previous post about the disconnect between the security needs and obligations of the EU member states on the one hand, and the EU’s institutional and hard power capabilities on the other hand.

There is, however, one point made in the ECFR article that warrants close attention, and which I was unaware of when I wrote my earlier post. Continue reading

On the implications of France’s decision to invoke the EU’s mutual defense clause

Yesterday, France announced that it had invoked the EU’s collective defense clause in response to Friday’s terrorist attacks. This was the first time an EU member has invoked Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states that EU countries have “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power” to any fellow member that is the victim of an armed attack.

Importantly, France chose not to invoke Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which obligates each NATO member to take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area” if another NATO member is attacked. Article 5 also has been invoked only once, when the United States did so after September 11.

It is not entirely clear why France made this particular decision, which for reasons I will set out below may have important long-term consequences that the French leadership hasn’t anticipated. Continue reading

A response to Tim Ash’s “The big call on Ukraine” in the Kyiv Post

Standard Bank’s Timothy Ash has an excellent “on the one hand, on the other hand” analysis of Ukraine’s political and economic prospects in The Kyiv Post. He begins by laying out reasons why investors (particularly those considering buying Ukrainian sovereign debt) might have reason to be optimistic about Ukraine’s future, and then lists equally compelling reasons why they should be wary and put their money elsewhere. Continue reading

How the Kremlin is likely to push back against NATO’s eastern flank deployments

In my previous post, I argued that a major offensive by Russian-separatist forces in the Donbas is unlikely because it would further undermine Russia’s geopolitical position and make Russia’s NATO problem worse. I also argued that the window for a successful Russian hybrid war on, or outright invasion of, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania has closed now that non-indigenous NATO troops, including American troops, are on the ground in those three countries.

Nonetheless, I believe Kremlin decision-makers when they tell us that they consider NATO’s eastern flank deployments, and NATO’s growing military cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland, are a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. (What matters here is not whether those beliefs are warranted, or what Russia did to provoke NATO’s deployments, but what Kremlin decision-makers believe.) I am likewise convinced that the Kremlin believes that its deteriorating security environment is the result of Western, particularly American, actions that are directed at establishing hegemony over Eurasia and at weakening, humiliating, and even destroying Russia.

Finally, it is not just the Russian elite that believes this. The Russian public does as well, which suggests that a change in leadership – which is in any case unlikely – would probably not produce much change in Russia’s strategic culture.

If so, it stands to reason that the Kremlin is going to respond to NATO’s moves, even if that response is not a major offensive in eastern Ukraine or an attack on the Baltic states. Continue reading

Why the West should be pushing for a buffer zone between Russia and NATO

In my view, Western decision makers should be thinking hard about an endgame to the current crisis in Russian-Western relations. What is a realistic, least-worst outcome in, say, five years? Where will NATO’s and the EU’s eastern borders be? Where will NATO’s and Russia’s military assets be deployed? Will there be any arms control agreements still in effect that limit force dispositions and reduce the risks of war? What kind of constraints on economic relations will there be?

In considering the big picture, it strikes me that there are three realistic possibilities: (1) a return to “normalcy,” in the sense that Russia and the West are again cooperating and can reasonably be considered “partners”: (2) an unstable hostile relationship in which the dividing line between Russia and “the West” is contested, rules of engagement are uncertain, arms control measures have little effect on force dispositions and fail to enhance military stability, and where there is a significant and constant risk of war – so essentially more of what we have today; and (3) a stable hostile relationship where the dividing line between Russia and the West and rules of engagement are reasonably clear and accepted, where arms control measures enhance strategic and regional stability, where Russia has little incentive to attack its neighbors, and where the risks of a conflict between Russia and NATO are very low – so more or less where we were with the Soviet Union during the second half of the Cold War. Continue reading

A strategic response to Russia’s role in the Ukraine crisis

Much the most worrisome aspect of the current crisis in Russia’s relations with the West is the unstable and dangerous security situation. Accordingly, I believe Washington and its allies should prioritize the military dimension in responding to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in the Donbas war. The primary goal should be to reduce the risk of war while living up to NATO’s Article 5 commitments to its eastern member-states.

The second most important strategic goal should be to assist countries on Russia’s periphery in preserving their sovereignty without precipitating a military response by Moscow.

Finally, and importantly, the West should begin positioning itself to enter into negotiations with Moscow over a new security arrangement for Europe, including conventional and nuclear force postures, that minimizes the risks of new proxy wars on Russia’s periphery and a direct military conflict between NATO and Russia. Continue reading

Why the Ukraine crisis is still very dangerous (long version)

[Following is an expanded and updated version of a talk I gave at the 39th Annual Berkeley-Stanford Conference on March 6, 2015. The conference title was “The Collapse after a Quarter Century: What Have We Learned About Communism and Democracy?”]

The title of the talk I was going to give today was “Mishandling Russia.” However, last week a recent Berkeley political science Ph.D., Andrei Krikovic, now an assistant professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, gave what I thought was an excellent talk entitled “The Ukraine Crisis and the New Cold War: The View From Moscow,” in which he made many of the points I was going to make. We also have a talk scheduled for Monday by Masha Lipman, one of Moscow’s most prominent political analysts, entitled “From a Model of Development to Evil Incarnate: How Russia Has Come to Loathe the West.” So rather than repeating their arguments, I thought I would address one answer to the question in the conference title as follows: One thing that we know for sure 25 years later is that Russia’s relations with the West are in crisis. And I don’t see a clear path forward for resolving that crisis in the foreseeable future.

I’m going to focus on the security dimension of the current drama, which I think is the heart of the matter and the reason why it is so dangerous. Continue reading

Ukraine’s hostage crisis

My impression is that the ceasefire called for in last week’s Minsk II agreement is being implemented along most of the line of contact. The principle exception is in the Debaltseve pocket, although there has also been some artillery/rocket exchanges in the south, in and around Donetsk/Horlivka, and near Luhansk. But with the possible exception of a Russian/separatist push to reverse the gains made by Ukraine’s Azov battalion last week in the south, I doubt that either side is pressing, for the immediate future, to make significant territorial gains. Continue reading

The Ukraine crisis in 2015

The Ukraine crisis is a complex drama with multiple dimensions, theaters and actors, which makes tracking, explaining, and predicting where it is headed particularly difficult. Its various parts are, however, interrelated, so while each dimension is important in its own right, it also impacts, and is impacted by, the others.

In what follows, I disaggregate the crisis to five dimensions and offer my take on what is likely to happen in each in 2015. In doing so, I will try to take into account the crisis’ “systemic” properties – that is, how the knee bone is connected to the thigh bone. Continue reading

Original Sin: The Clinton’s administration’s commitment to NATO enlargement

I’ve been working on a paper on NATO enlargement that is supposed to appear in February, and when it does I’ll post a link to it. Meanwhile, I want to emphasize a few broad points about the policy.

First, while there has been a good deal of discussion recently about what Western officials “promised” Gorbachev about NATO during negotiations over German reunification, the key decisions about enlargement were made after the Soviet dissolution by the Clinton administration, not the George H.W. Bush administration. What is true is that a commitment to preserve NATO as the foundation of Western security was made under Bush I, and as far as I know that commitment was supported by all NATO member-states at the time (see the 1990 London NATO Summit Declaration). The decision to enlarge NATO to take in new members other than a united Germany was made gradually, and without a lot of fanfare, by the Clinton administration over the course of 1993 and 1994. Continue reading

Thoughts on a post-Ukraine crisis security settlement for Europe

It would be foolish for Western governments to count on changes in Russia’s position on NATO enlargement and force disposition in the foreseeable future, regardless of whether Putin remains in office. It would likewise be foolish for Moscow to count on brinkmanship and intimidation to keep NATO from reinforcing its eastern flank under current circumstance. Nonetheless, it is incumbent upon Western and Russian leaders to make what is now a dangerous and unstable military standoff less unstable and less dangerous. Doing so is in the interest of both sides, and it is also the most likely path toward a gradual improvement in political relations. Continue reading

The War of Recessions gets worse

The ruble closed today at just under 70 to the dollar, down 13% after falling some 10% yesterday. At one point it fell below 80 to the dollar, down almost 20%. It has now overtaken the hryvnia as the world’s worst performing currency this year. Continue reading

US-Russia Relations and the Ukraine Crisis

[Expanded and updated version of a talk given at UC Berkeley, December 2, 2014.]

I have long been an alarmist about US-Russia relations. While the relationship has seen its ups and downs, I believe the trend has been decidedly negative since the mid-1990s. I’ve also long worried about a possible clash with Russia over NATO expansion, and particularly so after the Bush Administration decided to press – albeit unsuccessfully – America’s NATO allies to offer Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans at the March 2008 Bucharest NATO summit. Continue reading

Why the Ukraine crisis is getting even more dangerous

It is safe to say that I have been an alarmist about the conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s external orientation (my wife tells me I should call this the “Doom and Gloom” blog). I have been worried for years that NATO and EU expansion was going to lead eventually to a security crisis. I was worried about the consequences of Georgia and Ukraine trying to join NATO well before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, and even more worried thereafter. And I was worried about the political fallout from the decision to offer Ukraine an EU Association Agreement in Vilnius at the end of last year and Russia’s reaction should the Yanukovich regime fall. Continue reading

Why a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine is unlikely

As readers of this blog are aware, I believe that Moscow’s Ukraine policy has been driven primarily by geopolitical concerns rather than fear of democratic contagion. Above all, the Kremlin has been, and remains, determined to keep Ukraine out of NATO. It is only slightly less determined to keep Ukraine out of the European Union and to prevent NATO from building up its eastern defenses. And it probably still hopes that Ukraine can eventually be persuaded, or forced, to cast its lot with Russia rather than with Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.

At the same time, the Kremlin has made clear that it will pursue its strategic objectives in Ukraine using all means at its disposal short of war with the West. It has also made clear that it has a high tolerance for risk.

What is not clear, however, is how the Kremlin’s strategic objectives and tactics are linked. Continue reading

US policy toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency

[The following is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the Kyiv School of Economics on October 22, 2014.]

I started a blog earlier this year, the intent of which is to try to predict major developments in post-Soviet space, including of course in Ukraine – so the emphasis is on what I think will happen, not what I want to happen. That’s the spirit of my talk today as well: I’m going to tell you what I think U.S. policy will be toward Ukraine in the remaining years of the Obama presidency, not what I think it should be. I will focus first on domestic development in the U.S., because domestic political factors inevitably influence a president’s foreign policy. I will then turn to U.S. policy toward Ukraine, beginning with some general points and then addressing the particular issues shown in Slide 1. Continue reading