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

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

Why diplomacy and foreign military intervention won’t end the Syrian war anytime soon

Late last week representatives from 17 countries – including Saudi Arabia and Iran – plus the UN and EU (so no representatives from either the Assad government or the anti-Assad opposition) met in Vienna to discuss the Syrian civil war. The outcome was a “Final Declaration” on basic principles, which the media generally interpreted as a hopeful sign that the “international community” was moving toward some kind of consensus on how to end the Syrian civil war.

I don’t agree. My take is that at best – and even this is very unlikely – the Vienna Declaration will prove a first step toward getting key external actors – notably Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Turkey, Russia, and the United States – to limit their direct or indirect involvement in the war, including the delivery of weapons. That might at least ameliorate the scale of violence in the country. But in my view the Vienna participants cannot end the war or pave the way toward a political settlement for months if not years. And unfortunately almost none of the provisions in the Vienna Declaration will be implemented (more on this in a moment). 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