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