Five more points about the Syria strike

The fear imbalance

One notable aspect of the Syria drama is the imbalance in fear levels between the United States and Russia. The Russian media has been full of warnings about a US-Russian military clash and the impending outbreak of World War III. Russian professional analysts have likewise been very alarmist. To cite but one example: Dmitri Trenin, a prominent Russian foreign policy specialist and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote a piece for the Foreign Policy website subtitled, “Trump’s latest airstrikes are a new U.S.-Russian missile crisis that risks devastating escalation.”

By contrast, I don’t remember a single reference to World War III on American television, or even to the possibility that Syria could lead to a major conventional or nuclear war with Russia. American specialist and security officials are rather more alarmed, but as Trenin suggests, most still appear confident that the risk of a major U.S.-Russia war breaking out in Syria is low because the United States and its allies have such a preponderance of force in the eastern Mediterranean.

My take is the same as it has been for some time with respect to the risks of war between Russia and the United States: a significant risk of something catastrophic is worth worrying about, and it would be a terrible error to sleepwalk into disaster. But the point I want to make here is that I have the impression that the fear level about Syria in the American public is quite low. It seems to be somewhat higher in the U.K., France, and other European countries, but still much less than in Russia. 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.

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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 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.

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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

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).

Nine points about Ukraine’s prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration

Summary

  1. There is a distinction between “accession integration” and “becoming European,” and Kyiv should treat accession integration as a possible means for becoming European, not as an end in itself.
  2. Becoming European would be a huge challenge for Ukraine under the best of circumstances, and these are far from the best of circumstances.
  3. The European project is in crisis, which not only makes accession integration all the more difficult for Ukraine but also reduces its benefits.
  4. It is unrealistic for Ukraine to expect to join the EU anytime soon.
  5. Joining the EU is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Ukraine becoming European.
  6. NATO already has a serious security problem with Russia, and it is not going to want to make that problem worse by offering membership to Ukraine.
  7. It is unrealistic for Ukraine to expect to join NATO anytime soon.
  8. Joining NATO is not a necessary condition for deterring further Russian aggression.
  9. To become European, Ukraine is eventually going to have to improve relations with Russia.

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