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

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

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