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 Russia’s security problems can’t be solved in Ukraine

From the outset of the current crisis in Ukraine, Moscow’s policies have been driven primarily by geopolitical considerations, not by developments inside Ukraine itself. Despite its rhetoric, the Kremlin cares little if at all about the design of Ukrainian federalism, the rights of Russian speakers, or alleged “fascists” in Kyiv, except insofar as they affect Ukraine’s external orientation and Russia’s geopolitical interests. Ukraine was, and doubtless to a certain extent still is, a central element in the Kremlin’s ambitions to establish a Russian-dominated “Eurasian” pole in what it sees as an increasingly multi-polar world. But more importantly, it has been and remains critical to the Kremlin’s goal of keeping the United States, the European Union, and above all NATO from becoming politically, economically, and militarily preeminent in post-Soviet space. 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