Tag: russia

The Dangers of Waging War by Proxy

The shocking destruction of Malyasian Airlines MH17 is merely the latest in a string of cases in which irresponsible and unaccountable proxies have brought shame and international condemnation down upon the heads of their foreign sponsors. The precise details of how a passenger airliner carrying 298 souls fell from the sky still aren’t known, but, as Jon Lee Anderson notes in the New Yorker, ”however it played out, this sort of tragedy is a natural consequence of giving weapons to violent men who feel that their powerful sponsor allows them to commit crimes with impunity.”

One hopes, once the memorials to the victims are concluded, and friends and families have had time to come grips with their loss, that the MH17 incident will induce greater caution on the part of would-be foreign sponsors the next time they consider arming shadowy rebels. But I’m not that optimistic. It certainly won’t be sufficient to stop all such cases. Advocates will likely claim that the particular proxy group that they favor isn’t at all like the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, and, thus, that there is nothing to worry about. “Our guys can be trusted with these weapons,” they’ll say. One hopes that skeptics won’t be scorned and ridiculed for voicing concerns. 

For now, the focus is appropriately on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cynical manipulation of the unrest in Ukraine. And that is where it should stay. I warned more than two months ago that Putin wasn’t the evil genius that some in the West have made him out to be, and that he likely had less control over the separatists in Ukraine than some alleged. His proxies might ignore him if he told them to stand down, I predicted, or do other things that he didn’t entirely support. The downing of a civilian airliner isn’t what I had in mind, but the bottom line is the same: senseless, tragic death. It doesn’t matter that Putin didn’t push the button that launched the missile, or that he didn’t want civilians – especially foreign nationals – targeted. If he provided separatists with weapons capable of causing such destruction, he bears responsibility for their actions. 

That Putin appears to recognize this is proved by his mouthpiece Russia Today’s ham-fisted attempt to shift blame. RT’s initial report that it was caused by a Ukrainian missile fell apart almost immediately. Separatists, with Russian help, were seen trying to cover their tracks by moving SA-11 missile batteries within a few hours of the disaster. Strategic masterminds don’t deny responsibility for military operations that they are proud of. Eisenhower didn’t try to claim that the Normandy landings were a false flag operation. Douglas MacArthur’s forces at Inchon weren’t disguised as little green men. The absurdity of RT’s latest efforts prompted London-based RT reporter Sara Firth to quit in protest. “I couldn’t do it any more,” she told BuzzFeed. “Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.”

In the United States, hawks wasted no time trying to build support for tougher actions against Russia. This was inevitable. Whether any of these measures – including more military aid to Ukraine, more troops in Eastern Europe, and more sanctions – will have the desired effect seems to be beside the point. For my part, I would prefer forcing Putin to stew in the juices of his disastrous proxy war a little longer while the evidence of Russian complicity accumulates. We shouldn’t allow him to divert attention away from this heinous act.

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

NATO - What Is It Good For?

With continuing instability in Ukraine, and Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski allegedly using vulgar and racist language to disparage the US-Poland alliance, now’s as good a time as any to evaluate what NATO does for Americans.

Not much, I argue in Foreign Policy (online). As I conclude:

NATO has produced some benefits, but the costs to the United States – tens of billions per year, validating Russian nationalist narratives about the West, and infantilizing its European partners – are often ignored. Washington should cut the Europeans loose, and encourage them to cooperate with each other on European security matters. With a combined GDP larger than the United States and a benign threat environment, Europeans are capable of defending themselves, but won’t until Washington makes them.

Please give it a read.

Beware of the Kremlin’s Propaganda

Since the beginning of the turmoil in Ukraine, some have attributed a large part of the blame for the crisis to the European Union and the United States, whose meddling allegedly brought down the President Viktor Yanukovych.

While, as a general rule, the foreign policy of the EU and the US deserve to be criticized on various grounds, it should not be forgotten that other actors are present on the world’s geopolitical scene as well – some of them quite malevolent. The idea that the eclectic, bottom-up movement that fueled the revolution in Kyiv was somehow orchestrated by the United States (and/or by the notoriously unimaginative bureaucrats in Brussels) is grotesque – as is the notion that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is a response to genuine secessionist desires of the citizens of South-Eastern Ukraine.

In short, one needs to be careful to avoid the trap of falling for the propaganda spread by Russia’s current regime, as Alexander McCobin and Eglė Markevičiūtė, both from Students for Liberty, argue here:

It’s much too simplistic to solely condemn the United States for any kind of geopolitical instability in the world. Non-interventionists who sympathize with Russia by condoning Crimea’s secession and blaming the West for the Ukrainian crisis fail to see the larger picture. Putin’s government is one of the least free in the world and is clearly the aggressor in Crimea, as it was even beforehand with its support of the Yanukovych regime that shot and tortured its own citizens on the streets of Kyiv.

[…]

Some libertarians’ Kremlin-style speculation about pro-western Maidan’s meddling in Crimea’s affairs is very similar to what Putin’s soft-power apparatus has been trying to sell in Eastern Europe and CIS countries for at least 15 years. Speaking of the Crimean secession being democratically legitimate is intellectually dishonest given that the referendum was essentially passed at gunpoint with no legitimate choice for the region to remain in Ukraine’s sovereign power.

Don’t Wreck Relations with Russia and China over Syria

Most opponents of the Obama administration’s plan to launch missile strikes against Syria have rightly focused on the possible costs in American blood and treasure if the United States becomes entangled in that country’s civil war. There is, however, a more subtle, yet extremely worrisome, cost: the potential damage to America’s relations with other important nations, especially Russia and China.

Russian leaders have been extremely outspoken in opposing military measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially if such actions are taken without approval from the UN Security Council, on which Russia possesses a veto power. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has warned that a U.S.-led attack on Syria could further destabilize the Middle East, proving “catastrophic” for that region and beyond. Moscow has now dispatched three naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean to show support for Assad and warn Washington against rash action.

China has been less vocal than Russia in criticizing U.S. policy toward Syria, but Beijing is also opposed to the course that the Obama administration has adopted. The Chinese government shares Moscow’s anger at Washington’s growing tendency to bypass the UN Security Council on matters of war and peace. That is a source of discontent that has been building for a decade-and-a-half. Western (especially U.S.) policy regarding Kosovo—both the war in 1999 and the decision to bypass the Council and grant that province independence from Serbia in 2008—became a prominent source of irritation. The U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, again without Security Council approval, added to the list of Sino-Soviet diplomatic grievances against Washington and its allies. Most recently, the West’s cynical misuse of a Council resolution authorizing air strikes in Libya, supposedly to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from attacking innocent civilians, antagonized both Beijing and Moscow.

The Obama administration’s transformation of the Libya resolution into a vehicle for regime change makes Russian and Chinese officials especially suspicious that the proposed limited missile strikes to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons will be perverted in the same fashion. And it is clear that Beijing and Moscow are tired of having Washington disregard their views and flout the interests of their countries.

U.S. leaders need to do a far better job of calculating America’s foreign policy priorities. Maintaining good relations with Russia and China outweigh any theoretical gains that might flow even from a well-executed policy regarding Syria. And the prospects of a meaningful U.S. policy “victory” in that country are midpoint between slim and none.

Conversely, we need cooperation from Moscow and Beijing on a host of important issues. Without Russia’s help, there is little chance for serious progress on nuclear issues, either reducing the bloated U.S. and Russian stockpiles of such weapons or discouraging Iran and other countries from barging into the global nuclear weapons club. China’s cooperation is even more important. Not only is China a major purchaser of U.S. government debt, which in an era of chronic budget deficits is no trivial matter, but the country is an increasingly crucial U.S. trading partner and a vital factor in the overall global economy. An angry, recalcitrant China would not be good for America’s or the world’s economic health.

China is also the most important player in efforts to discourage North Korea from engaging in reckless, destabilizing conduct. During the first half of 2013, Beijing appeared to grow weary of Pyongyang’s disruptive, provocative conduct and began to exert pressure on its obnoxious client. That pressure has been at least one factor in North Korea’s more conciliatory behavior in the past few months. But China will have little incentive to continue that course if Washington tramples on Beijing’s interests in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.

Obama administration officials must avoid policy “tunnel vision.” Pursuing a dubious strategy in Syria is bad enough, even taken in isolation. Doing so when it will likely damage U.S. relations with two major powers in the international system is dangerously myopic.

Obama Administration Should Close NATO Door to Georgia

Although many members of the defense establishment haven’t seemed to notice, the Evil Empire collapsed. The Soviet Union is gone, along with the Warsaw Pact. Europe is wealthier than America. Why is Washington still pushing to expand NATO?

In May, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that “We are very supportive of Georgia’s aspirations with respect to NATO.” In June NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Tbilisi, where he said that once Tbilisi made needed reforms “the burden will be on us to live up to our pledge that Georgia will be a member of NATO.”

Alas, the biggest burden of adding Tbilisi would fall on the United States. The administration should halt the process before it proceeds any further.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created to contain Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R.’s demise left NATO without an enemy. The alliance desperately looked for new duties, finally settling on “out-of-area” responsibilities. 

In essence, the alliance would find wars to fight elsewhere, such as in Afghanistan and Libya, while expanding eastward toward Moscow. That process continues today. For instance, Rasmussen declared: “Georgia’s full Euro-Atlantic integration is a goal we all share” 

That’s a dumb idea. Georgia would be a security liability to the United States and Europe.

Syria’s Annual Inflation Hits 200%

In an attempt to beat Western sanctions and halt the fall in the Syrian pound, the Assad regime – with the help of Iran, Russia, and China – has begun conducting all of its business in rials, roubles, and renminbi. This decision supplements other existing arrangements between Syria and its allies that are keeping the Syrian economy on life-support. These include transfers of $500 million per month in oil and an unlimited credit line with Tehran for food and oil-product imports.

According to Kadri Jamil, Syria’s prime minister for the economy, this life support is necessary because Syria’s devastated economy is the target of an elaborate plot, hatched by the U.S. and Britain, to “sink the Syrian pound.”

So, what about the sinking pound? As the accompanying chart shows, the Syrian pound has lost 66.2% of its value in the last twelve months.

The rout of the Syrian pound has been widely reported in the press.  But, Syria’s inflation problems that have accompanied the collapse of the pound have gone largely unreported.  That’s because, beyond the occasional bits of anecdotal evidence, there has been nothing to report by way of reliable economic data.

To fill that void, I employ standard techniques to estimate Syrian’s current inflation. Currently, Syria is experiencing an annual inflation rate of 200% (see the accompanying chart).

Indeed, Syria is experiencing a monthly inflation rate of 34%. To facilitate the monitoring of the quickly deteriorating situation in Syria, I am creating a resource which will allow readers to view up-to-date data on the Syrian pound and the country’s inflation problems. Soon, black-market exchange-rate data and ­inflation estimates for countries with troubled currencies like Syria will be made available via the “Troubled Currencies Project” – a joint Cato Institute-Johns Hopkins collaboration under my direction. In consequence, the days of Syria’s plunging pound and raging inflation being covered in a shroud of secrecy are soon coming to an end.

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