Tag: russia

Russia Won’t Attack the Baltic States

When the Cold War closed many people believed that history had ended. Europe was certain to be free and undivided.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way. But no worries. At least NATO officials are happy. Following Russian intervention in Georgia and Ukraine the alliance rediscovered a sense of purpose through its old enemy, Moscow.

The Obama administration just announced a multi-billion dollar program to bolster U.S. forces in Eastern Europe. Now a Rand Corporation report warns that Russia could easily overrun the three Baltic members of NATO is raising additional alarm.

Said David A. Shlapak and Michael W. Johnson: the “unambiguous” result of a series of war games was that “As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.” The Rand researchers recommended a substantial allied military presence to deter Moscow.

Shalapak and Johnson dismissed the cost, estimated at around $2.7 billion annually, but more commitments require more force structure, and that burden almost certainly would fall upon America rather than the Europeans. Just like the administration’s new initiative for Eastern Europe involving a single brigade.

Their conclusion illustrates the folly years ago of treating NATO as a social club and inducting new members which were irrelevant to the continent’s security and possessed minimal military capabilities. Now the alliance realizes that it is obligated to war against nuclear-armed Russia on behalf of essentially indefensible countries.

Equally striking is how NATO membership has discouraged the Baltic nations from doing much for their own defense. Last year Latvia and Lithuania devoted 1.06 percent and 1.14 percent, respectively, of GDP to the military. Estonia was 2.04 percent—the first time Tallinn met the official NATO standard.

Yet the surging fear over Russian adventurism is misplaced. Vladimir Putin’s behavior is bad, but poses little threat to America, “old” Europe, or even most of Russia’s neighbors.

He has taken Moscow back to the Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union. His government demands respect for its status, protection of Russia’s borders, and consideration of its interests.

Mikhail Saakashvili’s Georgia was actively anti-Russian, pursued close ties with America, and sought membership in NATO—all certain to antagonize Moscow. Ukraine always mattered more to Moscow than Georgia or the Baltics for historical and cultural reasons, as well as the naval base of Sebastopol. Putin acted only after Europe pushed a trade agreement to reorient Ukraine away from Russia and both Brussels and Washington backed a street revolution against the elected president who leaned toward Russia.

Even then, Putin sought to weaken, not conquer, Ukraine. His brutal response was murderous and unjustified, but militarily on par with U.S. interventions.

Putin continues to demonstrate no interest in ruling those likely to resist Russia’s tender mercies. Seizing the Baltic states likely would generate substantial popular resistance.

Moreover, as weak nations currently containing no foreign troops, the Baltics pose no potential threat to Russia. Finally, the Baltic ethnic Russian populations, though significant, demonstrate little sentiment for joining Mother Russia. They prefer cultural connection to political affiliation, creating a poor target for the sort of destabilizing tactics deployed against Ukraine.

So what would Russia gain from attacking the Baltics? A recalcitrant, majority non-ethnic Russian population. A possible temporary nationalist surge at home. A likely short-lived victory over the West. 

As I argue in National Interest: “The costs would be far greater. Grabbing the Baltics likely would spur population exodus and trigger economic collapse. Launching a war without the convincing pretext present in the cases of Georgia and Ukraine might leave the Russian public angry over the retaliation certain to come.”

Worse, Moscow certainly would rupture economic and political relations with the U.S. and Europe and probably start a losing conventional war with NATO. Even more frightening would be the prospect of a nuclear conflict.

The U.S. should stop making defense promises which serve the interests of other nations rather than America. The Europeans should prepare their own defense.

The Failure of Sanctions on Russia

On Friday, European Union envoys agreed to extend sanctions on Russia, continuing the restrictions placed on Russian businesses and citizens following Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine. The sanctions prevent some of Russia’s largest companies from raising capital in the West, restrict the export of technology and technical services for unconventional oil and gas drilling, and freeze the assets and travel of Russian elites.

Unfortunately, as I show in a study published in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, sanctions on Russia have been largely unsuccessful. The Russian economy is certainly hurting, but most of this damage was done by the extraordinary drop in oil prices over the last year:

The ruble’s exchange rate has tracked global oil prices more closely than any new sanctions, and many of the actions taken by the Russian government, including the slashing of the state budget, are similar to those it took when oil prices fell during the 2008 financial crisis.

And economic damage itself isn’t necessarily the best measure for sanctions success. Ultimately, sanctions are a tool of economic coercion and statecraft. If they do not cause a policy change, they are failing:

After the initial round of sanctions, the Kremlin’s aggression only grew: Russia formally absorbed Crimea and upped its financial and military support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine (including those who most likely shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight).

The performance of modern targeted sanctions –which promise that damage will be narrowly focused on elites rather than the population in general – is also questionable in the Russian case, where the Kremlin has effectively redirected the economic burden of sanctions onto the population:

By restricting access to international financing during a recession, the sanctions have compounded the fall in oil prices, requiring Moscow to slash spending on health care, infrastructure, and government salaries, which has created economic hardship for ordinary Russians. The crash of the ruble, meanwhile, has not only destroyed savings but also increased the monthly payments of those who hold mortgages denominated in foreign currencies.

Perhaps worst of all, the sanctions are costing US and European companies billions of dollars in compliance costs, lost business and broken contracts:

The brunt is being borne by Europe, where the European Commission has estimated that the sanctions cut growth by 0.3 percent of GDP in 2015. According to the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, continuing the sanctions on Russia could cost over 90 billion euros in export revenue and more than two million jobs over the next few years. The sanctions are proving especially painful for countries with strong trade ties to Russia. Germany, Russia’s largest European partner, stands to lose almost 400,000 jobs. 

Ultimately, as I argue in the article, the success of sanctions can be judged by a variety of standards. Yet by virtually all of them, they are failing. This is a blow for those – myself included – who seek restrained policy options to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Yet given the costs to U.S. businesses, it’s probably time for policymakers to consider whether continuing sanctions on Russia is really the best option, or whether there are more effective diplomatic or economic policy tools we can use instead.

You can read the whole article, with more data and policy recommendations, over at Foreign Affairs

European Defense and America’s National Narcissism

NATO partisans often act as though the date on the calendar reads 1950 instead of 2015.  Not only do they see Russia, a regional actor with limited means, as identical to the Soviet Union at the zenith of its military power and ideological influence, but they regard democratic Europe as a helpless protectorate.  That point became clear again this week with an op-ed by Retired Major General Robert H. Scales in the Wall Street Journal. lamenting “the precarious position of the U.S. military presence in Europe.”  Scales subsequently highlighted his arguments in a December 1 interview on Fox News, contending that there were fewer American soldiers protecting Europe than there are police employed in New York City.

A striking feature of his analysis, and the assessments of others who echo former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s contention that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” is the bland assumption that America must take primary (and often exclusive) responsibility for the defense of other regions.  Scales, for example, wants to preposition large quantities of sophisticated weaponry in the Baltic republics and along other points on Russia’s western frontier so that the American military can ride to the rescue if Moscow engages in any threatening behavior.

The notion of the United States as the indispensable nation is nothing short of national narcissism.  That attitude is especially obsolete and corrosive with regard to Europe.  Scales and others in his ideological camp ought to be asked why the European Union countries can’t defend themselves and deal with security issues in their neighborhood.  It’s not 1950 any longer.  The European nations are not impoverished, demoralized countries still recovering from the devastation of World War II.  The European Union now has both a population and an economy larger than that of the United States.  Equally pertinent, the EU has three times the population and a gross domestic product more than 10 times that of Russia.

The Strategic Opportunity and Strategic Imperative of TTIP’s Success

In her Cato Online Forum essay about the strategic dimensions of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, Fran Burwell of the Atlantic Council sees both opportunity and necessity in its successful conclusion.  The opportunity comes from – among other things – combining the strength of the transatlantic economies (which currently account for 46% of global GDP) through greater economic integration, which will provide the leverage necessary for the United States and Europe to continue to exert dominance over global trade rulemaking and standards setting.

The necessity of TTIP’s success stems from the threat to Europe (and, thus, to the transatlantic relationship) posed by Vladimir Putin, who is working to subvert the deal.  ”[F]ailure of the negotiations,” Burwell writes, “would be one of the best indications possible to Vladimir Putin and others that the U.S.-European partnership is just rhetoric without the capacity for action.”

Read Fran’s essay here.

Read the other essays published in conjunction with Cato’s TTIP conference last week here.

What Is Russia’s Intervention in Syria All About?

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press recently about Russia’s motives for its military intervention in Syria, and many are quick to attribute the intervention to a desire to – metaphorically speaking - poke America in the eye. Surrounding this speculation are images of Vladimir Putin as a strategic genius, playing geopolitical chess at the grandmaster level.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  It’s certainly convenient for Putin to make the United States look bad in any way he can. But there are a variety of other reasons for Russia’s involvement in Syria. And though Putin may briefly look like he is in control of the situation in Syria, the intervention is likely to end badly for him.

It’s notable that while many reports are portraying the Russian intervention in terms of U.S.-Russian relations, and intimating that Russia is in some way ‘winning’, Russia specialists are more likely to point to other factors, and to view the intervention as ill-fated.

Politico recently published a compilation of interviews with 14 Russia specialists on Putin’s goals in Syria. All but one pointed to a couple of key factors to explain Russian intervention: 1) Russian domestic concerns; 2) a desire for diplomatic gain; or 3) a desire to prevent other authoritarian regimes from falling. More tellingly, the vast majority also expressed the opinion that Russia’s actions are reckless, and will end badly.  

The first of these motivations – domestic political concerns – is likely the key reason for Russia’s intervention in Syria. It’s an excellent opportunity for Vladimir Putin to distract domestic attention from his ongoing failings in Ukraine, and to present an image of Russia as a great power.

Russia Follows U.S. Script to Intervene in Syria and Embarrass Washington

Vladimir Putin opened a new game of high stakes geopolitical poker, backing Syria’s President Bashir Assad. But Washington has no complaint. America has been meddling in Syria’s tragic civil war from the start.

Russia’s dramatic backing for Syria’s beleaguered Assad government formally buries any illusion that “what Washington says goes,” even in the Middle East. Moscow has begun bombing regime opponents. Sounding almost like the George W. Bush administration, the Putin government insisted that it was fighting terrorism and there really wasn’t a “moderate opposition.”

In contrast, Russia’s intervention has resulted in much wailing and gnashing of teeth in allied capitals. In a joint statement America, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Kingdom claimed that Moscow’s intervention would “only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” The Gulf States separately warned of more “violent extremism” and “terrorists” and increased refugee flows.

Alas, promiscuous American military intervention in the Middle East long has promoted the worst forms of violence and terrorism. Further, for years Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been important sources of finance for “extremism and radicalization.”

Nevertheless, President Barack Obama declared that Moscow risked a “quagmire.” Probably true. Of course, the U.S. understands quagmires, having spent 13 years unsuccessfully attempting to bring democracy to Afghanistan and being drawn back toward a combat role in Iraq.

Secretary of State John Kerry intoned that “Russia has made a catastrophic mistake because they will be siding … against the entire rest of the community in that part of the world,” which mostly means the dictatorial Gulf monarchies, highlighted by totalitarian Saudi Arabia. He also complained about the potential ill consequences—after Washington’s extraordinary record in destabilizing the region, destroying nations, spreading conflicts, creating refugees, and harming noncombatants.

“Any military support to the Assad regime for any purpose, whether it’s in the form of military personnel, aircraft, supplies weapons, or funding, is both destabilizing and counterproductive,” asserted White House spokesman Josh Earnest. Actually, U.S. support for Assad’s overthrow is both destabilizing and counterproductive. Just like invading Iraq and intervening in Libya.

There’s little the U.S. actually can do, at least at reasonable cost, to stop Russia. Washington could push for more sanctions, but the Europeans aren’t going to destroy what remains of their relationship with Moscow over Syria. Even the most war-happy neoconservative hasn’t called for blasting the Russian planes out of the sky.

Certainly U.S. officials have no credibility in claiming that their policy will yield a better result. Washington has intervened repeatedly in the Middle East with disastrous consequences.

America’s participation in the 1953 coup in Iran set that nation on a path toward violent Islamic revolution. Fear of the new Islamic republic caused Washington to back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Tehran, which encouraged Hussein to assume he could attack Kuwait with impunity, which in turn triggered America’s first war with Iraq.

To “drain the swamp” Washington invaded Iraq in 2003, wrecking that society, triggering violent sectarian conflict, generating millions of casualties and refugees, expanding Iranian influence, and empowering a new sectarian Shia government. The Sunni insurgency morphed into the Islamic State which, with the aid of former Baathist soldiers, grabbed control over much of Iraq and Syria.

As I point out on Forbes online: “The U.S. and its European allies also helped destroy Libya, resulting in more chaos and another fertile ground for the Islamic State. In Yemen Washington is backing Saudi aggression which has turned a long-term civil war into another horrid sectarian conflict. Weapons given to supposedly moderate Syrian insurgents have ended up with ISIL forces.”

Yet Washington is filled with voices demanding that America intervene more.

The Assad regime is blood drenched and Moscow’s efforts in Syria are likely to have ill effects. But Washington bears most of the blame for wrecking and destabilizing the Middle East.

Russia’s intervention is merely the latest unintended consequence of foolish, irresponsible U.S. behavior. Maybe Vladimir Putin can make Washington policymakers finally learn from their many mistakes.

Europe Must Abide TTIP’s Geopolitical and Security Implications

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe argues that the geopolitical and security implications of TTIP are immense, and that the EU and its member states need to wake up, smell the coffee, and acknowledge reality. This is the third essay focused on the geopolitical implications of the TTIP published in conjunction with the Cato Institute conference taking place October 12.  Previous essays – to compare and contrast – were written by Phil Levy and Peter Rashish

Read them. Provide feedback.  And please register to attend the conference.

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