Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

U.S. and Russia Must Find Exit to Ukraine Impasse

MOSCOW—The Kremlin was its forbidding worst when I recently visited a dreary, stormy Moscow. Russia is not the Soviet Union, but hopes for the former to develop into a genuinely liberal society have been stillborn.

However, the fact that President Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant autocrat doesn’t change the necessity of Washington and Moscow working together.

Moscow is not threatening any core U.S. interest. Putin’s Ukrainian aggression does not impair fundamental American national interests. There is no indication that Moscow has any ill plans for Europe.

Unfortunately, Washington contributed to the Ukraine imbroglio by foolishly joining Europe in treating Kiev as a geopolitical competition. This allied blunder doesn’t justify Russia’s response, of course, but it precipitated Moscow’s intervention.

Putin demonstrates that even paranoids have enemies. Allied behavior post-Cold War—expanding NATO up to Russia’s border, dismantling Serbia, treating Georgia as a military ally, holding open the possibility of NATO membership for Kiev, and trying to pull Ukraine into Europe’s economic orbit—has consistently ignored or threatened Moscow’s interests.

The result is an economic and political impasse with a risk of military confrontation. Russia’s control in Ukraine will not change unless Moscow suffers decisive military, economic, or political loss.

However, Ukraine’s military is markedly inferior to that of Russia. The U.S. and Europe won’t go to war with nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine.

While the Kremlin’s unjustified use of force warrants sanctions as temporary punishment, they are counterproductive as permanent policy. The restrictions have hurt the Russian economy, but so far less than the unrelated drop in oil prices.

The Europeans have even less political leverage over Moscow. Russia has moved closer to China, expanding the former’s options. So far Putin’s policy remains popular at home.

Washington and Brussels have no plausible strategy to reverse Moscow’s approach. Even the Obama administration rejects crackpot schemes for military intervention—such as putting American troops into a war zone and daring Moscow to attack.

Non-lethal aid to Kiev wastes scarce American resources. Military assistance would strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces, but the conflict matters far more to Moscow than to the allies, so the former always will spend and risk more to achieve its ends.

Tightening sanctions is another possibility, though historically they have proved to be better at inflicting economic harm than forcing political change. Russia’s economy is likely to withstand, though at potentially high cost, whatever Europe is willing to impose. At the same time the West, too, will suffer economically.

Worst is the economic condition of Ukraine, the epicenter of conflict. The longer the crisis persists, the greater the financial drain Kiev will be for America and Europe.

Unfortunately, Washington and Brussels have no political path to victory. The problem is not just a “frozen conflict” involving Ukraine and separatists, with Kiev broken and bankrupt. The bigger risk is a frozen conflict—essentially a Cold War lite—between Russia and America/Europe.

Which means everyone needs to look for an exit from the current impasse.

Give Diplomacy a Chance in Ukraine

As I discussed in an op-ed published at Al Jazeera America last week, it seems as though the Ukraine crisis is slowly solidifying into a ‘frozen conflict.’ This is bad for everyone:

Allowing the Ukraine crisis to metastasize into a frozen conflict effectively guarantees future conflict in the region. It leaves the government in Kiev with a long-term insurgency within its borders, costing it dearly and inhibiting the greatly needed reform of the Ukrainian state. In addition, it keeps Russia and the West locked in a diplomatic stalemate and sanctions war which benefits no one.

The intrinsic uncertainty of the situation in Eastern Ukraine continues to pose the very real threat of escalation. Last week saw tensions ratchet up as the OSCE reported large convoys of weapon and armor crossing the border, but fears of a new offensive by separatists proved unfounded. Such periods of heightened tension are likely to continue, along with consistent low-level violence which has become the hallmark of the conflict.

Some parts of the U.S. government are also keen to escalate the conflict by providing Ukraine with lethal aid. There is strong pressure from Congress to do so, and Sen. John McCain, widely expected to be the next chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has promised to work closely with his colleagues on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees to arm Ukraine. Although the Obama administration has thus far limited aid to non-lethal and humanitarian supplies, there may be some support for lethal aid within the administration too. Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, during his confirmation hearings for Deputy Secretary of State, divulged that the White House is considering lethal aid to Ukraine, and that he believed such aid would discourage further Russian aggression.

Close America’s Bases on Okinawa: Okinawans Again Say No

The United States is over-burdened militarily and effectively bankrupt financially, but Washington is determined to preserve every base and deployment, no matter how archaic. Case in point: the many military facilities in Okinawa. No wonder the Okinawan people again voted against being conscripted as one of Washington’s most important military hubs.

The United States held on to the island after World War II, finally returning the territory to Japan in 1972. Even now, the Pentagon controls roughly one-fifth of the land.

Opposition to the overpowering American presence crystalized nearly two decades ago after the rape of a teenage girl by U.S. military personnel. The bases remain because no one else in Japan wants to host American military forces.

After a decade of negotiation, Tokyo and Washington agreed in 2006 to shift Futenma airbase to the less populated Henoko district of Nago city. Few Okinawans were satisfied.

Russia Should Bury Lenin’s Body and the Rest of Communism

MOSCOW—Red Square remains one of the globe’s most iconic locales. Next to the Kremlin wall is a small, squat, pyramidal building:  Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin’s mausoleum.

Lenin is preserved within, dressed in a black suit, his face is grim and his right fist is clenched, as if he was ready to smite the capitalists who now dominate even his own nation’s economy.  He is one of history’s most consequential individuals. Without him there likely would have been no Bolshevik Revolution, Joseph Stalin, Cold War, and Berlin Wall.

Of course, without Lenin there still would have been a Bolshevik movement. But it would have lacked his intellect, tactical skills, and, most important, determination. So feared was he by his enemies that he became Germany’s secret weapon against Russia, sent back to Russia to spread the bacillus of radical revolution.

Lenin pushed the Bolsheviks toward power as the authority of the moderate Provisional Government, which had ousted the Czar, bled away. Lenin was no humanitarian whose dream was perverted by his successors. He insisted on solitary Bolshevik rule, brooked no dissent even within the party, established the Cheka secret police, and employed terror against opponents.

Lenin was left helpless by three strokes.  He died on January 21, 1924, just 53 years old. His body lay in state for four days, during which nearly a million people passed by.

Within a week of his passing the idea of preserving his body was broached. The mausoleum started as wood and turned into the current granite and marble structure in 1929.

Communist imagery, including Lenin’s mummy, came under attack with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s anti-communist mayor backed burying the corpse and restoring Red Square to its pre-revolutionary state. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of non-Communist Russia, also proposed to bury Lenin. But Yeltsin’s health faltered and political strength weakened.

In 2001 Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, expressed fear that burial would suggest the Russian people had lived under “false values” all those years. He concluded in 2011 that the decision would be made when the time was right.

Yet the same year Vladimir Medinsky, then a leading member of Putin’s United Russia Party, proposed burying the corpse next to Lenin’s mother in St. Petersburg and turning the mausoleum into a museum. In 2012 Putin appointed Medinsky Minister of Culture, suggesting support for removing Lenin’s body. However, Putin failed to act and since has ignored the issue.

While Russia cannot escape its history, it should stop glorifying the country’s turn down one of humanity’s great deadends. Although an unjust despotism, Imperial Russia could have been transformed into some form of constitutional rule.

But by entering World War I the Czarist autocracy sacrificed that opportunity. The Provisional Government, led by liberal constitutionalists and democratic socialists, put the previous regime’s commitment to war before the Russian people’s interests.

Unfortunately, the victorious Bolsheviks suppressed free markets, stole private property, crushed political dissent, murdered political opponents, imposed materialist ethics, and exalted ruthless dictatorship. The result was a sustained assault on the history, traditions, ethics, and very essence of the Russian people. Although Russians finally were able to turn back from this deadly detour, the same old authoritarianism has been born again, repackaged to make it more palatable to Russians today.

As I point out on Forbes online, “Burying Vladimir Lenin would be a powerful symbolic gesture to close an era. That still might not help the West understand what Vladimir Putin is, but it would emphatically show what he is not. And that would be no small feat at a time of dangerously rising tensions between Russia and the West.”

Someday Russians will be free. Liberation will come only through the Russian people’s own efforts, however, not from the West. Only they can make their own future. The day liberty arrives will be the real Russian Revolution.

Bring China and Its Neighbors under the INF Missile Treaty

As U.S. relations with Russia go from bad to worse, even old agreements seem at risk.  Such as the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.

The 1987 pact essentially cleared Europe of mid-range missiles (between 500 and 5500 kilometers).  But the State Department recently charged Moscow with violating the treaty.

The INF treaty has been to America’s advantage, since it does not cover U.S. military allies, such as Britain and France.  Even more important, the U.S. has no potentially hostile neighbors with such a capability, while Russia faces China, India, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

Moscow officials have suggested that they may leave the agreement at some point.  To forestall that possibility the U.S. and Moscow should seek to include China and other regional powers in the pact.   

Although relations between Moscow and Washington obviously are strained, the U.S. should approach Russia about amending the INF Treaty to allow deployments in Asia, unless otherwise agreed.  The two governments should simultaneously propose that Beijing and its neighbors accede to the pact. 

Admittedly, winning signatures from other nations, especially China, would not be easy. The PRC believes its short- and medium-range missiles serve a significant security role. 

However, the PRC’s more aggressive approach to Asia-Pacific territorial issues has antagonized neighboring states.  Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, in particular, are likely to become increasingly interested in developing countervailing missile capabilities. 

In the future the PRC may face a plethora of countervailing weapons deployed by several states. Then Beijing might view a ban as more to its liking. 

Negotiations over expanding the INF Treaty would make Beijing a full global partner on arms control, recognizing the country’s rising international status.  Although the PRC has tended to view such limits as a means of maintaining U.S. “hegemony,” Washington could suggest accession as the best means to forestall any further increase in U.S. military presence in the region as part of the famed “pivot” or “rebalance.” 

Some analysts instead advocate responding to the PRC’s military build-up by withdrawing from the pact and introducing comparable missiles.  As an alternative, David W. Kearn, Jr. of St. John’s University suggested enhancing U.S. offensive capabilities in the region and defensive responses to missile attacks. 

However, as I point out in China-US focus, “nearby nations should be responsible for maintaining regional security.  American policymakers should use expansion of the INF Treaty as a means to reduce U.S. defense obligations.”

China’s growing missile force challenges America’s dominance in Asia—most directly the ability to project power—not America’s survival at home.  The most likely contingency is an attack on Taiwan, which is quite different from a strike on the U.S.  The Cold War justification for America’s extensive military presence in the region has disappeared.

America’s friends and neighbors, no less than China, have prospered and are able to defend themselves.  That obviously is best for the U.S., since Beijing will always have an incentive to spend and risk more in its own neighborhood than will America. 

Restricting Washington’s role also would reduce the potential for a superpower confrontation over less than vital interests.  Ironically, America’s conventional superiority inflates the danger of a great power confrontation.  Explained Kearn:  “in a crisis or a conflict, regional adversaries may have incentives to escalate (or threaten escalation) against U.S. forces in the region or U.S. allies to de-escalate the crisis and ensure regime survival once the United States has become involved.”

Expanding the INF Treaty to Asia would help reduce growing military tensions and dampen geopolitical competition, especially over territorial issues.  Achieving this end won’t be easy, but it is an area where the U.S. and Russia can cooperate.  While China might initially be wary of joining such an effort, a new arms control regime would ultimately offer Beijing significant benefits as well.

Iran’s Economy, With and Without a P5+1 Agreement

The haggling between Iran and the so-called P5+1—the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany—is scheduled to come to a close on Monday, November 24th. The two parties each want different things. One thing that Iran would like is the removal of the economic sanctions imposed on it by the United States and its allies.

After decades of wrongheaded economic policies, Iran’s economy is in terrible shape. The authoritative Economic Freedom of the World: 2014 Annual Report puts Iran near the bottom of the barrel: 147th out of the 152 countries ranked. And the “World Misery Index Scores” rank Iran as the fourth most miserable economy in the world. In addition to economic mismanagement, economic sanctions and now-plunging oil prices are dragging Iran’s structurally distorted economy down. So, it’s no surprise that Iran would like one of the weights (read: sanctions) on its economy lifted.

Just how important would the removal of sanctions be? To answer that question, we use the Institute of International Finance’s detailed macroeconomic framework. The results of our analysis are shown in the table and charts below the jump.

Is the Obama Administration Losing Its Collective Mind over the Islamic State?

The president has added ground forces to the battle in Iraq and the military has suggested introducing thousands more. His officials reportedly have decided to focus on overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the name of fighting the Islamic State.

The U.S. has been back at war in the Middle East for more than two months. The results?

The administration’s vast coalition of 60 nations is mostly a PR stunt. The Arab states have done little in the air and nothing afoot. Most flagrantly AWOL is Turkey.

Nor has the administration’s scattershot bombing campaign had much effect. By one count U.S. strikes have killed 464 Islamic State personnel. However, the estimated number of ISIL fighters trebled to as many as 30,000 just a couple weeks into Obama’s war.

Moderate Syrian rebels favored by the administration have been routed in that country’s north. Many fighters defected or fled while abandoning their heavy weapons provided by Washington.

The Free Syrian Army, the biggest Western-oriented insurgent group, also is losing fighters, largely to al-Nusra. Yet, explained former U.S. ambassador Robert Ford:  some Syrians “are burning American flags because they think we are helping the regime instead of helping them.” Residents of Raqaa, the ISIL stronghold bombed by American forces, blame Washington for higher food and fuel prices.

Iraq’s Shiite majority has formed a new government—handing the Interior Ministry to a hardline Shia faction responsible for past atrocities against Sunni civilians. Moreover, last week reports emerged that the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front agreed to stop battling each other and even to fight together.