Tag: Russia

Russia and NATO Meet: Time for Allies to Call off Mini-Cold War with Moscow

The NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels for the first time in nearly two years. “We are not afraid of dialogue,” announced alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Alas, he explained: “it was reconfirmed that we disagree on the facts, on the narrative and the responsibilities in and around Ukraine.”

Of course, this should surprise no one. After all, Russia is in a mini-Cold War with the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine.

Only reassessing everyone’s respective national interests will change the existing relationship. Should the West maintain permanent confrontation with Russia over Ukraine?

None of the allies has made a security commitment to Kiev. Indeed, few if any of the 28 NATO members are willing to go to war with Russia over its neighbor.

Should the U.S. and Europe treat Kiev as if it was a member of NATO? There’s a reason the alliance has a membership process. One criterion is not to induct countries with a casus belli or two trailing behind.

More fundamentally, inclusion only makes sense if it makes the existing allies more secure. No one seemed to consider this issue during the madcap alliance expansion after the Cold War because the organization was treated as an international gentleman’s club.

Time for a Debate on Sanctions Policy

This morning, I attended an interesting speech by Jack Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, on the future of economic sanctions. The speech was notable in that Lew made not only a defense of the effectiveness of sanctions, but also highlighted their potential costs, a variable that is too often missing from debates over sanctions policy.

Some of the points Lew made – like the argument that multilateral sanctions are better than unilateral ones – were hardly novel. Yet others were more interesting, including the argument that sanctions implementation should be based on cost/benefit analysis and an assessment of whether they are likely to be successful. Though such an approach sounds like common sense, it has not always been the rule.

He also focused on the importance of lifting sanctions once they’ve achieved their ends. This is a rebuke to some, particularly in congress, who have argued for reintroducing the sanctions on Iran lifted by the nuclear deal through some other mechanism. As he pointed out, refusing to lift these sanctions now means that they will be less effective in the future: if states know sanctions will remain in place regardless of their behavior, what incentive do they have to change it?

Perhaps most interestingly, Lew argued for the ‘strategic and judicious’ use of sanctions and against their overuse. This is an interesting argument from an administration for whom sanctions have often been the ‘tool of first resort.’ In doing so, he referenced both growing concerns about the costs of sanctions from the business community, and the broader strategic concern that overuse of sanctions could weaken the U.S. financial system or dollar in the long-run.

I still disagree with the Secretary on several points. While he is correct that nuclear sanctions on Iran have broadly been a success, he dramatically overstates the effectiveness of sanctions in the more recent Russian case. Much of the economic damage in that case was the result of falling oil prices, and sanctions have produced little in the way of coherent policy change inside Russia.

He also overstates the extent to which today’s targeted sanctions avoid broad suffering among the population. In fact, evidence suggests that modern sanctions still suffer some of the same flaws as traditional comprehensive trade sanctions, allowing the powerful to deflect the impact of sanctions onto the population, and reinforcing, not undermining, authoritarian dictators.

Despite this, it is refreshing to hear concerns about the long-term implications of runaway sanctions policy expressed by policymakers. In alluding to these concerns – many of which have been noted for some time now by researchers – the Treasury Secretary may help to spark a broader policy discussion of the benefits and costs of sanctions. If we wish to retain sanctions as an effective tool of foreign policy moving forward, such discussion is vital.

For more on some of the big issues surrounding sanctions policy, you can read some of Cato’s recent work on sanctions policy here and here, or check out the video from our recent event on the promises and pitfalls of economic sanctions

Small Steps in the Middle East

Here in America, you’d be forgiven for believing that things are on a downward spiral, as Donald Trump’s disturbing success in various primaries raises the real, and terrifying prospect that he will be the Republican nominee. So if constant media coverage of the primary season depresses you, you could do worse than consider recent developments in the Middle East, where something truly unusual has been happening in the last few weeks. With a fragile ceasefire in Syria and diplomatic negotiations in Yemen, things actually appear to be improving.

Though these developments are tenuous – and each has many problems - they show the value of diplomatic and even incremental approaches to resolving the region’s ongoing conflicts.

It’s technically incorrect to refer to the current situation in Syria as a ceasefire. For starters, it doesn’t actually prohibit attacks by any party against the conflict’s most extreme groups, ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. And unlike a true ceasefire, there is no official on-the-ground monitoring and compliance system. Instead, that role is filled in a more ad-hoc way by a communications hotline between Russia and the United States as members of the International Syria Support Group.

There are other problems with the agreement too, particularly its role in freezing the conflict in a way which is extremely advantageous to the Syrian government and its Russian backers. While this was perhaps unavoidable – Russia would probably not have agreed otherwise – it will reduce the bargaining power of the Syrian opposition in peace talks when they restart on March 14th.

Nonetheless, it’s estimated that the cessation of hostilities – which has held for almost two weeks – has dropped the level of violence and death toll inside Syria by at least 80 percent. Violence has dropped so much that anti-regime protestors were able to engage in peaceful protest marches in several towns. Likewise, despite delivery problems and delays, humanitarian aid is flowing into some areas of Syria for the first time in years.  These small advances are all the more astounding given how unthinkable they seemed even a few months ago.

Progress in Yemen is less spectacular, but still encouraging. Following negotiations mediated by northern Yemeni tribal leaders, the combatants arranged to a swap of Jaber al-Kaabi, a Saudi soldier, for the release of seven Yemeni prisoners. At the same time, a truce along the Saudi-Yemeni border is allowing much-needed humanitarian aid to flow into the country.

Again, these are at best a tiny step towards resolving the conflict, which has lasted almost a year and produced extremely high levels of civilian casualties. The truce is temporary and confined to the border region; Saudi airstrikes continue near the contested town of Ta’iz. Yet the negotiations mark the first direct talks between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition, which had previously insisted that they would deal with the Houthis only through the exiled Hadi government.

In both Syria and Yemen, observers are quick to point out the tenuous nature of these developments, and it is certainly true that any political settlement in either conflict remains an uphill battle. But I prefer to view these developments in a more positive light. As numerous post-Soviet frozen conflicts have demonstrated, ceasefires do not necessarily resolve the major disputes which precipitated the conflict originally. Yet even if the end result is not a more comprehensive peace deal, the lower levels of violence and improved access to humanitarian aid can dramatically improve life for civilians. In Syria in particular, this represents a small - but notable - victory for diplomacy. 

Can a Syrian Ceasefire Hold?

Yesterday’s agreement for a cessation of hostilities in the Syrian conflict – including provision for humanitarian aid deliveries – is welcome news from an increasingly bloody conflict. The deal has been greeted with justifiable skepticism from observers around the world, who note the many and varied problems inherent in the proposed agreement. This is not a formal ceasefire, and it faces long odds of successful implementation. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth supporting to the fullest extent possible. If it does succeed in reducing violence inside Syria, it just might act as the necessary first step to a more comprehensive ceasefire and transition agreement.

One could hardly have imagined a more ill-omened location for the agreement, which was announced yesterday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. The agreement itself calls for a cessation of hostilities inside Syria – though it does not apply to either of Syria’s main extremist groups, ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra – and for the rapid provision of access for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Syria’s besieged cities. It is not an immediate deal: parties have one week before it takes effect. Yet if the deal sticks, it will help to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.

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.