Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Brief on ISIS Advance in Iraq

It was pretty pathetic. ISIS took control of Mosul and Tikrit (which are pretty bloody far apart!) in 2 days with 3,000 troops. Iraq had a division of 30,000 that totally dissolved under the advance.

That's just terrifying.
They've got tanks now, too.
And a fat, fat stack of money ($430MM USD, looted from Mosul).

Now they've got control of... well, a whole lot. They have way more in Iraq than they even do in Syria, and the Syrian government has been busy fighting with rebels for over 2 years now.

Just look at how close they are to Baghdad.

There's a weird silver lining, in that their end game is a difficult one, so it may not be an existential threat. ISIS just can't take over the whole country--there are too many Kurdish and Shiite militias that would rip them apart.

So all they can really try to do is create a de-facto (and then maybe formal?) separate state in Sunni areas. This could go something like the Kurdish region, with similar headaches for neighboring countries. It wouldn't happen without a long stalemate.

So I don't think these 10,000 ISIS fighters are going to topple the Iraqi government. The Iraqis are mustering the parts of their army that aren't a humiliating mess, and making a counter-offensive (they took back Tikrit, for example). They're getting help (Iran helped with Tikrit and may help with more), and the US may help, although probably not until the most immediate crisis (Obama is putting political-reform strings on any help). They're going after Samarra next.

(By the way, I can only say "this might not be an existential threat" as of today. As of yesterday, ISIS had shot through half of Iraq unopposed and had taken over almost everything of note north of Baghdad, and Baghdad's forces were gathering to "make a stand" at an air base north of the city.)

So maybe Iran's help is absolutely critical to Iraq's survival.

Obviously the Iraqi army is going to be in need of a dire, dire shakeup. Lots of people joined the army just because it was a source of steady income. Many have strong sectarian feelings and if they're Sunni, they may not want to fire upon their Sunni brothers (same goes with Shiites). These guys just weren't hellbent on defending the Iraqi Republic. A smaller, more selective, better-trained army may end up making more sense. This will come in time.

There are a few weird silver linings here.

1) If the Iraqis are able to muster the ability and help to do a serious offensive in Anbar, it may cut off some vital shelters and supply/training depots for ISIS in Syria, and limit the likelihood that eastern Syria actually becomes a permanent terror state.

2) Iran and the US might start getting along. They both want so badly to keep a lid on this that we may see joint exercises and a general putting-aside of differences. The fact that Rouhani is willing to do this is a sign that he's a much more reasonable character, too. Iran/US cooperation would actually bring a whole lot of long-term stability to the general area.

We're not at all out of the woods yet. I'll keep you updated.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Eastern Ukraine in Full-Scale Civil War

Just a few snippets:

Literally hundreds of pro-Russian insurgents keep attacking bases and border posts:

Insurgents from Russia are using occupied border posts to pour through and reinforce eastern Ukrainians. Of course Russia is not really doing anything to prevent this:

Ukrainian troops are battling insurgents for control over dozens of locations, like border posts, government buildings, and a big airport:

The insurgents are well-armed: having taken some armories and (embarrassingly) APCs, they're doing more than your typical AK-47 wielding civilian. They were even able to shoot down a Ukrainian helicopter:

The military has the advantage in training and equipment, and killed 300 (probably) insurgents as they close in on Slaviansk. That's a crazy-big number for the kind of war this is:

Putin of course making matters worse by jacking up prices on Ukrainian gas and cutting off supplies from Crimea. Ukraine refuses to pay the extra fee (but is paying at the old rate), generally considering this extortion. Now, of course, Russia is planning to cut off supplies entirely:

NATO's response for the moment is to fund/train Ukrainian forces, increase exercises in Russia's regional waters (Black and Baltic seas), and step up spending on its own military (particularly in Poland, which is probably due for a war with Russia within the next 20 years):

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Ukraine Battleground, from Russia's Perspective

So some of my readers decided they wanted to hold me to a higher standard and wrenched my arm into giving the Russian perspective on the battle for Ukraine. This I shall do.

As usual, it's a story and (as usual) a tragedy of realist international politics and the security spiral. I shall tell this story today, trying to keep my biases aside.

The first and most important element of the story comes after the fall of the Soviet Union. I start here because it was a turning point: the former Soviet Union could have stuck with Russia, become neutral somehow, or leaned towards NATO in some way.

We'll talk about why the third option was essentially unavoidable, and explore how it looked from Russia's perspective.

The map below shows the eastward expansion of NATO. Note in particular everything after 1990: a whopping 12 countries were added to NATO's portfolio, doubling its Cold War number to 24. In 2004, NATO expanded enough to completely check any Russian sea action in Europe, and put troops on the borders of its closest allies (Belarus and Moldova).

Obviously from the Russian perspective, this is at-best terrifying. After defeat, one's former enemies surround Russia bit by bit--not slowing down as the memory of the Cold War started to ease, but accelerating and even bordering the country, attempting to choke it off forever.

From NATO's perspective, it was bringing into its protective (and purely defensive) umbrella eager members, whose memory of Soviet oppression was harsh and still fresh, desperate to ensure that the Russians could never come back for them, for the Russians were never kept down for long.

From the perspective of realist international relations: central and eastern Europe are a long, flat plain with essentially no protective boundaries to create natural, safe borders between countries (look at Switzerland--have they been to war any time recently?). Ultimately, these countries are vulnerable to land attack by more powerful countries at all times--end of story. It is critical for them to be under the protection of one alliance or another. Even the Warsaw Pact provided some stability for them from the possibility of more invasion, as much as it was pushed onto their shoulders.

Because these countries are not naturally protected, they were going to join an alliance of some sort. Choosing NATO was not surprising, given their history.

But for Russia, this encroachment--whether or not one understood the natural forces driving it--meant danger and a tightening of a noose.

In 2008, NATO declared that it would be working to incorporate Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance, and that was the last straw. Georgia has access to the Caucasus mountains, and Ukraine sticks like a knife into the underbelly of Russia (and also includes major gas and grain fields, crucial to support Russia in case of a breakdown of trade with NATO). It was just too dangerous, and appeared so aggressive that there was a plausible story that Bush, Blair, Sarkozy, and co. were looking to strike a killing blow. It's even possible that they were.

Russia's 2008 invasion of Georgia was meant to remind Georgia that Russia was still in charge of the area, and it would not tolerate more encirclement (imagine if Mexico became a Russian ally and would start hosting Russian troops and missile batteries).

Recently in Ukraine, the West was obviously very in support of the protesters and the change they would bring. The EU is very interested in bringing Ukraine into its fold (despite the many changes Ukraine must make to get there), and Russia looked quite fearfully at the very real possibility of losing its Sevastopol warm water port (more on that in this earlier post).

It felt it had to act, European objections be damned. So act it did. It was the forces of international security at work, as always: Russia faced a nearly existential threat if it lost its Sevastopol lease.

For Russia, as with most countries, imperialism is not motivated mostly by greed, but by a desire to strengthen, consolidate, or defend its security position. It may seem ridiculous to younger generations that Europe might descend into a land war, but peace in Europe has been a strange break from 1600 years of truly endless carnage, bloodshed, and border-shifting. To pretend that nobody should be worried about such things as the warm water port--or, for my own case, the precedent set of allowing European countries to invade each other and annex territory--enough to go to war for it, is ultimately myopic.

While I will not claim that the Russians have any moral ground for their invasion, it is always worth considering everyone's perspective: for Russia, it is safety and defense, preparing itself to never again allow the invasions of the first and second World Wars to occur. But I want to emphasize that just because we understand the motivations of countries running around annexing each other, doesn't make it any morally less terrible nor less dangerous.

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Monday, May 5, 2014

Russia Mistakenly Reveals Real Crimean Election Results -- Big Surprise, It Was All a Sham

Thank you to Forbes et all for catching this one quickly.

I'll allow myself to remain in my heated, biased state (that I otherwise try to avoid on this blog) on this issue, as I continue to believe the risk to peace in Europe is high.

Russia's official results on the Crimean election:

  • 97% in favor of annexation
  • 82% turnout
What the Human Rights Council (of Russia) accidentally posted:
  • 50% in favor of annexation
  • 30% turnout
Russia couldn't even get 50% of folks to vote for annexation when it had guns pointed at them.

The weird thing about diplomacy: everyone paying attention knew it was a sham, but the sham election grants some strange, thin, but real veneer of legitimacy. Now that it's gone, something could change--if the EU and US have the spine to do something about it. 

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Ukraine Foreign Minister Says Ukraine Will Fight if Russia Invades East

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

With Precedent Set, the Door's Wide Open for Putin in Ukraine. What will Ukraine and the V4 Do?

So, first thing's first: I was pretty wrong. Definitely no shooting war over Crimea.

With that said, the US, Canada, and NATO are all saying Russia looks pretty poised to invade the rest of Ukraine (either to take more of Ukraine or get to Moldova), so stay tuned! There may yet be a shooting war. (The ethnic Russians live in those really red bits and would be the likely target in Ukraine.)

Ukraine up and pulled its troops out of Crimea after Russian troops smashed into the bases. In what is ultimately a complete and unlikely miracle, nobody was shot during this entire process (save for some stray sniper rifle fire from who-knows-whom.) At least the dolphins don't look like they're going to surrender.

Why surrender so quickly?

Simple: it's pretty obvious that Ukraine lacks support. The EU and US just had no interest at all in risking a war with Russia, so they weren't going to come to the aid of the Ukrainian military (which would have lost on its own). Biden may have visited Poland specifically to tell them "no-go" on getting involved in Ukraine (they seemed otherwise chomping at the bit to get in there with the Visegrad 4, which I kept believing would happen).

The US is not considering putting Ukraine under the defensive umbrella of NATO.

The biggest sign of non-support for Ukraine comes from the pretty weak sanctions against Russia. So far, it's only against individuals (travel bans, asset freezes, etc). The US and EU are considering further sanctions if Russia invades the rest of Ukraine, which basically gives Putin a hearty thumbs-up to invade the rest of Ukraine. (The Daily Show actually nails it for once, explaining that "Putin Doesn't Give a S--t.")

(So I'll have to note here that my bias in this matter is pretty obvious. I think undeterred territorial-expansion invasions in Europe are a dangerous thing and set a very bad precedent for the stability of Europe in the future.)

So  let's assume a second invasion of Ukraine is pretty likely at this point. It's not clear whether or not Ukraine is going to fight a losing war for the rest of its eastern territories. Certainly Tymoshenko--most influential leader in Ukraine right now--is ready to "wipe out" the Russians and take up arms. Highly controversial statement, but it may get her swept into power quickly if Russia invades again.

Ukraine is clearly not going to get military support if it doesn't fight. I think in Crimea it was ready to see if it could get the support it needed. Russia moved quickly and jammed through the sham-referendum, and the West balked at helping. By the time Ukraine knew what help it could get, it was just too late.

If Russia invades again, Ukraine knows it can't wait for help.If it starts fighting and its people start dying--rather than doing nothing--it is much  more likely to provoke a military response from a friendly nation. It seems somewhat Machiavellian to throw one's army into a fight one knows it will lose (on the hopes that help will come), but the pro-Western part of Ukraine very much sees itself as the Czech / Poland to Putin's Nazi Germany right now. The idea of rolling over is fairly horrifying to many.

Sadly, I just can't predict what's going to happen. They absolutely can't depend on the EU, US, or NATO--they've been quite thoroughly hung out to dry by all of them.

Once again, I turn to the Visegrad 4, the sleeping tiger in all of this (and the only ones that seem to be kicking up any serious dirt about Russia's invasion of Ukraine). It may be the very weakness of the US/EU/NATO response that kicks them into gear. The V4 was formed quite explicitly out of a lack of confidence in the rest of NATO to protect them from Russia, so they're a bit of a rogue element within NATO. To them, Russia is a very real and credible threat, and so the US/EU/NATO responding weakly is going to shake V4 confidence in that leadership. They'll be, in turn, less likely to listen to any warnings about getting involved.

So I'm still going to predict that, if Russia invades eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine fights, Poland and the V4 are going to get themselves in the fight. They won't invade Russia, but they're poised right on the western border of Ukraine and would be ready to send their battle group in to hold the line.

Once that happens, Russia will have a bit of a tough choice: either take them head on or try to avoid a fight and hold on to whatever territory it has. Normally, I'd assume that neither side wants to be seen as an aggressor, but Russia might just not care that much and try to give them enough of a bloody nose to boot them out before NATO can decide whether to back up the V4 and try to win back some shadow of a hint of relevancy in Eastern Europe.

But I'm not going to predict how that fight will go.

The big takeaway here is that the US, EU, and NATO are very quickly losing relevance in Eastern Europe, and that's where the action is. Ukraine is on its own unless the V4 jumps in. If they do, NATO as a real power in Europe is probably doomed.

So it's a pretty big deal.

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Copyright Erik Fogg 2006-2013.