Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Per Predictions, Round III of Ukraine War Begins for Mariupol

With ongoing wars in the Middle East, it's easy to forget the Ukraine conflict.

If you're outside of Ukraine, that is.

Russian-backed separatists violate the Minsk II protocols almost daily, usually through quick attacks that kill civilians or idle Ukrainian soldiers. Sometimes there are dozens of violations in a single day.

Over the weekend, separatists shelled the outskirts of Mariupol, killing a few people and wounding perhaps ten, using Russian-provided artillery. The pickup in activity around Mariupol comes alongside the massing of about 50,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

It's not particularly surprising: Mariupol is about 45% ethnically Russian and was a site of a number of pro-Russian protests, as well as fighting during the Donbass war. We've been predicting that it was next on the hit list since Minsk II was signed, largely because it would provide a major port city to a pro-Russian separatist state (resembling something like Abkhazia.

It's not yet clear how hot the fighting will get, and when. Russia is heavily dependent on propaganda to keep fervor whipped up among its citizens and foreign supporters. These shellings may be a probe (where plausible deniability is higher than a full attack) or an attempt to cause Ukraine to react heavily enough to "justify" another Russian incursion--a tactic that was used to great effect in the South Ossetia war. Shelling had picked up a few months ago before quieting down, and Ukraine may be simply gritting its teeth and trying to wait it out, rather than allowing itself to be goaded into giving Russia an excuse to return to Ukraine in force.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Persistence Pays for Saudis; Yemen Government Troops On the Offensive

Houthi victory in Yemen looked almost certain for months. Through the spring, the Houthis had pushed government troops into Aden and had almost taken the city. Had Aden fallen, government troops would have likely been unable to recover, their main forces having been destroyed.

Yemen, 4/1 - Note Aden in dispute. Red is government control, green is Houthi rebel control, grey/black is ISIS/al-Qaeda control, and yellow is Southern Resistance movement control (they joined the government this summer)

Through late spring and summer, the Saudis have been arming government troops and bombing Houthi positions. For some time, the situation seemed to be delaying the inevitable. But, almost-miraculously, government troops in Aden held on and then launched a counter-attack that drove the Houthis out of Aden and secured the port city in late July. The Houthis attempted a counter-attack, but were repelled.

Yemen, 7/26

In the two weeks since, government troops broke out of Aden to take the surrounding environs.
Yemen, 8/9 

And in the previous three days, the government army accelerated its advance, linking up its split eastern and western forces, and also advancing towards the north of Sana'a. It's a fairly incredible turnaround.
Yemen, 8/12

The majority of Houthi forces are likely being pressed in the south, which means the threat to Sana'a in the north may be quite realistic--particularly with Saudi air support.

We'll keep an eye on it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Iran Deal is a BFD

Joe Biden was famously caught on camera calling the passing of the ACA a "BFD;" I suspect he said something similar as Secretary Kerry came back with news that a deal had been inked with Iran.

This is a pretty BFD. As you can see, Secretary Kerry certainly thinks so. (These guys are probably really, really tired.)

I read through CNN and the NYT's summaries of the deal; I then decided to skim the full-text.

Immediate Implications of the Deal:
The deal looks a lot like what was hammered out in April, and we discuss the key points in an earlier post. In the new version, Iran is actually restricted for 15 years (rather than 10), but gets a greater number of centrifuges (giving up 2/3 of them rather than 4/5 of them). It keeps its stockpile to 300kg (which is a 98% reduction of its current stock), ships out all spent material, and can't enrich beyond a pretty low number.

The deal still looks good. A look at the full-text suggests the inspection protocols are pretty solid: the IAEA gets to maintain permanent access, and can visit facilities "daily."

If Iran starts breaking the deal, the sanctions can "snap back" with a quick vote from the Western powers. The Western powers are banking somewhat on Iranian domestic support for trade with the West--Rouhani was elected president riding on promises to lift the (very painful) sanctions from Iran, and if they snapped back due to Iran breaking the deal, it could lead to more unrest (like the Green Revolution).

Could Iran still hide some activity and create a bomb? Sure. But their break-out period (amount of time required to build a bomb) for the past 2 years has been 2-3 months, and now it'll extend to 1 year. Iran's had the capacity for a long time to sneak around and build a bomb; this sets them farther back from being able to do so, and increases IAEA presence (from essentially none, currently) to look for any such clandestine activity. In short, I think any objections that this is a tacit thumbs-up for Iran to build a bomb are just unfounded. 

Credible Objections:
Probably the big credible objection is by Sunni allies worried about Iranian power. Saudi Arabia was hoping that Iran's foray into Yemen would become a quagmire that drove it into financial ruin. The Saudis have also been intentionally keeping oil prices low (by keeping supplies high) in order to strain Iran further: they're engaged in economic warfare designed to "break" Iran's capacity to project power, and the lifting of the sanctions will undermine that.

That's not untrue, but it's also unlikely that the sanctions were preventing Iran from projecting power into Iraq and Yemen. The key goal of the sanctions wasn't to grind Iran into insignificance--that was not going to happen with this package. The key goal was to hurt Iran enough to make a Western-friendly deal, and that worked.

Why This is a BFD:
If we model Iran more like a Soviet Union than a large mob of irrational terrorists (and I think the former is a more accurate model), we can think about Iran's self-interest, and what a self-interested power (even one opposed to the US) would want.

The lifting of sanctions means foreign investment and an alleviation of inflation (currently 18.2%); Iran's economy stands to gain a lot. Iran's been very clear that it wants trade with the West.

As this investment pours in, as Europe starts buying Iranian oil and Iran starts buying European food and goods, we start to see two big things happen:
1) The US and EU will become bigger trade partners for Iran than Russia and China (this will take a few years but less time than this deal's restrictions)
2) Iran will start to become a source of oil for the EU

#1 is important because Iran is going to ally with those that serve its interests. It is currently allied with Russia for that reason--not out of any weird ideological alignment. The Western powers want to steal Iran out of Russia's sphere of influence and put it in the West's. The West has many more carrots to offer Iran, and this is a key first step to being able to do that. (To anyone who believes this is impossible, I suggest a reading of the history between the US, Soviet Union, and China throughout the cold war to see how friendships shifted based on interest, despite ideology. Remember also that Saudi Arabia, a close ally, is a religiously extremist, oppressive monarchy.)

#2 Is important because it changes incentives for Iran with respect to the Strait of Hormuz: if Iran is exporting oil to Europe, it would hurt itself by closing the Strait of Hormuz and, per #1, would have less interest in doing so as a favor for Russia. This alleviates some of Europe's dependence on Russia for oil, and means they're more likely to have alternate sources from Qatar, UAE, Iran, and Iraq if conflict with Russia ever arises. And that means hamstringing Russia in Europe.

So as odd as it may sound, the reason the Iran deal is so important is that it helps the West increase its leverage over Russia, which is a much larger, scarier, more menacing, and more aggressive threat than Iran. The Great Game in Europe is back, and this move by President Obama and Secretary Kennedy may be seen by history as a truly brilliant stroke.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Iraq Surrounds Anbar--and Might Actually Succeed in its Offensive

I'll continue to contend that the Iraqis are much better on offense than they are on defense: even with ISIS well dug-into a city and planting bombs everywhere, the Iraqis can slowly slog forward, in part because they're confident they're unlikely to get captured and tortured by ISIS troops when the Iraqi troops have managed to surround a city and besiege it.

Ramadi will be like Tikrit: Iraqi forces have surrounded the city completely, and are working on shoring up supply/reinforcement lines, positioning troops, and training local volunteers before moving in. The Shiite militias, who might otherwise pose a major problem in the occupation of Ramadi, are staying on the outskirts to block ISIS reinforcements and prevent retreating ISIS troops from getting away to launch a counter-attack. In part, they'll stand "at the back of" Iraqi regulars and Sunni militiamen.

Unlike Tikrit, US airstrikes will be involved from the start. These airstrikes made the capture of Tall Abyad (Syria) and Baiji (north on the map below) much quicker. Recall that the airstrikes also ended the very stalled siege of Tikrit.

Note as well that Iraqi troops are holding al-Baghdadi and Haditha, which means that reinforcements from Syria would have to go through miles of Iraqi checkpoints, and retreat from Ramadi into Syria would be difficult--again, a good sign for preventing a counter-attack in the future.

The Iraqis are also working on surrounding Fallujah. The map here is actually a bit out of date: the Iraqis claim they've captured the dam and secured the river south of the city, and are "at the gates" of Fallujah. Trying to take both cities at once will be a meat grinder, but it's important: if only one was attacked and the other left open, ISIS troops could retreat from one to the other, only to counter-attack later. Besieging both means that ISIS troops in both cities are isolated (this tactic was used to great effect by the Communist Chinese forces against the Nationalists), and the Iraqis can take their time, advance slowly, and strike where ISIS has been softened up by airstrikes.

In Anbar, time is on the Iraqis' side. Because they're training local militiamen--in large part to keep the peace after the fighting as credible local forces--they may even stretch out the operation, as painful as it seems to consider. Forces from al-Baghdadi may also advance towards Hit and try to guarantee no safe haven for ISIS troops after the Ramadi and Fallujah assaults.

This is a case where Iraq's strategy is to accept the hard fight, take the American's help, and try to eliminate (rather than simply dislodge) ISIS forces in Anbar. Doing so will mean that fewer troops will have to stay behind to garrison Anbar (and many fewer will need to garrison surrounding Baghdad, which remains under threat from ISIS' presence in Fallujah), and thus that more can be committed to the final brutal push towards Mosul.

Expect fighting in both cities to start up within the week.

Quick Correction on the Brigade in Eastern Europe

Steve, a friend of mine in the US Army, pointed out a very key inaccuracy in our previous post about the US armored brigade in eastern Europe: it's not a manned brigade, currently, just the equipment.

This changes the rationale from being a "spiral deterrent" to being a "fast-response force." US troops can be deployed to this equipment within hours, which means they can go be a "speed bump" of sorts for any Russian invasion. Since these are NATO countries, the US won't need to waffle and quibble about a response the same way that it did with Ukraine: US troops could credibly show up and start shooting as soon as there's a problem.

It's not 100% clear that the current US administration would do just that, but deterrence is a game of probabilities: just what has been said between Mr. Putin and Mr. Obama behind closed doors? How much has US resolve stiffened in the face of Russian aggression? I assume that the Obama administration has posed some credible ultimatum to go along with the armor. It means the high risk of escalation (and lower likelihood of success) for any Russian invasion remains, especially in a country like Estonia (which could otherwise be totally occupied within a day).

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Why the US is Sending an Armored Brigade to Eastern Europe

Whether an armored brigade is "big" depends on the size of the pond it swims in.

At about 1100 armored vehicles (Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, and some mobile artillery), such a brigade could easily overwhelm the conventional militaries of most small countries.

In the Eastern European theatre, an armored brigade is nothing close to large enough to be a game-changer. Russia's military sports about ten thousand pieces of active heavy armored equipment (tanks, fighting vehicles, and mobile artillery), most of which is dedicated to its western front.

Despite the numerical gap, the US is sending such a brigade to Eastern Europe, spread out from the Baltics all the way down to Romania. What we know is that such a brigade won't be a decisive force if Russia were to invade Sweden, the Baltic countries, Romania, or Poland (all of which it's threatened to do over the past few years). Why the effort, then?

Some analysts suggest it is a "symbolic" gesture for wary allies. I think a fifteen-second gut check suggests this hypothesis is weak: Eastern European countries are skeptical of NATO, terrified of Russia, and are smart enough to see past symbolic gestures. And US leadership is smart enough to see all of this.

I think what's really going on is that these vehicles are there to be a "positive deterrent" of sorts. That is, rather than deterring Russia by having overwhelming strength on the battlefield, this brigade deters Russia by promising that if Russia attacks one of these countries, the US will be dragged into the war: these units are mixed in with local units and have the right to defend such territory from invasion--all these countries are NATO allies. If that happened, US assets would be attacked and destroyed, with all the shock and fury on the domestic front that would come with that.

The United States' leadership would have almost no choice in the matter: they would face massive pressure to deploy more forces (probably first from Germany) in order to repel the Russians from whichever ally was attacked. For Russia the subsequent fight would be long and messy at best. If Russia lost, defeat could bankrupt the country, wreck Putin's reputation, and set the Russian military back years. Not to mention that countries like Ukraine and Sweden would likely hop on the express train to NATO and request heavy garrisoning by the US to prevent further Russian attacks.

So what this brigade does is that it embodies lessons from the errors of 2004 and 2014 that allowed Russia to invade and annex parts of Georgia and Ukraine. Russia's success in those conflicts depended on avoiding getting entangled with NATO and on pitting their forces only against the small domestic forces of their target territories, and on moving quickly enough that it won the status quo in the area. Such a strategy has worked so far, but its effectiveness would quickly end once an American battle tank was destroyed on the field. Russia could not have a quick, clean victory that way, and would no longer be able to use Europe's lethargy to its advantage.

Russia's leadership is also smart, and knows this. The US administration is putting American lives at risk, yes, but with the expectation that Putin will understand the consequences of attacking, and thus be far less likely to attack at all. It is a clever way of containing Russia in a world where Western European allies are afraid to get on Russia's bad side: the US uses its cowboy reputation to its advantage here, and deploys its own deterrent.

The final stroke of brilliance here is that it is a force that is too small to be a credible offensive threat to Russia, so Russia not only won't feel territorially threatened, but its leadership will have shaky ground on which to pretend that it feels threatened (and thus justify an arms race).

In a comparatively cheap, gentle stroke, the US has out-positioned Russia in most of Eastern Europe, putting time back on the West's side for sanctions to squeeze Russia into acquiescence. 
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