Monday, November 17, 2014

No, the Ruble Falling Doesn't Mean Russia is Hosed

A friend recently shared an article with me about the ruble dropping (partly in response to sanctions) and asked me what I thought about it.

Go read it first, it's quick. I'm not going to summarize.

Read it yet? No, really, go do it.

Alright, good. Below is a modification of my original response, which I just wanted to share with everyone.

First, I think "2 guys got arrested" --> "Russia's economy is eating itself" is a grossly over-inflated and completely un-supported assertion here. Putin is on top because he does a great job specifically pitting his oligarchs against each other and reminding them that he can snap his fingers and crush them at any time... while keeping them rich. So the government still doing that is not surprising.

The oligarchs aren't in charge of the justice system (Putin wouldn't trust that) so I don't see how the arrests relate at all to oligarchical bickering. 

The ruble dropping isn't great, but it does mean that you can buy more bread (domestically made) for each barrel of oil you sell, so Russia's gas/oil imports will be buffeted here against the drop in the general price of oil/gas. 

Dropping one's currency is also a way to pivot an economy towards internal manufacturing, which may also be a deliberate move by Putin's administration to become less foreign-dependent, and it may be a sign of an economic strategy rather than just a political one. 

So yes, Russia is "digging in," and no doubt, it's getting ready to survive long-haul sanctions. But that doesn't mean the Russian economy is going to collapse. Putin is a smart guy. If he's planning to lose trade with the West, the first thing one wants to do is create as much domestic manufacturing as possible, and the ruble dropping is step one to doing that (because imports get expensive, exports get profitable, so local manufacturing is stimulated). The pain of the ruble dropping will pass as entrepreneurs seize on the opportunity to build new industries that take advantage of new domestic cost advantages. Russia's got the metal to make a lot of what it imports, excepting the luxuries that wealthy Russians love so much (but we don't need to worry about them). 

They'll be fine. The only way to really choke off the Russians is to cut oil/gas imports dramatically, and the Europeans aren't ready to feel the sting of that, themselves.

Read more

Friday, November 14, 2014

Why I Was So Damn Wrong About ISIS--Or Was I?

So I was pretty optimistic about Iraq's ability to go get ISIS after they slowed down in their march towards Baghdad.


ISIL owns the Red and claims the Pink. Looks pretty bleak. (Wikipedia)

ISIS has held onto much of the territory it gained back then, and then started totally ripping up northern Syria. I'm sure you've all heard about Kobani, where the Kurds are about to lose their last major stronghold in the north.

A not-too-dramatized depiction of Kobani's current situation. 

It's gotten bad enough that young(ish) girls are taking up arms against ISIS. The good news about this is that ISIS superstition states that being killed by a woman means no virgins in heaven, so they're actually a little squeamish about fighting women and are apparently not quite as effective.
Kurdish women defending Kobani. (NYT)

So it looks pretty bad, and certainly the Iraqis and Syrians haven't been able to just clean up this problem like it's no big deal. I had been wondering, "how the heck did I get this so wrong? Where did ISIS' magical power come from?"
So I did some digging around, and it turns out I'm not as wrong as I thought. Let's look at things big picture, then piece-by-piece.

The Messy Situation in Iraq & Syria. Grey is ISIS, Yellow is Kurd, Purple is Iraqi gov't, Red is Syrian Gov't, Green is Syrian Opposition. Big version here.

Much like an American election, looking at the colors in terms of square miles really makes things look pretty lopsided. Let's look first at Iraq. See those little purple strands stretching out like fingers to the northwest? That's the Tirgis and Euphrates. Yeah, that cradle of civilization thing. Where all the people actually live because the rest is desert (see the blue dots? Those are towns). Months ago, ISIS had all that stuff. So in Iraq, most of that grey is... desert. ISIS holding Mosul, Tikrit, and Fallujah is bad news, but it's not existential if the tide is turning.

Now it's certainly not all peaches, especially just west of Baghdad. Those who have been wonking about Iraq for the past decade will immediately notice that this is Fallujah, the toughest enclave of anti-Shia/government sentiment and a perennial tough spot (to put it almost hilariously lightly) since 2003. That will be the last nut to crack in the ISIS counter-offensive. Tikrit, which is the town-of-size just north of Baghdad, will probably be much sooner.

Baghdad is actually currently working (albeit slowly) on taking a few nearby towns, including Ramadi, Haditha, and Muqdadiyah. Iraq just took Baiji today. Now that Iraq is starting to win some fights, the chances of its troops dropping their guns and fleeing at the first sight of enemy forces has dropped (at the very least, Iraq is starting to figure out which troops are relatively reliable).

So it's pretty good news in Iraq... at least by comparison (I don't want to underplay that this whole mess is a little terrifying and also an incredible human tragedy). "But why not more?" I hear you ask!

In short, the Iraqis are taking their time and making sure they're darn well prepared for a major assault. The Americans are doing a bunch of training and will likely lead the planning (and of course provide coordinated intel and air support, which will actually be a pretty big deal) in order to make the counter-assault something that's swift... when they get around do it. That's coming in 2015. For now, if you live in Mosul, "sorry."

CNN has a pretty long article that, while irritatingly unwilling to take a stand on anything, is quite informative, called "Has ISIS Peaked?" It talks about some of the other gains that Iraq is making, including interrupting supply lines, counter-siegeing, and being able to predict ISIS movements (and then call American airstrikes) that prevent them from being able to quickly take territory anymore. The blitzkreig is definitely done, and wasn't enough to break Iraq's back.

So we'll keep an eye on this but get excited for early 2015, when the Iraqi army launches its counter-offensive. We can be optimistic largely because ISIS is not like the Taliban: where the Taliban is largely an insurgent army that controls its territory by having a relatively strong support base and Kabul's capacity to assert itself is weak in its areas, ISIS is a small and hated organization that happens to have gotten its hands on a lot of money and tanks. Where the Taliban can melt away and come back, ISIS will have to hold its ground in its urban controllings and fight a conventional war, as attempting to flee will mean the loss of its hardware (either by leaving it behind or having it bombed) and money. If they come back, they'll no longer have the element of surprise and, hopefully, the Iraqi army will be trained just enough to fire a few shots back before retreating, which should be enough given the army's vastly overwhelming numerical advantage (about 10:1, and the offensive can likely concentrate that further).

Unfortunately, Syria's prospects area not nearly so good.

In Syria, one literally has 4 groups all fighting each other: the Government, the Opposition, the Kurds, and ISIS. ISIS even recently signed an agreement with al-Qaeda there to stop fighting each other. It's bad news. The Kurds and the Opposition teamed up for a while in Aleppo, but they're now too broken apart to help each other.

As much as Assad is a bad guy, the fact that the Government, Opposition, and Kurds are all fighting each other means that ISIS will continually have opportunities to exploit wedges and move into weak points (as these groups move troops to fight each other). If, for example, the Government forces are being pressed at one side, the Opposition won't back off in order to help the Government repel ISIS--they'll take advantage of the weakness themselves and move in. It means that nobody (except maybe the Kurds, who are so cornered that they're out of the Gov/Opp civil war) can fight ISIS without worrying about being stabbed in the back.

To deal with Syria, the anti-ISIS "coalition" (really, the US) needs to play a game of containment until Iraq is handled. The Kurds have the best chance at actually seriously fighting ISIS at the moment (they seem to be taking Kobani back), and they're getting help from Iraqi and Turkish Kurds as reinforcements. The Westphalian implications of this multinational joint Kurdish effort will not be lost upon the keen student of political science, but I'll avoid digressing.

Once (if I'm right) Iraq is somewhat taken care of, the Iraqi Kurds are likely to form an offensive to help liberate northern Syria. To be fair, they're likely to stop after they liberate all of Kurdish territory, leaving the remnants of ISIS from the Kurd regions and from Iraq to focus what's left of their power on the rest of Syria.

US policy will focus on a dubious strategy of trying to arm the rebels and use airstrikes against ISIS to help the Opposition fight both ISIS and the Government at the same time. I don't think it's a fight that the Opposition can win. To achieve both a limit of bloodshed and a swifter, surer end to ISIS, the US may need to give up on the Opposition and make sure Syria is more united. But it won't happen.

Read more

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Foggofwar Short: Arab (Mostly Sunni) Coalition Forming Against ISIS

US, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar all sent fighters, drones (US only) and cruise missiles (US only) to bomb ISIL/ISIS/IS/whatever-you-want-to-call-these-assholes targets in Syria. Really a show of political unity more than something particularly tactical, but holy smokes--it's actually a really big move for all of these countries to more-or-less violate the Westphalian notion of sovereignty in Syria.

Here are the really interesting/relevant points to take away:

  • Syria probably didn't give any explicit permission for the strikes--not clear if Assad agreed in private. If not, then there is a somewhat-dangerous precedent being set of US/its allies hitting countries whose current governments aren't on board (see: Pakistan). The Westphalian model of territorial sovereignty might be breaking down, and the long-term consequences for global stability are a bit disconcerting.
  • It's Sunni-majority or Sunni-led (Bahrain) countries, exclusively, carrying out these strikes. Not too surprising, but it's a sign that the more Western-style (Westphalian, really) governments that are in the Middle East are resisting the idea of a unified Sunni state in principle. Also not surprising: those in power want to stay in power, and that general inertia means there won't be a great Arab/Islamic unity movement (a la Nasser or the Ottoman empire) any time too soon unless it's grass-roots/revolutionary (this mirrors anti-Muslim Brotherhood behavior in most of these countries).
  • Airstrikes have had mixed results in the past. It's not clear whether they're working in Pakistan/Afghanistan, but in that Pashtun region, the Taliban has major local support. It's worked better in support of competent ground forces in places like Somalia, Libya, northern Afghanistan. ISIS doesn't have a whole lot of local support in most of these places--they're just too awful. 
  • The US risks a new "quagmire." 
  • Democrats are becoming much more hawkish.
  • Obama is effectively building an Arab coalition and leading it--rather than, for example, Turkey, Russia, Egypt, or someone else.
  • Egypt and Turkey are also notably absent from this coalition.
  • NATO is probably not going to join strikes against Syria, but will stay in Iraq. This needs to look like an Arab local policing thing, rather than "Western aggression."
  • The realllllllly complicated part if figuring out what ground forces will come through after these strikes and "take over." Iraq and Syria are a terrible mess and are fracturing into more localized, non-official government groups doing the local governance. The Kurds seem to have their act together more than pretty much anyone else, and may fill a lot of the void, but they really don't want to (and shouldn't) govern outside of Kurdish territory. 
  • The US will try to support the "moderate rebels" in Syria, but they're of course fighting a war on 2 fronts, which makes the whole thing a truly terrible mess, and it will be hard helping them focus when they're being pressed by Assad. Assad is definitely looking to take advantage of getting some relief from ISIS to go after the moderate rebels. This will undermine anti-ISIS efforts.
  • In Iraq, the new prime minister Al-Abadi has to bring "reconciliable" Sunnis (the "Sunni Awakening" types) back into the fold to go after ISIS in its western areas so the army can focus on Mosul. Taking back Fallujah would happen last--it's going to be the tough nut to crack.
  • This is all going to take a very long time. 

Read more

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.

Read more

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):

Read more

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.

Read more

Copyright Erik Fogg 2006-2013.