Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back for More Cold War

The Russians announced today that they had "Spheres of Priveleged Interest" on their peripheries, including (of course) the "independent" nations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

This whole mess has got Eastern Europe scared stiff, and is raising tensions in the highly ethnically Russian Ukraine, which is poised to be accepted into NATO this fall. The Baltics, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and many Slavs have no interest in returning to the "sphere of influence" that Russia held over them between 1945 and 1989.

In addition, the Georgia offensive is looking more and more like the Prague operation of 1964, just without the offense on the capital. Russia's reassertion of its "sphere of influence" using tanks and civilian terror is a strategy that worked when Russia was strong in 1964, but really: at this point, Europe needs to stand up to them, lest the Russians learn from all of this that they can get away with doing whatever they want.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

De Facto Annexation Begins

By unilaterally recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abhkazia, Russia has taken the obvious (yet still chilling) final step in its game in Georgia--it has successfully broken up the country.

For years, the Russians have provided Russian passports to the de facto independent regions, and kept "peacekeeping" troops there. After the war with Georgia, the Russians promised to pull out of Georgia--even though they are still in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and allowing the locals to loot Georgian stores and kill Georgian people, the recognition means Russia is not technically violating the cease-fire; it recognizes the governments in these two regions that are asking for Russian troops to be there.

Not that the technicality matters, though. The West is still furious, but impotently so. Russia has now successfully managed to invade Gerogia and almost literally conquer territory for itself. This move means that if NATO admits Georgia into its alliance, the Russians will immediately use the status quo to protest to any idea that these two regions are under the NATO umbrella--and with many troops there, the Russians need only keep the status quo to keep Gerogia broken and weak; a severe and clear punishment for defying Russia's regional wishes.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pakistan is Falling Apart

With Musharraf resigned, Pakistan's coalition is back to bickering--this time, over who will succeed him. The coalition had little in common besides a disdain for Mr. Musharraf--it seems they need a common enemy to survive, and somehow, the Taliban is not that common enemy.

Sadly, this fracturing is a sign that Pakistan's ruling coalition is going to be weak and stay weak, and is not able to press forward and root out the Taliban in its northwest now that Musharraf is out of the way.

Now we understand the Bush administration's insistence on holding onto Mr. Musharraf as an ally--the alternatives will not be able to help in the War on Terror. What happens to Pakistan at this point is unsure--but it will continue to decline into a teeming mess before it gets better.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ineffectual Deterrence

The Russians have been hoping to deter the Poles from adopting anti-nuclear missiles for a long time. They failed, obviously, and have responded with a fair bit of rage.

But Russia's response is not only way over the top, it's reached the pinnacle of silliness. In response to Poland's isntallation of these missiles, the Russians have threatned to nuke Poland.

"If you buy a shield, I will stab you," the Russians say. The only reason to want a country to keep itself from arming with completely defensive measures would be to properly bully them, and the Russians are hoping to continue their bullying power by making it clear that a flurry of missiles could probably overwhelm Polish defenses. But if you are trying to convince a country to disarm its anti-nuclear shield, threatening to nuke them seems like the single worst way to accomplish that. If the Russians have done anything, they have convinced Poland and other nations that the Russians are such loose cannons about their nuclear weaponry that they better all arm themselves with American shield technology. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Czechs and Ukrainians falling in next. Honestly, the Russians are looking like this.

The Russians seem determined to achieve pariah status by doing what they can to intimidate and break their neighbors. Who are we to deny them?

The Middle East Wrap (or, the Weekly Falafel)

Well, we've been all excited about the Russians this week, and ignoring a few important issues in the Middle East. I present a quick recap:

Musharraf is resigning before his impeachment... probably. What's this mean for the War on Terror?

It gives Gilani and the ruling coalition a shot in hell at winning the favor of the Army. If Musharraf resigns voluntarily, it will be a sign that he approves in some way of the democratic process that took power from him--and so his loyalists may resign themselves for supporting it, as well.

In other news, the Syrians and Lebanese have in fact followed through with their Club Med promises and have begun demarcating their border, exchanging ambassadors, and formal recognition, which will officially leave the Syrians an inch closer to a pro-Western stance. Syria looks committed--Mideast peace now (probably) hinges Assad's willingness to speed-negotiate with Olmert (though, honestly, the terms should be pretty simple) for formal recognition and peace with Israel.

Given the mounting pressure, Hamas is responding as predicted--they are looking to get along with moderate factions that might be able to keep them afloat. They have turned away from their angered isolationism and seek the approval of Jordan and Fatah. Fatah has consolidated its power in the West Bank, and Hamas controls only the tiny strip of Gaza--a region very easy for the Israelis to police. Reconciliation with Fatah in a national PA union might be the only way they prevent themselves from being choked off. In addition, The West Bank's eastern neighbor of Jordan is restoring relations with Hamas after refusing to speak with them due to their terrorist tendencies. These are both big steps for Hamas, given the West's (and particularly president Bush's) support for Jordan and Fatah. Should Hamas require the support of the Arab League for survival, it will have to behave and stay privy to the whims of pro-Western states like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, lest they again become pariahs.

In Iraq, news of bombings against Shiite pilgrims is indeed tragic, but hope can be read into it--specifically, that there are no anti-Sunni reprisals. These kinds of attacks are clearly designed to provoke a renewed sectarian war, but they continue to fail. Now, unlike a four-year-old, extremists like Al-Qaeda in Iraq (most likely responsible for the violence) are not simply going to stop throwing sand when ignored (despite many folk theories to the contrary). But, if they are not able to instill sectarian violence, they will die. If the Shiites don't attack the Sunnis in response, then the Sunnis have no reason to feel threatened. If they don't feel threatened, then your average Mohammed is not going to give his hard-earned money to thugs with guns to stay safe (as was the problem in 2004-2007). Without money, Al-Qaeda is going to struggle to fund further suicide bombings, pay for adequate supplies for insurgents to go full-time, etc. As we've mentioned before, Al-Qaeda in Iraq is desperate, and exhausting itself to try and provoke any violence it can. Its continued failure, along with the Iraqi Army's maturation, makes it clear that Iraq is in cleanup mode. Now we need only wait for elections in October.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

How the West is Capitalizing on Russia's Aggression

While shocked and reeling from the blistering Russian attack on Georgia, the West is doing what it can to capitalise on Russia's perceived aggression and use a surge in anti-Russian popular opinion to slip through anti-Russian measures that might otherwise overworry the Europeans.

The first is a response to Russia's use of Ballistic Missiles in its war on Georgia. Russia's signal that it is willing to employ such weaponry upon its neighbors has helped Mr. Bush to convince the Poles that anti-Ballistic Missile weapons emplacements are a necessary defense measure (this on top of radar installed earlier). The US is insisting that this is happening right on schedule, but the talks yesterday were by no means guaranteed to lead to a quick and easy Polish acceptance--especially after 18 months of tough negotiations. Radar installations will be waiting for Czech parliamentary approval soon--but they are likely to pass, given the jolt that Eastern Europe has recently received.

The second move by the West has been a Ukrainian decision to formally require the Russian navy to ask for permission to dock in Sevastopol--a port leased to the Russians until 2017. The move is mostly symbolic, but it shows that the Ukrainians are officially unwilling to facilitate Russian action (particularly given that Georgia rests on the Black Sea), and that the Russian navy will have a great deal of headaches over the next 9 years, unless it builds its own major naval seaport.

Finally, NATO seems to be doing what it can to make very clear its own anti-Russian stances--not to deter Russia (especailly coming from the mouths of the Canadians), but to encourage the Germans not to veto Georgian and Ukranian membership in the future--or so it would seem. Along with NATO's unanimous resolution of support for Georgia, such anti-Russian rhetoric might actually convince the Germans that they simply must go along with Georgian and Ukranian inclusion, and be ready to face the consequences as an alliance.

But regardless of what the West does, the Russians have lots of options in Georgia--from mere bases in Georgian breakaway regions to full annexation of Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russians may be more passive-aggressive and ask the Georgians to cut down their military (to make it easier for these regions to break away), or just continue killing Georgians in the regions to eliminate any grassroots support for Georgian control. No matter what, Russian refusal to pull out, let humanitarian aid in, or allow international reporters is ominous at best. In this Russo-Western cold war, the Georgians are but an unfortunate pawn that will continue to lose civilian lives, economic prosperity, political stability, and territory, all so the Kremlin might show the West that it is not to be trifled with.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Georgia Game is Not Over

Western papers are bowing down to Putin's ruthless brilliance--he has shown the West that he is only to be pushed so far, that he will strike when he can, and that there is little the West can do about it short of declaring war.

The Americans are flailing a bit to show that they are not helpless, by sending aid via the US military in the Black Sea--surely they are not, in a military capability sense. But there is a willpower problem, and Russia knows it. The US public is not currently prepared to open a Caucasus front to defend Georgia, and Europe never has been. Like all thug powers before it, Russia will continue to do what it can get away with. Luckily for Russia, Putin is absolutley brilliant--much more so than a Hitler or a Khrushchev. Russia is reasserting its will over its periphery, and all that the Americans can do is condemn, all that the French can do is ask nicely, and all the rest of Europe can do is cower helplessly as the Russian bear stands up.

But this smack to the face of the West is not done--Russia has come back for the other cheek. The Russians have occupied Gori and stood by with tanks as South Ossetians looted and burned it into the ground--in defiance of a cease-fire agreement made with the EU and promised publicly by Medvedev. Why do this? Part of it is to punish Georgia, and to force their citizens to see that electing a president with too much hubris will bring them great pain. Part of it is to ensure the loyalty of the Ossetians for years to come. But mostly, it is a terrifying cackle to the West that Russia can do this if it wants to, simply because it wants to. It needs not follow cease-fires, it needs not listen to rebukes or threats, it needs listen to the West only as much as the West will listen to Russia--which, for the past 17 years, has been very little indeed. The West should indeed be shaking now, and unless Sarkozy can rally the EU out of its lethargic quagmire of indecision and white-flag politics, the Russians are going to throw temper tantrums every time they want their way--and they will get it. The US surely can't stand against the Russians with an unpopular Bush in power--McCain stands vehemently against any Russian interest, but he won't be able to do much without either ending the Middle East conflicts or inspiring the EU--the latter of which is highly unlikely, given current US popularity.

In the short-term, Russia may be turning next to the Ukraine. Losing the Ukraine to NATO would make an integral part of historical Russia an untouchable spectre, like a blade deep in its agricultural belly. Russia is making its moves to prevent NATO's final enclosure of Russia, and it couldn't come at a better time: The EU is fractured and disillusioned after the Irish "No" vote, the US executive branch has 3 full months before it can rally behind a desperately-needed new leader, and Western troops are all bogged down in the Middle East--angry words are the best the West can currently muster.

The only hope for checking Russia at this point is for NATO to put the Ukraine and Georgia on the fast-track to membership, and be prepared to deal with the consequences. The biggest problems are the Germans, who are less likely than the French executive to swallow a cut-off of Russian energy resources. But like thug powers before it, Russia will be emboldened by NATO's unwillingness to respond, and Putin will casually return from Beijing to a nervous, young Medvedev smiling, to say: "See? I told you they were worms."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Devil Went Down to Georgia

You all have a pretty good idea what's going on at this point, so I will keep the summary brief:

Georgia has two provinces that have declared independence in the 1990's--South Ossetia and Abkhazia--and Russia jumped to recognize that independence (and probably wants to subsume them if they actually achieve physical indepdenence). A quick fight between Georgia and Russia left Russian "peacekeeping" troops in both breakaway regions, and a great deal of autonomy (Wikipedia considers them "de facto independent," much like Taiwan).

In the meantime, Bush's aggressive expansion of NATO hit a roadblock with the Ukraine and Georgia, because the Russians threatened to cut off French and German gas and oil supplies. Instead, the Ukraine and Georgia were offered promises of membership that were set to become action plans in December. Such an expansion would cut the Russians off from Europe for as long as the West pleased. December 2008 slowly began to creep upon a Russia whose behavior has been increasingly assertive and aggressive. Surely, plans were in the works.

Then things got complicated. Georgia's president Saakashvili has had strong but dwindling support since his 2004 victory with 96% of the vote--in 2008, he won 53% (the second place candidate won onlt 27%). He has had rather contradictory goals of improving relations with Russia, winning back control over South Ossetia and Sbkhazia, and entering NATO. He is one of President Bush's most loyal international allies.

Now: Five days ago. It should be noted that there are no independent foreign media in Georgia at all, so reports can only be taken on face. Five days ago, Georgian troops stormed into South Ossetia, claiming shelling by South Ossetian forces. This would be a claim of an unlikely and suicidal half-attempt at conflict, unless one presupposes that the Russians might have invited the South Ossetians to make such a move.

Afterwards, Georgian troops rolled in, hoping to use the incident (which may not have even happened) to reassert military control over South Ossetia. The region is connected to Russia primarily by a single tunnel, which the Georgians probably considered bombing, but they likely worried about provoking a formal Russian response.

Russian Cossacks, who are recognized as a pseudo-official security force in the Caucases by the Russian government (who often makes dubious agreements with shady characters like mobs and Chechneans to keep order in a vast Federation that it largely cannot centrally control), began flowing into Georgia through that tunnel on busses. They came (of course) from the region of North Ossetia, who shares ethnic and cultural ties with the South Ossetians, and somehow stuck with the Russian Federation during the confused and frantic early 1990's breaking-up of the USSR. The Russians did little to stop them, and we mostly thought that the Russian government was happy to let "volunteers" do its dirty work.

But, of course, Russian citizens started dying. This is due in part to the fact that the Russians have slowly been infiltrating both regions with Russian citizens and "peacekeepers" (no doubt to Russify the regions) that have been hit by shelling and bombing, and also that the poorly-armed Cossacks picked fights with Georgian tanks and airplanes. At this point, Abkhazia started fighting the Georgians as well, in hopes of helping the Ossetians deliver its army a rough defeat that would seal their de facto independence indefinitely. The Georgians struggled, but it looked as if they might even prevail, and reunite their country.

The Russians are probably looking at this problem much like the Americans would view an attack on Taiwan. While the US does not address Taiwan as an independent state, it would not quietly let the Chinese invade--just as the Russians' feathers were quite ruffled by Georgian action in Ossetia. The difference is thus: The Russian army is much, much larger than the Georgian army. And with American forces tied up in the Middle East, Western retaliatory action was unlikely. So the Russians struck, and hard.

Georgia has suffered a rout; it is barely worth speaking of orders of battle or troop numbers, the Georgians just weren't up to the fight. Russian troops have hung around the Caucaus for some time, waiting for an opportunity like this. Russian troops have not only completely occupied both breakaway regions (much to the delight of a majority of their residents), but also pushed into unambiguously Georgian territory, as far south as Gori. Bush made sharp criticisms of the Russians (though did not mention Putin), the UN called for an immediate end to fighting, and Sarkozy quickly flew to Moscow, hoping to use an increasingly legendary diplomatic charm to help Russia weigh its options.

But no threats of action have come out, except faint hints at booting Russia from the G-8 (which Mr. McCain was planning on doing anyway). Much talk abounds of the diplomatic and military weakness of the US because of Iraq, but the US would not have been able to do much besides declare war against the Russians anyway. Right now, Georgia is simply not worth it, and the Russians knew that.

Russia ordered a halt after conquering about half of the country, but is still quite willing to shoot Georgians that resist their occupation, and has made no plans to pull out. They are in negotiations with Sarkozy and the EU at the moment.

Now, this all is very interesting. Some questions arise:
1) Who started it, and why?
2) What will NATO's immediate response be?
3) What is the fate of the Georgian territories?
4) What does this mean for NATO expnasionism?
5) Will Russia's relationship with the West change in the long-term?

I will do what I can with these questions. Other questions about how this will affect US domestic politics and the November election arise, but the intuitive answer is that not much will happen--there is an unambiguously correct side for each candidate to take. I might make a later post about this anyway.

1) It remains unclear who started it, given that both sides have a fair amount of interest in starting it, given a few preconditions. The Georgians would have been happy to exploit or even fabricate Ossetian violence to reclaim the region, but only if they thought the Russians would not get involved. Is there any reason to think so? Putin's presence in Beijing might have made them think the Russians would have been impotent to respond, and they may have predicted a rapid victory. But besides that, nothing about Russian behavior shows obvious weakness or preoccupation. Why would the Georgians would not wait until they were NATO members--or at least had an expected membership date? Trying to assault Ossedia now, without a clear sign of Russian restraint, would seem foolish.

On the other hand, the Russians have a lot to lose from waiting. NATO's expansion is creeping too close for comfort. The last thing the Russians want is a second front from NATO in their south, or (perhaps more importantly) total NATO control of the Black Sea, which would be made possible by Ukranian and Georgian inclusion. If the Russians want to head off such inclusions, they have many options, and have already employed some; they may now be looking to scare the West into leaving their sphere alone--why now? Note that NATO is one of the most terrifying military alliances in the world because of a single clause in the Charter: Article 5, which states that an attack on one country would be considered an attack on all (this was used only once, in the Sept. 11th attacks on the US). But they may also be looking to lock in control over Ossedia and Abkhazia--Russia is currently a fledging-enough regional power that small influence gains are worth it. But it is rather clear from a brief topological survey that inclusion of these territories (or separation of them from Georgia) would give Russia much physical security--Russia's border with Georgia is a solid line of Caucasus mountians. The most likely explanation is that the Russians indeed encouraged a South Ossetian incident such that they might test Georgia's and NATO's resolve to fight. The result has been a great blow to Western influence in the South Caucasus region, and a new sign of US weakness in a "Cold War Lite."

I will note that the possibility remains that there was no subversive action--that a few Ossedians simply got upset at some small incident and started firing artillery, and the whole mess spiralled out of control. But it's unlikely.

2) When I first heard about this five days ago, I said "NATO should really have an emergency session over this," and indeed they have. The meeting didn't do much, but they took a stand that they really needed to: they called for a return to status quo ante (that is, Russian and Georgian troops both out of the region), condemned Russia but not Georgia, and affirmed support for Georgia's attempts to assert its recognized sovereignty over the region. NATO, far from abandoning Georgia for potentially foolish action, has stood by it (making this look perhaps like a World War I spiral scenario, which may be part of the reason the Russians were so quick to accept a cease-fire).

3) The fate of the Georgian territories is highly unclear. Even if the Russians pull back, the Georgian military has probably taken a beating, and is scared stiff. It will not be able to physically assert its authority over its breakaway provinces again. That said, if the Georgians do join NATO, the Russians will know that another stunt like this would risk a declaration of war, which they won't be able to afford if Bush manages to install anti-missile batteries in Eastern Europe. Ossetia and Abkhazia are just not worth that kind of risk. The fate of these regions depends largely on the next few weeks of diplomatic talk, and Russia's concern with trying to save its image. But its reputation is already tarnished and the West is already irritated--pulling back completely and leaving the mess alone would mean accepting diplomatic sunk costs to a foolish move that the Russians may feel they have bought too deeply into.

4) NATO expansionism is unlikely to alter its course, unless it is to speed up. The members of NATO said that their considerations of Georgia as a member have not changed. The Georgian ambassador to NATO chided them slightly by saying that this was a consequence of cowing to Russia's threats in April over a fast-track plan for membership, and Bush has suggested that NATO take a stronger stance on its acceptance of Georgia as a response to the Russian incursion, but it's likely that Georgia is likely to go through the same long and (now excruciating) process that most countries do, as is the Ukraine. Far from frightened by the Russians, NATO might be emboldened by this action into agreeing with more aggressive factions (like Bush and Sarkozy) into seeing Russia as a reemerging threat that needs to be aggressively contained.

5) The West has been using a "hedge" strategy with Russia for some time, Bush included. Warm words, joint military exercizes, and a crucial oil trade have kept relations on both sides friendly. The West has hoped to "socialize" Russia, much like they feel they have begun to "socailize" the Chinese (and, luckily for them, the Olympics are a good sign in this direction). But Russia has grown aggressive in the past few years, and Putin's iron grip over the country (which is quite happy to be so gripped) has not faltered--this trend is not going to reverse on its own. The West is likely to start to become worried enough about the Russians that a Hedge strategy will give way to full-blown containment. Unlike the Chinese, the Russians can be largely contained with trade restrictions and alliance expansion. But after such a quick turnaround from Soviet Union to Soviet Putin, the West may be scratching their heads in exasperation, wondering how they might teach the Russians to just get along.

On another interesting note, I cannot seem to find anything by the Chinese on the incident, who are probably quite grateful that they have the Olympics as an excuse to ignore completely an incident where they might otherwise be asked ot take sides between their greatest economic trading partner and their greatest military partner.

As a closing note: The situation is changing by the hour, some of this may already be out of date. But I will try to keep updated.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Wrench in Middle East Peace?

Earlier, I had been lauding as near-inevitable a realignment in the Middle East that might lead to a lasting peace, particularly with Israel.

Sadly, one of the unspoken keys to this peace process was Prime Minister Olmert, whose moderate stances on Middle East relations have probably been a big part of the willingness of Syria to negotiate peace (and Syria's involvement, I have argued, is critical to reining in Hamas and Hezbollah).

But Mr. Olmert is going to resign, amid charges of corruption that have had the police question him four times already. Whatever happens to him afterwards, he will be leaving without a strong mandate for his current policies to be continued.

And it looks like Netanyahu, a serious tough-guy and (some have said) ultra-nationalist has got poll numbers behind him to take over in snap elections in the fall... which may or may not happen. The ruling Kadima party is weak, and Likud stands to gain a great deal.

Netanyahu is even more prickly than the typical Israeli politician, and has hard-line stances on most countries that consider Israel an enemy, including Iran. He supports keeping settlements in the West Bank, and opposes the Annapolis talks--this would completely dreail any motion towards a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu was Prime Minister already in the 1990's, and is not considered a friendly guy. Quoth Bill Clinton, after a meeting: "Who the fuck does he think he is, who's the fucking superpower here?"

On the good side, Netanyahu's understanding of geopolitics is realist and realistic. He sees Iran as a serious revisionist threat, and Hezbollah and Hamas as proxy terror groups, largely acting at Iran's whim. But does that mean he's thinking about actually using the military to deal with Iran? Israel under a moderate Olmert has certainly been making it look like it's a question on the table--and Netanyahu would support an airstrike more than anyone. This has some pretty scary consequences.

So what happens, if the US has a friendly and weak Obama presidency, and Israel has a tough-nosed Netanyahu? Besides disagreements, the US would have a hard time keeping Israel in line. If rows erupt, or if Netanyahu loses respect or patience for the American president, Israel may begin to act unilaterally against Iran--and let the US deal with the consequences in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But there is another, bizarre posibility. Netanyahu might actually become a looming stick in negotiations with Iran and Syria. While Syria declared that it would wait for US elections to continue peace negotiations, it may now change its mind and hurry up, hoping to slip in the Peace door before it closes on them. US negotiations with Iran may now include a note of saying "look, you want us on your side when Netanyahu takes office." Similar feelings will be felt by Abbas of Palestine, but his ability to control his nation is so limited that it may not matter.

So we should keep our eyes on the Middle East, and see whether Israel's pseudo-enemies are dealing with Olmert's resignation with a hastened need to act, or a resigned move back towards the hard-line geopolitics that Netanyahu wants to play. Bush, if he's smart, is going to seize this opportunity in negotiations with Iran and say "hurry up, kids, we're out of time." Assad, if he's smart, will do the same to Israel (Olmert is largely at a point where he is now incapable of initiative). But now we have to see how smart everyone is willing to be.