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.

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.

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. 

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.

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):

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.

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. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Ukraine Foreign Minister Says Ukraine Will Fight if Russia Invades East

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.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Shooting War May be Starting... Stay Tuned

2 Ukrainian servicemen killed in Crimea by snipers. Not yet confirmed it's Russians.

But the Russians will have to push the Ukrainians out of Crimea if they're going to legitimize themselves, and I think a hot war is coming.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Crimean Referendum In Tow, Russia Still Possibly Stuck

The tough part about this referendum is that, under other circumstances, it might make sense.

It might even be the right thing for Crimea to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine, in some sort of idealized world.

That said, it probably also would "make sense" for lots of lines to be re-drawn to group together people that most want to be grouped together. But the process for doing that must be both delicate and consistent--lest the door be opened for the kind of mayhem that Russia is causing at this very moment.

So the reason it's tricky is that, with a population so excited about joining Russia, the West's liberal tendencies make them loathe to deny them that autonomy. But the circumstances under which it occurred force the West, even against some of its own values, to reject the referendum flat-out.

(Those of you paying attention will note that I owe you a beer: the referendum did not get 70-80% to join Russia, but got 93%--a whopping number that is so obviously padded that it's clear that Putin is more interested in showing off unwavering support/unity in the area than in having the legitimacy that comes with an election that is fully free and fair. The Tatars alone, if votes were counted freely and fairly, would have brought that number down.)

With Ukraine and NATO not recognizing the referendum, any violence by Russian troops to enforce the annexation (see my last post about the need to do so) will cross a hitherto-uncrossed line. It's one thing for Western leaders to stand by dumbfounded by a bloodless coup--it's another if the Russians start murdering Ukrainian troops in their bases.

There's actually more of a standoff than one might think. Russia is working very hard to create an air of inevitability, to declare "Mission Accomplished" loudly enough that everyone will start to believe them. But the government of Ukraine is fervently anti-Russian and the western part of the country is sufficiently terrified of more Russian domination that they're ready to fight.

I don't quite see how this is going to go down without bloodshed--Russia just isn't going to walk away, and it's likely the Ukrainians are getting some quiet promises of military support if (violently) attacked, particularly from the V4. Russian troops (about 60k, according to Kyiv) are amassing on the eastern border of Ukraine, which suggests Russia knows it's going to have to try to beat Ukraine into accepting the annexation.

The West is holding its breath, but it has the upper hand in a conflict as long as it has the will. A lot is at stake here--namely, the principle of Deterrence in Europe, which has hitherto been enforced since 1939 and has probably been the biggest reason Europe has seen relative peace in the last 70 years. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Crimean Endgame Unclear--Russia May be Stuck, And Will Likely Lose

So Russia has obviously gone "all-in" with Crimea--the only way to really walk out with face intact is to walk out with Crimea in pocket. Sadly, Putin hasn't given himself a reasonable out without it.

But can that really happen at all?

The Crimean Referendum being rushed through looks like it may seal the deal. But that's far from obvious.

Only 58% of Crimea is Russian. This is a lot, but it's unlikely 100% are going to vote for annexation--Russia's an unattractive enough state that some ethnic Russians may opt to stay. A lot of them are from families shipped to the area by force during the Soviet Union's era, which means not everyone is going to be a die-hard.

But let's be honest: the referendum is going to show Annexation is favored, and by a lot. Russia has no problem rigging even its own elections, and will rig the heck out of these. It'll wipe its hands when it's over, with some 70-80% "favoring annexation" (anyone that wants to bet a beer that it'll fall out of that range, let me know), and look to the West and say, "see? Everyone wants to be here, so leave it be."

The most dangerous thing about Russia is (excuse my language) that the leadership may believe its own bullshit. It may not understand just how absurd its behavior seems to the West.

The West, and Kyiv, are going to look at the referendum with rolled eyes. Ukraine, particularly, is not going to pack up its bags and abandon its bases in Crimea. So after the referendum, there's going to be a standoff. And here's where the dangerous part starts.

Russia will likely put an ultimatum on Ukrainian troops to leave its "legal, sovereign territory," and threaten to open fire to drive them out and "defend" its homeland. But nobody outside of Russia is going to buy the moral/righteous argument (though they're likely to buy that yes, Russia will open fire). So when Russia does open fire, it will likely feel it has a moral high-ground, but nobody else will.

The West has been pretty weak on this matter until recently, but once Russia opens fire on the Ukrainian bases (and it will have to, in order to legitimately claim that it has territorial sovereignty over Crimea), that's going to change. Poland and the V4 are going to fight back, and drag US air power in with them. Kyiv, which has a not-at-all-laughable military, is going to hit the Russians in Crimea full-force.

It'll get messy, and Russia is honestly likely to lose. This isn't Georgia. Russia can only really deploy its southern forces to Ukraine, and those southern forces won't match up against Ukraine + the V4 (though the V4 would bring the Western forces in). Ukrainian and V4 troops are more professional and have (especially in the V4) superior tech, more plans, and similar numbers of troops.

I think the only way Russia wins this is if it somehow convinces the Ukrainian forces to pack up and leave Crimea, but I just don't see that happening at all. Otherwise, it's going to have a war on its hands that it can't win. And again, that's the dangerous part: Russia will feel its actions are entirely legitimate, that it is in the right and everyone else is aggressive/expansionist against it, and therefore may not break quickly/easily.

But I don't think it can win.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ukraine Might have Won the War Without Firing a Shot

So I might have been dead wrong about my shooting war prediction. Hopefully so.

The Russian military's ultimatum (surrender or die) to the Ukrainian military bases came and went without a peep (other than various bases very loudly singing the Ukrainian national anthem at the Russians) and, importantly, without the Russians acting. The Ukrainians called their bluff, and in such situations, having one's bluff called is pretty crippling to one's ability to further intimidate.

The Ukrainians actually claim to have intercepted a call with Putin somewhat furious at a field commander for not having provoked the Ukrainians into firing at them. It's clear Russia wants a shooting war and that their ambitions at the moment are beyond sitting on their hands in Crimea, but so far the Ukrainians aren't giving it to them--and probably won't.

Russia might just be stuck. Putin's quick-mover advantage is quickly eroding and now he looks--more importantly than looking like an aggressor--like he doesn't have a plan. If the Russians don't have a strong enough pretext with moving forward on the "shooting" part of this adventure, they may just have to withdraw.

On another note--a little bit more research suggests that Visegrad 4 military along with Ukraine would make Russia's life very hard if it was engaged--it would be far from a "rollover" kind of war, given in particular that Russia's military is mostly conscripts and the V4 is more professional. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

My Prediction: War in Crimea Within 48 Hours

It sounds like Russia is actually issuing ultimatums to the bases (that they have surrounded and put under siege, by the way) that if they don't surrender, war will begin. Russian troops are digging trenches on the northern coast of Crimea and the fleet is being mobilized to control the seas, giving the Ukrainians only a tiny bottleneck to move through.

I predict that's just what's going to happen. Ukraine won't give up without a fight.

It's not a war Ukraine's going to win. They'll get beat pretty badly and Russia will use this as an excuse to march into the rest of the country. Already, a truly North-Korean-style propaganda blitz is happening within Russia now to drum up domestic support for the war.

The big question will be what the V4 does, but I think they'll get involved. Poland is mobilizing and Russia is actually readying its northern defenses (around St. Petersburg). I think both sides are getting ready to go at it.

The West is responding as weakly as Putin hoped and predicted. The EU is refusing to join the US in imposing sanctions--Russia has too much oil/gas leverage. The US is not threatening a military response, and it's frankly the only kind of response that would give Putin pause.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Foggofwar is Back! As is the Great Game in Europe, with Ukraine the Battleground

Well, after deciding I was too busy to blog, I realized I was just talking about this stuff with my friends and repeating myself ad nauseam . I've been able to happily ignore a lot of stuff--even Syria has only been so captivating--but the Great Game in Europe has finally brought me back into the ring.

So Russia has invaded Ukraine, post-revolution. Interestingly, this revolution seemed initially to be less damaging/dangerous than the first one (The "Orange" Revolution of 2004) but it's provoked a much heavier response.

There are only three questions that are really interesting:
1) What is Russia's planned endgame?
2) How does Russia think the rest of Europe/US will respond?
3) How will they actually respond?

Russia's Planned Endgame:
Sadly I think this is actually a bit of an open question, but with a likely answer.

The most likely answer is that Russia wants to see a settlement in which Crimea (vast majority Russian descent and Russian loyalty) has enough autonomous power to maintain a treaty with Russia for Russia's use of the Sevastopol naval port without Kiev's ability to veto. This seems extremely narrow an aim, but I think it's the most "concrete" one they want to get out of it. It also seems obvious given the fact that they're specifically in Crimea and not any other part of the country (no matter how pro-Russian or not), and the geopolitical motive there (more below on that).

Russian navy ships at the Black Sea port of Sevastopol

Obviously Russia also wants to make clear that its periphery is not allowed to install pro-EU governments. But starting a war to demonstrate just that is risky--to get involved with military action, one has to have not only a goal, but a clear endgame--something the US and its allies utterly failed to do in both Afghanistan and Iraq, to devastating effect (though it wasn't the only mistake in both instances). The well-defined endgame, the thing that lets Russia pull its troops out and declare "victory" without having to indefinitely occupy Ukraine, is that agreement.

This is eerily similar to Georgia in 2008, by the way, in which Russia quickly invaded and asserted a stronger South Ossetia autonomous zone with Russian military presence to "protect its people."

I really do think they're doing the same darn thing here.

The reason, by the way, that "keeping the Sevastopol port" is important enough to merit a war, is that Sevastopol is the only warm-water port the Russians have left in the European theatre. If they lose Sevastopol, they have literally no place to launch ships that doesn't freeze in the winter. It essentially knocks them out as a naval power, which is actually quite significant. There's more in my old post from 2008 on why Ukraine and Georgia are so bloody important--go re-read if you want to.

So in short, they'll have the Crimean parliament (happily) sign that they'll keep the port and welcome Russian military access. They'll tell Kiev that Kiev has to relent on the issue or life will get worse, after kicking around the Ukrainian military a bit.

Importantly, they will not march on Kiev and won't try to annex Crimea completely, as even in the current US/EU political climate, it will be such a clear "crossing of the line" that it would merit a clear military response.

How Does Russia Think the US/EU Will Respond?
Not to make too many allusions to German expansionist aggression in the 1930's, Putin has seen the US and EU in Georgia in 2008, and "they are worms" to him. He played the West like a fiddle then, and the world leaders that could (and easily, given the military disparity) oppose him watched with impotence.

Putin is counting on further impotence here. Obama has proven to be not too willing to rock the boat--he seeks a very broad support base of allies before making a move (why he went to Libya but not Syria, and why he's still in Afghanistan). Russia's oil and gas chokehold on Europe will likely make Germany and France hesitate--during a war, Russia could cut gas supplies and prop up Gazprom from the federal treasury (which is fairly hefty) while Europe's lights go out. It's a major threat and the US isn't quite prepared to supply the rest of that gas given current infrastructure.

So ultimately, Obama is likely to have a lukewarm reception from Germany and France on getting NATO involved, and Putin is betting on him not pressing it.

So there will be a flurry of diplomatic activity, of course, but I think Putin honestly believes there will be no military action against Russia whatsoever from outside of Ukraine--just like in 2008.

How Will the US/EU Actually Respond?
If I actually knew the answer to this, I'd be in the War Room in the White House right now, so I have to speculate wildly on the matter.

If you remember my post about the Visegrad 4 and the Blocanization of Europe, you'll recall that the V4 (led by Poland) formed out of fear that NATO was too weak to protect it from Russia, and they'd be banking on support from the US and UK independently of the rest of the continent.

Now is absolutely the time for them to be tested. The V4 doesn't include Ukraine (it's Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary), but if Ukraine fell very EU (or split in two), we would probably see a V5. The V4 is going to see unchecked Russian aggression as an existential threat: if Europe won't defend Ukraine from an unprovoked invasion, would they defend the Czech Republic? Would they defend Hungary? Ultimately, EU/NATO/US inaction here would ultimately cement the V4's belief that they can depend only on each other.

If the V4 sees NATO as impotent, I actually think it's likely that the V4 will take matters into its own hands. Crazy as it sounds, I believe the Visegrad 4 is going to mobilize once Ukraine is inevitably hung out to dry by more powerful allies. In their minds, the principle of Deterrence--which has kept Europe mostly peaceful for 70 years (which is an absurd amount of time in Europe's history) must hold, and they will respond, even knowing that they will not win alone.

I think the V4 will move troops to the border and threaten war if the US/NATO don't intervene. There will be a real risk of a wider European war breaking out.

At that point... I'm just not sure. Frankly, the outcome is going to depend entirely on the will of the United States and, primarily, its president. If the US is willing to fight an air war in Russia (invasion is out of the question) and mobilize aircraft carriers to the Black Sea and occupy it there, I think Russia will pull back... and the West will score a major victory in keeping Russia contained. This move would be provoked more by the V4 (to prevent a European land war) than by Russia itself (where Obama would tend to try to "jaw jaw" before he "wars war").

But a lot of things could hold the Americans back. Obama is unpopular, debt is much higher than Americans are comfortable with. The Republican party is not only generally prone to oppose whatever Obama tries to do for the sake of being contrary, but it is becoming increasingly isolationist (something we saw in the Libyan intervention).

Wrapping Up:
So I just don't know. Russia could well get away with it and sadly I think this is most likely. I know normally I don't take particularly strong position on who is good and who is bad. But I do believe that the principle of Deterrence has kept Europe safe for a very, very long time, and I am worried to see it violated with impunity.

We will see. I would put odds on Russia getting away with it, but the US (even without the EU) has such an overwhelmingly powerful naval/air force that if it decided to get involved, Russia would pull back quickly.

It's all a matter of will.