Thursday, April 30, 2015

Little Wars: Escalation

Even in the past few days, we've seen escalation in the Little Wars.


As things heat up near Mariupol, Russia is adding command-and-control assets, air defense, and artillery to its border with Ukraine. NATO thinks Russia is readying for a new Ukraine offensive. Russia has rightly calculated that it's going to continue to get away with its offensives; the EU and US will neither provide arms nor guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty, which is about all Russia needs to feel invited to roll in.

Russia is also sending supersonic strategic bombers to Crimea, both establishing their hold over the area and getting some pretty deadly hardware as close as they can to Kyiv, just in case.

It's not that the West isn't responding in some ways. The US and Canada are throwing a bit of money at the problem, and the US is putting money into counter-propaganda in eastern Ukraine, where Russia is currently drumming up support by alleging systematic murder of Russian ethnic people by a fascist Kyiv government.


US warships are now escorting American-flagged cargo vessels through the Strait of Hormuz to prevent Iran from nabbing any more. This means a heavier, bristling fleet presence in Iran's territorial waters, which ups the ante and is probably designed to establish status quo US presence there, with Iranian aggression as the pretense. We'll see how Iran responds--there's not much they can do directly, but like the capture of the Maersk, they may find another way to be a thorn in the side of the US. Iran's motives for capturing the vessel are still unclear (and the public statements are highly dubious).

Busting the Axis

Iran is currently close to Russia in part because Russia does not have sanctions on the country, and Russia wants to keep it that way. 

If the Iranian nuclear deal works, the West will start trading with Iran again, which would be a huge boon for the economy. Frankly, the massive US/EU markets provide a much more appetizing treat for Iran than the sluggish Russian petro-conomy. Iran has more than enough petrochemicals and doesn't want vodka.

So Russia (and China) might actually be trying to "nuke" the deal, as it were. Forbes' Russia-China expert talks about it here (thanks to reader Nathan for pointing me to this).

The US could soften/weaken the alliance between Russia and Iran with the deal, as well as finally have access to Central Asia (also under Russia' indirect control), which would be a huge boost in the Great Game. 

Could the nuclear deal happen? Sure: the US and Russia made all sorts of similar deals throughout the Cold War, even while facing off in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Little Wars with Russia and Iran

We'll take a quick break from battle lines to look at the "little wars" going on between US/allies and Russia/Iran. Much like during the Cold War, we're seeing regional military action that threatens regional escalation as outside powers become more involved.


Shelling from rebels in Ukraine has started back up (using rocket launchers and tanks that are both banned and were-never-there-in-the-first-place), which we predicted after Minsk II: the deal with Russia caused successful withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from key areas--especially Mariupol, which is next on the rebel/Russian list of targets. Unsurprisingly, the shelling is happening in Shyrokyne (along with reported rebel presence and gunfire exchanges), just east of Mariupol.

Ukraine requested EU peacekeepers; they have been refused. But Poland and the US continue to reassure Kyiv that they will provide support. The US recently deployed anti-air batteries to eastern Ukraine and says it will keep sanctions on Russia until it has completely fulfilled Minsk II.

Even more interesting: Finland spotted what might be a Russian submarine off its coast in its territorial waters, and dropped depth charges with the intent of scaring it off. Sweden did the same in October.

This is another sign, along with continued military exercises near Estonia, that Russia is testing Western resolve and may be intending to create a clearer "sphere of influence" at its border areas where Western military powers cannot operate. Finland and Sweden aren't part of NATO and, like Ukraine, don't have that military umbrella (though unlike Ukraine, they are part of the EU and therefore have more standing to request help). Unlike Ukraine, their militaries are formidable and they do not have restive Russian populations, so don't expect an invasion any time soon; but there may be a rising conflict over the Baltic sea as Russia tries to expand its sphere.


Last week, US carrier Theodore Roosevelt moved to the coast of Yemen in order to turn away Iranian cargo ships likely carrying arms for Houthi rebels. The ships were deterred, meaning the US now has a partial blockade of Yemen and has for all purposes entered the conflict. Roosevelt has moved back to the Persian Gulf, but the point seems to have been made. 

Iran has responded.

For reasons not yet clear, 5 Iranian combat vessels intercepted a US (Marshal Islands) cargo vessel heading into the Strait of Hormuz, demanding it move towards Iran. After the cargo ship refused, Iran fired warning shots across its bow, and then escorted the ship into Iranian waters and boarded it.

The Strait of Hormuz is a free-go zone (it's all Iranian territorial water but is subject to innocent passage law). The ship may have moved closer to the shore than Iran may have liked, but typical protocol is to demand that such a ship leave, not come closer. So it's interesting behavior.

The US has sortied jets and a destroyer to the area to "monitor." 

American forces aren't likely to open fire or create a direct confrontation, but Iran now has 34 crew members held hostage. It may be a muscle-flexing strategy or Iran may be looking for a negotiating chip of some sort in its standoff with the US over Yemen.

It's the most direct conflict the US and Iran have had in the past few years. At the very least, Iran is making clear that it has no intent to be pushed around by the US, but the Obama administration is unlikely to respond to this by capitulating on Iranian arms shipments to Yemen.

Expect a simmering conflict here, as well.

Little Wars

Like in the Cold War, these "little wars" are unlikely to escalate into major superpower conflict--it's something nobody wants and something that's hard to back down from once started. 

The risk is that Iran and Russia are so inundated in comically-absurd propaganda that it might be politically difficult to save face if backing away from conflict, so these escalations must be managed very carefully.

This will be a longer-term trend over the next decade--the US' "war focus" is likely to shift to an ongoing cold war with Iran and Russia as its attention leaves Afghanistan and Iraq. Once ISIS is pushed out of Iraq and negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban are complete, the US will have its hands newly quite full with Russia and Iran.

But that is likely going to be a problem that comes to a head during the next administration.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Quick Update on Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen

There's been moderate but notable movement in the past few weeks across war fronts in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; I'll highlight them below.

After having been initially repelled, army troops (loyal to the elected government) have moved to encircle Tripoli with support from Zintan militias. They've also moved into Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad from the east, taking those towns back from ISIS.

Government reinforcements have almost surrounded Ramadi, and will counter-siege the ISIS troops in the city. If they take it, expect the government to attempt to similarly encircle Fallujah, just to the east.

Northern Syria:
Kurdish troops are making very slow progress across the Nar al Khabur river into a densely-populated area of Kurdish villages under the control of ISIS. They're battling desperately to take these villages back after finding mass graves in the area.

Southern Syria:
Free Syrian Army troops are making agonizingly slow progress against Syrian government troops in the south, around Daraa. They've recently taken the Nassib crossing and reinforced the Quintera crossing. Closing off Daraa has been attempted and repelled a few times, but would give the FSA access to the highway going north towards Damascus, their final target. They may attempt to circle in from the west, near Quinteria, to link up with pockets of troops to the southwest of Damascus.

The Saudi coalition's air campaign has reversed the Houthi tide, and government troops are making some gains. They're barely holding on to Aden, and are trying to relieve pressure by taking surrounding areas to the west, northwest, and north of the city. They've also moved west from Madrib and are attempting to use Saudi air support to seriously threaten Sana'a.

And, because it will make everyone's day: ISIS and the Taliban have declared jihad against each other.

Sources: All images from Wikipedia:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How the Battle Lines Against ISIS in Iraq Have Moved Over Time

To show progress against ISIS in Iraq, the Pentagon put out a graphic that is somewhat comically difficult to understand. But after the Pentagon's disastrous Powerpoint slide on Afghanistan, we've come to expect little else.

So I decided I'd work with the fine folks in Wikipedia (thanks, guys!) to make a GIF that shows how the battle lines have moved since the ISIS offensive with a few pointers about key events. It's not perfect, but I think it's a big improvement.

Enjoy, and feel free to share or put in your own content.

(Click here for an even larger size.)

And in case you want to look at the photos individually below:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ukraine Eyeing NATO Membership -- the Ante is Upped for Putin

In 2010 Ukraine scrapped its plans to join NATO after pro-Russian Yakunovich was elected president.

Even after the Euromaidan protests that sent Yakunovich fleeing from the country, Ukraine's new government announced no plans to join NATO.

But when one is invaded repeatedly by one's large neighbor, sentiments change.

Ukraine's national security council has declared its support for joining NATO within the next 5 years, and parliament officially dropped Ukraine's "non-aligned" status. Ukrainian support for joining has jumped from 17% to over 50%. President Poroshenko is expected to approve the plan.

Russia will be furious. Russian leadership has already declared in 2014 that Finland joining NATO "could start World War 3," and they'll be even less happy about Ukraine.

The move would set up a show-down over Crimea, which Ukraine and NATO will continue to declare as sovereign to Ukraine. It's unlikely to turn into a war, but would almost certainly mean a heavy NATO troop presence in Ukraine, especially near Russia's border, and an attempt to maneuver Russia into withdrawing from Crimea in a game of soft brinksmanship, I wager.

Russia may well make moves to intimidate Ukraine the way it did Georgia in 2008--although it has already marched into Ukraine several times and seems to be having the opposite effect. Most likely, Russia will issue fairly overt military threats contingent upon Ukraine joining NATO, which will either cow Ukraine or increase its urgency for the alliance.

It's also not 100% clear that NATO will allow Ukraine's entry in the midst of the crisis. NATO's Article 10 requires unanimous consent from all current members to allow a new one to join. The US is likely hungry for Ukrainian membership, but the core European powers that are currently fairly dependent on Russian oil and gas will be more reluctant.

That said, with Russia's economy reeling, "cutting off" oil and gas would be tantamount to imposing new sanctions on itself--an economic shooting of oneself in the foot. Russia is willing to tolerate much more pain than Germany and France, but it might not be able to afford cutting off the money flow from two of its biggest customers.

What we'll keep an eye on is specifically how Putin tries to flex Russia's military muscle (as its economic muscles weaken) to try to knock Ukraine back off the NATO track.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Foggofwar Prediction: Inertia Will Keep the UK In the EU

Just as inertia and fear of disruption kept Scotland from declaring independence from the UK, I think the same inertia will keep the UK in the EU.

Quick context: there's been talk for a while of potentially exiting the EU and Prime Minister David Cameron is pledging to have a 2017 referendum on the question if the Tories win a majority.

But they won't.

Fivethirtyeight predicts a slim Conservative victory over Labor and pretty much no chance of getting an outright majority.

UK General Election Prediction by Fivethirtyeight

Wales is staunchly against withdrawal--most support comes from the English countryside. But even that support for withdrawal has been dropping after a solid four years (2010-2013) of consistent majority.

The window may have passed.

Labour has made it clear that they'd support a referendum if the UK were to lose more sovereignty to the EU, but that's unlikely--the resurgence in nationalism throughout all of Europe is making it unlikely that the Continent will unite any time soon to give the EU more power. Almost everyone seems a bit grumpy with how much power the EU has now, but not enough to seriously consider leaving.

The UK leaving--unlike, say, Greece--could trigger a mass exodus of "satellite" states, from Poland to Portugal. The fact that it won't leave means we're going to see some ongoing stability--but the threat that it might have left will keep the EU from getting more powerful.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Infographic: Major Conflicts in the Middle East

I decided to try my hand at an infographic to get everyone caught up in all the major mayhem in the Middle East currently going on.

If everyone likes it, more will come to try to give the big picture on some individual conflicts.

Enjoy! (Click here for bigger version of the infographic)