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September 16, 2013

Seeing the Mideast Through a Cold War Lens Will End Badly for America

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While I took issue with Andrew Sullivan's idea that Vladimir Putin now "owned" the mess in Syria, Commentary's Jonathan Tobin evidently took the idea to heart and is terrified at the prospect. According to Tobin, it's quite possible that Putin could end up "owning" the Middle East with damaging results for the U.S. around the world:

The guiding principle of Russian foreign policy is twofold: annoy, humiliate, and defeat the United States every chance they get and thereby help rebuild the lost Soviet empire whose fall Putin still mourns. Russian adventurism in Syria won’t stop there. It will extend into Asia and cause havoc and diminish American influence there and everywhere else.

I think Tobin is utterly wrong in his premise that a loss of influence in one area of the world will lead to a loss everywhere (an argument that should have been put to bed after it was thoroughly discredited during the Cold War), but just for the sake of argument, let's accept that his framing is correct. Does it therefore make sense to overthrow Assad? Not even close.

First, let's look at the lay of the land. Russia has one client -- a regime that is battered by a civil war and that looks to be battling a fierce insurgency for years. It has a second, tepid ally in Iran. The U.S., on the other hand, can count on all the other major countries in the region. It's a chessboard that looks distinctly favorable to the U.S. even if Assad stays in power.

Second, for all of Tobin's breathless talk about "Brezhnev-era" diplomacy and Putin's scheme to reconstitute the Soviet empire (!), there is no chance whatsoever that Russia can re-assemble anything remotely like the Soviet Union again. It will never reclaim Central or Eastern Europe. Central Asia is independent and is as likely to tilt toward China as it is toward Russia. Ukraine, Russia's best hope for a pliable neighboring client, is also balking at Russian overtures, despite the election of Viktor Yanukovych, who was widely seen as in Putin's pocket. As Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn noted recently, Russia's entire geopolitcal strategy for its near abroad is collapsing. The idea that saving Assad's bacon is an important building block in restoring Russian power makes sense only if you ignore almost every other development in Russia's Putin-era foreign policy. (It also ignores the strong evidence that Russia is in pretty bad shape domestically, too.)

Then there's the history. The last time the U.S. aided rebel groups to blunt the advance of Russian power, in Afghanistan, it ended in a transnational jihadist movement that killed thousands of Americans. Back then, the U.S. had the benefit of not knowing the danger of Islamic radicalism. Back then, Russia was a legitimate national security threat that warranted such risk taking. Today, there is no such excuse. Russia is hardly a large enough "threat" to the U.S. to warrant stoking a jihadist whirlwind in Syria just to give them a black eye.

(AP Photo)

June 23, 2013

Putin Warns About Demographics, Russia to Earn $250 Billion from Oil

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently warned that his country will feel the effects of low birthrates and declining demographics of the 1990s. "At that time, our country faced a profound demographic crisis. The consequences of this crisis we have not yet felt ourselves, but they will be felt on the economic and social spheres, and in the industrial development," said the President. "We will, unfortunately, face this the coming years." He noted that demographics have vastly improved since then, with birth indicators at their best in the past 20 years.

The real demographic issue that Putin alluded to -- due in large part to a smaller female birth rate throughout the 1990s and steady migration -- was the declining quantity of women in the country reaching child-bearing age. Russia is not alone in this -- practically all European countries are facing a demographic crisis due to low birthrates among core populations.

In other news, Russian state oil company "Rosneft" inked a deal with the Chinese to deliver $270 billion worth of crude over the next 25 years. While economically beneficial for Moscow, this announcement nonetheless caused concern over potential price hikes of gas inside Russia, as consumers pay attention to oil outflows to the ever-demanding Chinese market.

April 24, 2013

Russian Joy Ride Ends in Gaping Head Wound

The use of dashboard cameras in Russia helped us see the amazing meteorite that exploded over Siberia in February. These dash cams have now brought us 'drug user' Sergei Kornev's joy ride in a stolen police car through the streets of Moscow.

The video ends with Kornev colliding into another car and then exiting the cruiser. What you don't see is that, seconds later, he was hit by an oncoming car. According to the Moscow Times, he was left with a "gaping head wound" and snarled traffic for four hours.

A cautionary tale if ever there was one.

March 15, 2013

Here's How Global Warming Will Alter Global Shipping

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This image, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (via Fortune), shows a computer model of what "Supra-Polar" shipping routes will look like if global warming proceeds as expected. As you can see, a melting Arctic will open up a vast swath of ocean, including the Northwest Passage, which is expected to shave 30 percent of the distance to and from North America compared to the current Northern Sea Route, which hugs the Russian coastline.

By mid-century, the shortest route to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific will be the North Pole.

The melting ice not only introduces unpredictable environmental variables, it also deals a blow to Russia's strategic position. As Jennifer Abbasi notes, Russia charges fees for vessels operating in its exclusive economic zone. As the ice opens up and more vessels can range beyond Russia's territorial waters, they'll lose out on their cut.

February 21, 2013

Russia's "Culture of Mistrust"

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Leonid Bershidsky argues that the recent meteor that exploded over Russia has revealed the country's "culture of mistrust." Shortly after the explosion, Bershidsky writes, Russians across the political spectrum began voicing conspiracy theories about the true nature of the blast. Some speculated it was an American weapon, others, a Russian. The widespread use of dashboard cameras that recorded the epic explosion are another testament to Russia's mistrust, he added. Russian citizens use these cameras because they cannot trust the police or other eyewitnesses during car accidents.

Bershidsky doesn't highlight why Russians may be particularly prone to distrusting their officials, but does offer some additional evidence about the lack of trust:

Why the trust deficit? Sociologist Lev Gudkov cited research showing that in 2008, only 27 percent of Russians agreed that people were generally to be trusted, while 68 percent were in favor of caution. In the U.S., 42 percent trusted their fellow citizens, and 57 percent believed them relatively untrustworthy.

Whatever the reason, it goes well beyond astronomical phenomena. Just today, Russia's central bank governor, Sergei Ignatiev, complained that $49 billion, or 2.5 percent of the country's economic output, had left the country illegally in 2012. Ignatiev speculated to a Russian newspaper that the money could have been used to pay for drugs, bribes or simply to avoid taxes.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2013

Watch a Meteorite Explode over Russia

Over 500 people in Russia have been injured by an exploding meteorite that exploded over the skies of western Siberia this morning. Most of the wounded appear to be hurt by breaking glass. The story is still fluid, but the video above gives you a sense of what it looked like from the ground.

February 11, 2013

Russia Is Buying Up Gold

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According to Bloomberg, Russia has become the world's largest buyer of gold. The Russian central bank has added 570 metric tons of the stuff to its reserves, mostly to defend against the collapse of the dollar or euro, which their buying habit suggests is a real possibility.

Not everyone's buying, though:

While Putin is leading the gold rush in emerging markets, developed nations are liquidating. Switzerland unloaded the most in the past decade, 877 tons, an amount now worth about $48 billion, according to International Monetary Fund data through November. France was second with 589 tons, while Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal each sold more than 200 tons.

Even after Putin’s binge, though, Russia’s total cache of about 958 tons is only the eighth largest, the World Gold Council said in a Feb. 8 report. The U.S. is No. 1 with about 8,134 tons, followed by Germany with 3,391 tons and the Washington-based IMF with 2,814 tons. Italy, France, China and Switzerland are fourth through seventh. While gold accounts for 9.5 percent of Russia’s total reserves, it accounts for more than 70 percent in the U.S., Germany, Italy and France.

(AP Photo)

February 7, 2013

The Arc of the Moral Universe and Russia

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Following the passage in recent days of two bills embracing full marriage equality in Britain and France, Andrew Sullivan reflects on the remarkable progress he has witnessed on gay rights in Great Britain:

In the crazed frenzy of this week’s transition, I realized last night that something truly profound had just happened. The country I grew up in – where I never heard the word homosexuality in my home and barely in the culture, except in hushes and shudders – is now on the brink of bringing actual equality and dignity to all its gay citizens. I remember touring Britain with “Virtually Normal” almost two decades ago and finding both Tories and lefties uncomprehending, if not actively hostile. The culture has changed beyond recognition. And undoutbtedly, clearly, unequivocally, for the better. And the argument was made even stronger by the fact that there are over a dozen openly gay Conservative members of parliament – an indication of how conservatism as a governing philosophy can and must include everyone in its ranks, or die a deserved and bigoted death.

Indeed, Andrew believes these recent steps may in fact signal a certain kind of inevitability in the Western world on marriage equality and gay rights. One problem: Russia:

Russia's State Duma is preparing a bill that will ban "homosexual propaganda," which even supporters admit will effectively criminalize almost any overt public expression of gay sexual identity.

The public battle over the draft law has highlighted two different visions of Russian "democracy" and pitted them against each other.

Supporters of the bill, which is strongly backed by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, argue that Russia is a non-Western and "conservative" democracy that defends traditional values and shields the feelings of the majority from the aggressive encroachments of pushy minorities. They say they're not out to persecute gay people, but that they must not be allowed to bring their sexual orientation into the open, where it may influence the attitudes of minors and offend the beliefs of most Russians.

Russian political scientist Sergei Markov, a proponent of LGBT "private zones" in the country, reveals the Kremlin's thinking on this:

The idea that Russia is somehow more backward than the West is a typical error based on the linear understanding of progress that dominated in the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, that notion also served as the basis for the initial, fairly primitive concepts of modernization and democratization in the West. According to this concept of linear progress, all countries are on the same path, and Russia is several decades behind Europe and the U.S. Russia's legislation on LGBT propaganda only reinforce that gap. But modern humanitarian science sees society as multifaceted and allows for different approaches to a single problem. Only time will tell which solution to the issue of minority and majority rights is more effective and humane: Russia's or the West's.

Much like everything else, the Kremlin appears to be looking at this, er, "problem" through a geopolitical lens.

(Photo courtesy of Wiki by way of Sully. Key is here ... notice the big gray blotch east of Europe.)

December 14, 2012

State Capitalism, Russian Style

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One of the simmering fears provoked by the rise of emerging market economies is that the race for critical resources is being won by states that are not afraid to bend the laws of capitalism to advance strategic interests. (The Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer wrote a nice primer on the rise of "state capitalism" which we reviewed here.)

Russia's state-run energy giant Gazprom shows us how it's done:

Bloomberg has estimated that Russia's Gazprom will beat Exxon Mobil this year to become the most profitable company in the world, and yet its shares are down 18 percent. Why? As well as being the most profitable, it is also the biggest spender, using its cash to finance large infrastructure projects that are also priorities of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last year Gazprom spent $53 billion on capital expenditure projects, more than PetroChina's $46 billion or Exxon's $36.8 billion. The huge expenditure meant that just 7 percent of earnings remained to be paid out as dividends, the least amount of the top 10 largest energy companies in the world.

Anaylsts at IFC Metropol and Sberbank CIB have suggested that Gazprom's shareholders are basically paying for Putin's political priorities: building a pipeline to bypass Ukraine, and developing Russia's poor Eastern regions.

While the U.S. certainly puts a lot of diplomatic and military effort into making the word safe for U.S. firms to operate and win contracts, this kind of direct state control isn't yet the norm. Yet as the race heats up for strategic minerals and other resources, we'll likely see a sharper debate over which approach best secures a nation's interest. Will Chinese and Russian firms ultimately implode under the weight of state interference (or be propped up at a loss indefinitely) or will the U.S. begin to mirror their approach in bending (to an even greater degree than it already does) the operation of private firms?

(AP Photo)

November 14, 2012

Does China Really Have More Nuclear Warheads Than Previously Believed?

One Russian analyst thinks the Chinese have a lot more warheads than the U.S. assumes:


China has nearly 750 theater and tactical nuclear warheads in addition to more than 200 strategic missile warheads, a stockpile far larger than U.S. estimates, according to a retired Russian general who once led Moscow’s strategic forces.

New details of China’s strategic and tactical nuclear warheads levels were disclosed by retired Col. Gen. Viktor Yesin, former commander of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, during a conference several months ago. A copy of Yesin’s paper was translated last month by the Georgetown University Asian Arms Control Project and obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.


However, according to Jeffrey Lewis, Yesin's essay is "full of errors" including referencing Chinese nuclear weapons facilities that Lewis himself visited and verified were moth-balled.

Either way, the "consensus" appears to be that China has about 240 nuclear weapons (give or take a hundred).

November 5, 2012

Russia Losing Out in Indian Arms Market

Russia continues to be one of the top weapons exporters around the world, having sold products worth $7 billion by September 2012, states official agency "Rosoboronexport." Yet when it comes to one of the largest global arms markets -- India -- historically active Russian sales have take a serious setback.

Moscow recently lost the fourth consecutive Indian tender for the supply of military aircraft -- the winner in the contest for six aerial refueling tankers was European A330MRTT over Russian IL78MKI. Previous Russian losers in the Indian market included MiG-35 fighter planes, as well as Mi-28NE and Mi-26T2 helicopters.

The defeat in four Indian weapons tenders, including recent attempted sales of refueling aircraft, cost Russia approximately $14 billion of lost profits. Such numbers point to the continuing importance of India -- and Asian market in general -- as the key area of military sales and acquisition. Russian military exports continue to do well on the global market -- second only behind the United States -- yet Indian refusal to purchase Russian equipment points to the changing technological and political priorities of New Delhi, which recently started prioritizing military purchases from the United States and Israel.

Such series of defeats in the Indian tenders indicate a systemic crisis in the military-industrial and arms export complex of Russia, states Lenta.ru. Part of it is ill-conceived export policy and Russia's actual marketing strategy. If the United States brings to the international exhibitions actual working samples of their products, Russia, as a rule, "teases" potential buyers with booklets and toy plastic models of its weapons. Even simulated air combat, which is so popular in the West as part of weapons marketing, is rarely seen with Russian equipment.

September 6, 2012

See Putin Fly

The New York Times explains:

Vladimir V. Putin is the unquestioned supreme leader of Russia, known for his icy stare and steely ways. But now Mr. Putin has taken on a new, perhaps more tender, leadership role. He has guided a flock of birds — through the air.

Russia’s president piloted a motorized hang glider over an Arctic wilderness while leading six endangered Siberian cranes toward their winter habitat, as part of an operation called “The Flight of Hope,” his press office confirmed Wednesday.

August 29, 2012

Romney Campaign Gets Tough on Russia

Josh Rogin reports that the Romney campaign isn't backing down on its tough rhetoric toward Russia:

"Russia is a significant geopolitical foe. Governor Romney recognizes that," Romney advisor Rich Williamson said at a Tuesday afternoon event hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. "That's not to say they are the same sort of direct military threat as they were."

Williamson, joined on the panel by top advisor Pierre-Richard Prosper, said that the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has made strategic opposition to the West and the United States in particular a premier plank of its agenda. A Romney administration would end the Russian "reset" and confront Russia on Syria, Georgia, Iran, and several other issues, he said.

"They are our foe. They have chosen a path of confrontation, not cooperation, and I think the governor was correct in that even though there are some voices in Washington that find that uncomfortable," he said. "So those who say, ‘Oh gosh, oh golly, Romney said they're our geopolitical foe' don't understand human history. And those who think liberal ideas of engagement will bend actions also don't understand history. We're better to be frank and honest."

So the Romney campaign is basically arguing that Russia's internal governance is going to be a matter of high priority for them and that Russia's lack of cooperation with the U.S. is a result of a failure of the Obama administration's reset policy. In other words, the Romney campaign seems to be suggesting that they will not only shame and excoriate Russia at every turn over their domestic shortcomings, but also extract more cooperation from them on matters vital to U.S. interests.

I wonder how this will work.

The only evidence we have to suggest this would work is Williamson reminding us that Reagan called the Soviet Union an "Evil Empire" yet still negotiated arms limitations treaties with them - ignoring the fact that these negotiations were almost universally opposed and derided as appeasement by neoconservatives.

It's obvious the Romney campaign wants U.S. relations with Russia to get worse. What's not clear - and where the campaign still needs to show its work - is how this deterioration is going to redound to America's benefit.

Update: Larison unpacks the campaign's thinking:

The thinking seems to have been something like this: 1) the “reset” is a signature Obama initiative; 2) Romney is therefore against the “reset” no matter what; 3) if that isn’t enough of a reason, Romney is against the “reset” because it represents appeasement and weakness; 4) Russia only respects strength and resolve, so Romney will undo the “reset” to show that America is “strong.” There is no evidence that Russia would respond well to being hectored over its domestic political and legal systems, and there is even less evidence that the Russian government and Putin in particular would respond well to direct confrontation of the sort Romney’s adviser Richard Williamson endorsed yesterday. There is a great deal of evidence supporting the opposing view...

August 18, 2012

Russia's Real Problems: Angry Feminists, Gay Parades

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It was a strange Friday in Russia. The feminist punk rock group called Pussy Riot was convicted of hooliganism and faces two years in a prison colony for an anti-Putin performance in a Moscow cathedral. The very same day, a Moscow court upheld a 100-year ban on gay parades.

Russia has a long list of very serious problems. By 2050, the country may lose 25 million people. Having so few young people to care for an elderly population will place an enormous strain on the government. Also, Russia faces an epidemic of alcohol abuse. And large protests, such as those that occurred after Putin's election, show that the Russian people are growing weary of Putin's heavy-handed tactics.

As they did toward the end of the Soviet regime, Russians are once again openly mocking their government. During the Pussy Riot trial, the Moscow Times reports that "[e]ven court marshals and police guards couldn't hold back their laughter. It got so bad at one point that the judge had to throw several people out of the courtroom for chuckling, and one observer who dared to smile was escorted out by a security guard."

Indeed, Russia is facing many serious problems. Fortunately for Putin, the existential threat of angry feminism and gay parades have been eliminated for now.

(AP photo)

August 8, 2012

Russian General: Rumors of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Some dark humor out of Syria:

A Russian general met reporters at the Defense Ministry in Moscow on Wednesday to deny reports that he had been killed by rebel forces in Syria and was shown on television looking well. "I want to confirm that I am alive and well. I am in good health and I'm living in Moscow," Vladimir Petrovich Kuzheyev, a reserve general, was quoted as saying by Itar-Tass news agency.

Russian television briefly showed footage of Kuzheyev, in a blue shirt and no tie, at the Defense Ministry.

A Syrian rebel group said it had killed a Russian general working as an adviser to Syria's Defense ministry in an operation in the western Ghouta region on the outskirts of the capital Damascus.

July 23, 2012

Russia Declares War on Hamburgers

After worms were found in a "McChicken" sandwich in a Moscow McDonald's, Russia's top health inspector Gennady Onischenko had a few sharp words for the international chain and for hamburgers in general:

He referred to the McChicken sandwich as "an excuse for food."

Then, Onishchenko turned his ire at hamburgers.

"I would like to remind our fellow citizens that hamburgers, even without worms, are not a good choice of a meal for residents of Moscow and of Russia. This is not our cuisine."

But Onischenko isn't a disinterested gourmand:

Onishchenko has a history of giving medical advice and issuing warnings about imported food and drink that assist the Kremlin's political goals.

Amid unprecedented anti-Putin protests last December, for example, Onishchenko warned Russians not to take to the streets lest they succumb to the winter weather and catch a cold.

In the past he has also ruled that Moldovan and Georgian wines were unfit for consumption and banned them, decimating one of the countries’ most lucrative export industries at a time when Chisinau and Tbilisi’s relations with Russia had hit a low.

He has also taken aim at Ukrainian cheese and Belarusian milk at times when Moscow's relations with those countries were strained.

July 16, 2012

Russia Condemns Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

The diplomatic wrangling over Syria is steadily escalating:

Russian Human Rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov had expressed “great concern” about the situation in eastern Saudi Arabia following what he described as clashes between law enforcement and peaceful demonstrators in which two people were killed and more than 20 were wounded, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry website.

The Saudi interior ministry has said there were no clashes but that two people were killed by unknown assailants last Sunday in the east, where the country’s minority Muslim Shi’ite population is concentrated.

“The Kingdom learned with strong astonishment and surprise about the comment by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s representative on human rights which represents a blatant and unjustified intervention … in the internal affairs of the kingdom,” SPA quoted a Foreign Ministry statement, attributed to an “official source”, as saying.

Mark Adomanis thinks the Russians are "concern trolling." Certainly, the hypocrisy here knows no bounds.

July 10, 2012

Wikipedia Takes on Russian Regime Over Web Censorship

Via the New York Times:

Major Internet sites and human rights advocates sharply criticized a proposed law that would grant the Russian government broad new powers to restrict Web content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material. Critics said the law could quickly lead to repression of speech and a restrictive firewall like the one in China.

Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, shut its Russian Web site on Tuesday to protest the proposed measure, and instead posted a large warning on its home page: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” The notice said the proposed law “can lead to the creation of extrajudicial censorship of the Internet in Russia, including the closure of access to Wikipedia.”

July 5, 2012

Russia: No Asylum for Assad

Despite some hopes to the contrary, it seems Russia isn't moving the West's way on Syria:

Moscow lashed out on Thursday at the Western position on Syria, saying it could aggravate the situation to the point of war. “Their [Western] position is most likely to exacerbate the situation, lead to further violence and ultimately a very big war,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The West has also distorted the Russian position on Syria by suggesting Moscow should offer Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asylum, he said.

“This is either an unscrupulous attempt to mislead serious people who shape foreign policy or simply a misunderstanding of what is going on,” Lavrov said.

He also warned that Russia will reject any UN Security Council peace enforcement resolution on Syria, since that would be “nothing but intervention.”

When it comes to intervention in Syria, none of the great powers are in much of a position to decry it.

May 16, 2012

Russia & NATO's Missile Defense

Last week, Kennette Benedict argued that NATO's contentious missile defense shield was actually a dud that didn't work. The gist:

Independent scientists and engineers in the United States and Russia have consistently judged past efforts to be failures, and they have written detailed reviews showing why the plans for such missile defenses are not technically feasible. Yet, in spite of these technical critiques and negative results, the US government has persisted in its claims of success. Until now.

A little-noticed report released in September 2011 by the Defense Science Board, an independent advisory committee to the US Defense Department, found three major problems with the Early Intercept Ballistic Missile Defense now being developed. Apparently, (1) none of the necessary radars in the European Phased Adaptive Approach defense system are powerful enough to work, (2) none of the existing missile defense sensors can reliably distinguish among warheads, decoys, and other debris, and (3) US intelligence already has observed foreign ballistic missile launches that can deploy decoys and other countermeasures. So, after 27 years of development and $150 billion spent, there still is no effective missile shield -- it is still a dream.


I'm not well versed enough in the relevant studies to pass judgment here, but one thing that came to mind when reading the piece was - if the missile shield doesn't actually work, and if everyone knows it doesn't work, why is Russia freaking out? Now Benedict is back with a piece laying out Russia's objections in greater detail:

NATO says its missile defense system is flexible and adaptive and deployments would correspond to the ballistic missile threat from the south. (Because of Turkish sensitivity, NATO cannot explicitly label Iran as the threat.) It is this adaptive uncertainty, not today's capabilities, that most concerns Russia. US radars and satellites could be upgraded and integrated to work jointly with additional ally and partner sensors to seriously "beef up" the system's efficiency, Deputy Chief of General Staff Colonel-General Vladimir Gerasimov said PPT. Colonel Evgeny Ilyin added that the mobility of sea-based assets, the numbers of deployed interceptors, and their velocities were among the other factors that, if enhanced, could pose a threat to Russia. Moscow is unsure about the NATO system's parameters but knows what they should not be.

It's worth reading in full to get the full sense of Russia's concerns.

May 10, 2012

What Can't Putin Do?

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To celebrate his inauguration, newly installed Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the ice rink. Amazingly, his ragtag group of amateurs defeated a professional hockey team, with Mr. Putin himself scoring the game-winning goal. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, accompanied by a "blond female translator," was there to cheer him on.

The Telegraph goes on to report:

Within minutes of his first appearance, the legends' defence seemed to magically vanish into thin air, allowing Mr Putin through to deftly slot the puck into the back of the net and equalise.

...

The referee then decreed that the match be decided by penalties and Mr Putin had the decisive shot, flicked the puck past the mountainous goaltender - who somehow avoided getting in the way of the softly-struck shot - and his team had won.

Mr. Putin's list of achievements is indeed quite long. Not only is he a skilled hockey player, but he is also an F1 race car driver, an archaeologist, and a rugged survivalist who can brave the Siberian wilderness without a shirt. And as a 2009 ABC News report stated, he is also adept at "volleyball, skiing, blacksmithing. He rides in submarines and fighter jets. He bowls. He tranquilizes tigers."

Is there anything this man can't do?

Well, there is one thing: Term limits. He definitely can't do those.

(AP Photo)

April 27, 2012

Georgia's President to Putin: Take My B@lls, Please

Sometimes international politics can be fun:

Speaking to journalists, Saakashvili reiterated accusations that the Kremlin wants to oust him from power.

​​On a more bizarre note, Saakashvili said he was even willing to sacrifice parts of his body that Moscow has "shown interest in" -- a hint at then-President Vladimir Putin's infamous 2008 pledge to "hang Saakashvili by the balls."

"In addition, I am ready to cut off and send them those parts of my body which they have shown interest in more than once," Saakashvili said. "I am really ready to do it, and I say this without a hint of irony, as long as they pull out their forces from here and give Georgia's people -- its multiethnic population -- an opportunity to develop within the internationally recognized borders."

April 12, 2012

Putin Supports Term Limits

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There is a catch, however: He only supports term limits for the next president. The Los Angeles Times reports:

...Putin made it clear that the two-term limit he was endorsing "wouldn't be retroactive," meaning it wouldn't apply to him.

And:

If Putin seeks yet a fourth term, as expected, he would be leader of the Kremlin longer than anyone since dictator Josef Stalin.

It is often said that Belarus is "Europe's last dictatorship." Unfortunately, that may no longer be the case.

(AP Photo)

March 28, 2012

Who Is America's #1 Geopolitical Foe?

We know Mitt Romney thinks it's Russia and now the White House is on record giving al-Qaeda the dubious honor, but neither of these answers seems all that satisfying. Romney's answer, redolent of the Cold War, at least has the benefit of anointing a bona-fide geopolitical heavyweight. The White House's response has the benefit of identifying a group that is actually implacably hostile to the U.S., even if its power is negligible.

So who should get the top spot? China, like Russia, has geopolitical clout but isn't hostile to the U.S. across the board in the manner of an al-Qaeda. Beyond China, countries like Iran or North Korea (or even Pakistan) could earn a nod for their hostility to U.S. regional aims, but again, not for their power or geopolitical weight.

Even conducting this thought experiment usefully illustrates the fact that the U.S. is actually in a pretty nice geopolitical position in 2012: it has very few implacable enemies and none that are very powerful. There are very powerful states that, on certain issues, play a spoiler role, but the era of straight-up great power antagonism is gone. As James Joyner pointed out, the entire notion of the U.S. having a "number one geopolitical foe" is an "outmoded concept."

At least for now.

March 16, 2012

Russia's Influence: Not Extending

Jennifer Rubin is discouraged by the Obama administration's reluctance to enter into Syria's civil war:

Not unlike the Green Revolution in 2009, the president nearly three years later is willing to allow an opportunity — to undermine Iran, support democracy, reassert U.S. leadership — slip away. Every now and then the president talks a good game on human rights, but his heart is never in it. In this case, even when coupled with an obvious and compelling national security objective, passivity rules the day.

Obama’s reelection objective, namely no more foreign conflicts, trumps decent policy. But the foreign conflicts don’t go away simply because we don’t participate. Instead, despots triumph, other powers (e.g. Russia) extend their influence and the United States’s credibility is eroded. When they ask, “Who lost Syria and Iran?” you’ll know the answer.

I commend the comments of Larison and Massie here on the dubious logic underlying the claim that either Iran or Syria were ours to "lose."

Instead, I will point out another curious concern of Rubin's - the supposed "extension" of Russian influence. Syria has always been close with Russia - they haven't suddenly become tight during Assad's crackdown. Russia is indeed backing Assad's brutal repression, but that's not an extension of anything, it's been Russia's policy to backstop the regime for years now. It's not like the Russians are suddenly "influencing" states not already allied with them...

March 8, 2012

Poll: U.S. Voters Have Low Opinion of Russia

According to IBOPE Zogby, some results of a recent poll on U.S.-Russian ties:

Six in ten have an unfavorable opinion of Russia (61%)
Three quarters (75%) do not think Russia is a trusted ally of the US
Three quarters (75%) have an unfavorable opinion of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin
84% are not confident in the legitimacy of the Russian election process
52% believe Russia is a nuclear threat to the US, with 14% saying Russia is a major threat and 38% saying it is somewhat of a threat
48% believe Russia secretly aids terrorist threats to the US

More here.

March 7, 2012

Judging the Reset

Jennifer Rubin is outraged that President Obama didn't scold Russia on its recent election:

No condemnation. No rejection of the results as invalid. No protest over the arrest of an opposition leader. This sort of mealy mouthed suggestion is all we get…

One 2012 presidential candidate is unwilling to dissemble and to ignore not only a gross violation of human rights, but also a slap in the face of the U.S. administration that has dispensed one benefit after another (e.g., removing missile site for Eastern Europe, letting Russia into the World Trade Organization) with the lame promise that Russia would reform.

It's fascinating that what passes as a "conservative" foreign policy these days is the moral reclamation of various countries.

It's also wrong to claim that the "reset" was about reforming Russia. It was about reducing tensions with Russia and finding areas of cooperation. It needs to be judged on those grounds, not on whether Russia's domestic behavior conforms to our standards.

March 1, 2012

Putin and Vote Stuffing

Ahead of Russia's first round of presidential voting, Konstantin Sonin says that any overt ballot stuffing by Putin would be counter-productive:

In the past week, the country's leading polling organizations have issued one rosy forecast after another regarding Putin's chances of winning in the first round with more than 50 percent of the vote. But there are reasons to question the reliability of these polls.

Thus, there is a real possibility that Putin will receive less than 50 percent without falsification.

If only 45 percent of the people vote for Putin and the authorities announce that he received 52 percent of the vote, the resulting protests will probably be relatively small. But if Putin receives only 35 percent to 40 percent of the vote but declares that he won 52 percent, the protests might be so large that the authorities would be forced to hold new elections.

That might sound implausible at first, but large-scale electoral fraud in favor of the incumbent leader followed by massive peaceful protests that resulted in new elections has played out in dozens of countries over the past quarter century.


January 19, 2012

Putin: Radio Pours Diarrhea On Me

Metaphorically, of course:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused a leading liberal radio station of constantly disparaging him and serving foreign interests.

At a regular meeting with editors-in-chief of leading media, he told Moscow Echo radio's Alexei Venediktov: "You pour diarrhoea over me day and night."

He singled out a discussion of Russia's opposition to US missile defence plans in Europe as an example of Echo's bias.

December 1, 2011

The Dynamic of Russia's Ruling Tandem

In two photos:

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(AP Photo)

November 20, 2011

Azerbaijan Buys Chinese Planes, Russia Disses Own Tanks

Azerbaijan recently announced that it is purchasing Chinese-made JF-17 Thunder fighter jets. This is a bold move by China into what was, up until recently, a Russian-dominated military sales market, and the geopolitical space that Moscow considers its own and which Washington considers as vital to its interests both in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Given how sales of military equipment can solidify alliances between nations - such as between the U.S. and Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and many other states - this purchase has the potential to alter security dynamics in the Caucasus and beyond. On its own, Azerbaijan demonstrated that it can reject a wide variety of military aircraft - such as American F-16 and F/A18, EU's Eurofighter, French Rafael, Swedish Gripen, Russian Mig-29 and Su-27 - in favor of a plane that is untried and untested in military combat.

This purchase binds Baku to Beijing's military industry, since supply parts, service, maintenance and training would have to be done by China, at least initially. At this point, only Pakistan operates JF-17, which is close to combat performance than Russian-made Mig-29 or American F/A-18 fighter planes. However, Azerbaijan may have simply been buying smart - the cost of a each Chinese fighter jets is only $20 million.

Continue reading "Azerbaijan Buys Chinese Planes, Russia Disses Own Tanks" »

October 12, 2011

Russians Find Bigfoot

According to the Guardian:

The vast Siberian tundra holds untold mysteries, from once-secret nuclear installations to alleged UFO crash sites.

Now, a team of scientists say they are "95%" sure that Russia's wintry expanse is home to the mythical yeti, otherwise known as the abominable snowman.

More than a dozen scientists and yeti enthusiasts flew in from Canada, Estonia, Sweden and the US to exchange findings with their Russian counterparts at a day-long conference in the town of Tashtagol, some 2,000 miles east of Moscow in the Kemerovo region. Locals there have reported an increase in sightings of a creature in recent years.

A two-day expedition to the region's Azassky cave and Karatag peak over the weekend "collected irrefutable evidence" of the yeti's existence there, the Kemerovo government claimed in a statement. "In one of the detected tracks, Russian scientist Anatoly Fokin noted several hairs that might belong to the yeti," it added. Scientists also found footprints, a presumed bed and various other markers.

It's kind of reassuring to know that despite all the turbulence around the world, people still have time to be "Yeti enthusiasts."

October 11, 2011

Judging the Reset

Putin’s return should serve as a wakeup call for President Obama and his advisers. The “reset” policy profoundly misreads not only why U.S.-Russia relations chilled in the first place, but also what is truly required to improve them. The problem was not U.S. rhetoric or actions, but the nature of the Russian regime. U.S.-Russian relations will not be on a firm footing until Moscow changes its strategic outlook and the Russian people are truly free to choose their own leaders. [Emphasis mine] - Jamie Fly and Robert Zarate

The U.S. arguably accomplished something similar to this during the Cold War. That took six decades to accomplish and still produced a Russian polity that outrages American conservatives. Could it be that Russia's "strategic outlook" is less malleable than Washington strategists would prefer?

September 30, 2011

Isn't It Ironic?

John Walsh:

The death is announced of Wilson Greatbatch, 92, the American inventor of the cardiac pacemaker, a revolutionary device which has, since the 1960s, pumped life into millions of people. And there's some news about Mikhail Kalashnikov, also 92, inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle, a revolutionary device which has, since the 1950s, done the exact opposite. A Russian newspaper reports that, although the Russian army is no longer buying his weapon – the most effective killing machine in human history – the company has told its staff not to tell Mr Kalashnikov about it, in case the shock kills him.

September 29, 2011

Russia Boasts of Huge Oil Find

Putin may be feeling flush:

According to numerous Russian media reports, addressing a meeting of the sixth media forum of the United Russia Party on 25 September, Russian Natural Resources Minister Iury Trutnev said that the preliminary forecast is that resources in the Russian Arctic shelf are comparable to those in mainland Russia, adding, “Speaking of long-term planning, these reserves could last 100, may be 150 years, but longer is unlikely. Humanity will eventually have to look for new energy anyway. Recently, we completed 40-year talks with Norway, delineated the gray zone, and now obtained another 5 billion tons of fuel equivalent there.” Trutnev’s new Arctic reserve claims are buttressed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) 2008 survey, which estimated that 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 1.668 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas lie beneath the Arctic’s waters and ice, representing 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil. Strong oil prices, more advanced offshore equipment and receding sea ice are leading to a growing interest in the Arctic.

September 15, 2011

Don't Play Ahmadinejad's UN Game

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The 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly convened this week in New York City.

Libya’s ousted Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution Muammar Gaddafi dare not show his face due to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant upon his head for crimes against humanity. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez cannot attend either because of ongoing chemotherapy. But Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to be there.

We will no longer be entertained and infuriated by scenes of Chavez sarcastically speaking about satanic sulfur in 2006 or Gaddafi disdainfully chucking the UN charter over his shoulder in 2009. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad plans on yanking the West’s chain yet again. He will distribute a book on alleged atrocities committed against Iran and Iranians by American, British and Soviet forces during World War II, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reports:

Ahmadinejad will go to New York late this week, taking 1000 English copies of Documents on the Occupation of Iran during World War II. Iran’s occupation by the Allies during World War II is an international issue. This book contains many documents referring to the abuses inflicted by the Allies against the Iranian people.

The five-volume work is to be presented as evidence at the UN General Assembly, a parallel story in the Tehran Times notes:

to demand compensation from the Allies for violation of Iran’s neutrality during that world conflict.

So even though his comrades from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party cannot be there, Iran’s chief executive will do his best to incite American, British and Russian emotions – and he is well accomplished at provoking negative responses. But unlike Alice, officials in Washington, London and Moscow should not respond in anger. Paying no attention to his theatrics will deny Iran’s president the pleasure he seeks.

Let’s not give Ahmadinejad a tale to spin for Chavez when he flys to Caracas after the New York visit.

(AP Photo)

August 31, 2011

Allies in Danger?

Potential presidential candidate John Bolton argues that U.S. allies are put in danger by President Obama's nuclear policies:

Within the administration, there are strong advocates for America pledging “no first use” of nuclear weapons. Although the nuclear posture review “only” expanded “negative security assurances” somewhat, there is little doubt that “no first use” is alive and well in internal administration councils. These self-imposed constraints on the use of nuclear weapons reinforce the allies’ concern that Mr. Obama has forgotten the central Cold War lesson about the U.S. nuclear deterrent. There was never any doubt that a Soviet attack through the Fulda Gap into Western Europe would have swept through NATO forces, possibly all the way to the English Channel. Thus, the threat of U.S. nuclear retaliation against such an attack - an unambiguous case of a U.S. first use of nuclear weapons - was precisely what was needed to keep Soviet forces on their side of the Iron Curtain.
How is this lesson applicable to today? What army is poised to sweep into Europe, overwhelming Western defenses and precipitating a nuclear first strike as a desperate gambit to keep the West free?

Bolton then proceeds to undermine his argument that America's allies are feeling "increasingly insecure" about America's nuclear posture:

Accordingly, Europeans should be very worried that they are increasingly on their own to face the re-emerging threat of Russian belligerence. Because the New START treaty does not limit tactical nuclear weapons, Europe, simply because of geographic proximity, is most vulnerable to Russia’s advantage in that category. It is thus highly ironic that some NATO countries have recently called for removing the last U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, which will simply enhance Russia’s existing lead. [emphasis mine]

In other words, Europe isn't all that afraid of the re-emerging threat of Russian belligerence. Granted, attitudes toward Russia vary significantly in Europe but most of Western Europe, the former core of NATO, is not gripped by the panic that apparently envelopes Mr. Bolton.

August 22, 2011

When a TV Commercial Is Not Just a Commercial

From time to time, we all get offended by what we see on TV.

Recently, Russian World War II veterans were deeply offended by a television commercial that advertised model German tank assembly kits. In particular, this commercial advertised German "Tigers," a famous tank designed to stop Soviet T-34 tanks and which made their debut at the massive Battle of Kursk in 1943.

The veterans' association considered such commercials as "propaganda for Nazi military weapons." When the vets turned to lawyers for advice, they were told that since the kits feature no German or Nazi insignia, such commercials were perfectly legal. It's notable that Austria prohibited similar advertisements on the country's television back in 2010.

August 12, 2011

Russia, China Shower Venezuela With Cash

Russia grants Venezuela $4 billion for military spending while China is lending Venezuela an additional $4 billion:

Venezuela is finalizing agreements for two separate credit lines of $4 billion each with Russia and China, with a portion of the financing earmarked for military equipment for the South American nation, according to Venezuelan state media.

With the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela needs a well equipped military to defend itself from foreign aggression, President Hugo Chavez said during a broadcast phone call reported by the Venezuelan News Agency.

Chavez had to call in the news from Havana, where he is undergoing chemotherapy.

Readers of this blog may recall that Russia has financed over $6 billion worth of military equipment from 2005-2010.

On the other hand, Venezuela is borrowing at least $24 billion from China:

last year, Venezuela received a $20 billion credit line from the China Development Bank for housing

The housing construction has not started, but Hugo's betting on oil futures, so to speak, in a very big way.

August 9, 2011

Sanctions and Russian Human Rights

In the past, I've wondered just how U.S. sanctions could change Russia's internal behavior. So I was pleased to see the Washington Post editorial page tackle this head-on with a piece titled "Sanctions Can Promote Human Rights in Russia." After the Obama administration approved some travel bans, the Post argues, Russian behavior changed:

At first, Russian spokesmen issued vague, empty threats of retaliation. Then authorities announced that two prison doctors implicated in the death of the lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, would be prosecuted. Finally, government prosecutors said last week that they had reopened the case brought against Mr. Magnitsky that led to his imprisonment, mistreatment and death in 2009.

Most likely, the new investigation represents another cynical maneuver by the Russian Interior Ministry, which has managed to protect the police officials responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death for two years despite public promises of justice by Mr. Medvedev.

In other words - even if the penalties work, they don't work because the Russians are going to respond with "cynical maneuvers." So what was the point again?

August 2, 2011

Putin Gets His Licks In

AFP reports:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday accused the United States of acting as a "parasite" on the world economy by accumulating massive debts that threaten the global financial system.

"The country is living in debt. It is not living within its means, shifting the weight of responsibility on other countries and in a way acting as a parasite," Putin told a group of pro-Kremlin youth in central Russia.

Meanwhile, Michael Schuman provides a more measured analysis of what impact the U.S. debt deal will have on the global economy.

August 1, 2011

Judging the U.S.-Russia Reset

The White House touts its "reset" policy toward Russia as one of its key diplomatic successes. But the Russian authorities were caught off-guard when Washington quietly barred some of their officials from traveling to the United States this week, a move that threatens to undo some of the gains Washington has made boosting ties with Moscow.

The State Department blacklist targets those connected to a scandal that's drawn widespread international condemnation: the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer jailed in 2009 after accusing police of bilking the government of more than $200 million. A report commissioned by President Dmitry Medvedev himself concluded Magnitsky was denied medical care and probably severely beaten before he died. - Gregory Feifer

There seems to be a belief in some quarters that acts of Russian hostility abroad (i.e. toward Georgia) or internal violence somehow undermine the 'reset' - as if all that's needed to push Russia toward a true liberal democracy are more U.S. sanctions and hectoring. But the reset will stand or fall on how much cooperation the U.S. can get on important strategic matters. There are obviously people who are legitimately distressed about Russia's internal governance and their behavior toward Georgia, but ultimately the U.S. can only be the champion of her own interests.

July 1, 2011

Redeeming Russia

Ariel Cohen and Donald Jensen argue that the aim of U.S. policy toward Russia should be the latter's moral enlightenment:

When the Soviet Union fell in December 1991, Washington rushed to Boris Yeltsin’s assistance. The world expected that Russia would eventually grow to be more like the United States or Western Europe. By the late 1990s, however, Russia was rapidly regressing from Western political models. Beginning around 2000, the two sides returned to a relationship based on strategic security concerns resembling the old Cold War paradigm.

Moscow and Washington quickly exhausted this security agenda for U.S.–Russian rapprochement, however, and the pendulum swung back. During the rest of the decade, while Russia rejected American efforts to promote democracy in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, Washington grew alarmed at the increasing authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. George W. Bush’s proclamation of America’s duty to press for democratic values around the globe further alienated the Kremlin.

Then they take aim at the Obama administration's reset:

While the gains from the “reset” relationship have been exaggerated, the cost in terms of the U.S. moral authority has been high. The Obama Administration has explicitly disavowed linkages within its Russia policy components, such as punishing Russian misbehavior in one area by withholding concessions in another.

There is good reason to believe, moreover, that Russian leaders do not take White House efforts at promoting human rights seriously. They know that the U.S. Administration is chained to the “reset” and will do little more than verbally object to the Kremlin’s abuses of human rights and the rule of law.

The authors then argue that the U.S. should once again make a play for changing Russia's internal governance. Leave aside the unsupported assertion that the reset delivered "exaggerated" gains (it's hard to tell if they're exaggerated if the authors won't deign to tell us what they are) and focus on the practicalities here. The authors admit that - despite Western efforts when Russia was weaker and in need of external help in the 1990s - the U.S. was unable to make Russia "grow to be more" like us. So why now, in 2011, are the prospects so much better?

One need not think that the "reset" was a major win for the U.S. to conclude that picking fights with Russia's leaders over how they rule (or misrule) their people is actually going to be productive - either at changing the behavior we disapprove of or securing cooperation on geo-political issues.

June 12, 2011

Ukrainian Tanks Again Beat Out Russian Competition

Ukrainian defense consortium Ukrspetsexport scored yet another victory in its global competition against the Russian military export machine - this time, it's Ethiopia that will purchase 200 Ukrainian-modified T-72E1 main battle tanks. This deal, worth about $100 million, is Ukrspetsexport's largest in the past eight years.

This is yet another instance when international buyers chose technology that was developed in the Soviet days, but is currently fielded by Russia's competitors like Ukraine. Such competition essentially offers technology that is identical to what Moscow offers, but at a cheaper price.

Earlier, RCW reported that Russia lost tank tenders in Malaysia and Thailand to Ukraine and Poland. This time, the Ethiopian purchase may have larger consequences, since the country sits in the unstable region of Africa where armed conflict may be inevitable - Ethiopia fought a war with Eritrea, invaded Somalia in a bid to bring stability to the lawless country, and is bordered by Sudan, which could erupt in a new round of civil war that may pull in neighboring states.

This could mean that Ethiopia may use its armed forces for military action, utilizing its tank corps and eventually needing more tanks, spare parts and expertise. For now, Ukraine has definitely established itself as a go-to place for heavy military machinery - a fact that is not lost on Russia.

Your move, Moscow ...

June 8, 2011

The Reset, RIP?

Stephen Cohen charts the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations:

Still more, expanding NATO eastward has institutionalized a new and even larger geopolitical conflict with Russia. Moscow’s protests and countersteps against NATO encroachment, especially Medvedev’s statement in 2008 that Russia is entitled to a “sphere of strategic interests” in the former Soviet republics, have been indignantly denounced by American officials and commentators as “Russia’s determination to re-establish a sphere of influence in neighboring countries.” Thus, Biden stated in Moscow in March, “We will not recognize any state having a sphere of influence.”

But what is NATO’s eastward movement other than a vast expansion of America’s sphere of influence—military, political and economic—into what had previously been Russia’s? No US official or mainstream commentator will admit as much, but Saakashvili, the Georgian leader bent on joining the alliance, feels no such constraint. In 2010, he welcomed the growth of “NATO’s presence in the region” because it enables the United States and its allies to “expand their sphere of influence.” Of all the several double standards in US policy-making—“hypocrisy,” Moscow charges—none has done more to prevent an American-Russian partnership and to provoke a new cold war.

I think the lingering distrust on both sides explains why the initial bout of NATO expansion was (from Washington's point of view) necessary and inevitable and (from Russia's point of view) threatening. It was unrealistic to expect two countries that had been locked in a decades-long struggle to instantly shed their habits and cooperate in previously contested geopolitical space.

June 6, 2011

A New Russian-U.S. Arms Race?

Richard Lourie argues that the U.S. and Russia may be heading towards a new arms race:

On May 20, Russia’s top generals made what Time magazine called “a startling admission of weakness.” In their opinion, by 2015 the NATO missile defense system would neutralize both Russia’s ICBMs and its submarine-based ballistic missiles. That could be devastating for Russia because, as defense analyst Ruslan Pukhov points out, for “relatively little expense, Russia’s nuclear forces support the country’s status as a great power, provide a military deterrent to other major powers and enable it to maintain moderately sized conventional forces.”

But Pukhov also demonstrates that the generals are wrong about the 2015 date — or were just making noises as part of the bargaining process. Russia’s nuclear arsenal will not be significantly stymied by the system NATO wants to put in place. But once in place, that system could provide an excellent base for a more elaborate system that could indeed neutralize Russia as a nuclear power. Since Russia has no leverage over the United States and NATO, its only choice would be to upgrade its own heavy, ground-based multistage missiles. In other words, Russia and the United States, without in the least meaning to, may be backing into a new arms race.

May 25, 2011

Putin, Hero

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RFL reports:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, clad in a kimono, rushes to rescue a bus threatened by an Al-Qaeda bomb.

He narrowly manages to save the passengers with the help of his loyal, bear-costumed sidekick, President Dmitry Medvedev.

That's the plot of a new comic strip that has taken the Internet by storm.

"Superputin, A Man Like Any Other," has been viewed almost 3 million times since being posted last week on a specially created website, www.superputin.ru.

I'm more of a Silver Surfer guy myself.

May 18, 2011

Medvedev's Criticism and Putin's Czarist Vision

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Over at Shadow Government, former USAID honcho Paul Bonicelli writes on Putin's latest movements:

But there is that other reason Putin is calling for a popular front and a uniting of every civic and social force he can collect under his banner: it is the way to take Russia back to the age and politics he is most comfortable with, that of czarist Russia, albeit with a twist. Putin has demonstrated after ten years in power that what he is really comfortable with is a Russia that looks and acts a lot more like that of the czars who practiced political and philosophical absolutism. The czars established control over the domestic scene by subjecting all societal groupings and activities to the service of the divine right state. Putin is not a czar de jure but he can be one de facto. This is a minor detail for one so determined to rule as he sees fit. So by defining the nature of the electoral system in terms of who can run and who controls the economy, he's got the electoral problem essentially solved. And this assured control at home means it is much easier to control the "near abroad" and exert influence over world affairs.

I find this to be an interesting point considering this news on Medvedev's latest comments criticizing Putin's lackadaisical attitude toward modernization. He goes on to state that imprisoned energy tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky would pose "absolutely no danger" to society if he were pardoned or released, while also sharing rare public criticism directed at Putin's oil czar:

As for Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, the country’s oil czar, Mr. Medvedev seemingly had him in mind when he lambasted the people involved in the failed Arctic exploration deal between BP PLC and OAO Rosneft.

“Those who prepared the deal should have paid more attention to the details of the shareholder agreements and other details,” Mr. Medvedev said at a televised press conference outside of Moscow. “They should have done a more subtle due diligence inside the government. They should have agreed in advance to have fewer problems.”

A thin-skinned leader might overreact to such criticism by reasserting the power he believes is his right. We shall see if there's a public response in short order.

(AP Photo)

Chechnya and Islam

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing former journalist and expert on Chechnya Thomas de Waal for Coffee and Markets. He made several interesting points about the region - here's an excerpt:

de Waal: This is a place where the Russian Government has poured a lot of money into and basically bought itself some time by building up this like war lord, the troops have come home casualty figures down. But in the long term basically Chechnya now, from people’s description, no longer looks like Russia any more. Most of the ethnic Russians have left.

So, Russia is building itself up a long term problem by creating this place which really has not much in common with the rest of Russia. And in the meantime other places in this very complex mountainous region around Chechnya, the North Caucasus is a place of literally dozens of nationalities living in the mountains of the North Caucasus, has become more unstable. There’s been more violence. There’s a kind of low level insurgency carrying on, which is actually getting worse. So, there are on many levels, Moscow is losing this region, even though it’s not very much in the headlines at the moment.

Domenech: I wonder if you could outline for us how that’s happening when it comes to the ethnic transition. You talked about the largest mosque. I’m very fascinated to see sort of how much more Islamic it’s become over the past several years. What are some of the examples of the effect that that’s having?

de Waal: Well, I think what’s happening is that you’ve got a younger generation of people in these places, Chechnya, Dagistan, Ingushetia who have grown up and their whole lives have been shaped by war, by instability, and by unemployment. The State really hasn’t offered them much. The local leaders tend to be very corrupt. If they go work in the rest of Russia they suffer ethnic discrimination. Last December we saw basically race riots in the center of Moscow with white nationalists, skin heads, trying to beat up people with brown skins and from the caucuses in Moscow.

So, it’s a pretty miserable existence for this younger generation. They don’t feel much connection with the rest of Russia. Some of them probably want to feel more connection with the rest of Russia. But for some of them, not all of them, but there’s obviously the attraction of Islam as a creed which promises purity, promises justice, promises equality, and is, you know, a way of fighting back against these corrupt regimes. It’s a narrative we see all over the world and it’s certainly happening in the south of Russia although many people aren’t really seeing it.

I hope you'll listen to or read the entire interview, which touches on several additional points of interest.

May 16, 2011

The Cult of Putin

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Why doesn't this surprise me all that much:


Members of the sect that has sprung up in a Russian village some 250 miles southeast of Moscow believe that the 58-year-old macho Russian politician is on a special mission from God.

"According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle was a military commander at first and an evil persecutor of Christians before he started spreading the Christian gospel," the sect's founder, who styles herself Mother Fotina, said.

"In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things. But once he became president, he was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and just like the apostle, he started wisely leading his flock. It is hard for him now but he is fulfilling his heroic deed as an apostle."

Reports from the sect's headquarters close to the town of Nizhny Novgorod say that its members are all women who dress like nuns and pray for Mr Putin's success in front of traditional Russian Orthodox Church icons that have been placed alongside a portrait of the Russian prime minister himself.

You can see our best Putin photos of 2010 here. And don't forget our list of some of the best Putinisms.

[Hat tip: Passport]

(AP Photo)

April 28, 2011

Russia's Election

Via Other Russia, this video (produced by Russia's Communist Party) lampooning Russia's ruling tandem is making the rounds.

April 21, 2011

The World's Beer Consumption

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It's rising, according to a new paper. (pdf) However, most of the rise is being driven by China and Russia. In some of the richer nations, such as the U.S., consumption is leveling off or even falling (despite my best efforts):

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[Hat tip: Felix Samon]

Putin Calls Out Bernanke

Monetary policy gets testy:

“Look at their trade balance, their debt, and budget. They turn on the printing press and flood the entire dollar zone — in other words, the whole world — with government bonds. There is no way we will act this way anytime soon. We don’t have the luxury of such hooliganism,” he said.

Even as Putin blamed the U.S. for printing money — something for which Russia was criticized during periods of hyperinflation in the 1990s — other Russian officials said there is no alternative to the U.S. dollar and declined to discuss cutting the country’s dollar holdings.


Kindred Winecoff pushes back:

This isn't hooliganism. This is using monetary policy in textbook ways. As it happens, U.S. monetary policy has a great effect on external economies, which is why Putin calls the whole world the "dollar zone", but let's be clear: those countries want the U.S. to pursue less expansionary monetary policy so they can free-ride on it. It's fine for them to have that preference, and as I've argued before, I think the U.S. should allow some free-riding. But the U.S. government has citizens to satisfy as well, so those countries can't very well expect the U.S. to pursue a contractionary policies while the economy is so weak.

April 16, 2011

Russia Losing Tank Exports Battle

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Heavy arms exports have been the mainstay of Soviet and now Russian military sales - for many decades, Russian tanks have competed successfully on the growing global market. Following the collapse of the USSR, Russia has maintained a leading position when it comes to heavy-duty military machinery. However, current trends point to Russia's potential decline in this lucrative market. According to Konstanin Makienko from the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Russia is bound for weapons exporting decline unless it offers customers a wide range of modern and competitive products. On the one hand, Russia is the world leader in terms of sales of tank technology; on the other hand, over the past few years, Moscow has lost several tenders for the supply of tanks to foreign customers.

For the time being, India is the largest purchaser of Russian battle tanks - namely the T-90 model - purchasing hundreds of machines through 2019. But once this order runs out there may be no more customers willing to place such large orders, and the overall sales volume of MBTs may start to decline globally. What really irks Russia is the fact that it lost the Moroccan tender for 150 units to the Chinese VT1A main battle tank. The Chinese tank was based on the Russian T-72 MBT. Additionally, China is undercutting Russia on the tank market by offering more models to potential customers - from the cheaper Type-96 model, to more expensive Type-98 and Type-99. All these tanks were based on Soviet models, modernized by China over the course of the last few decades. This prompted Brigadier General Alexander Postnikov, Head of Russian Land Forces, to state that "today's military hardware produced by Russia, including heavy mechanized variants, are not compatible with NATO or even Chinese standards."

To add insult to injury, so to speak, was the selection several years ago by the Malaysian military - long a purchaser of Russian high-tech items like the Mig-29 fighter - of the Polish PT-91M battle tank, which is also based on the Soviet T-72 tank. And just a month ago, Russian T-90 MBT lost to its Ukrainian competitor T-84U during Thailand tender - Bangkok will purchase 200 Ukrainian main battle tanks, which, like the Polish and Chinese versions, is also based on the Soviet T-72 model.

Going forward, the picture mightn't be very bright for Russian exports of tank models and technology. Its mainstay customers in the Middle East - Libya, Egypt, Syria - are either embroiled in political upheavals and have more pressing matters to address, or, like Iraq, they are purchasing American and Western-made weapons. New customers like Venezuela, Azerbaijan and Uganda cannot make up for the drop-off in sales, and fierce competition from improving technology offered by China and other countries is further eroding Russia's once-dominant position. Add to that the growing trend of impending natural disasters, low-level insurgencies and the unlikely event of a large clash between state armies - and numerous countries may prioritize armored vehicles over heavy and expensive tanks if /when they decide to make that purchase. Russia may bounce back with modernized and high tech offerings, but it could only do so by closely following the emerging trends on the global arms market.

(AP Photo)

April 9, 2011

Russia Showcases Its Next-Generation Tank

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Russian "Urlavagonozavod" tank production facility has showcased - although not publicly - its next generation T-95 main battle tank, also known as "Project 195." The new tank differs from the currently fielded T-90 by a low silhouette, remote-operated turret and a special armored compartment for the crew.

It is estimated that crew safety was increased with this new arrangement, which puts an additional armored plate between the turret and the men operating the tank. This also allowed the tank profile to be lower, which contributes to its low visibility on the battle field, an almost "stealth"-like characteristic.

So, take that, China or NATO! - and there is no word yet if this model will be offered for export.

March 13, 2011

Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations will aid Japan

Russia' Ministry of Emergency Situations will send to Japan a squad of rescuers to conduct search and rescue operations in areas affected by the earthquake. According to RIA Novosti, Irina Andrianova, the head of MES, confirmed that Japan has already agreed to accept the Russian specialists who will work for two weeks in standalone mode.

Russia to Purchase French Armored Cars

In yet another sign that Russia is serious about modernizing its ground forces with foreign help, the French company Panhard is in talks with Moscow to supply VBL 500 armored combat vehicles for the Russian Border service. The actual delivery of the vehicle is far from certain, given how long Russia has been negotiating with France to purchase the "Mistral" amphibious assault ship.

Another plan to purchase ground vehicles is sure to ruffle the feathers of the domestic weapons manufacturers, who are balking at their government's decisions to acquire Western military equipment instead of buying domestic fare.

This decision follows last year's announcement that Russia will purchase Light Multirole Vehicles (LMVs) built by Italian Iveco after the Italian company formed a joint venture to assemble 2,500 of the armored vehicles in Russia.

February 16, 2011

Russia & Japan Tensions

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In the last few months, Russia and Japan have been trading barbs over the Kuril Islands. This follows heightened tension between Japan and China over the Senkaku Island chain. These territorial dust-ups leads J.E. Dyer to issue the following warning:

Keeping our foreign-policy thinking on autopilot leaves our spokesmen giving narrowly conceived, legalistic responses that are inadequate to a changing situation. America’s core ally in the Far East is under real territorial pressure from both Russia and China — and the reflexive assumption that any given situation will stabilize itself, with little or no inconvenience to the U.S., is increasingly outdated.

If we're speaking about 'reflexive assumptions,' lets discuss Dyer's. I'll state up front that my knowledge of both the Kuril and Senkaku disputes is pretty topical and I couldn't weigh in definitely on which country has the stronger claim (hit the links above for the Wiki-versions of both disputes). But Dyer isn't litigating the cases either, just simply assuming that the U.S. must stand with Japan. Clearly the U.S. is obligated to defend Japan, but that does not mean that the U.S. should defend Japanese claims that have no merit.

(Photo of Kuril Islands via Wikipedia Commons)

February 15, 2011

Russia's Unbelievable Alcoholism

Richard Weitz provides some hair-raising stats:

- Russians 16 and older drink the equivalent of roughly four gallons of pure alcohol per capita each year, almost twice the amount of their American counterparts.

- Russia currently has 2 million alcoholics.

- The number of Russian children aged 10-14 who drink alcohol exceeds 10 million.

- Roughly 500,000 Russians die annually from alcoholic-related accidents, crimes, and illnesses.

- Alcohol poisoning kills more than 23,000 Russians each year.

In addition to heavy overall drinking, Russians are prone to binge drinking. It is also not uncommon for Russians to consume potentially toxic substances containing high levels of alcohol -- including lighter fluid, cleaning solution and even the ethanol fuels used in vehicles -- for the simple reason that they contain greater concentrations of regular alcohol but are taxed at only one-third the rate. During the Soviet period, MiG-25 warplanes were a particularly popular source, since their de-icing tanks contained almost 5 gallons of pure alcohol.

February 7, 2011

Russia Builds Up Pacific Navy

One of the biggest impediments to China's rise to great power status is the fact that China is surrounded by powerful neighbors. This, for instance, is how Russia is handling it:

The Kremlin’s choice of stimulus package is a bit of a throwback, though—among other things, a new fleet of warships to challenge China. Last week Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced a whopping $678 billion package of new defense spending for the next decade, with a quarter of the money going to revamp Russia’s Pacific fleet. On the Kremlin’s shopping list: 20 new ships, including a new class of attack submarines, plus new missile subs, frigates, and an aircraft carrier.

January 11, 2011

Treating China Like Russia

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Richard Weitz argues in the Diplomat that the Obama administration's approach to China is much like the Clinton administration's approach to Russia:

Yet these policies should be seen less as an effort to contain China and more as a return to the kind of shaping and hedging policies that the Bill Clinton administration pursued on many security issues, especially relations with Russia. The principle behind this approach is that it will help shape the targeted actor’s choices so that it will pursue policies helpful to the United States and its allies. In the case of China, these policies would include not threatening to use force against other countries, moderating its trade and climate polices and generally embracing and supporting the existing international institutions and the global status quo. On the flip side, if these shaping policies fail, then the United States aims to be in a good position, thanks to its strategic hedging, to resist disruptive Chinese policies until China abandons them.

I don't think the two circumstances are really analogous. Clinton was able to "shape" Russia's choices regarding its immediate security environment because Russia was very weak and consumed with internal problems and the U.S. was not. And the end result of American policy toward Russia through the Clinton administration and into the Bush era was a sharp deterioration in relations between the two countries (a deterioration for which both nations share blame) and a war between Russia and her neighbor - not exactly an ideal we should be shooting for with China.

Furthermore, Weitz argues that the U.S. should try to shape China's choices to avoid a "destabilizing" arms race in Asia. But it's too late - arms purchases in Asia are on the rise and probably won't decline for some time. So has it destabilized Asia? Not yet and when you consider the environment, would Weitz prefer that all of China's neighbors were poorly armed and unable to defend themselves? It seems to me that that's an environment ripe for destabilization and Chinese adventurism. An Asia that's armed to the teeth is one in which China is not invading anyone.

(AP Photo)

December 28, 2010

U.S.-Russian Relations After START

Now that the New START debate is over, attention turns to what's next in U.S.-Russian relations. While it appears the Obama administration will work on limiting shorter-range arms, conservatives want to focus on how Russia is ruled. Here's Robert Kagan:

Relations with Moscow are about to grow more challenging. This is partly because some of the easy pickings - including this treaty - have already been harvested. The problems that lie ahead are going to be a tougher test of the reset: what to do about Russia's continued illegal occupation of Georgia; how to handle Russia's increasingly authoritarian domestic behavior, its brutal treatment of internal dissent and its squelching of all democratic institutions.

Jennifer Rubin thinks the conviction of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky indicates the reset was "mostly spin."

I'm not sure why we're defining the "reset" as somehow hinging on whether the United States can successfully change the internal politics of Russia - as ugly as they unquestionably are. As I understood it, the goal was to improve U.S.-Russian relations and advance, to the extent possible, American interests in areas where Russia also wielded influence.

It's also not quite clear to me how the United States can go about changing Russia's political institutions (have public figures whine loudly about them?) or why such a complex and ill-defined effort should be the key priority going forward.

December 24, 2010

Voters Question Russian Honesty on New START

Via Rasmussen:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that only 27% of Likely U.S. Voters trust Russia to honor the nuclear weapons agreement. Half (49%) do not trust the Russians, and another 25% are not sure. That level of trust is consistent with results found in July and March.

Still, 49% of voters wanted the Senate to confirm the nuclear weapons treaty. Thirty-seven percent (37%) think the treaty should have been rejected, while 15% are undecided.

December 22, 2010

Abandoning Belarus?

While everyone else is focused on the Korean peninsula these days, James Kirchick's reports from the Belarus election deserve attention. Kirchick previewed the election by asking why the West is cozying up to Alexander Lukashenko:

Earlier this decade, Lukashenko’s abuses led the United States and the European Union to impose a series of targeted sanctions on regime officials, which led the Belarusian government to reconsider a handful of its draconian actions. The sanctions were effective, in large part, because the U.S. and its European allies presented a united front. After all, unilateral sanctions don’t have the same bite as those implemented by several countries. (See the painstaking effort of the Obama administration to convince governments around the world to get on board with sanctions against Iran.) But, over the past year, that erstwhile front against Belarus has cracked. The EU has dropped many of its sanctions, and European leaders have even begun cozying up to Lukashenko. Meanwhile, the United States, while maintaining sanctions, has done little to press the Belarusian president on his abysmal human rights record.

Why has the West gone soft on Lukashenko? The answer, in fact, lies to the east: Belarus has increasingly become a pawn between Russia and Europe and the United States. And the winner of this geostrategic chess match has been the Belarusian dictator himself.

Last week, Lukashenko was re-elected to a five year term under controversial circumstances and a government crackdown on protests. Kirchick describes the scene:

A column of spetsnaz stormed past me, throwing an elderly man to the ground and beating people—all of them unarmed—mercilessly. Presidential candidate Vital Rymasheuski staggered past me assisted by supporters, his hands covering a bloody gash on his forehead. I witnessed one police officer repeatedly club a person who was trapped against a wall. The sound of truncheons slapping plastic shields was the clear signal that unrelenting violence was only a few seconds away—and that one should run.

Six opposition candidates were arrested by the authorities, and Lukashenko is now set to be the head of state for a full 21 years - essentially, president for life. Shouldn't the United States care about this? Should the U.S. remain silent simply as payback for the Belarus commitment to give up Uranium stores? Is this really worth any diplomatic utility gained by using him as a pawn against Russia?

December 13, 2010

Public Supports New START

According to Gallup:

If given the opportunity to vote on the matter, 51% of Americans would ratify the START nuclear arms agreement with Russia and 30% would vote against it, while 19% are undecided.
The partisan breakout is interesting because while Democrats are the leading proponents (56 would vote in favor vs. 28 voting against), Republicans weren't all that far behind: 49 percent would vote for ratification, 34 percent said they'd vote the treaty down.

The poll was conducted on December 3-6th.

December 11, 2010

Vladimir Putin: Piano Man

This kind of speaks for itself.

(Don't miss our Year in Putin photo slideshow.)

December 3, 2010

Russian Justice

It's not unusual for conservatives to lambaste Putin's Russia for its authoritarian backsliding. Just today, Jamie Fly excoriates the Obama administration's New START treaty on the grounds that, among other things, we really should be pressing Russia on human rights instead. So naturally, conservatives were horrified when authoritarian Russia made a not so subtle threat at WikiLeaks:

So far Russia has had no official response. But on Wednesday, an official at the Center for Information Security of the FSB, Russia’s secret police, gave a warning to WikiLeaks that showed none of the tact of the U.S. reply to the Iraq revelations. “It’s essential to remember that given the will and the relevant orders, [WikiLeaks] can be made inaccessible forever,” the anonymous official told the independent Russian news website LifeNews.

An outrage! Take it away, Charles Krauthammer:

We are at war - a hot war in Afghanistan where six Americans were killed just this past Monday, and a shadowy world war where enemies from Yemen to Portland, Ore., are planning holy terror. Franklin Roosevelt had German saboteurs tried by military tribunal and executed. Assange has done more damage to the United States than all six of those Germans combined. Putting U.S. secrets on the Internet, a medium of universal dissemination new in human history, requires a reconceptualization of sabotage and espionage - and the laws to punish and prevent them. Where is the Justice Department?

And where are the intelligence agencies on which we lavish $80 billion a year? Assange has gone missing. Well, he's no cave-dwelling jihadi ascetic. Find him. Start with every five-star hotel in England and work your way down.

Want to prevent this from happening again? Let the world see a man who can't sleep in the same bed on consecutive nights, who fears the long arm of American justice. I'm not advocating that we bring out of retirement the KGB proxy who, on a London street, killed a Bulgarian dissident with a poisoned umbrella tip. But it would be nice if people like Assange were made to worry every time they go out in the rain.

So is this what we mean by American exceptionalism: being a tad less ruthless than the KGB?

The Tangled Web

The United States will agree to a demand by Kyrgyz officials that their impoverished country be given a share of lucrative fuel contracts for a critical transit hub here for troops headed to Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton's announcement, made during a five-hour visit to the fragile Central Asian democracy, appeared designed to assuage growing anger over Pentagon contracts that have been worth about $3 billion over eight years to Mina Corp. and Red Star Enterprises, a secretive business group registered in Gibraltar.

The new arrangement should also please Russia, which is expected to play a big - and profitable - role. Gazpromneft, part of Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, will probably supply much of the jet fuel.

Moscow has frequently used Gazprom to further its political and strategic goals, but the Obama administration is gambling that its efforts to "reset" relations with Russia - and the prospect of large profits for Gazprom - will help ensure that jet fuel keeps flowing to the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, known as the Manas Transit Center. - Washington Post

Now the specifics of this seem rather pragmatic - if everyone gets to wet their whistle, no one complains. But it's worth pondering the contortions that U.S. policy must endure all so that we can stop under 100 al-Qaeda fighters from maybe someday crossing into Afghanistan.

December 2, 2010

Berlusconi, Putin and Nukes

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Arms Control Wonk Jeffrey Lewis digs around WikiLeaks and finds evidence that Italy, to his surprise, had pushed to have the U.S. remove tactical nuclear weapons from its territory:

As regular readers know, I have long supported the immediate consolidation of all US nuclear weapons in Europe to two US airbases — with Incirlik and Aviano being the obvious candidates. The surprise announcement that Italy wants the bombs gone too modestly complicates that proposal, although presumably Rome would welcome the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Ghedi Torre.

Does anyone know why the Berlusconi government might have shifted its position on forward deployed US nuclear weapons? Is it a function of some inexplicable Italian coalition politics?

A possible answer, I think, comes from another revelation in the WikiLeaks trove:

The official report that Mr Berlusconi “and his cronies” have been enabled to make money on multi-million pound energy deals concluded between Italy and Russia. Aside from alleged financial deals, the two leaders’ close ties were founded on Mr Berlusconi’s admiration of “Putin’s macho, decisive and authoritarian governing style,” the then US ambassador to Rome, Ronald Spogli, wrote in Jan 2009.

December 1, 2010

WikiLeaks: Why Not Target China?

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Thomas Friedman asks what it would look like if WikiLeaks poached China's secrets. He does it to set up a faux cable highlighting America's domestic shortcoming, but it's a question I had been asking myself after reading Glenn Greenwald's defense of the organization:

Ultimately, WikiLeaks' real goal appears to me to be anti-authoritarian at its core: to prevent the world's most powerful factions from operating in the dark.

So has WikiLeaks targeted authoritarian powers like China or Russia? The WikiLeaks Wikipedia page says that one of its founders was a Chinese dissident so it's possible they've been poaching secrets from China, Russia and other authoritarian powers, but clearly not with the intensity that they've gone after the U.S. Or maybe they just have not had the good fortune (in their view) to hook up with the Chinese or Russian equivalent of a Bradley Manning, the alleged source of their U.S. material. But this just belies Greenwald's assertion about the organization's "anti-authoritarian" posture - real authoritarian states don't cough up their secrets that easily and truly "anti-authoritarian" organizations just don't scoop up the low-hanging fruit from flawed democracies and call it a day.

Then again, it's not clear that Greenwald has an accurate sense of international media freedom. He writes in a different post on WikiLeaks:

Simply put, there are few countries in the world with citizenries and especially media outlets more devoted to serving, protecting and venerating government authorities than the U.S.

Obviously this is just hyperbole. But still:

Of the 196 countries and territories assessed during calendar year 2009, 69 (35 percent) were rated Free, 64 (33 percent) were rated Partly Free, and 63 (32 percent) were rated Not Free. This represents a move toward the center compared with the survey covering 2008, which featured 70 Free, 61 Partly Free, and 64 Not Free countries and territories.

The survey found that only 16 percent of the world’s inhabitants live in countries with a Free press, while 44 percent have a Partly Free press and 40 percent live in Not Free environments.

The U.S. media can be servile, corrupt and biased but the idea that there are few other countries in the world whose media is more subservient to government power than America ignores a rather huge swath of world media that is actually run by the state.

(AP Photo)

November 27, 2010

The Next WikiLeak

Via Mike Allen:

ADMINISTRATION PREPARES FOR WIKIDUMP OF STATE DEPT. CABLES, possibly Sunday – Could be seven times the October release – Jim Miklaszewski, on “NBC Nightly News”: “U.S. officials tell NBC News that the upcoming document release from the website WikiLeaks contains top secret information so damaging it could threaten Senate ratification of the START nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians. According to the officials, the information contained in classified State Department cables reveals secrets behind the START negotiations and embarrassing claims against Russian leadership – information that could provide ammunition to Republican opponents of the treaty on Capitol Hill. …. There’s also serious concern that some of the leaks could threaten U.S. counterterrorism operations on two fronts, Afghanistan and Yemen. In Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has already come under fire for Afghan corruption and questions about his mental stability, U.S. officials say the secret cables reveal new and even more embarrassing claims about his personality and private life. Perhaps more troublesome, the leaks reportedly include top secret information about U.S. military and intelligence operations against al Qaeda in Yemen and some critical dispatches about Yemen’s President Saleh.”

November 18, 2010

Putin's Puppy

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We're used to seeing Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shooting whales, soothing polar bears or riding shirtless across Russian streams. But while in Bulgaria, Putin had a chance to show off his warm and fuzzy side when he was given a Bulgarian shepherd dog by Bulgaria's president (he also pocketed a gas deal). Now Putin is asking Russians to help name the pup. Given that Putin's other dog is named "Connie" it's not clear that the name has to be hyper-masculine, although it probably wouldn't hurt.

(AP Photo)

November 17, 2010

The Odd Death of New START

I have been trying to wrap my head around why such an anodyne arms control treaty is provoking such opposition from the GOP. When you have wall-to-wall support in the U.S. military for the treaty and massive public support (including majority support from self-indentified Republicans), it just doesn't seem to make sense. Daniel Larison draws a lesson:

The death of New START is a useful lesson in just how irrelevant public opinion is to the shaping of foreign policy and national security. Relatively small numbers of activists that are better organized, more engaged and more intense in their views can wield disproportionate influence on policy debates. When they are allied with the relevant interest groups and some members of Congress, a small number of dedicated activists can determine policy to a remarkable degree, especially when their opposition is disorganized and largely passive. The side of the debate that has greater intensity and organization will certainly prevail when their opponents simply trust that the inherent worthiness of the initiative or policy will somehow trump political calculation and influence.

November 14, 2010

Georgian-Russian Tensions Still High

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Modern weapons of war are becoming more and more commonplace in all conflict theaters around the world. Russian "Interfax" news agency reports that an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle flew over the break-away province of South Ossetia and retreated after the South Ossetians opened fire. The break-away province complained that there have been many such flights over its territory originating from Georgia. Another former Georgian province, Abkhazia, also faces repeated surveillance by the Georgian UAVs.

Meanwhile, the spy row between Georgia and Russia shows no signs of abating. Last week, the Georgian government announced the arrest of 13 "Russian spies," many of whom were Georgian citizens allegedly spying for Moscow. This week, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili addressed the nation on television. "Operation "Enveri" is the first stage in a massive counter-intelligence operations. There are many spy groups in Georgia still," said the minister. "But it's not the only operation currently conducted by the Georgian Counterintelligence services. At least three Russian spy agencies operate on the territory of Georgia - FSB, SVR and GRU - and each has its own networks."

Merabishvili also offered his thoughts on why the official reaction in Moscow to "spy scandal" was rather muted. According to him, in 2006, when Georgian authorities arrested four Russian soldiers and dozens of Georgian citizens in a counter-intel sweep, "Moscow still thought we were its satellite . . . And Moscow was psychologically wounded that a state it considered as unimportant was actually taking some action. Since then, much time has passed, and Georgia's image has changed. So now Russia's reaction was adequate, similar to the one when its spies were discovered in Europe. When we will identify Russian spies for the third time, there may not be any reaction from Russia at all."

For its part, Moscow considers the latest Georgian spy operation as a provocation and a "political farce."

(AP Photo)

November 7, 2010

Russia Buying Indigenous UAVs

It looks like domestic pressure has finally gotten to the Russian military - recently, the Ministry of Defense tested 22 models of indigenous-produced UAVs and decided to purchase some of them for use in the armed forces. This does not impede Russia's earlier commitment to international UAV purchases, especially from Israel.

Meanwhile, Kazak firm Kazakhstan Engineering and French firm Sagem recently signed the memorandum of understanding to jointly produce UAVs.

October 30, 2010

Russia Creating Affordable 'People's Car'

Following India's recent unveiling of a design for a cheap, mass-produced "people's" vehicle that could be affordable to multitudes of new consumers, Russian "Onexim Group," headed by Mikhail Prokhorov (who also owns the NBA's New Jersey Nets) presented the first images of two hybrid cars on Oct. 12 - prototypes of urban hatchback and a compact crossover, created under the "City Car" project. The vehicles were designed in only 180 days without any foreign support or contribution. Three prototypes are to be tested this December.

It is expected that the "people's" cars will be equipped with 70-horsepower electric motor, lithium-ion batteries and a 0.6-liter engine that can operate on natural gas and will produce energy to recharge the batteries on the move. According to preliminary information, the cars will be able to go 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) without refueling, at the maximum speed of 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour. The base cost of these cars is about $10,000, but could rise to as much as $15,000.

October 26, 2010

Losing Europe to Russia?

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John Vinocur wonders if the U.S. is "losing" Europe to Russia. The framing of the question is a bit odd, because it presupposes that Russia is strong enough to "win" Europe away from the United States. What's really at issue is Europe's willingness to chart a slightly more independent course:

Rather, Germany and France, meeting with Russia in Deauville, northern France, last week, signaled that they planned to make such three-cornered get-togethers on international foreign policy and security matters routine, and even extend them to inviting other “partners” — pointing, according to diplomats from two countries, to Turkey becoming a future participant....

As for the Obama administration stamping its foot, what it came down to was a senior U.S. official saying: “Since when, I wonder, is European security no longer an issue of American concern, but something for Europe and Russia to resolve? After being at the center of European security for 70 years, it’s strange to hear that it’s no longer a matter of U.S. concern.”

Needless to say that Washington does not believe in "spheres of influence" or the ability of a great power to have a say in another country's foreign policy decisions. No sir.

(AP Photo)

October 21, 2010

Who Killed the Monroe Doctrine? America

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Investors Business Daily is outraged that Russia is helping Venezuela develop nuclear technology, demanding that someone remind Russia of the Monroe Doctrine.

Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn't have any leg to stand on with respect to the Monroe Doctrine given how it's become a bi-partisan staple of foreign policy establishment dogma that the U.S. does not recognize "spheres of influence." It would be self-evidently absurd for the U.S. to protest Russia's dalliances in Venezuela (a little under 2,000 miles from the U.S. border) when the U.S. is pushing to admit countries that border Russia into NATO.

That said, should we be dusting off the concept of 'spheres of influence' in an era of emerging great powers? Ted Galen Carpenter argues that we should:

Russia needs to find a graceful way out of its increasingly cozy relationship with Chavez, and the United States needs to stop talking about deploying missile defenses or expanding NATO eastward. Washington and Moscow must acknowledge that the concept of spheres of influence is alive and well, and that gratuitous violations of that concept will negate any prospect for a reset in relations.

U.S. leaders must also comprehend that cordial relations with China require a willingness to accept that East Asia’s rapidly rising great power will seek to establish a sphere of influence in its neighborhood. Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea and the recent spat with Japan over disputed islets in another body of water are signs of that process. China’s growing power and assertiveness means that the United States will need to tread softly regarding such territorial disputes, as well as the even more sensitive Taiwan issue, if Washington wants to avoid nasty confrontations with Beijing.

While I think avoiding nasty confrontations should be a key goal, I'm not sure how affording China a 'sphere of influence' would work in practice. China's prospective 'sphere' encompasses major economic powerhouses like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, and some weaker Southeast Asian states. Unlike, say, Russia, where the U.S. ties to countries like Georgia or even Ukraine were historically relatively weak and economically negligible, American ties to Japan and South Korea are anything but.

(AP Photo)

October 20, 2010

Courting Eastern Europe

Helle Dale offers some suggestions for the Obama administration:

Reform the U.S. Visa Waiver program, which still means that Polish residents have to line up for visas to enter the United States, when travelers from other European countries do not;

Work with the countries of CEE on security cooperation and democracy promotion. Make U.S. officials visible and available to the publics of these countries and reestablish public diplomacy institutions, such as America houses, that have been allowed atrophy since the Cold War;

Reexamine U.S. decisions on international broadcasting into the former Soviet Union, where services have been cut even in the absence of local free media.

Support the exploration of gas shale, which Poland possesses in abundance, and which would provide an alternative to Russian gas as Sikorski suggested. There is currently only $2 billion in U.S. business investment in Poland. Gas shale could give Poland energy independence; perhaps even make it an energy exporter.

I think these are mostly sensible ideas in their own right, but Dale implies that this is all necessary to blunt malevolent Russian influence. But I don't think we should view - or treat - relations with Eastern and Central Europe as zero sum standoffs.

October 13, 2010

Russian Reset, UK Style

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague is looking to shore up relations with Russia:

Hague, part of a coalition government which took office in May, will meet Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and President Dmitry Medvedev during his 24-hour visit which began on Tuesday.

Relations between the previous British government and Russia deteriorated badly after the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko in London with a rare radioactive isotope.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger's getting job offers from Medvedev.

September 22, 2010

The Wages of Appeasement

If all these policies were aimed to achieve an effective sanctions package against Iran with Russian support, then the "reset" policy failed. The sanctions, as advertised, will not be able to stop the Iranian race to gain nukes.

The reported US capitulation on S-300 is the latest in the long list of unilateral concessions to Russia, which endanger US friends and negatively affect US national security. - Ariel Cohen, "If the S-300 Sale is Allowed, Obama’s Russian “Reset” Policy Has Failed"

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree Wednesday banning all sales of S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. - AP

September 8, 2010

Israel's Military Deal with Russia

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Earlier in the year, France was poised to sell its Mistral amphibious assault ship to Russia (negotiations are still ongoing). The U.S. was not pleased. Secretary Gates voiced his concern about the deal. In the media, the reaction was more robust. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Reuben Johnson went so far as to declare the NATO alliance itself was a threat to peace:

If Europe is now only for Europeans -- and NATO is a threat rather than guarantor of peace -- then the U.S. needs to rethink how it handles its own military sales arrangements with those European nations who express these sentiments either by words or deeds. If these deal goes through, perhaps it might be time to reset the U.S. military relationship with France.

So maybe Johnson cares to comment about this:

Israel and Russia made history on Monday, signing for the first time a military agreement that will increase cooperation on combating terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also could lead to the sale of Israeli weaponry to the Russian military...

Russia is particularly interested in acquiring Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In 2009, Russia bought 12 drones from Israel Aerospace Industries, following its war with Georgia, during which Georgian military forces used Israeli Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAVs.

(AP Photo)

September 7, 2010

Brazil Eying Russian Competitor to Humvee

According to Russian media, in the next few days, Russian GAZ-2330 "Tiger" armored car will be transferred for testing by the Rio de Janeiro police, which will use the vehicles to patrol the city suburbs.

According to Oleg Strunin, official JSC Rosoboronexport representative to the Brazilian state arms export agency, several Brazilian states expressed an interest in the Russian armored vehicle. Negotiations are also taking place on assembling "Tigers" in Brazil. "We believe that 'Tigers' have very good prospects in Brazil, and hope to soon conclude a contract for delivery of such machines to the country," added Strunin.

Bottom line: "Tiger" was conceived, designed and tested as a competitor to the American Humvee armored car. And while the American vehicle served with distinction for the past three decades in huge numbers virtually everywhere around the world in numerous conflicts, saving countless lives, the "Tiger" on the other hand is a new vehicle which hasn't undergone the same rigorous battlefield testing. Even as Hummers are being phased out from Iraq and Afghanistan in favor of a new breed of vehicles, it certainly can hold its own as a police patrol car.

So why did Brazil choose the untried and untested Russian car? Good question ...

August 11, 2010

Putin's Katrina?

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Simon Shuster thinks the wildfires crippling Moscow could spell political trouble for Vladmir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev:

According to opinion polls, however, the Russian public is not nearly so eager to pat its leaders on the back. In the last two weeks of July, state-run pollster VTsIOM reported that approval ratings for both Putin and Luzhkov had fallen to their lowest levels in more than four years, while Medvedev's numbers were at one of their lowest points since he took office in May 2008. At the same time, more Russians have started clamoring for the return of gubernatorial elections, which Putin canceled in 2004 when he handed the Kremlin the right to appoint regional leaders. In a survey released August 6 by the independent Levada Center, 59% of Russians now want to choose their own governors again, up by 5% since January.

But Michael Stott says that Russia's media manipulation will be able to overcome any short-term damage done:

Popular apathy, control over the media and a lack of potent opposition will ensure that Moscow's ruling duo do not suffer seriously from disastrous summer fires as president George W. Bush did from his administration's slow response to catastrophe.

Although a record-breaking summer heatwave found Russia's authorities ill-prepared to fight the fires and slow to react to the smoke pollution that has crippled Moscow, analysts said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev would ensure that others took the blame.

Sounds like business as usual for a politico.

Personally I think the most absurd vignette of the entire Moscow fire was undoubtedly this, from Shuster:

But perhaps the most blatant attempts to downplay the disaster have come from the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov. As the fires around his city choked the skies with smoke last week, Luzhkov was away on holiday. "What's the problem? What, do we have some kind of emergency situation, some kind of crisis situation? What's the problem in Moscow?" the mayor's spokesman told the LifeNews agency on August 6. Three days later, LifeNews reported that Luzhkov, an avid beekeeper, had ordered his prize-winning hives to be evacuated away from the smog. All the while, he has refused to declare a state of emergency for Moscow's human inhabitants.
(AP Photo)

August 10, 2010

Democratic Capitalism

Dani Rodrik pushes back against the argument that autocratic systems make for good capitalism:

Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.

Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, ultimately produce economies that are as fragile as their political systems. Their economic potency, when it exists, rests on the strength of individual leaders, or on favorable but temporary circumstances. They cannot aspire to continued economic innovation or to global economic leadership.

At first sight, China seems to be an exception. Since the late 1970’s, following the end of Mao’s disastrous experiments, China has done extremely well, experiencing unparalleled rates of economic growth. Even though it has democratized some of its local decision-making, the Chinese Communist Party maintains a tight grip on national politics and the human-rights picture is marred by frequent abuses.

But China also remains a comparatively poor country. Its future economic progress depends in no small part on whether it manages to open its political system to competition, in much the same way that it has opened up its economy. Without this transformation, the lack of institutionalized mechanisms for voicing and organizing dissent will eventually produce conflicts that will overwhelm the capacity of the regime to suppress. Political stability and economic growth will both suffer.

This is the basic message of Ian Bremmer's book, the somewhat erroneously titled The End of the Free Market. Bremmer argues that despite the threat posed by autocratic capitalist systems, they'll ultimately be undone by their own shortcomings. It might be hard to imagine after the recent debacles of democratic capitalism, but I suspect it's true.

[Hat tip: Nick Schulz]

July 27, 2010

Photo of the Day

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(Russia's Vladimir Putin attends an international bikers convention in Ukraine. AP Photo)

July 21, 2010

A Russian, Parasailing Donkey

No clever title necessary:

Police are apparently still looking for the donkey and its owner.

July 14, 2010

Americans Not Surprised By Russian Spying

An unsurprising poll from Angus Reid:

The revelation that there are Russian spies posing as American citizens in the United States did not shock many people in the North American country, according to a poll by Angus Reid Public Opinion. 77 per cent of respondents say they were not surprised about this situation.

The poll also found that:

Half of respondents (50%) think Russia should not be singled out for its espionage because many other countries keep active spies elsewhere. One-third of Americans (34%) disagree with this view, and believe Russia should be shamed for maintaining a Cold War mentality by keeping active spies in Western countries.

Two thirds of Americans (65%) think the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) should continue to train and send American spies into other countries, while only 12 per cent believe this activity is no longer necessary.

Full results here. (pdf)

July 13, 2010

Soft Power and Espionage

Martin Regg Cohn has an interesting column in today's Toronto Star on the fine line between espionage and soft power in Canada:

Forget the stagecraft of spy novels, or the make-believe machinations of those captured Russian sleeper agents. China targets Canadians with more mundane tactics ranging from sumptuous free lunches to package tours of China. Last month, a so-called “opinion leader” told me excitedly that he’d been invited on a tour of China. MPs go all the time. So do freelance journalists. All on China’s dime.

Call it soft power. But spying can be a deadly serious business when it tars entire communities. The canard of “dual loyalties” has dogged Canadians of Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Jewish descent over the years — with many innocent citizens unjustly detained in wartime.

It’s a mistake to single out diasporas. While the Chinese and other governments shamelessly target émigré groups to aid the motherland, they spend at least as much time and money trying to win over the “landed gentry” — the white folks who make up the Canadian establishment going back generations.

Read the whole thing here.

July 12, 2010

Between the EU and a Hard Place

Can a regime survive without any friends? We may be about to find out in Belarus:

It’s not often that Brussels and Moscow see eye to eye on the politics of the former Soviet Union. But both want Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko gone, preferably after elections slated for early 2011. The EU has long criticized Lukashenko for abusing opposition activists and censoring local media. Now he’s alienated his onetime great protector, Russia, as well. His unpaid gas bills to the tune of $200 million led Gazprom to briefly cut off supplies last month. He called Prime Minister Vladimir Putin “the main enemy of the Russian people,” and refused to recognize Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states in defiance of Kremlin pressure. He also offered asylum to former Kyrgyz president Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whom Russia helped oust earlier this year.

Russians Would Vote Putin

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Via Angus Reid:

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin could defeat president Dmitry Medvedev—the man who appointed him to his current job—in the next presidential election, according to a poll by the Yury Levada Analytical Center. 37 per cent of respondents would vote for Putin in the next ballot, up 10 points since April.

Medvedev is second with 17 per cent, followed by Communist Party (KPRF) leader Gennady Zyuganov with six per cent, Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky with four per cent, and Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov of A Just Russia with two per cent.

(AP Photo)

Spy vs. Spy

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Rasmussen Reports:

With the U.S.-Russia spy swap making headlines, 65% of voters say they are at least somewhat confident in the ability of the government to catch those from other countries who are spying on the United States.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 30% of voters lack confidence in the government’s ability to catch foreign spies.

These findings include 19% who are Very Confident in the government’s counterespionage efforts and five percent (5%) who are Not At All Confident.

Seventy-two percent (72%) regard the threat of Russian spying in this country as at least somewhat serious, with 31% who view it as Very Serious. Only 22% say it’s not very or not at all serious.

But 20% say the United States spies more on other countries that they spy on us. Seventeen percent (17%) think it’s the other way around, that other countries spy on us more than we spy on them. A solid plurality (48%), however, think the level of spying is about the same among all countries.

(AP Photo)

Business As the Continuation of Politics by Other Means

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At least in Russia, as Gregory Feifer writes:


To conceal its designs, the Kremlin relies on a dizzying web of shell companies nominally owned and operated by Europeans but in reality controlled by Moscow to attack by stealth. Among them, a gas-trading company named Vemex has taken 12 percent of the Czech domestic market since its establishment in 2001 to sell Russian natural gas. Although there's nothing on Vemex's website to indicate it, the company is Czech in name only. It's actually controlled by Gazprom through a series of companies based in Switzerland, Germany, and Austria, including Centrex Europe Energy and Gas, which has helped spearhead the Russian drive to buy energy assets across Europe.

Centrex is registered in Austria and, according to Gazprom's website, founded by its own Gazprombank. But the company's real ownership is impossible to trace. According to the European Commission, Centrex is owned by Centrex Group Holding Ltd., registered in Cyprus, a company controlled by Gazprom's German subsidiary, and RN Privatsiftung, a Vienna foundation whose stockholders are unknown.

Why go to the trouble of hiding the real owners of companies either already known or believed to be controlled by Gazprom? Vemex is just one of a large number of enterprises Gazprom has set up in countries across Central and Eastern Europe to jockey for stakes in European energy utilities. By disguising the real owners, Gazprom makes its actions more palatable to Europeans wary of expanding Russian influence.

Investigative journalist Jaroslav Plesl points the finger at his own countrymen for enabling Moscow. Czechs are "willing to sell anything," he says of the staggering corruption in his country, something Russian companies have been able to exploit by taking advantage of nontransparent tenders. They also lobby to prevent the development of regulations that would prohibit those kinds of activities, with the effect of exporting the kind of corruption that dominates Russia.

My question: does this kind of activity stand on its head the vision of globalization as channeling the contests between nations into the more peaceful economic realm, or confirm it?

(AP Photo)

July 5, 2010

Russia Conducts Military Exercises in Far East

Here is something that should put China on notice - Russian military just tested the possibility of non-stop flight by jet fighters from the European part of Russia to the Far East. The test was conducted as part of the "Vostok-2010" (East 2010) exercises. According to Interfax news agency, Russian Chief of General Staff Nikolai Makarov reported on the flight at a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

According to Makarov, Su-24M and Su-34 fighter-bombers participated in the flight, with Su-24M needing three in-flight refuelings, while the Su-34 was refueled twice.

The "Vostok-2010" exercises, running from June 29 through July 8, are the biggest maneuvers of Russian armed forces in 2010, involving the Pacific Fleet and two military districts, bringing together 20,000 troops, more than 5,000 units of military equipment, over 40 ships and 75 airplanes and helicopters.

The exercises involve defense against massive missile and air strikes, as well as possible counter-insurgency operations. "Vostok-2010" also provides training for joint action with the FSB border forces for the protection of maritime borders, as well as anti-piracy and anti-poaching operations. President Medvedev followed the exercises from aboard Peter the Great heavy nuclear missile cruiser.

July 1, 2010

Anatomy of the Russian Spy Ring

Stratfor has a comprehensive review of what we know about the Russian spies.

June 30, 2010

Russia Hosts Military Exhibition Near Moscow

An international military exhibition has opened in Zhukovsky, near Moscow. "Technology in Mechanical Engineering 2010" forum will last until July 4, 2010. This forum will include the exhibitions "UVS-TECH", "International Salon of Weapons and Military Equipment", "Intermash" and "Aerospace 2010."

The exhibition involves 314 companies. Russian Defense Ministry will showcase 23 units of military equipment and 25 models provided by the military manufacturers, such as Ka-135 and "Vulture" drone mock-ups and a new "Wolf" armored car.

Visitors can also see other modern armaments, including T-90S tanks; BMP-3M infantry fighting vehicles; newest KAMAZ and URAL heavy trucks; "Tiger" armored cars; and many other interesting technologies.

Russian Experts: China (Again) Preparing to Attack

Russia's "Svobodnaya Pressa" (Free Press) publication reports that China's growing infrastructure projects parallel to the border with Russia are a sign that Beijing could use such extensive infrastructure for a successful military thrust into the Russian Far East.

In the Tszyain county, Heilongjiang Province, two highways are being constructed - 114-km long stretch of Heihe - Tszyain road and 103-kilometer long Suybin - Tszyainong highway, to be open in October 2010. Additional roads are also built on the border with Russia. Alexander Aladdin, "Svobodnaya Pressa" China expert, is sure that such infrastructure development is preparation for war. Earlier, Aladdin asked Russian Constitutional Court to review the agreement with China on the transfer of Russian Amur Islands to Beijing. He believes that such transfer could be a strategic threat to the safety of Khabarovsk, the Far East and Russia itself in the future: "China is already building wide concrete roads toward Russia that could withstand the stress of transporting heavy equipment and weaponry. With the commissioning of such infrastructure, China can easily transfer troops and equipment along the entire border with Russia, and to conduct offensive operations in strategically important areas."

Aladdin laments the state of the Russian military today: "After undergoing modernization, the army has nothing left except the 85 untrained brigade-level formations. The massive reduction of troops and officers in the army has left the Far East and Eastern Siberia without protection from the external enemy." He predicts China's easy victory under such circumstances: "The beginning of large-scale offensive operations along the land border and landing in northern Russia will conclude with a full, quick victory for China and the loss of the Russian territory to the Ural Mountains. After all the territory to the Urals are captured, Russian citizens will be deported or destroyed."

Alexander Khramchikhin, the head of the analytical department of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, agrees with this possible scenario: "The construction of the road along the Russian-Chinese border is very specialized - this road runs parallel to the front lines. China has a strong interest in the invasion of our Far East - the fact is that China cannot survive without expanding its territory." According to Khramchikhin, "China will try to do so without conflict, but in case of a crisis, it will launch a war without a second thought. The plan to take over our territories is designed, I think, over the next several decades. The first main task for China is to solve the Taiwan issue. After that, the Chinese will take Russia seriously. They do not even hide their intentions."

What is interesting is that neither expert mentions that Russia would use nuclear weapons in its defense if attacked first - a policy that is enshrined in its Military Doctrine.

400 Russian Spies in U.S.

That's the word from a former KGB hand:

Oleg Gordiyevsky, a British-based former senior agent with the Russian Federal Security Service's (FSB) predecessor, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he reckons Russia has hundreds of spies currently working in the United States.

A "conservative" estimate is that 400 or so spies are operating in the U.S. from embassies and other Russian governmental institutions, he said.

He put the number of deep-cover agents, or "illegals" like those in the recent case, at around 60.

Gordiyevsky estimated the number of U.S. spies in Moscow at 20-25, and said the British had two spies in the Russian capital.

He did not elaborate on how he arrived at such specific figures.

The U.S. side sounds a bit low, no?

June 29, 2010

Russian Spies

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The U.S. is obviously not the only target of Russian espionage. Last week, the Czech Republic's intelligence service released its annual report highlighting the extensive efforts made by the Russians to spy on their country. And as Robert Coalson notes, it makes for interesting reading:

The BIS spent all (yes, all) its counterintelligence effort against Russia. “In terms of coverage, intensity, aggressive nature and quantity of operations, the Russian intelligence services have no rivals in the territory of the Czech Republic.” (The BIS's 2008 report puts this thought even more amusingly: "As to activities of other intelligence services in our territory, the risks they posed for the Czech Republic in 2008 were negligible.")

Here’s more from this NATO member state's main security agency:

“There were continuing efforts of Russian companies to establish themselves in the Czech energy market, both through supplies of relevant products and through firms owned by companies having their seats in European countries. It is highly likely the complex ownership structure is aimed at camouflaging links to the Russian Federation.”

“There has been an increase of intelligence capacities and intensity of intelligence operations in the Czech Republic, particularly in the field of research and development and in [the] economy….”

“Russian intelligence services have in some cases smoothly picked up where their Soviet predecessors left off.”

The Russian spy ring story is certainly interesting, if not terribly surprising. My initial reaction was to shrug it off and hope that our moles are more effective at prying away Russia's secrets. Daniel Drezner, however, is confused, particularly by the timing of the U.S. announcement and the fact that the alleged spies weren't actually charged with espionage.

I'm curious to see how the news will be processed - will people view it as indicative of Russian perfidy or just the normal course of rough-and-tumble international power politics? I incline toward the second camp, on the assumption that we're giving as good as we're getting.

(AP Photo)

June 28, 2010

Russian Views of U.S. Improve

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According to a new poll:


Russians like the U.S. government more than they have since before Boris Yeltsin ceded the presidency to Vladimir Putin, indicating Barack Obama’s “reset” is paying off, a poll published today shows.

Fifty-nine percent of Russians have a “good” or “very good” opinion of the U.S., up from 46 percent a year ago and 22 percent in September 2008, the month after Russia waged a five- day war with U.S. ally Georgia, the Moscow-based All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion said in a statement.

The percentage of Russians who have a “bad” or “very bad” opinion of the U.S. fell to 27, less than half the 65 percent recorded in September 2008 and the lowest since 1998, according to VTsIOM, as the Moscow-based center is also called. The poll of 1,600 people was conducted May 1-2, before President Dmitry Medvedev’s state visit to California’s Silicon Valley and Washington, and had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.

(AP Photo)

June 21, 2010

Photo of the Day

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Russian President Vladimir "Top Gun" Putin steps into the cockpit of a Sukhoi T-50. AP Photo

June 17, 2010

Russia's Sphere of Influence

Brian Whitmore says that Moscow is reluctant to exercise its influence in its near-abroad:

Like Russia's 2008 war with Georgia over the pro-Moscow separatist region of South Ossetia, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan is emerging as a watershed moment in Moscow's relations with its former Soviet vassals.

But while the war in Georgia sent a loud and clear message that Russia is prepared to unilaterally use force against its neighbors to achieve its objectives in the region, the Kyrgyz conflict appears to be demonstrating the limits of Moscow's power.

And while the invasion of Georgia had Cold War undertones, pitting a resurgent Russia against a close U.S. ally, the crisis in Kyrgyzstan is highlighting a new spirit of cooperation between Moscow and Washington -- both of which have military bases and vital interests in the small but strategically important Central Asian country.

Russia wants to prevent chaos in its backyard, analysts say, while the United States wants to assure that its mission in Afghanistan, which is supplied via the Manas military base in Kyrgyzstan, is not disrupted. Both have an interest in the situation stabilizing.

June 6, 2010

Photo of the Day

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(Vladimir Putin reveals his soft side. AP Photos)

May 28, 2010

Poll: United Russia By a Mile

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Via Angus Reid, it looks like Putin's party enjoys quite a lead:

Most people in Russia would support the governing party in the next election to the State Duma, according to a poll by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center. 54 per cent of respondents would vote for United Russia (YR) in the next ballot, up two points since April.

The Communist Party (KPRF) is a distant second with eight per cent, followed by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) with five per cent, and the opposition movement A Just Russia with four per cent.

(AP Photo)

May 21, 2010

Peripheral Foreign Policy

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Roger Cohen is frustrated by the Obama administration's reaction to the Turkish-Brazilian nuclear fuel deal with Iran:

Brazil and Turkey represent the emergent post-Western world. It will continue to emerge; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should therefore be less trigger-happy in killing with faint praise the “sincere efforts” of Brasilia and Ankara.

The West’s ability to impose solutions to global issues like Iran’s nuclear program has unraveled. America, engaged in two inconclusive wars in Muslim countries, cannot afford a third. The first decade of the 21st century has delineated the limits of U.S. power: It is great but no longer determinative.

Lots of Americans, including the Tea Party diehards busy baying at wolves, are angry about this. They will learn that facts are facts.

This strikes me as somewhat contradictory. Cohen laments the Obama administration's rejection of the fuel swap deal - which he concedes is an insufficient deal that fails to meet the Western demands put forth last year - because 1. You don't want to hurt feelings in Ankara and Brasilia, because they are emerging powers whom you might need down the road, and 2. this deal, while well short of the October arrangement, may have served as a "tenuous bridge between "mendacious" Iranians and “bullying” Americans."

First, the latter point: Spinning a deal for the sake of public perception and reaching a substantive deal are obviously two different things. Cohen asserts that this deal would've been a huge P.R. victory which, I suppose, it could have been. But if the administration is serious about nonproliferation it was necessary to knock this deal down right out the gate - which it apparently did.

And spin spins both ways. While Washington and the West certainly could have spun this deal to their advantage, so too could have the Iranians - as they already have. The whole point of this deal was not only to build trust between Tehran and Washington, but to assuage Western and regional concerns about Iranian enrichment. This week's trilateral deal fails to do that, and thus it fails to actually take time off the so-called Doomsday Clock.

In other words, accept this deal and you basically gave Iran seven months to set the terms of negotiation while rebuffing your own immediate concerns. Clenched fist, check.

As for Brazil and Turkey, what exactly was Obama to do? Accept the deal, and you accept the Turkish-Iranian argument that the deal represents the death knell of sanctions, which the U.S. never agreed to and never will. Cohen may view this deal as a beginning, but Tehran and Ankara are spinning it differently. And as Greg noted yesterday, China and Russia simply matter more than Brazil and Turkey do, especially on the matter of Iranian proliferation.

Will this hurt U.S. efforts down the road when, at some unforeseen moment, Washington needs Ankara or Brasilia? Perhaps. But that's the point: A multi-polar world doesn't guarantee a less divisive one where everyone gets along and hugs out their problems. Quite the contrary.

For much of the 20th century - and the first few years of the 21st - American power was rather easy: Either you're with us, or you're with the evildoer behind door #1. Make your choice. There was a kind of cold clarity in this arrangement, and in some ways the U.S. excelled at it. But as other powers emerge, they also come to the table with years - decades, even - of experience at playing a weaker hand inside global institutions like the UN. They know how to check the maneuverings and desires of other states, just as they too have been checked.

Washington isn't very good at this game, and it's going to take some time for the United States to rebuild capital and use its still preponderantly stronger military and economy to its advantage. This may require a more prudent, interests-based foreign policy designed to keep larger powers in your corner - which, in turn, will mean less peripheral meddling in said powers' backyards.

So will Ankara and Brasilia remember this? Probably. Welcome to the new world order.

UPDATE: Larison offers his thoughts on the matter.

(AP Photo)

May 20, 2010

Did the U.S. Rush Iran Sanctions?

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Just as Copenhagen was a visible demonstration of the rising clout of China, the recent nuclear diplomacy by Turkey and Brazil was still more evidence that the leadership role so coveted by the U.S. is being undermined by the rise of economic powers with divergent security interests. Unlike in Copenhagen, though, it looks as though the U.S. was able to rebuff this "rogue" diplomacy. Matt Duss, for one, is unhappy:


It’s clear that Iran saw the announcement of the deal as a way to head off international pressure. But that doesn’t mean that its acceptance of the terms isn’t significant — it is. In my view, it would have been smarter for Obama to acknowledge the deal as a potentially positive step, but make clear that more is needed, similar to how he pocketed Netanyahu’s sort-of-but-not-really acceptance of a Palestinian state last year. As it is, by scrambling to get the UN sanctions resolution finalized in the shadow of the Brazil-Turkey intervention, that resolution now looks much more like an end in themselves, rather than a means to arriving at a mutually acceptable agreement.

But that's the problem: there is no mutually acceptable agreement here.

It will be more interesting to watch how China and Russia move. The Brazil/Turkey gambit has given both China and Russia clear cover now to balk at sanctions, even watered-down ones. If they don't, it means the Obama administration has gone a long way in winning them over (invalidating Duss' fear of diplomatic blow-back). Not that it will do much good. But you take the victories where you can get them, and I think China and Russia matter more to Iran than Brazil and Turkey.

(AP Photo)

May 19, 2010

A Russian Thaw?

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Brian Whitmore reports:

According to a report in "Russian Newsweek," Moscow is planning to reorient its foreign policy in a more pragmatic and pro-Western direction. The story by journalists Konstantin Gaaze and Mikhail Zigar, which cites a recent Foreign Ministry policy paper, says the move is part of an effort to attract badly needed investment to modernize the country's crumbling infrastructure and diversify its economy to make it less dependent on energy exports:
The idea behind the document is that Russia intends -- not just in words but also in deeds -- to have a foreign policy in which there are not friends and enemies, but only interests. The country's economy needs to be modernized and foreign policy must also work to solve this problem. A senior official at the Foreign Ministry who participated in the drafting of the document confirmed that in place of a Cold War there will be Detente.

The policy paper's preamble, written by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, calls for "the strengthening of relations of interdependence with the world's leading powers," with the most desirable partners being the United States and the European Union.

According to the "Russian Newsweek" story, the "triumphant optimism of Russian leaders in a time of record-high oil prices is a thing of the past. In the post-crisis world, Russia is forced to look for friends and start a useful economic ties." It cites an unidentified Foreign Ministry official as saying that "the crisis has shown that Russia cannot develop independently."

Whitmore thinks that any outreach is the result of a pragmatic consideration on the part of Russia's rulers as to what will best preserve the political status quo. He then writes:

But sooner or later, the Kremlin is going to run into the same political-economic conundrum that has accompanied every Russian attempt at modernization. Modernizing an economy implies diversifying and decentralizing. It implies respect for property rights. It implies greater transparency. It implies respect for the rule of law as opposed to the rule of the gun.

But does it? China has thus far modernized without any of those things. It may not be sustainable indefinitely, but for now, if Russian rulers are looking for a developmental model that secures their hold on power, why would they look to the West? It's in China where they can find a model that gives them economic development and authoritarian rule.

(AP Photo)

May 13, 2010

Poll: Corruption in Russia

Via Reuters:

Fifty-five percent of respondents to a Levada Center poll of 1,600 Russians said they believed that "bribes are given by everyone who comes across officials" in Russia....

...findings by the Levada Center showed that Russians still pay bribes to obtain better medical services, prefer to "buy" their driving licenses, bribe police when caught violating traffic rules, or pay to ensure that their child can dodge the draft or get a place at the right school.

Ten percent confessed they had even paid to arrange funerals for relatives or loved ones.

Only 10 percent of those polled believe that only "cheats and criminals" bribed officials and 30 percent said that those offering "cash in envelopes" are in fact "ordinary people who have no other way to solve their problems".

Should NATO Sell Arms to Russia?

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Dmitry Gorenburg makes the case:

First of all, countless studies have shown that greater ties between states reduce the likelihood of conflict between them. If France or Germany sell military equipment to Russia, they not only establish closer ties between their militaries, but they also make the Russian military more dependent on NATO military equipment. Cold warriors seem to think that the dependency argument only runs in one direction — Western states who sell to Russia wouldn’t want to lose sales, so they’ll do whatever Russia wants. But the road of mutual dependence is a two way street. If Russia starts buying certain categories of military equipment from abroad, its domestic defense industry will likely lose whatever capability it still has to produce that category of equipment. Russia will then depend on NATO states for the procurement (and perhaps maintenance) of its military equipment. In that situation, Russian leaders will have to think twice before undertaking any actions towards NATO that are sufficiently hostile as to result in it being cut off from access to such equipment.

I'm usually of the mind that the advantage bestowed by Western military equipment is something that should be jealously guarded and not promiscuously sold to the highest bidder. I see the logic in Goreburg's point: that it would deprive Russia of the domestic capacity, leaving them dependent. But I think the idea that Europeans would "deny access" to weapons systems should they begin to disapprove of Russian behavior is a stretch. They were, until recently, reluctant to do so with Iran. Would they really do so with Russia?

April 30, 2010

Putin, Beastmaster

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(AP Photo)

April 29, 2010

Russia Unveils Container-Based Missile System

This one's a nightmare for anyone planning adequate and robust homeland security defenses - Reuters reports from Moscow that a Russian company is marketing a new cruise missile system which can be hidden inside a regular shipping container, potentially giving any merchant vessel the capability to wipe out an aircraft carrier.

The Club-K was put on the market at the Defense Services Asia exhibition in Malaysia for $15 million. At the exhibition, the marketing film showed the Club-K being activated from an ordinary truck and from an ordinary merchant vessel. The missiles, which have a range of 350 km (approx. 210 miles), are launched without further preparation and are targeting what looks like American ground and sea-based forces.

Defense analysts say that potential customers for the Club-K system include Iran and Venezuela – and, potentially, terrorist groups. Reuters quotes Robert Hewson of Jane’s Defense Weekly to say that “at a stroke, the Club-K gives a long-range precision strike capability to ordinary vehicles that can be moved to almost any place on earth without attracting attention. The idea that you can hide a missile system in a box and drive it around without anyone knowing is pretty new,” said Hewson, who is editor of Jane’s Air-Launched Weapons. “Nobody’s ever done that before.”

Hewson estimated the cost of the Club-K system, which packs four ground or sea-launched cruise missiles into a standard 40-foot shipping container, at $10-20 million.

“Unless sales are very tightly controlled, there is a danger that it could end up in the wrong hands,” he said.

April 28, 2010

START & Missile Defense

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There's a debate swirling in wonkish circles about the status of U.S. missile defenses under the New START arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia. Critics of the deal say the Obama administration had to neuter our missile defense plans to get an agreement, while supporters of the deal say no such snipping occurred.

Dimitri Simes, writing in Time, said the Obama administration did indeed give up the store to get the arms deal signed:

Russian experts and officials... believe that America made a tacit commitment not to develop an extended strategic missile defense. As a senior Russian official said to me, "I can't quote you unequivocal language from President Obama or Secretary Clinton in conversations with us that there would be no strategic missile defenses in Europe, but everything that was said to us amounts to this." In this official's account, the full spectrum of U.S. officials from the President to working-level negotiators clearly conveyed that the reason they rejected more explicit restrictions on missile defense was not because of U.S. plans, but because of fear that such a deal could not win Senate ratification. A senior U.S. official intimately familiar with the talks has confirmed that the Russians were advised not to press further on missile defenses because the Administration had no intention to proceed with anything that would truly concern Moscow.

Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis reads the treaty and offers his take:

I think it is very hard to conclude that the treaty “limits” missile defenses. The treaty may have some implications for missile defense programs, but on the whole it is written in such a way as to create space for current and planned missile defense programs, including language that exempts interceptors from the definition of an ICBM and the provision to “grandfather” the converted silos at Vandenberg.

I can't parse the nuances of arms control arcana, but Simes' account of the negotiations recalls the ambiguity of supposed U.S. promises* to Russia regarding NATO expansion at the end of the Cold War. That's been a persistent sore point in U.S.-Russian ties. Will this become another?

*Mark Kramer has a definitive rebuttal of Russian claims that they were promised anything with respect to NATO expansion.

(AP Photo)

April 27, 2010

Cherchez la Femme, Captain Nemo: Indian Navy Caught in Russian Honeypot

This story is perfect for Hollywood - or better yet, Bollywood - screenwriters: a high-ranking Indian Commodore is embroiled in a Russian honeypot scheme that has created quite a stir in both countries.

According to British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, an Indian Commodore (First Rank Captain), tempted by a Russian woman translator in Severodvinsk, is suspected of inflating the price of the aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov," which India bought from Russia. Commodore Suhdzhinder Singh led one of the Indian delegations that monitored the repair work on heavy aircraft carrier "Gorshkov" in the northern Russian city of Severodvinsk in 2005-2007. It was then that he met with an attractive blonde interpreter Masha.

"They met so closely that their photos are now studied very closely at the Ministry of Defence of India," writes Komsomolskaya Pravda. It is not known how these photos came into the hands of the Indian military, but there is now an official investigation against the Commodore.

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Continue reading "Cherchez la Femme, Captain Nemo: Indian Navy Caught in Russian Honeypot" »

April 23, 2010

Obama Spurns Allies Again!

Once again, the Obama administration is trampling over the wishes of its allies in an effort to appease America's enemies:

Fresh from signing a strategic nuclear arms agreement with Russia, the United States is parrying a push by several NATO allies to withdraw its aging stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.

Speaking Thursday at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers here, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration was not opposed to cuts in these battlefield weapons, mostly bombs and short-range missiles locked in underground vaults on air bases in five NATO countries.

But Mrs. Clinton ruled out removing these weapons unless Russia agreed to cuts in its arsenal, which is at least 10 times the size of the American one. And she also appeared to make reductions in the American stockpile contingent on Russia’s being more transparent about its weapons and willing to move them away from the borders of NATO countries.

April 17, 2010

Flyin' High with Evo

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Bolivian President Evo Morales is holding a star-studded climate change soiree in Cochabamba, which he claims:

will give a voice to the poorest people of the world and encourage governments to be far more ambitious following the failure of the Copenhagen summit.

So concerned is Evo with the plight of the poor that he's buying himself a jet built for the Manchester United team:

Bolivia's Treasury Minister Luis Arce says the government is negotiating to buy a French Falcon 900 jet built for the needs of Britain's Manchester United. The price: $38.7 million.

The British soccer team declined to purchase the jet after it was finished, so Morales rushed to buy it, according to Agence France Presse, which also reports that Morales will have another jet, a $40 million Antonov BJ financed through a military credit from Russia.

Morales has been busy this month. While tightening his grip over the country following local elections earlier this month, Morales had recently accepted the third donation of military equipment from China.

Perhaps Evo will fly his Chinese friends and his celebrity friends to the inauguration of the Bolivian Space Agency's new satellite: China and Bolivia are working on a $300 million joint satellite project:

According to Bolivian Public Works Minister Walter Delgadillo, the satellite has a maximum capacity of the DFH-4 model that will enable it to cover not only Bolivia but also the whole Latin America.

China had previously helped Venezuela launch a satellite in 2008.

(AP Photo)

April 1, 2010

Papism

Alex Alexiev writes in National Review about the wave of Russian terror:

As clear-cut a case of Islamist barbarism as it is, though, it is difficult to make sense of the spiraling violence in Russia without reference to Vladimir Putin’s disastrous anti-terrorism policies.

Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, President Putin from the very beginning of his tenure in the Kremlin showed himself completely unwilling to consider any negotiated settlement with the Chechens and pursued a strictly military solution and a puppet regime in Grozny instead -- an attitude characterized by his vulgar promise to the resistance to “rub them out in the latrine.” He had no interest in exploring let alone exploiting the deep gulf between the resistance’s hard-line, Saudi-supported Islamists and its secular nationalists, who had little in common except their vehement dislike of Moscow’s heavy-handed domination.

Could it be that National Review has succumbed to Papism? Or is realism only useful when it can be used to criticize Russia?

March 31, 2010

Poll: U.S. Views on Russia

If Russian views of the U.S. haven't improved much, the latest poll from Rasmussen seems to show a little positive movement from the American side:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 31% of voters now trust Russia to honor its new agreement with the United States to reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile. Forty-three percent (43%) still don’t trust the Russians to honor the agreement which President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev finalized on Friday...

Bleak as they are, the number who trust the Russians to honor the agreement is up nine-points from July when the agreement was first announced. Thirty-two percent (32%) of voters also think the United States should help Russia fight its terrorism problem, following the homicide bomber attacks Monday in Moscow’s subway system that killed 37 people and injured another 65. But 41% say America should not get involved in Russia’s anti-terrorism effort. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are undecided.

Fifteen percent (15%) now view Russia as an ally of the United States. Ten percent (10%) say Russia is an enemy. Seventy-one percent (71%) see the former Soviet Union as somewhere in between the two.

Still, only 17% think America’s relationship with Russia will be better a year from now. Eighteen percent (18%) expect that relationship to be worse, while 57% predict it will be about the same.


Poll: Russian Views on U.S. Ties

Via Angus Reid:

Few people in Russia want their country to seek improved relations with the United States, according to a poll by the Yury Levada Analytical Center. Only 14 per cent of respondents advocate for closer bi-lateral ties, down 10 points since March 2003.

Conversely, 40 per cent of Russians think their country should maintain the same level of relations with the U.S. that it currently has, and 36 per cent would prefer to see Russia distance itself from that country.

March 30, 2010

Video of the Day

Our video of the day is an interview with NYU Professor Stephen Cohen on the Moscow bombings:

For a manipulatable data set on past suicide attacks you can look at the Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism. There is also an old article on female suicide bombers, by Lindsey O'Rourke. (Full Disclosure: I am a fellow at CPOST, and an associate of Lindsay O'Rourke.)

For more videos on issues from around the world check out the Real Clear World videos page.

Black Widows, Ctd.

As Russian security services hunt down the cell of female terrorists believed responsible for yesterday's metro bombings in Moscow, Brian Palmer delves a bit deeper into the role of women in Jihadist organizations:

Women in the al-Qaida family are frequently used as marriage fodder. Many top terrorists marry their daughters off to colleagues abroad as a way to strengthen ties between regional or international terrorists organizations, just as old-school European monarchs once did. Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar appear to be married to each other's daughters. Indonesian terrorist Haris Fadhilah gave his daughter to Omar al-Faruq, a major al-Qaida operative. These arranged marriages are thought to enhance collaboration and communication among terrorist groups, but there's little indication that the women wield any real power. (Many female Chechen fighters gained their status through marriage, as well. The "Black Widows" are a group of bombers who try to complete the missions begun by their martyred husbands, fathers, or brothers.)

There are a handful of role models for women looking to climb terrorism's corporate ladder, but they operated in a different era. Palestinian fighter and terrorist pin-up Laila Khaled planned and executed a plane hijacking in 1969. She captured the word's attention with her brashness, making the pilot fly over Haifa—the birthplace from which she had been exiled—and demanding that air traffic control refer to the plane as "Popular Front Free Arab Palestine" rather than TWA 840. But Khaled belonged to the Marxist-leaning Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and she didn't have to struggle with a patriarchal Islamic hierarchy to become one of the most famous terrorists of the 20th century.

Read the rest here.

March 29, 2010

Black Widows

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Bob Ayers offers his analysis on the culprits behind today's suicide bombings in Russia:

The use of women as suicide bombers or "Black Widows," is one way in which the struggle in Chechnya is different from al Qaeda and more analogous to the military campaign waged by the IRA in Northern Ireland, says Ayers.

"This war is politically motivated, it is not about a religious ideology as in the case of al Qaeda, so everyone participates and it is ultimately irrelevant if you are a man or a woman," said Ayers.

"They are not like al Qaeda who might say women should be hidden away and have no role in attacks."

The "Black Widows" are believed to be made up of women whose husbands, brothers, fathers or other relatives have been killed in the conflict. The women are often dressed head-to-toe in black and wear the so-called "martyr's belt" filled with explosives.

The subtle distinctions and differences in the Global War on Terror will no doubt be fodder for commentary in the coming days. Stay tuned to RealClearWorld for the latest updates from Moscow, and be sure to check out our Russia homepage throughout the week for the latest opinion and analysis on the attacks.

The UK Guardian is also running a live blog on the metro bombings worth checking out.

UPDATE: Charlie Szrom of AEI adds his own thoughts on the attacks, and counters Ayers.

(AP Photo)

March 27, 2010

No Cold Turkey for Israeli Hardware

Russia has offered technology transfer and joint development of fifth generation fighter PAK-FA, also known as T-50, to Brazil, according to Alexander Fomin, Russia's Deputy Director of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation. Russia also offered to transfer to Brazil several Su-35 jet fighters, which already have a number of technologies used in the PAK-FA.

Earlier, Russia proposed similar joint development of fifth generation fighter to India. Russia's OKB Sukhoi Aircraft Company and India's Hindustan Aeronautics will participate in a joint project, the contract for which has not yet been signed.

And while Turkish political establishment may criticize Israel and give it cold shoulder, the military cooperation between the two countries continues. Israel Military Industries (IMI) delivered six Heron unmanned aerial vehicles to Turkey. Istanbul will get a total of 10 UAVs, with the remaining four Herons to be transferred before the end of April 2010. Heron UAV family includes a modification known as "Eitan", which was recently in the news for its capacity to fly as far as Iran.

March 18, 2010

Is Clinton a Closer?

As she lands in Russia to haggle over the details of a new arms limitation agreement, Stephen Walt is not sure:

What I’ll be watching is whether Hillary can close the deal. In general, you shouldn’t send the secretary of state or the president to a big-time negotiation unless you’re pretty confident that the deal is ready and all that’s left are some minor details that will be easy to work out. You might also send the secretary if you needed someone with real status to make a final push, but you’ve got to be ready to walk away if the other side won’t play ball. Otherwise, your top people look ineffective, or even worse, they look desperate for a deal.

What worries me is the Obama team’s track record on this front. It was a mistake to send Obama off to shill for Chicago’s bid to host the Olympic games, for example, partly because he’s got better things to do, but mostly because the gambit failed and made him look ineffectual. Ditto his attendance at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Attending the summit was a nice way to signal his commitment to the issue, but it was obvious beforehand that no deal was going to be reached and his time could have been better spent elsewhere

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Elections in Russia

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Nikolas Gvosdev parses the results of Monday's regional elections in Russia where Putin's United Russia party suffered a few surprising setbacks:

So what we may be seeing is an attempt by the Kremlin to stabilize the long-term political landscape of Russia around United Russia as the dominant ruling party with three opposition parties permitted to function, to draw off steam and voter ire, and to help legitimize the system. Such an approach worked in Mexico for many decades. Will it be viable in Russia?

This seems to be the view endorsed (although not in so many words) by United Russia itself:

The speaker of Russia's lower house of parliament and top United Russia official Boris Gryzlov admitted that these local elections had been tougher than the last set of polls in October due to rises in utility prices.

"We need losses at a regional level so we recognise the causes of these losses and we correct them," he said in comments published on the United Russia website.

Of course, it's doubtful the party would countenance losses at the national level...

March 13, 2010

The Anti-Putin Manifesto

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Opponents of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have begun circling an online petition calling for his ouster. The letter, translated and reprinted at the Power Vertical blog, states in part:

We declare that no essential reforms can be carried out in Russia today as long as Putin controls real power in the country.

We declare that the dismantling of the Putin regime and the return of Russia to the path of democratic development can only begin when Putin has been deprived of all levers of managing the state and society.

We declare that during the years of his rule, Putin has become the symbol of corrupt and unpredictable country that is pitiless in its treatment of its own citizenry. It is a country in which citizens have no rights and are for the most part in poverty. It is a country without ideals and without a future.

If, as the Kremlin propagandists love to repeat, Russia was on its knees during the Yeltsin period, then Putin and his minions have pushed its face into the filth.

Robert Coalson at Power Vertical notes that by directing their criticisms directly at Putin himself, the signatories leave themselves open to a violent crackdown. While I think Russia would be better off without Putin, I for one would miss the Putinisms.

(AP Photo)

March 11, 2010

Worst.Year.Ever.

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Danielle Pletka laments the end of American civilization as we know it:

Consider that the president’s own staff can’t gin up a single special relationship with a foreign leader and that the once “special relationship” with the United Kingdom is in tatters (note the latest contretemps over Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s bizarre intervention on the Falkland Islands); that neither China nor Russia will back the United States’s push for sanctions against Iran; that Iran, it seems, doesn’t want to “sit down” with the Obama administration and chat; that the “peace process” the president was determined to revive is limping pathetically, in no small amount due to missteps by the United States; that one of the key new relationships of the 21st century (advanced by the hated George W. Bush)—with India—is a total mess; that the hope kindled in the Arab world after Obama’s famous Cairo speech has dimmed; that hostility to America’s AfPak special envoy Richard Holbrooke is the only point of agreement between Delhi, Islamabad, and Kabul; that there isn’t a foreign ministry in Europe with a good word to say about working with the Obama White House; that there is a narrative afoot that began with the Obama apologia tour last year and will not go away: America is in decline.

Too many of these problems can be sourced back to the arrogance of the president and his top advisers. Many of Obama’s foreign policy soldiers are serious, keen, and experienced, but even they are afraid to speak to foreigners, to meet with Congress, or to trespass on the policy making politburo in the White House’s West Wing. Our allies are afraid of American retreat and our enemies are encouraged by that fear. George Bush was excoriated for suggesting that the nations of the world are either with us or against us. But there is something worse than that Manichean simplicity. Barack Obama doesn’t care whether they’re with us or against us.

And that's in just one year! Imagine how much he'll have ruined by 2012!

Needless to say, I find all of this to be a bit exaggerated, and even a bit disingenuous. Keep in mind that many once thought it cute or tough to alienate and insult allies; designating them as 'old' and 'new' Europe, for instance. When the Bush administration ruffled feathers it was decisive leadership; when Obama does it it's the collapse of Western society as we know it. Pick your hyperbole, I suppose.

After eight years in office, did President Bush actually leave us with a clear policy on ever-emerging China? How about the so-called road map for peace? How'd that work out? Did President Bush manage to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment, or did he simply leave Iran in a stronger geopolitical position vis-à-vis Iraq and Afghanistan?

Pletka attributes many of these perceived failings to "arrogance." But it has been well documented that the previous administration was also stubborn, resistant to consultation and set in its ways. How then, if Ms. Pletka is indeed correct, has this changed with administrations?

Pletka scoffs at the president's insistence that policy is "really hard," but he's right - as was George W. Bush when he said it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the problem isn't what our presidents have failed to do, but what we expect them to do in an increasingly multipolar, or even nonpolar world?

(AP Photo)

A Multipolar Mess?

Nikolas Gvosdev writes:

Two years ago, Washington was abuzz once again with the prospects for a “League of Democracies” that would support U.S. global leadership. But in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Burma/Myanmar, a very clear rift opened up between the democracies of the advanced north and west, which advocated an intervention on humanitarian grounds, and the democracies of the south and east, which proved to be far more receptive to China’s call for defending state sovereignty. In the Doha round of trade talks and in the ongoing climate change negotiations, the leading democracies of the south and east—Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, India and Indonesia among them—have tended to line up with Beijing instead of joining Washington’s banner.

The entire National Interest piece is worth a read, but regarding this snippet I would argue that if it's a "League of Pliancy" Washington had hoped for, then perhaps it should start viewing the world the way Vladimir Putin does. A key tenet of President Bush's so-called freedom agenda was that a more democratic world meant a safer world. I'm sure that's true. But it also means a more pluralistic world; one with many voices, and many interests.

This world could be a great place to live, if there were actually an international system to help guide and support emerging democracies alongside the already ensconced ones. But this is one of the freedom agenda's key failings: more democracy means more interests, which of course makes it harder for countries, such as the United States, that are used to dealing with more pliant actors.

Interests and emerging democrats will continue to overlap and conflict in the coming years, which is why it's imperative that our public officials learn how to lead in an increasingly multipolar tug of war around the globe. From what we've seen so far, I wouldn't hold your breath for such nuanced understanding in 2010 or 2012.

UPDATE:

Larison adds his own thoughts to the multipolarity vs. exceptionalism debate, and calls a bluff on Obama's neoconservative critics:

To take their criticism seriously, we would have to believe that his critics accept the reality and inevitability of multipolarity, and we would have to believe that they also accept the relative decline in American power that this entails. Of course, they don’t really accept either of these things. For the most part, they do not acknowledge the structural political reasons for resistance to Obama’s initiatives, and they recoil from any suggestion that America needs to adjust to a changing world. They locate the fault for any American decline entirely with Obama, because he fails to be sufficiently strong in championing U.S. interests. “Decline is a choice,” Krauthammer says, and he accuses Obama of having chosen it.

March 8, 2010

Will a French Warship Boost Russia?

France's decision to sell a Mistral class warship to Russia has raised some alarm bells at the prospect of a rejuvenated Russian navy that could potentially menace nations such as Georgia. Dmitry Gorenburg says not to worry:

...the Russian Navy is declining, and the Mistral, while a fine ship, will not suddenly turn it into the most formidable force in the region. Furthermore, despite ongoing reforms, the Russian military as a whole will also get weaker before it gets stronger, in part because of deteriorating equipment, in part because of a decline in available personnel, and in part because of the retirement of well-trained officers who began their careers in the Soviet period and their replacement by officers who made their careers in the 1990s, when money for training was scarce.

March 7, 2010

Putin's Post-Olympic Purge

Julia Ioffe takes you inside the surreal world of Russia's post-Olympic witch-hunt.

March 1, 2010

Medvedev Wants to Punish Russia's Olympic Leadership

This was coming - following Russia's poor performance at the recently-concluded Winter Olympics, President Dmitry Medvedev is calling for the heads to roll. At a meeting with the leadership of the United Russia political party, Medvedev proposed that those responsible for preparing for the Olympics should resign. "If they cannot do that, then we will help them," added the president. Experts think that this is clearly directed at Vitaly Mutko, Russia's Sports Minister, and head of the Russian Olympic Committee Leonid Tyagachyov.

"Whoever is responsible for preparing for the Olympics should be held accountable now. The responsible persons should take a courageous decision and write a (resignation) statement," said the President.

For his part, Mutko defended his actions. The Sports Minister has asked not to make loud statements about the Games and not to escalate the situation. "If we remove some official, will our skiers run faster?" However, he did add that "Vancouver painted the real picture in (our) sport." Russia spent an estimated 1 billion roubles (approximately $330 million) preparing for these games.

Given the current mood in the country after a poor showing in Vancouver, Russia intends to stop at nothing to recapture its pride at the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in the southern Russian city of Sochi.

February 25, 2010

Is Health Care Reform Hurting America Abroad?

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Hillary Clinton goes there:

"We are always going to have differences between the executive and legislative branch, but we have to be attuned to how the rest of the world sees the functioning of our government, because it's an asset," the secretary told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on state, foreign operations and related programs.

"People don't understand the way our system operates. They just don't get it," she said. "Their view does color whether the United States — not just the president, but our country — is in a position going forward to demonstrate the kind of unity and strength and effectiveness that I think we have to in this very complex and dangerous world."

"As we sell democracy — and we are the lead democracy of the world — I want people to know that we have checks and balances, but we also have the capacity to move," she said.

This is a peculiar line of thinking from the secretary and, as my colleague Greg put it in private conversation, a rather "Cheney-esque" sort of comment to make.

I just finished watching all 19 hours of today's health care summit, and the feelings I'm left with resemble something closer to boredom, exhaustion and irritation; fear and despair haven't quite sunk in yet, at least not the kind that legitimate democrats (with a little 'd') like those in Russia and Iran must deal with on a daily basis. I'm guessing they'd love to have our tedious deliberation and onerous amounts of free speech in their respective countries.

Seems like little more than an inappropriate political jab by Clinton.

(AP Photo)

February 22, 2010

The S-300 Shuffle

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By Ed Stein

Just as the IAEA released yet another report declaring the potential presence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, one story seems to be sneaking under the radar. This past week brought yet more signs of a growing rift in Russian-Iranian relations surrounding Iran’s illicit nuclear program. As Russia seems to be opening to the possibility of additional sanctions, it sent another resounding shot across the bow to Iran when it delayed, again, its delivery of S-300 air defense missiles. This decision followed a meeting between Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which the Russian president reportedly acquiesced to Israel’s request to do just this.

According to Alexander Fomin, first deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation, “There is a delay due to technical problems,” and “the delivery will be completed when they are solved.” In a response that could only further point out the obvious, Vladamir Kasparyants, head of the Russian arms company which manufactures the S-300s, responded, “there are no technical questions. It’s a political issue.” Thanks, Vlad. The S-300 issue has been at the top of the bilateral agenda between Israel and Russia for quite some time now, in addition to the believed subject of secret meetings between the two countries. And it’s no wonder: the presence of such a system would make much more difficult any military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites.

We should not be too quick, however, to conclude that Russia has fully come around on the Iranian nuclear issue, as this may be the result of some backroom horse-trading. According to the Russian press, Israel recently stepped-up its arms sales to Georgia, expanding beyond UAVs to include a variety of conventional arms, and already there has been speculation that the S-300s have been linked to Israeli-Georgian arms deals. Indeed, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has assured the world that the delivery will eventually be made: "There is a contract to supply these systems to Iran, and we will fulfill it.”

It has been hypothesized that an actual Iranian acquisition of S-300s could be an Israeli red line leading them to strike Iranian nuclear targets. One Russian analyst even went so far as to “give it a 100 percent possibility that Israel would strike Iran at the news of the S-300 delivery.” As enrichment continues, confrontation grows and the Iranian domestic crackdown intensifies, one has to wonder whether the moment of truth will come in the form of an IAEA report, or a ship carrying S-300s.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2010

Fire on a Russian Nuclear Submarine

A fire on a nuclear submarine K-480 "Ak Bars" (project 971) in the dockyard "Little Star" in Severodvinsk has been localized, but is still burning for more than seven hours as of Friday night.

Fire on the sub started about 3 p.m. Friday, when its cables ignited. RIA Novosti news agency reported that the submarine hull will be opened in order to alleviate pressure inside the ship. At this point, 70 firefighters are trying to put out the blaze. There is no nuclear fuel on board the submarine, according to the official sources, and no radiation hazards are expected.

February 12, 2010

Ukraine's Post-Election To-Do List

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By David J. Kramer

KYIV, Ukraine—Contrary to earlier polls, Ukraine’s presidential election turned out to be much closer than expected. After the run-off held on February 7, opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych claimed victory over Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko—at last count, he had a 3 percent lead—but Tymoshenko was not ready to concede. She is expected to file court challenges over claims of fraud in individual poll­ing stations, but international observers across the board, including the delegation I led for the International Republican Institute, deemed this election generally free and fair and any problems not to have been systemic in nature.

Tymoshenko, of course, has every right to pursue her legal options, but it would be unfortunate if her efforts led to weeks of squabbling and political paralysis. Ukrainians have had enough of that over the past few years, when they grew disillusioned with those associated with the 2004 Orange Revolution. Based on the preliminary assessment of foreign observers, neither problems that may have occurred on Election Day nor a controversial change made to the electoral law three days before the election had an appreciable impact on the election itself.

Barring the unexpected, Ukraine will see Yanukovych assume the reins as presi­dent. There are some in the West who will be unhappy with the election outcome. They will see Yanukovych’s victory as the final nail in the Orange Revolution’s coffin and will want to keep their distance from Ukraine. This would be exactly the wrong approach to take. Leaders in the West need to engage the new president and his team immediately after he as­sumes office. Here are some things they should do in the near term:

* Invite Yanukovych to the West. U.S. President Barack Obama will be hosting a nuclear security summit in April, and Yanukoych’s participation in that would be a good start. EU countries should also reach out to him out of recognition that Ukraine is a vital neighbor.

* Visit Kyiv. Western leaders should make Kyiv a key place to visit, not on the way to or from Moscow but on its own.

* Strengthen bilateral commissions on a level comparable to what Obama established with Russia last year. Dealing with Ukraine can be frustrating, but the alternative of keeping a distance is even worse, especially when Moscow will be reaching out aggressively to the new government in Kyiv.

* For the European Union, move forward on finalizing a free trade agreement with Ukraine and visa liberalization. It should stress that future membership in the European Union, while not in the offing in the near-term, is a possibility. The door to the European Union must remain open to Ukraine if it undertakes the necessary reforms over the next few years.

* Avoid pressing on membership in NATO, especially since the majority of Ukrainians do not support NATO membership at this time. Injecting this issue into the political debate in Ukraine now would be distracting and counterproductive, but NATO should keep its door open, too.

* Push for resumption of International Monetary Fund (IMF) lending if Ukraine’s parliament and leaders stop their inflationary and unaffordable budgetary and fiscal policies.

Continue reading "Ukraine's Post-Election To-Do List" »

February 11, 2010

Understanding Iran's Bomb

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Writing in the New Republic, Matthew Kroenig offers one of the sharper takes I've read on the strategic implications of an Iranian bomb and why those implications mitigate against Chinese and Russian cooperation with the U.S.:

The United States’ global power-projection capability provides Washington with a significant strategic advantage: It can protect, or threaten, Iran and any other country on the planet. An Iranian nuclear weapon, however, would greatly reduce the latitude of its armed forces in the Middle East. If the United States planned a military operation in the region, for example, and a nuclear-armed Iran objected that the operation threatened its vital interests, any U.S. president would be forced to rethink his decision....

Some analysts argue that we shouldn’t worry about proliferation in Iran because nuclear deterrence will work, much like it worked during the Cold War. But from Washington’s point of view, this is precisely the problem; it is more often than not the United States that will be deterred. Although Washington might not have immediate plans to use force in the Middle East, it would like to keep the option open.

This is, in a nutshell, the threat from Iran. Few people seriously believe Iran is going to use a nuclear weapon, but it is very reasonable to think that the strategic fallout from an Iranian bomb would be less American freedom of action in the Middle East. But is that conventional wisdom correct? Consider Pakistan. They have nuclear weapons and we nonetheless threatened them after 9/11 and invaded a neighboring country to depose a government Pakistan was allied with. Russia and China have nuclear weapons, but that has not stopped the U.S. from moving into Central Asia.

A nuclear weapon is certainly invaluable for saving your own skin (see North Korea), but it's not worth much to other countries unless you're willing to explicitly extend them the benefits of your nuclear deterrent, like the U.S. has done with some of its allies. Looking at the Middle East, there aren't too many likely recipients for an Iranian nuclear umbrella (and developing the capabilities to credibly offer one is extremely expensive). So about the best a nuclear bomb would do for Iran is prevent U.S. military action directly against them. (And consider too that the first Gulf War against Iraq saw the U.S. attack a country with WMD.)

In other words, it's likely that the U.S. would still be able to project power in the Middle East with an Iranian bomb. In fact, a nuclear Iran would almost certainly see a sharp increase in American power in the region (as we have already seen) as the U.S. moves to contain Iran.

But this just underscores the difficulty in enticing China and Russia to help: we can't tell them that a nuclear Iran is a threat to them, because it isn't. We can't say that a nuclear Iran would prevent their freedom of movement in the Middle East, because that's not something we want either. We can't tell them a nuclear Iran increases the prospect for regional instability, because from Russia's perspective, anything that puts pressure on oil prices is a good thing. We can't threaten military force because from Russia and China's perspective, the more we're bogged down policing the Mideast, the less we're paying attention to them.

February 9, 2010

The Geopolitical Fallout from Ukraine

Walter Russell Mead takes stock of the post-election landscape:

The eclipse of the US project (based on NATO expansion that is no longer realistic) and the EU project (based on expansion) leaves the Russian project of re-integrating the Soviet space looking better, and there is hope in Moscow and fear elsewhere that the Empire of the Czars is once more on the march. It’s more of a lurch than a march; even with its oil and gas wealth, Russia isn’t rich enough to build a new empire where the czars and the commissars ruled. Russia’s influence in Ukraine will surely grow now, more because of commercial relations and deals as because of geopolitical power. But even if EU membership is a long way away, Europe is a much more attractive market than Russia and Ukraine’s new government is not going to give up the hope that trade with Europe can promote Ukraine’s recovery and growth.

And, from a US standpoint, there is not much that Russia can do in Ukraine that seriously threatens American security or vital interests. A Russian military takeover of all or part of Ukraine (Crimea is the most likely target) would not threaten the balance of power in Europe and, by forcefully reminding countries like Poland how much they need that NATO umbrella, would probably drive Europe as a whole toward a closer relationship with the US. Despite its new feistiness under Putin, Russia remains a country in decline. It’s population is declining; it’s economy isn’t gaining ground; and its relative position compared to the Chinese superpower in the east is getting dramatically worse. In the next few years Russia is much more likely to be worried about growing Chinese influence in Central Asia and the continuing Islamic insurgencies in the Caucasus than it will be busy plotting the entrance of its tanks into Kiev.

I think Mead identifies the important point, which is that we need to distinguish between Russian actions that we disapprove of (exerting influence beyond her borders) and Russian actions which pose a real threat to the security or economic well being of the United States. One of the dangers with the pursuit of global (or even just Eurasian) hegemony is that it is impossible for many people to actually make such a distinction, with the end result being that anything that offends our sensibilities is a wrong we must address or suffer a devastating loss of face.

February 8, 2010

Georgia Hires Gephardt

Republic of Georgia continues to spend big money on lobbying for its interests in the United States. The Hill reported that the small Caucasus country has signed former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) to lobby for her in Washington. Gephardt Group Government Affairs signed a one-year contract worth more than $430,000 to represent Georgia. Gephardt, the former Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, heads the group. The firm will “provide lobbying and government relations services to Georgia,” according to the contract filed with the Justice Department.

According to The Hill, "Gephardt’s ties to Democrats and the Obama administration could be helpful to the Georgian government, which wants U.S. support for its effort to join NATO and U.S. support against Russia. The two countries fought a short war in 2008." Georgia is also hedging its bets with both political parties, and in November 2009, the country’s national security council signed Orion Strategies to a three-month, $10,000 contract. Orion is run by Randy Scheunemann, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign.

The question remains on the effectiveness of such lobbying by Georgia. American interests in the former Soviet Union walk the fine line between cordial and friendly relations with Russia and support for small, vulnerable states like Georgia - especially if they present geopolitical advantages in the form of pipeline routes or proximity to areas of intense interest to Washington (Middle East, Iran, Iraq, etc.).

For Georgia, which offers small-scale assistance to the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, membership in NATO is a major policy goal as a way to break free of Russian influence. For its part, Russia considers such NATO expansion as a threat to the state and voices strong opposition to the expansion of the Western alliance that will include countries in Moscow's "traditional sphere of influence." Gephardt's group is not the first firm retained by Georgia since the 2008 war with Moscow - and it probably won't be the last if not enough progress is made on the NATO issue, for example.

Ultimately, such lobbying efforts boil down to a zero-sum game against Russia's interests - and while the United States has been able to maintain its influence in the Caucasus, it has also tried hard to keep its relationship with Moscow on the level. So the question is - which lobbying firm will get Georgia's contract next year? The field is wide open at this point.

Russia to NATO: We Want to Tango, Not Lambada

Russian political establishment continues to criticize NATO's current stance and views NATO's possible eastward movement with concern. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen believes that the new Military Doctrine of Russia, in which the expansion of NATO to the East is cited as a threat, does not reflect the reality, and "is a contradiction to our attempts at improving our relations."

However, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russian Security Council, responded that while Russia was not going to attack anyone, it wasn't going to fully renounce nuclear weapons either. For his part, Dmitry Rogozin, Russian Permanent Representative to NATO said: "NATO says that in a true partnership, it takes two to tango. And here it turns out that while we offer to dance tango, we are offered to dance lambada."

Earlier this Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at the Munich security conference, presented his country's concept of the Treaty on European Security. At that time, Lavrov stressed that Russia still considers as unacceptable the expansion of NATO to the east.

Moscow does not understand "how the NATO base, located in the newly adopted countries - members of the alliance, could strengthen Russia's security. "How, for example, NATO forces in the Black Sea will enhance our security?" questioned Lavrov.

Secretary Patrushev, in commenting on the new doctrine on Saturday, stated that the military concepts laid out by the Russian government allow his country to defend itself by all available means - including nuclear weapons, which are a means to deter potential adversaries. "We do not intend to attack anyone! But if Russia's existence as a state is questioned under threat of an attack, then, of course, we have no choice. We will conduct a peaceful policy, but at the same time, we will defend our national interests and will defend ourselves by any means at our disposal."

Patrushev also hinted that Russia will not wait until a strike is launched against her. "In view of the weapons that are now available to some countries, we will not be able to respond with a retaliatory strike. So, naturally, we will work hard to get information about any plans against Russia, and, naturally, we will work to ensure that no strike is carried out against my country."

February 5, 2010

Russia's Fifth-Generation Fighter Jet Finally Takes Off

On Jan. 29, Russia officially tested its fifth-generation fighter plane - T-50 PAK FA. The video of the flight shows that the aircraft bears a strong resemblance to the American F-22 stealth aircraft. Russian official sources stated that it would take additional 4 to 5 years to finally test the plane before it would be in service by the country's air force.

Alexander Golts of Russia's "Yezhedenvniy Zhurnal" offers a stinging critique of what appears to be Moscow's slow path towards high-tech air force parity with the United States.

Meanwhile, Russia does not seem to have any luck trying to get its domestically-produced UAV's off the ground - its new plane, dubbed "Aist" - Flying Crane - could not take off properly during its flight test and crashed. "Aist" was supposed to be the base model for the creation of "Julia-E" UAV that would have provided data and information to the "Iskander" missile complex. At this point, any further development of the military "Julia" UAV is postponed indefinitely.

The article nostalgically points out that "30 years ago, USSR was an undisputed global UAV leader, having produced almost 1,000 Tu-143 "Reis" UAVs between 1972 and 1989."

Russia Cites NATO as Its Biggest Threat

On Feb. 5, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made public his country's new military doctrine, where NATO is listed as the chief adversary. The doctrine cites growing proximity of NATO military infrastructure to Russia's borders as a threat to the country.

Some of the threats cited in the doctrine include basing of international military contingents on the territory of certain countries, as well as the basing of the ballistic missile defenses, which Russia sees as undermining its nuclear parity with the West. Other threats listed in the doctrine include attempts at a coup d'etat, violation of the country's territorial integrity and threats posed by the information warfare. The new doctrine is envisioned through 2020.

Should Russia Join NATO?

Robert Coalson at Radio Free Europe's Power Vertical blog takes a look at the arguments, pro and con.

Video of the Day

The wide world of weird nuclear politics raises its head again:

It is interesting that a system completely incapable of withstanding a concerted assault by Russia should be so important not only to Russia, but to states like Romania and Poland. In this case it is not because of the capabilities, but the symbolism of the system. Eastern European states view the missile system, and presumably the troops that comes with it, as a clear signal of U.S. commitment in the region. Based on the reaction from the Kremlin, the Russians apparently agree - and they do not like it.

For more videos on topics throughout the world, check out the Real Clear World video page.

February 4, 2010

Is Georgia Worth Fighting For?

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Politico's Ben Smith takes us inside the Bush administration during the Russia-Georgia war. We learn, not surprisingly, that they contemplated using military force to aid Georgia but wisely rejected it. Smith then brings up the debate over whether the Bush administration should have pushed harder to get Georgia into NATO. Georgia's NATO bid was ultimately back-burnered during a summit in Bucharest because of European reticence, but not after the U.S. signaled its strong support for Georgia. Smith reports:

The message out of the NATO meeting in Bucharest was "as good a deterrence message as voting them into” a formal path to membership, said Hadley. Vladimir “Putin was under no illusions about our commitment to Georgia and our commitment to Saakashvili. We’d been sending Putin a message about Georgia ever since Saakashvili was elected president."

Let's unpack this a bit. First, we know from Smith's report that the Bush administration, including its most hawkish hawks, decided that Georgia was not worth fighting a war over. Yet despite the fact that Washington had no interest in courting World War III over Georgia, it nonetheless pushed to admit the country into NATO which would have legally obligated the United States to go to war over Georgia if they were attacked.

Am I the only one confused by this?

Now implicit in Hadley's quote is the idea that the very act of being admitted into NATO would have stayed Russia's hand. It's obvious that Hadley was wrong in his statement above, there was no deterrence for Russia after Bucharest (and perhaps just the opposite). Instead, they attacked.

This not only demonstrates the lack of understanding regarding Russia's intentions, but a casual, indeed reckless, disregard for the seriousness of NATO. We know, contrary to Hadley's erroneous belief, that Russia was not deterred by Washington's high-minded expressions of support for Georgia. But what if Russia was not deterred even after Georgia had been granted a path to formal NATO membership? What if Russia decided to roll the dice even after Georgia was admitted into the alliance?

We would then be in the crazy position of either having to fight Russia over Georgia for the sake of NATO credibility, or stand down and watch a 60 year old alliance crumble over a single foolish decision. You don't enter into mutual defense treaties because you're just hoping it will all work itself out and that you'll never be called on it. You forge them out of strategic necessity.

And indeed, the Russian invasion laid bare the cynicism and sheer recklessness of even contemplating NATO membership for Georgia. It was a cynical gesture because it subverts the original intention of NATO - which was to provide common defense for Western Europe and to give the U.S. a strong role in Western European security affairs. It's clear neither consideration led the administration to strongly push for Georgia's inclusion in NATO, but nonetheless, they used Georgia's membership as a means to hem in Russia.

It's reckless because it's obvious no one believed Georgia was vital to the security interests of the United States or even the West, and yet there were people who wanted to put the alliance's credibility (and the lives of NATO members) on the line on a gamble that Russia would grudgingly swallow Georgia's entry into NATO just as it put up with earlier rounds of alliance expansion. But it's worse than that: Either the Bush administration did not seriously discuss Georgia and its value to the United States before they publicly proclaimed support for the country (convincing its leaders and its people that Washington had their back when we clearly didn't), or they just didn't think they'd ever be called to account for their rhetoric.

(AP Photo)

Without Moscow, Ukraine's Election Goes Unnoticed

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Ukrainian voters go back to the polls this Sunday for a runoff election between Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovych.

Andrew Wilson at the European Council on Foreign Affairs looks at the hurdles facing Tymoshenko:


Firstly and most urgently, she has not been able to win the public backing of any of the major candidates knocked out in round one. At the moment, she has about as many friends as the troubled English footballer, John Terry. Arseniy Yatsenyuk (who won 7%) is still bridling at the way Tymoshenko trampled on his corpse when his campaign faltered in the autumn, and is urging his supporters to vote ‘against all'. President Yushchenko's ongoing vendetta against Tymoshenko has not been interrupted by his miserable 5.5% in the first round. Yushchenko is still determined to make waves; by making Stepan Bandera, the most controversial figure of Ukrainian nationalism's controversial 1940s, a ‘Hero of Ukraine', and encouraging lose and delusional talk of prolonging his rule if the elections results in deadlock.

Meanwhile, Tymoshenko has been threatening another "Orange Revolution" if Yanukovych attempts to rig the vote. Unlike 2004, the Russia vs. the West storyline in the Ukraine vote is considerably more muddied, with both candidates professing a desire for warmer ties with Moscow. Which probably explains why so few people are paying attention.

(AP Photo)

February 1, 2010

Did Russia Try to Sabatoge the U.S. Economy?

Via Blake Hounshell, an interesting tidbit has emerged from former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's forthcoming memoir:

Russia urged China to dump its Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds in 2008 in a bid to force a bailout of the largest U.S. mortgage-finance companies, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said.

China rejected the idea, but some are still calling it an alarming case of "economic warfare" considering the Russian gambit was reportedly hatched during (or just before) the war with Georgia. Daniel Drezner cautions about reading too much into it before all the facts are out.

January 25, 2010

Putinisms, Updated

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"On the Internet 50 percent is porn material. Why should we refer to the Internet?" (Source)

Click here for more Putinisms.

On a more serious note, the source of the quote noted above is from a speech Putin delivered on Friday regarding government reform in Russia. Radio Free Europe's Power Vertical blog dissects its implications.

(AP Photo)

January 23, 2010

Chinese Space Ships Racing Past Russia's

This article from December 2009, published in "Nezavisimoye Voeyynoe Obozreniye" offers a strong critique of the Russian space program. The author states that a successful public relations campaign by the Russian government and the Russian space agency hid the actual technological deficiencies of the domestic space industry. "For example, the funds currently spent on planning a new "Vostochniy" space port and launching facility could be better spent developing innovative technologies and for the speedy entry of "Angara" rocket into regular use ("Angara" was developed as an ecologically clean alternative to the existing "Proton" rocket.) All television coverage and articles pointing to Russia's leading role in the number of space launches hide the fact that our carrier rockets - Proton and Soyuz - are entering the fifth and sixth decade of use, respectively."

The article draws attention to China, which is emerging as a serious competitor to Moscow in space exploration and space technologies. "... Our international partners took our best technologies and reverse-engineered them. We, however, have remained on the same development level, where our partners no longer need us. Russia's new piloted space craft, slated to enter service in 2020, could essentially "lose out" to the Chinese "Shenzhou" craft, which, by that time, will be in use for about 17 years - while the Russian craft will have to prove its reliability and effectiveness from the very beginning. Moreover, if it actually puts its own orbital station in orbit, China will, by 2010-2011, achieve actual parity with Russia in the quality of piloted space travel."

These are indeed strong words - China's quick emergence as the third country able to put a human into space makes Russia very uncomfortable. Both as a matter of personal pride and driven by the need to achieve fiscal responsibility for its massive investments into space industry, Moscow views China's steady progress as a challenge to its own place as the planet's primary space power. With the possible weaponization of space already on the agenda following successful anti-satellite tests by Washington and Beijing, Russia may feel compelled to achieve a massive breakthrough, or risk sliding further back behind the other space powers.

January 22, 2010

Video of the Day

Russia has a new reason to feel insecure; at least it thinks so:

If there were ever a country that embodies the security dilemma as described by John Mearsheimer, it is Russia. Every increase in capabilities by near or not-so-near countries causes them to feel threatened. It is worth noting that the Patriot Missile system is primarily defensive, and Russian airspace is well out of range when deployed 100km from the border. Nevertheless, the tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship highlights the strange dynamic of nuclear politics where increases in defensive capabilities also increase first strike incentives.

For more videos on subjects from around the world, check out the RCW Video page.

January 21, 2010

The Year of Bushehr

This ought to make things more interesting:

The chief of Russia's state nuclear corporation said on Thursday that the country would start up the reactor at Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant by the end of this year.

"2010 is the year of Bushehr," Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko told reporters after a cabinet meeting in Moscow.

We may well see if an operational Iranian nuclear power plant is a red line for Israel.

How the Post-Communist Generation See Things

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Pew Research's Juliana Menasce Horowitz sees positive signs in the attitudes of young people in post-Communist societies:

In every Eastern European country surveyed, the post-communist generation is much more supportive of the move away from a state-controlled economy than are those who lived as adults under communism. As is the case with opinions about the change to democracy, the generational divide is greatest in Russia; about six-in-ten (62%) Russians younger than age 40 say they approve of their country's change to capitalism, compared with just 40% of those in the older age group.

A double-digit gap also exists in Ukraine, Slovakia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Poland, and a smaller gap is evident in Lithuania and Hungary. In Ukraine, where the overall level of support for the change to a market economy is lower than in any other country surveyed (36% approve of the change), nearly half (47%) of those younger than age 40 say they approve of the economic changes their country has undergone; just 28% of those 40 or older share that view.

The entire study is worth a read. Of note, Ukraine, which just concluded a first round of presidential voting, has the lowest approval when it comes to a country's move to multi-party elections.

(AP Photo)

January 19, 2010

Russia in the Far East

The daily Nezavisimoye Voyenno Obozreniye - Independent Military Review - published a scathing assessment on the state of Russian Army preparedness in the strategically-important Far East.

The data is crucial for several reasons: 1. The Russian military establishment views "eastern direction" as a source of potential threat (read, China, but don't say it aloud, as is the current modus operandi in Moscow); 2. Russia just inaugurated a major oil pipeline to feed much-needed energy for China's ever-increasing demand. Defense of energy networks that now criss-cross Eastern Siberia and the Far East are key to Russian economic security; 3. the criticism of the Russian military preparedness are becoming more and more public across the Russian Federation.

"Last week the MOD Commission checked the status of combat training in the Far East. The preliminary results are disappointing. According to the First Deputy Defense Minister of the Russian Army General Nikolai Makarov, the combat training of troops in the Far Eastern Region (DVO) and the Pacific Fleet (TOF) is assessed as unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, Far East and the Pacific Fleet in combat power and the number of troops make up almost 40% of the capacity of the Russian Army and Navy. General Makarov said that the final conclusions on the audit readiness of troops in the region will be made by the end of January. However, he said that during this test, "the high demand placed on a new image of the troops and their leaders do not allow individual military units and commanders to deliver a positive evaluation."

Continue reading "Russia in the Far East" »

All Politics Is Local

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Daniel Larison offers his thoughts on the Ukraine election:

Late last year, a survey of post-communist countries showed that Ukrainians were one of two nations with abysmally low levels of support for democratic government and capitalism. Given the dire financial straits in which Ukraine finds itself and the disastrously dysfunctional government they have had over the last five years, it is not surprising that Ukrainians have soured on both. The absurdly high and unrealistic expectations for internal reform and charting a “pro-Western” course following Yushchenko’s victory have been dashed, and Ukrainians appear to be experiencing the acute disillusionment with Western models that Russians experienced during the 1990s. There is not much reason to expect that the regional and personal antagonisms that have done so much to cripple effective government in Ukraine will go away, but the good news is that tensions with Moscow are likely to be reduced and any disputes over gas pipelines, Crimea or the Black Sea Fleet are less likely to escalate into a crisis.

Interestingly, we haven't heard much from the "we're all Georgians now" crowd about the Ukraine election. Maybe they're not paying attention, or maybe they haven't figured out how to blame Obama for the results.

See also: Katya Gorchinskaya at the Kyiv Post offers a more succinct take on the Feb. 7 runoff in Ukraine.

(AP Photos)

January 15, 2010

India Goes for Russian Fifth-Generation Fighter

According to the daily "Izvestia", India is planning to purchase 250 Russian fifth-generation fighters, PAK-FA. The Russian equivalent to the American F-22 will be designated by the Indians as "FGFA."

Russian "United Airspace Company" (OAK) and India's Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) are currently moving closer to the memorandum of understanding for the production of the aircraft for the two nations' air forces. In November 2007, both nations signed an agreement to jointly produce this jet fighter, but it took two years to resolve questions regarding intellectual property rights. The total cost of this deal is valued between $8 and $10 billion. Russia is expected to receive the new fighter in 2015, India will get it in 2017.

January 8, 2010

What Is Russia?

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By Vadim Nikitin

This week was the Russian Orthodox Christmas. Twenty years after Communism and somewhat at odds with the newfound Christian ardour of Russia’s elites, it’s not a big stand alone holiday, falling relatively quietly in the middle of the 10 day vacation starting with the big Soviet milestone of New Year’s.

Yet at the same time, Russians are also not celebrating the centeniary of Leo Tolstoy’s death partly because, according to Luke Harding in The Guardian, “the writer’s criticisms of Orthodox religion and authority make him a dangerous figure for those in power – both in Tsarist Russia and also today."

The question of what to celebrate and why exposes a crucial open sore: After a decade of Yeltsin and a decade of Putin, Russia is still struggling to find an identity.

Continue reading "What Is Russia?" »

December 31, 2009

The Luxury of Nuclear Weapons

Andrew Sullivan writes:

The obvious aim, it seems to me, of the Revolutionary Guards is not to nuke al-Aqsa, but to use a nuclear capacity to immunize their terrorism in the region, to balance Israel's nuclear monopoly, to scare the crap out of the Saudis and Egyptians, and to shore up their control at home. I see this as an inevitable coming-of-age of Iran as a regional power, and although there is an obvious and acute danger that nuclearization could entrench some of the worst elements of the regime (and they don't get much worse than Ahmadinejad), the brutal truth is: we do not have the tools to stop it. One day, a nuclear Iran, if led by men and women legitimately elected by the people of Iran, could be our friend, not enemy - and a much more reliable and stable friend than the Sunni Arab autocracies we are currently shoring up. I believe, in short, that in my lifetime we will see a democratic Iran, led by the generation that took to the streets this year. And I believe vigilant containment is the only realistic way at this point to get there.

Why is it that no one talks extensively about human rights in North Korea, or China or Russia? Why does it make sense that Burma's military junta would pursue a nuclear weapons program?

The answer is rather simple: security. As Andrew points out, the likelihood of Iran actually using one of these weapons should they even attain the capability is slim. The problem is that the very possession of these weapons allows Iran into an unspoken club of hush, hush humanitarianism. Sure, we all know bad things go on in the aforementioned countries, but what can we actually do about it?

If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon the regional dynamic, as Sullivan concedes, would immediately change. In order to offset a regional arms race, the United States would essentially need to cover the entire Middle East in its so-called nuclear umbrella. Strategy would shift from engagement to containment. And this is the important point: when you seek to simply contain, you are accepting losses within already compromised boundaries. In this instance, that lost territory is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I hope--and pray--to see a free and democratic Iran in my lifetime, just as Andrew does. But the chances of that happening should this awful and rotten regime get a nuclear weapon would be rather slim. If the casual observer thinks this government is oppressive now, just wait until it is intoxicated with the impunity of the nuclear womb.

Moreover, any hopes of resurrecting nuclear nonproliferation can get kissed goodbye. As I wrote earlier this month, what Obama is trying to do here is admirable--that being, restore some semblance of international order and process for dealing with rogue states that seek nuclear weapons. If the policy toward nuclear Iran is mere containment, then Iran has already won.

What then will be the strategy for the next nuclear aspirant? Containment? War? Something else? The fact that there's no viable answer to those questions is the problem, and it will only get worse if Tehran gets the bomb.

Removing All Options from the Table

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Ray Takeyh writes:

The modest demands of establishment figures such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, including for the release of political prisoners and restoring popular trust (via measures such as respecting the rule of law and opening up the media), was dismissed by an arrogant regime confident of its power.

Disillusioned elites and protesters who had taken to the streets could have been unified, or their resentment assuaged, by a pledge by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for the next election to be free and fair, for government to become more inclusive or for limits to be imposed on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's prerogatives. Today, such concessions would be seen as a sign of weakness and would embolden the opposition. The regime no longer has a political path out of its predicament.

I believe Takeyh is mostly right here. The problem however is that the Green Movement has lacked a political option from the get-go--hence the demonstrations and the unrest. Both sides have the option of violence, but that's a leap I don't think the Green Movement is prepared to take. As Takeyh notes, the regime has been mostly reserved and cautious in how it has handled the demonstrations, leaving it in a kind of uncertain limbo: it won't fully crackdown, nor will it capitulate.

He goes on to say:

The Obama administration should take a cue from Ronald Reagan and persistently challenge the legitimacy of the theocratic state and highlight its human rights abuses. The notion that harsh language militates against a nuclear accord is false. At this juncture, the only reason Tehran may be receptive to an agreement on the nuclear issue is to mitigate international pressures while it deals with its internal insurrection. Even if the regime accommodates international concerns about its nuclear program, the United States must stand firm in its support for human rights and economic pressure against the Revolutionary Guards and other organs of repression.

Let's keep in mind that Tehran, to date, has balked at even the most modest of uranium transfer arrangements, all the while withstanding demonstrations and internal unrest. These are men who cut their teeth during the war with Iraq, while at the same time fighting violent insurgents at home. None of this is new to them.

And "standing firm" requires a key commodity: leverage. Reagan had the leverage to simultaneously talk and talk tough because he had a stockpile of nuclear weapons and missiles to back up that talk. Were Obama to follow Takeyh's advice, and premise nuclear negotiations on human rights violations in Iran, then he'd essentially be removing all options but one from the proverbial table: attack.

Russia and China will not back a negotiating strategy intended to support the Green Movement. Thus, the United States will be left--once again--unilaterally lecturing a regime, and with only one remaining option to make good on that lecturing.

So are we prepared in 2010 to take that leap? Do we toss multilateral pressure on the scrapheap and ready for another war? This is the inevitable path if we lose sight of how fragile the international coalition is on Iran.

UPDATE: It's also, I would add, important to take note of the folks who are embracing Takeyh's suggestion. Some are what I would call the usual suspects, and they dragged us into one war based on false pretenses and then attempted to re-package it as a humanitarian endeavor. We know where they fall on the attack or talk question, but where then do their unlikely bedfellows reside?

(AP Photo)

December 30, 2009

China Cuts into Russia's Arms Sales

Russian daily "Izvestia" reports that China recently successfully tested the naval version of its modern J-10 jet fighter. According to the paper, "... for the first time, China has confirmed not only its ability to create an aircraft carrier fleet, but also the ability to independently produce carrier-based fighters. This event can be regarded as a direct challenge to Russia and the U.S."

According to Russian sources, the aircraft took off and landed on the deck of the aircraft carrier "Shi Lang", named in honor of the Chinese general who conquered the island of Taiwan in 1683. In another life, "Shi Lang" was a Soviet aircraft carrier "Varyag," sold by Ukraine to Beijing in the late 1990s. "Varyag" has been anchored in the port of Dalian since 2002. All this time, Chinese scientists have been actively engaged in its repair and modernization. Beijing made no secret that it considers the Soviet aircraft carrier as a platform for working out its own technology for building an aircraft carrier fleet. The only problem for the implementation of these plans was the lack of aircraft capable of landing on the deck of the ship, as well as lack of experience in training naval aviation pilots.

Russian military and industrial leaders are concerned that China's successful development of indigenous military aircraft will diminish Russia's position on the arms market. "Izvestia" earlier reported that China offered Pakistan the licensed production of the FC-1 fighter, which Russia considers as the closest competitor to its MiG-29 military jet. In the near future, Beijing is planning the production of at least 2,000 of the latest fighter planes for its own air force and for export. Possible buyers may include Bangladesh, Lebanon, Iran, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Algeria - all countries that traditionally bought Russian military aircraft. In Malaysia, for example, the Chinese are even willing to service Russian Su-30MKM planes delivered over the past few years.

This year, according to Mikhail Dmitriev, head of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technological Cooperation, Russia earned $8.5 billion from weapons sales - a significant portion of this amount came from the sale of combat aircraft. If China continues to move forward with its own aircraft development and export, "these earning could become one of our last successes on the arms market."

December 29, 2009

Negotiations, Putin Style

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According to the New York Times, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pushing back on the U.S. to make concessions on missile defense as part of negotiations surrounding a successor to the START Treaty:

“If we don’t develop a missile defense system, a danger arises for us that with an umbrella protecting our partners from offensive weapons, they will feel completely safe,” Mr. Putin told journalists during a working visit to Vladivostok. “The balance will be disrupted and then they will do whatever they want, and aggressiveness will immediately arise both in real politics and economics.”

To restore that balance, he said, Russia must develop new offensive weapons to counter the missile shield. Another solution, he said, would be for the United States to provide Russia with data on its missile defense plans in exchange for data on Russian weapons development.


Having already reversed course on missile defense, I'd be hard pressed to see why the U.S. would have to make another concession on this front in order to achieve something both the U.S. and Russia ultimately need (i.e. fewer nukes washing around).

Robert Coalson speculates:


The rhetoric Moscow is using in recent days is also similar to what it deployed when Medvedev was pushing his draft treaty on European security – namely, the idea that it was necessary to radically overhaul existing agreements which Russia argues are outdated and even counterproductive. Medvedev’s proposal seems to be part of a broader Russian strategy of undermining the post-Cold War institutions that it sees as propping up the unipolar world.


It will be interesting to see if the nuclear-arms talks break down because Moscow insists on a “radical” proposal that is as much of a nonstarter as Medvedev’s draft treaty. It would also be interesting if Moscow would spell out what the problems are with START-1 and why a “radical and unprecedented” departure is needed.

The Times quotes Sergei A. Markov, a political scientist and deputy with the ruling United Russia party, on the subtext of the negotiations:

“It’s not just about the START agreement, but about the status of the Russian Federation – whether Russia is a great power or not,” he said. “We have heard a lot from Washington that Russian interests should be limited to Russia’s borders. That means Russia is not recognized as a great power. And that’s why this negotiation is so difficult – because no one knows what Russia’s status is.”

This is the basic tension in dealing with Russia. We do not want to grant legitimacy to their dealings in the region, particularly if that involves exercising a veto (real or perceived) over the sovereign decisions of neighboring states. Fair enough. But yet we insist that we can exercise similar power in the Middle East in the name of defending our interests.

Ultimately, I think at least some of the post Cold War deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations can be chalked up to the fact that the U.S. insisted on treating Russia like the loser it admittedly was after the six decade confrontation. Such was our prerogative, but as we learned with Germany after the second World War, sometimes its better to try to reintegrate the losing party rather than lock in advantages at their expense.

(AP Photos)

December 26, 2009

Russia's 5th Generation Fighter Jets

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After years of developments and years of speculation, we may actually see, for the first time, what the competitor to the American F-22 looks like. Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said on Wednesday that "We are not making any New Year presents, but flight tests will start in the very near future."

According to the official RIA Novosti agency, the aircraft trials would begin in 2010. Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin has said the fighter, which has been under development since the 1990s, will enter service with the Air Force in 2015. Russia only has one fifth-generation project - Sukhoi's PAK FA and the current prototype is the T-50. It was designed to compete with the U.S. F-22 Raptor (so far the world's only fifth-generation fighter aircraft) and F-35 Lightning II, but has yet to take to the skies.

The T-50's maiden flight has been repeatedly postponed since early 2007 for unspecified reasons. However, in August 2009, Russian Air Force Chief Alexander Zelin said that there were problems with the engines and research was ongoing. The PAK FA is believed to possess advanced avionics, stealth capability, a ferry range of 4,000 to 5,500 km, and endurance of 3.3 hours. It is armed with next-generation air-to-air, air-to-surface, and air-to-ship missiles, and has two 30-mm cannons. There is a lot of speculation as to how this plane will look like - these are just a few examples.

December 21, 2009

Russian Female Boxer Wins Title Bout

Natalya Rogozina - Russia's most successful female super-heavyweight boxer -defended her title on Saturday night against Pamela London (Guyana). Rogozina knocked London out in the eighth round, successfully defending the WIBF title. The fight was held in Ekaterinburg, Russia, on Rogozina's home turf, and she improved her record to 22-0, with 13 knockouts.

Besides her perfect record, Rogozina combines her looks and skills to create a potent combination in and out of the ring. A knockout puncher and a mother, Rogozina has legions of female fans in Russia and is steadily gaining recognition around the world.

She claims to have been inspired by American Laila Ali's success in the ring.

December 15, 2009

Finally Some Good News for Russia

This has not been a good month for Russia. First, a boondoggle missile project caused further embarrassment. Next, China swoops into Central Asia to secure a massive natural gas pipeline deal with Turkmenistan. But now, a victory of sorts:

The tiny Pacific island of Nauru today became the fourth country to recognize the Russian-backed rebel Georgian region of Abkhazia as independent, in defiance of the West.

Russia has been trying to secure international recognition for the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which most of the world regard as part of Georgia, since crushing a Georgian assault on South Ossetia in a five-day war last year.

Win some, lose some.

December 14, 2009

China in Russia's Near Abroad

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There's been a lot of focus on U.S. foreign policy in Russia's "near abroad." Well, move over America:

With one flick of a switch today, Russia's long-standing dominance and near monopoly over Central Asian natural-gas exports officially came to an end.

The massive Turkmenistan-China pipeline, which will carry natural gas from eastern Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan into China's northwestern Xinjiang region, went on line today during an inauguration ceremony attended by regional leaders. It marks the first time in more than a decade that a pipeline has been constructed to pump gas out of the region, and the biggest-ever effort to export Central Asian gas without using Russian routes...

...Observers see RWE's activities as the first steps in securing Turkmen gas for Nabucco. And for Nabucco shareholders and supporters, the example of the new Turkmenistan-China going online demonstrates with certainty that it is possible to build a high-volume pipeline that avoids Russia.

The great game is on.

(AP Photos)

December 11, 2009

Russian Missile Destroys Russian Navy

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You may have heard about a weird light show in Norway during Obama's visit. Well, it wasn't celestial acclaim, but a Russian missile test gone wrong. According to Alexander Khramchikhin (translated by Dmitry Gorenburg) the missile in question - the Bulava - is destroying the Russian Navy:

[The Bulava's] effectiveness has turned out to be simply amazing. The missile has not entered serial production, and never will, but it has already destroyed the Russian Navy. Almost all the money allocated to the Navy’s development have been spent on this mindless dead-end program.

Any person who can see the real situation well understands that in a few years the Russian Navy as a whole, as well as all four of its component fleets, will cease to exist. This is already absolutely inevitable — the situation will not be changed even by mass purchases of ships from abroad.

I'm not in a position to know if it's that dramatic (although it could be) but at a minimum, this should put the fears of a neo-imperial Russia into some perspective.

[via Sam Roggeveen at the Intepretator]

(AP Photos)

Did Russia Try to Roll Obama?

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Strobe Talbot thinks so:

Here’s what seems to have happened: the Russians assumed (correctly) that Obama would like to have a treaty to sign with President Medvedev before his trip to Oslo this Thursday to receive the prize. A concrete diplomatic accomplishment would have helped blunt the criticism that the award is premature and, in that sense, undeserved.

The Russians may have overplayed their hand, figuring (incorrectly) that Obama was so eager for a deal that he’d grant them last-minute concessions to get it before he goes to Oslo. That’s the most likely explanation for why their military toughened its stance on some unresolved issues involving verification and monitoring. The Pentagon—in part to demonstrate that it isn’t going to be pushed around—hardened its own stand. Obama himself was miffed at the Russian squeeze play.

It's like the Cold War all over again.

December 9, 2009

More Details Emerging from Perm Fire

New evidence surfaces about the victims of the tragic Dec. 5 night club fire in the Russian city of Perm that killed up to 113 people. According to the local Perm attorney involved with the case, the "law enforcement elite of the city - members of the prosecutor's office, judicial staffers, member of police and even FSB (domestic and international intelligence agency) are among the dead and gravely injured due to the fire at the 'Lame Horse' night club." According to this source, "one of the deceased is a member of the regional FSB office."

An investigation into the identities of the victims continues by the Russian authorities.

See our Russia page for the latest news and analysis from Russia.

December 8, 2009

Russian General: China Is a Potential Enemy

Newly appointed Chief of Staff of the Russian Land Forces, Lieutenant-General Sergey Skokov, recently made a statement that caused a major sensation across the Russian Federation. Speaking about possible conflicts that Russia may face in the future, he outlined three distinct scenarios: fighting in the "western, southern" and eastern" directions.

In the west, Russia may face an innovative, high-tech enemy with "contact-less" modes of fighting - read, the NATO alliance. In the south, Russia faces "irregular formations that conduct guerrilla-style warfare." And in the east, "it could be a millions-strong army that fights along traditional, conventional tactics, with high levels of concentration of manpower and firepower at specific directions."

General Skokov did not actually name China in his speech, but it is important to point out that there is no other army in the "east" that can field millions of soldiers, except China's People's Liberation Army. In this light, the general's statements are nothing short of extraordinary. They mark the first time since the 1980s that China is singled out as a potential - and real - adversary by Russia.

December 7, 2009

Putinisms

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(Updated 12/8)

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack against a Russian train, Prime Minister Putin told the press that Russia would "break the spine" of the terrorist threat. It was an evocative phrase, and one that got me thinking about other "Putinisms." We've had "Bushisms" - those malapropisms where the meaning gets wrestled to the ground by the tongue - but Putinisms are different. They're hyper-virile, strikingly crude or, ideally, both.

So I gathered the top five Putinisms. This list is by no means exhaustive, so readers are encouraged to submit their own or quibble with the ranking.

6. "Russia doesn't negotiate with terrorists. Russia destroys them." - Nov. 2005.

5. "If they're in the airport," Putin said, "we'll kill them there … and excuse me, but if we find them in the toilet, we'll exterminate them in their outhouses." - Sept. 1999.

4. Such “rumors,” Putin said, “they picked from a nose and smeared onto their papers.” - Feb. 2008.

3. “You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.” - Nov. 2003

2. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls." - August 2008. Hat tip: MTW.

1. “If you want to become an Islamic radical and have yourself circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow. I would recommend that he who does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back, afterward.” - 2002.

(AP Photos)


November 14, 2009

Putin Goes Hip Hop

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin isn't exactly rapping here, but it's pretty awesome just to see him at this show. ABC News put up a solid summary of Putin's intentions, though their article title could use a little work ("Putin goes gangsta at rap contest"). I could say more, but you really should just watch:

Only Mr. Putin can rock a turtleneck at a hip-hop concert.

November 8, 2009

A Great Day for Freedom

It's tempting to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall with a reprise of Pink Floyd's The Wall. But in reality, this is the more appropriate tune from the Floyd catalog:

Ship of fools indeed.

November 6, 2009

War with Russia

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As we near the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism, Justin Logan flags this post from the Weekly Standard's John Noonan heralding the arrival of a new Warsaw Pact:

Recently I was chatting up an Army Lt Col -- a West Point grad who started off as an Armor Officer in Cold War Germany and later moved on to Russian linguistics and intelligence. I asked what would have happened if the U.S. was drawn into the Georgian war of '08. "Ten years ago we would have kicked the Russians' ass," he said. "Last year they would have bloodied our nose, but we still would've won. Ten years from now... who knows?"

I find this thought experiment more than a little hard to believe. First, despite the adolescent posturing from some quarters, the U.S. is almost certainly not going to fight a war with Russia over anything and especially Georgia. The still substantial nuclear arsenals on both sides ensures that.

Noonan continues:

No one wants to be drawn into conflict with the Russians. But it's useful to remember that time after time, we've extended our hand to Moscow only to have it slapped away. Putin clearly has grand aspirations for his burgeoning CSTO, with Poland shaping up to be the new Germany in another round of US-Russian geo-political chess.

If it's really true that "no one" wants to be drawn into a conflict with Russia than why are we openly musing about going to war with them over Georgia? What vital interests are at stake there?

(AP Photos)

October 23, 2009

Andy Garcia Plays Saakashvili

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The Internet is abuzz with the news that actor Andy Garcia will play Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in a film based on last year's war with Russia. Filming began this month for an untitled drama by "Die Hard 2" director Renny Harlin on the five-day August war, when Saakashvili's assault on separatists in rebel South Ossetia drew a devastating Russian counter-strike. The plot revolves around an American reporter who gets caught in the crossfire as war engulfs the country, testing his impartiality as a journalist.

So the question that everyone is asking: "When do we see the scene where Garcia eats his own tie?" (In case some forgot, here is why)

October 14, 2009

Russia: We'll Nuke Preemptively

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From the "world without nuclear weapons" file, Nathon Hodge reports that Russia is updating its nuclear doctrine to include an option to launch a first strike against a range of potential states - including non-nuclear ones:

In an interview published today in Izvestia, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Kremlin’s security council, said the new doctrine offers “different options to allow the use of nuclear weapons, depending on a certain situation and intentions of a would-be enemy. In critical national security situations, one should also not exclude a preventive nuclear strike against the aggressor.”

What’s more, Patrushev said, Russia is revising the rules for the employment of nukes to repel conventionally armed attackers, “not only in large-scale, but also in a regional and even a local war.”

Nothing has been officially approved by the Russian President. And before the predictable hysteria sets in, the United States contemplated the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear targets as well in 2005. Nevertheless, unsettling.

(AP Photos)

October 13, 2009

Russia's Pipeline Politics

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Shortly after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech urging Russia to diversify its economy away from oil and gas exports, the New York Times reports that Eastern and Central Europe are concerned about the geopolitical impact of Russia's Nord Stream gas pipeline:

Currently, Russian gas has to be piped through Eastern Europe to reach Western Europe. If Russia shuts off the gas to pressure a neighbor in the east, it is felt in the more powerful, wealthier countries to the west, where it touches off loud protests.

The new Nord Stream pipeline will change that equation. By traveling more than 750 miles underwater, from Vyborg, Russia, to Greifswald, Germany, bypassing the former Soviet and satellite states, it will give Russia a separate supply line to the west.

As a result, many security experts and Eastern European officials say, Russia will be more likely to play pipeline politics with its neighbors.

“Yesterday tanks, today oil,” said Zbigniew Siemiatkowski, a former head of Poland’s security service.

It would seem that to the extent Central and Eastern Europe can diversify their energy portfolio, now would be a good time.

(AP Photos)

October 1, 2009

What bin Laden Can Teach Us About Georgia

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Shortly after Russia invaded Georgia, John McCain rushed before the cameras to declare that "we are all Georgians." Now, McCain's former campaign staffer Michael Goldfarb cites - wait for it - Osama bin Laden for an authoritative interpretation of America's response to that war.

Goldfarb writes:


But the fact that al Qaeda is mocking America's shameful indifference to the invasion of Georgia should not obscure the real problem with abandoning our allies in times of crisis -- that bin Laden's interpretation of events is sure to ring true to America's allies in Eastern Europe and the rest of Russia's near abroad. When America fails to stand by her allies, it is a signal of weakness and a lack of resolve.

Whether al Qaeda's take "rings true" with America's other allies in Eastern Europe will almost certainly depend on whether those allies are interested in starting a war with Russia. If they - like Georgia - are interested in attacking Russia over long-disputed separatists enclaves, then yes, they should not expect America to court a nuclear war with Russia over their land dispute.

While Goldfarb finds room in his post to compare Russia's attack with - you guessed it - Nazi aggression, he's curiously silent on this bit of relevant news:

An independent inquiry ordered by the European Union has concluded that Georgia violated international law and triggered last year's war with Russia by attacking the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

In a report released Wednesday that could redefine public views of the five-day war, the European mission also found that Russia's invasion of Georgia after the attack was illegal and unjustified and that Russian-backed Ossetian militias conducted ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages.

"There is no way to assign overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone," the report concluded. "They all have failed, and it should be their responsibility to make good for it."

So again, American allies who provoke fights with Russia should not expect America to go to war on their behalf. Is that such an unreasonable standard?

(AP Photos)

September 24, 2009

Congress Forms Russia Caucus

Democrat Dennis Kucinich and Republican Tom Price have formed a Congressional Russia Caucus. The formation coincided with the arrival of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to the United States. According to the official press release, Representative Kucinich stated that "the relationship between the United States and Russia has influenced the path of global development and the course of world politics. We announce the bipartisan Congressional Russia Caucus to help make sure that the relationship we share with Russia is equitable and friendly." Representative Price stated that “few matters in the international arena can be discussed today without giving due consideration to Russia’s influence in global affairs. By opening a dialogue and engaging in diplomatic fact-finding, we hope to advance a stronger understanding of Russian policy and how it affects the United States and its allies."

This official caucus will make further conversation about U.S.-Russia relations that much more interesting in DC, as it will have Members of Congress willing to speak up on issues of concern to both states. Stay tuned - this is about to get very, very interesting.

September 21, 2009

Russia: More Missiles, Please

Even before President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would not be stationing its ballistic missile defenses in Europe, than the Russians announced that they will be developing the newest version of its famed S-300 anti-aircraft system. This time, the S-500 would serve as a true "ballistic missile defense system," according to Russian experts. According to Alexander Zelin, Russian Air Force Chief of Staff, "the work is ongoing, specialists and the scientific community are been utilized, so I think this system could see the light of day in the near future."

According to the daily paper "Vzglyad," it is probable that what Zelin was referring to as the S-500 complex is actually a well-known system under the provisional name "Monarch," which will be able to intercept ballistic missiles of intermediate range of up to 3,500 km (2,170 miles). Its interceptor missile will have a range of 370-400 km (some publications referred to an interceptor range of 1,300 km). An important feature of the complex is that it initially will be adapted to engage objects in the near-space. This will allow it to target not just ballistic missiles, but other objects of choice - such as satellites.

What does the Russian political establishment think of the upcoming G20 meeting between presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Obama? Eugenya Voiko, an expert on foreign policy at the Center of Political Expediency of Russia, thinks defense will be a central theme in the upcoming talks. "I think we need to build on the latest developments with ballistic missile defense in Europe. Russia's leaders will keep this factor in mind. Naturally, for Barack Obama, it is important to maintain a partnership in Eastern Europe, especially with Poland and the Czech Republic, as they are U.S. satellites in the EU. Therefore it is important for Russia to see how United States really intends to revise its missile defense program and what it means in relation to Iran." When it comes to Afghanistan, which Voiko thinks will be discussed, it is important for the two countries to maintain the partnership and work together. Another topic of discussion should be the global financial crisis. At a recent international conference in the Russian city of Yaroslavl, President Medvedev reiterated that the origin of this crisis was the United States. Voiko drew attention to the fact that "it's not that Russia's opinion isn't considered during the ongiong financial crisis - it's just that the opinion of China is considered much more."

For his part, Medvedev stated prior to his visit to the U.S. that while he considers American steps in removing missile defense system from Europe a "positive development, there will be no quid pro quos or compromises from the Russian side."

September 18, 2009

Obama's Munich (Part One in a Continuing Series)

Like the tide, it's quite easy to predict neoconservative reaction to any foreign policy decision short of regime change. Here is Seth Cropsey delivering a calm, measured analysis of President Obama's missile defense decision:

The Obama administration chose an historic month to appease the Russians by reneging on the U.S. proposal to place ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. September 1st of 2009 was the 70th anniversary of the Nazis' unprovoked attack on Poland. In the middle of the same month the Red Army invaded Poland--70 years ago to the day. At the end of this month is the 71st anniversary of the Munich agreement in which England and France agreed to allow Hitler to annex large portions of western Czechoslovakia.

And he concludes:

This capitulation is all the more inexcusable because, unlike the situation that Chamberlain faced at Munich in 1938, Russia, unlike Nazi Germany, is still a relatively weak power. The Obama administration has as little to fear from Russia's military as it has to expect that Russian goodwill or self-interest will have a moderating effect on Iran's plans to become a nuclear power.

The future damage, however, to international perceptions of American resolve is incalculable.

Incalculable. I guess we'll have to check back in a few years (if the Internet still operates in the ashes of civilization). But really, what is the point of such rhetoric other than to desensitize the public to legitimate security crises? And even if this does rise to the level of a world-historical miscalculation on President Obama's part, do we really think it's as bad as World War II?

With Missile Move, The Ball's in Moscow's Court

There seems to be a nearly pathological resistance to the idea that the U.S. should engage in deal-making with Russia, whereby the U.S. would "trade off" an item of lower priority (missile defense) in exchange for Russian help on an issue of higher priority (Iran). While I suspect the Obama administration would vigorously contest the charge that that is just what happened, it's hard to get around at least the appearance that this is the gambit.

And I think it's on that level that we judge the move: if it wins greater cooperation from Russia on Iran, then it will be a success. If not, then not. Although it's worth emphasizing that the entire logic of an Eastern European defense against Iranian missiles is somewhat strained. If Iran somehow got it into its head that it wanted to blow up stuff in Europe, why fire a missile? Smuggling explosives on a truck would be a lot harder to trace while delivering the same destructive force. Firing a missile all but guarantees massive retaliation.

September 17, 2009

Why Missile Defense Is a Political Football

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One of the overlooked elements of all the criticism of President Obama's decision to scrap missile defense installations in Eastern Europe is where this criticism is coming from. As a brilliant pundit once observed:

In other words, America is not merely a global cop. We don’t simply enforce rules. We make them. In the neoconservative formulation, America is a global schoolmarm, hectoring and punishing the recalcitrant and belligerent nations of the world. Just as a school teacher would never deign to discuss the rules of the classroom with an unruly student, so too the U.S. cannot sit down with the leaders of rogue states. To do so, Senator McCain warned, would “legitimize” them. “You will sit down across the table from [Iran] and that will legitimize their illegal behavior,” McCain said.

The conflation of American security with hegemonic privilege, and the corresponding obsession with perception, has had an enormously corrosive effect on the traditional (indeed traditionally Republican) understanding of American interests. Rather than identify a discrete set of issues that require resolution, the over-riding interest of the United States becomes the preservation of its global authority - wherever it is contested. It becomes correspondingly harder to resolve issues that require the U.S. to accept a sub-optimal outcome because any trade-off is seen as lethal admission that America’s will is not so implacable.


This mindset is, I think, driving a lot of the criticism. The merits of missile defenses in Eastern Europe, the cost/benefit, all of that is secondary to the over-riding goal of not giving the Russians an inch. Because if we do, then it looks like we can't throw our weight around in Russia's backyard and the brittle facade of global hegemony will shatter.

Obama's Missile Test

I suspect a lot of people are going to echo Mackenzie Eaglen in dismissing Secretary Gates' rationale for scraping missile defense - that it was based on an updated assessment of Iran's long range missile capabilities - as mere spin. That's fine. But this strikes me as a fairly odd reason to worry about the development:


The implications of President Obama’s decision to dump the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic reach far beyond Warsaw and Prague. Rather, this is “a decision on which the future of the transatlantic security alliance itself rests. If the United States chooses to abandon its Central and Eastern European allies as well as its obligations to NATO, it will hand the European Union a blank check to pursue an autonomous defense identity, independent of NATO, and will reduce America's influence within the transatlantic alliance significantly.”

I think fears of an "autonomous European defense identity" speaks volumes about the grandiose conception of American security in some quarters - how dare Europe think it can make its own decisions! Do we really think that the only thing that has restrained an "autonomous" European defense posture is our pressure? Maybe it has. Or maybe it has more to do with Europe's unwillingness to devote a greater share of their budgets to defense spending and a general unwillingness by the continental players to hand over that much authority to the EU.

Either way, I think fears about this move destroying the Transatlantic alliance are overblown. If Europe's uneven contributions to Afghanistan haven't done so, this surely won't.

Obama's Missile Pullback

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The Obama administration's decision to not move forward with missile defense installations in Eastern Europe will no doubt raise a huge outcry. Much of this outcry is rooted in the basic premise that these defense installations were never about securing the U.S. but about entrenching our geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe. Those who are upset about this development are framing it not so much as a blow to U.S. security, but as a concession to Russia, which is unforgiveable. Those who will be heartened by the move will also, no doubt, be glad by the signal it sends to Russia that the U.S. is ready to wheel and deal (whether Russia will reciprocate is another story).

But what about the ostensible purpose of the missile shield - the defense of the United States and its allies? The New York Times reports that the administration is not killing regional missile defense but is examining other options, such as installations in Turkey and the Balkans.

(AP Photos)

September 10, 2009

Venezuela Recognizes Abkhazia and South Osetia

This Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez officially recognized Georgian break-away regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to daily Izvestia, the meeting between Chavez and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was more than cordial. "I am glad to welcome you back to Moscow, it's been a while since you were here. I have missed you here," said Russian President. The paper emphasized that both men are addressing each other as "ti"- or a more familiar form of "you." In other words, both presidents seemed more like long-time friends than official heads of state.

Chavez did not hesitate to mention that Russia has always been and still remains a superpower. He has also hinted that his recognition of the break-away regions will send an "impulse" to other countries of Latin America. For its part, Georgia did not hesitate to comment. Vice-Speaker of Georgian Parliament Gigi Tsereteli made a statement: "I believe that the whole international community - members of the UN, NATO and the EU - will give an adequate response to Venezuela, if it begins to make some steps in this direction," - he promised.

September 9, 2009

Putin 1, Conde Nast 0

Radio Free Europe has a nice interview with Scott Anderson, an American journalist whose investigative story on the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia was spiked by Conde Nast's lawyers from appearing in the Russian edition of GQ Magazine and from the magazine's website. The piece - "Vladimir Putin's Dark Rise to Power" - still appears in the print issue of the American edition of GQ.

September 5, 2009

China’s CCTV to Launch Russian Programming

China’s Central Television will launch a Russian-language channel, the TV’s Vice-President Zhang Changming told reporters Thursday. He indicated that the main objective for the international channel in Russian will be to consolidate mutual understanding, cooperation and exchanges between the People’s Republic of China and the former Soviet republics making up the Commonwealth of Independent States. Following the establishment of strategic partnership relations between China and Russia, the tendency towards a full-format, steady and healthy development of this relationship has taken hold, Zhang said.

The Russian channel will lift off on the background of gala events dedicated to the Year of the Russian language in China and the 60th anniversary since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic and the former USSR. Russian will be the sixth international language, in which TV programs will be broadcast from Beijing. At this moment, the Central Television has international channels in Chinese, English, French, Spanish and Arabic. Future plans indicate the opening of a channel in Portuguese.

August 31, 2009

U.S. Backing Down on Missile Defense?

Some interesting news from the "reset" front:

The Obama administration has developed possible alternative plans for a missile defense shield that could drop hotly disputed sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move that would please Russia and Germany but sour relations with American allies in Eastern Europe.

Administration officials said they hoped to complete their months-long review of the planned antimissile system as early as next month, possibly in time for President Obama to present ideas to President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia at a meeting in New York during the annual opening at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

But they cautioned that no decisions had been made and that all options were still under discussion, including retaining the Polish and Czech sites first selected by President George W. Bush. The Obama review team plans to present a menu of options rather than a single recommendation to a committee of senior national security officials in the coming weeks. Only after that would the matter go to cabinet-rank officials and the president.

Andrew Stuttaford thinks this is "sending the wrong message." I'm not sure how that could be, considering no actual decision has been made. As we have seen with the Georgia, the administration talks the conciliatory talk about improving relations with Russia, but then went ahead and agreed to train Georgian soldiers - a move that will definitely rile Moscow.

This "review" could just be a diplomatic feint or it could be a down payment on a substantive policy shift. We'll see.

August 30, 2009

Russia Buys French Assault Carrier

As reported in the Russian daily "Izvestia", this past Thursday, Nikolai Makarov, Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces confirmed that Moscow is buying a French amphibious assault and helicopter carrier ship "Mistral." With this statement, he made clear whether Russia will be dependent on other countries when it comes to defense and military technologies.

The purchase of helicopter carrier became one of the most promising projects of the Russian Ministry of Defense's drive to acquire the most modern weapons and military equipment. According to "Izvestia": "Russia's military has already bought German and Austrian sniper rifles for special forces units. Our tanks are using French "Thales" thermal imagers. The sky over our heads will be protected by the UAVs which fought on the Georgian side in the past year. The approach towards defense procurement is very simple - take only what best guarantees the safety of the soldiers on the battlefield and what can deliver victory in the end."

According to Russian experts, such a drastic move away from purchasing only domestically-produced equipment should not be surprising. According to Ruslan Puhov, director of the defense policy center: "By buying a ship like the "Mistral," Russia is simply trying to act like China, which strives to adopt the most advanced technologies in the world. Following this ship, there should be a contract to build three similar vessels at Russia's shipyards. There is nothing to be ashamed of here - United States bought the French technology for bunker-busting bombs. The only question that needs to be asked here is: why there was no tender for this purchase? Such ships are also built in Spain and Holland."

The carrier ship is not the only major purchase of foreign defense technology by Russia - recently, the Defense Ministry announced that it was buying eight sets of French Future Combat Systems for the individual soldier: body armor, computers, navigation and control equipment. This decision effectively ends the development of analogous Russian system called "Barmitsa." According to Puhov, "this means that Russia's Defense Ministry does not care about the costs so long as it can show progress in the military modernization drive. Purchasing "Mistral" carrier effectively closes all other Russian naval shipbuilding programs."

August 24, 2009

Russia Revises Military Doctrine

Russia is set to release a revision of its military doctrine in September 2009. The new doctrine will have two parts: open (describing various military-political aspects) and closed (outlining the possibility of using the army and navy, including the use of nuclear weapons as an instrument of strategic deterrence). According to General Anatoly Nogovytsin, Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and head of the working group developing the new doctrine, "the new version, developed with guidance from the Security Council, will differ from the existing one. We are carefully monitoring the governing documents of other countries, such as the position of the United States and NATO in military matters, that also have a 'closed' section in their doctrines. But that does not mean that Russia is trying to escalate tensions or consider Washington and NATO as the main threat."

As for the current threats to Russia and the need to revise the doctrine, and judging by recent statements made by the Russian military, the sources of concern for Moscow are missile defense in Eastern Europe and local military conflict near its territory. Russian Air Force Commander Alexander Zelin says that in 20 years (or approximately in 2030), United States and several other foreign countries will be able to strike anywhere throughout Russia with the use of air-space vehicles and weapons built on new physical principles. Consequently, Russia has to respond to such developments.

One possibility for technological deterrence and homeland defense is the establishment of the new generation of the anti-aircraft missile system - S-500 - which will be a further development of existing S-400 Triumph fielded in the country. This system can solve problems of air and space defense, such as destroying ballistic hypersonic targets flying at the speed of 5 kilometers per second. The closed portion of the doctrine will perhaps be describing such developments.

August 22, 2009

F-35, Watch Out: Russia Testing New Jet Fighter

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Photo Courtesy Lenta.ru

If the American military establishment is still thinking if its manned aircraft systems will have to compete with anyone many decades from now, they should rest assured - Russia is not far behind in trying to field its newest fifth-generation jet fighter. "Sukhoi" Aircat Company has begun testing a second working prototype of the plane dubbed PAK FA - Perspective Aviation Complex of the Battlefield Aviation.

The aircraft - which looks similar to both American F-22 and F-35 planes - has been moved to Moscow for further evaluation. Russia begun developing the plane in late 2007. And just like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that will be built and fielded by a number of international partners, Russia is in talks with India and Brazil to possibly produce the aircraft for service with these countries. For the record, Russian aircraft manufacturers already consider F-35 Lighting a serious competition, "given a limited volume of sales that can be generated from exporting military aircraft around the world."

August 14, 2009

Georgia to the Rescue

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For anyone viewing the deepening American military commitment to Afghanistan with worry, today brought excellent news: Georgia will be joining the fight.

Well, 750 Georgian soldiers will be joining the fight. In the Spring, maybe. After we train them. And equip them. And transport them to Afghanistan and feed them and provide them with weapons.

And all it will cost the United States, aside from the out-of-pocket expenses detailed above, is a further deterioration in our already frayed relationship with Russia. Win-win!

(AP Photos)

South Ossetia Hires American Lobbyists

Oh yeah, you read it right. Georgian break-away province of South Ossetia, recognized by Russia and Nicaragua as a sovereign state - and by no one else in the world - has hired an American public relations firm to "tell its side of the story" in the struggle against the Republic of Georgia.

In June, South Ossetia and Abkhazia hired San Fransico-based Saylor Company to do public relations in the US . Saylor Company will be engaged in image making of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the West, Reuters reports, referring to Director of Saylor Company, Mark Saylor — former Chief Editor of the Los Angeles Times, and South Ossetia’s ombudsman David Sanakoyev.

According to Abkhazian and Ossetian officials, public relations experts will try to raise patterns of perception on both republics after August war. Contracts with PR agency were signed in June 2009. Abkhazia and South Ossetia will pay PR experts $165-550/hour (conflict zone is 50% as much). At that, Saylor Company will get no more than $30,000 a month.

Here is a real issue - will Saylor Company be brave enough to face Members of Congress, who regard Russia as more culpable in last year's August conflict? After all, Georgia itself spent hundreds of thousands of dollars so far to lobby its interests with the U.S. government. And if anyone will make any decisions about the perceptions of this conflict, it will have to face 535 elected officials in Congress and their counterparts at the State Department. So, will there be a knock on a Congressional door by the reps from South Ossetia? That remains to be seen.

August 11, 2009

Medvedev Takes Shot at Ukraine

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(AP Photos)


Relations between Russia and Ukraine look to be hitting a low ebb, as this statement from Russian President Medvedev makes clear. Full text below:

Continue reading "Medvedev Takes Shot at Ukraine" »

August 9, 2009

Russia Remembers Georgia War

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of the war between Georgia and Russia. With the post-conflict assessments varying differently in the West and Russia itself, both combating sides are reviewing the war and blaming each other for triggering the hostilities and its aftermath. Gleb Pavlobsky, one of Russia's leading policy analysts, told in an interview to the Internet publication Russia.ru that the events of August 8, 2008 war caused Russia to enter world politics as an independent player "for the first time in history." In his view, the country will need to re-learn how to behave professionally in this great game, especially in the context of the likely continuation of the Russian-Georgian conflict.

"Luck in war is elusive, no military victory is truly final, with the only exception of full unconditional surrender by Germany in WWII. This is now impossible to achieve in the modern world," said Pavlovsky.

The key point, according to political scientist, was "Saakashvili's monstrous stupidity": "If Saakashvili did not behave so stupidly in shelling Russian barracks with gunfire, killing Russian peacekeepers, the tensions may have continued further, 'till something more terrible may have taken place." Pavlovsky is sure that all subsequent events were a response to his country's military aggression by Georgia.

Continue reading "Russia Remembers Georgia War" »

August 7, 2009

Twitter Attack Targeted Anti-Russian Blogger

Elinor Mills reports that the massive denial of service attack that felled Twitter yesterday was aimed at one man who goes by the name of Cyxymu - for a town in Georgia. Apparently Cyxymu was a critic of the Russian government.

August 6, 2009

In Praise of Spheres of Influence

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A recurring theme in U.S.-Russian relations for nearly two decades now is that America does not recognize a Russian "sphere of influence" over the countries on its borders. But the Obama administration has seemingly reformulated this position into a more sweeping one: that we reject the very idea that other nations can seek to influence events beyond their borders. Vice President Biden said as much in Georgia, as did Secretary Clinton. During recent testimony to the Senate, the State Department's Philip Gordon said bluntly "We reject the concept of a sphere of influence."

Of course, the administration does not reject the "concept" of spheres of influence. It objects to other nations having a sphere of influence. The U.S. loves having influence over other countries - in the Middle East, in Asia, in Latin America. And there's nothing wrong with that! To the extent that countries have security and commercial interests in other countries, they are going to want to influence those nations. Nothing about this is nefarious. One of the enduring successes of America's Cold War strategy was that we kept key regions of the world (Europe and Asia) under our influence and not the Soviets.

But now that there's no ideology at stake, the situation is murkier.

What the Obama administration wants to say is that Russia's influence on its immediate neighbors is detrimental to U.S. commercial and security interests. But rather than say this outright, and then go about defending the various interests at stake and why we need to lock horns with Russia over them, they retreat to self-righteous platitudes about how they're trying to transcend "19th century" politics. I guess some people fall for this kind of talk, but it doesn't really bring clarity to the issues at stake.

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Vice President Biden, speaking in Ukraine. Photo credit: AP Photos

August 5, 2009

Russia's Own Obama Running for Office

Oh yes, you read it right. An African-born farmer is making an improbable run for office in Russia, inspired by President Barack Obama and undaunted by racial attitudes that have changed little in decades.

Joaquim Crima, a 37-year-old native of Guinea Bissau who settled in southern Russia after earning a degree at a local university, is promising to battle corruption and bring development to his district on the Volga River. In Russia, a black man running for office is so unusual that Crima is being called "the Russian Obama."

"I like Obama as a person and as a politician because he proved to the world what everyone thought was impossible. I think I can learn some things from him," Crima said, sitting on his shady veranda in this town of 11,000, where he lives with his wife Anait, their 10-year-old son and an extended clan of ethnic Armenian relatives. Read more in this AP story.

Putin: Shirtless Wonder

James Downie's Kremlin sources have given us an invaluable look at Vladimir Putin's awesome powers.

UPDATE: The Times now heralds Putin as a "gay icon."

What Are the Russians Up To?

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The New York Times reports that Russia sent two nuclear-powered submarines to patrol along the East Coast of the United States in "a rare mission that has raised concerns inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies about a more assertive stance by the Russian military."

Could this be a little muscle flexing by Russia as a down payment on renewed hostilities with Georgia?

Either way, this should serve as a good reminder that it is jarring when a not-quite-friendly nation brings military power right up to your borders. Food for thought.

Update: Daniel Larison offers his thoughts on commentary suggesting that Russia is acting aggressively:


Russia does not have an “aggressive stance toward the U.S.” I’m not sure what one can call this except delusional. Our government arms and trains the military of a neighboring state, which then uses its army to escalate a war with Russia and kill Russian soldiers, and it is Russia that has an “aggressive stance.” Our government bombards a nominal Russian ally for 78 days without just cause, but it is Russia that is the aggressive one. We try to bring every former satellite and province into our anti-Russian military alliance, and it is Russia that is the aggressor. When Russia has the gall to protest against these provocations and aggressive moves, or even dares to retaliate against attacks on its soldiers and the populations under their protection, it is Russia that must be acting aggressively.

See also: Benjamin Carlson.

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Photo credit: AP Photos

August 3, 2009

Hitting Reset on the Reset

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Via Nikolas Gvosdev, this analysis from Brian Whitmore on the Obama administration's Russian policy is interesting:

Biden's remarks, seen in their proper context, seem to be a continuation of the message Obama sent before his departure for Moscow. In each case, the administration was appealing to the relatively progressive part of the Moscow elite (and in the Russian elite, progressive is always a very relative term) and sending a warning to the more retrograde elements.

Moreover, Biden was characteristically blunt in his remarks about Russia during his entire visit Ukraine and Georgia last week. He reiterated U.S. support for both country's NATO bids, said Washington would never recognize breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and called on Russia to honor last August's ceasefire agreement and withdraw its forces from Georgian territory.

But Reset 2.0 goes beyond mere rhetoric.

Senior Georgian officials have told RFE/RL that behind the scenes in Moscow, Obama warned Medvedev and Putin in no uncertain terms against starting a new war with Georgia.

The officials said Tbilisi was informed by U.S. officials that Obama told Russia's leaders that any attack against Georgia would have "grave consequences" and that Washington "would not stand aside" in such a conflict as it did during last year's war.

A White House spokesperson declined comment on the claim (but did not deny it), saying only "we don't discuss private conversations."

One wonders what "not standing aside" really means in practice.

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Photo credit: AP Photos

August 2, 2009

Russia to Biden: Thanks, Joe, We'll Be Fine

Vice President Biden’s recent statement about US-Russia relations struck a raw nerve in Russia. It's one thing to discuss Russia’s internal situation behind closed doors – it’s a whole different matter when such a high profile American political figure throws such facts in your face. And even if a country faces internal difficulties that may threaten its long-term future, being “poked in the eye,” so to speak, by Biden’s statement was far from pleasant. Russian political establishment responded right away, but the country’s cultural elite was not far behind.

Kirill Benediktov is a popular and best-selling author, historian and policy analyst who concentrates on writing about Russia's harsh reality and its uncertain future. His books topped Russia’s best-selling lists, and were being made into popular TV series. As a man who constantly checks the cultural pulse of his country, Biden’s Wall Street Journal description of Russia’s future merited a response. Benediktov focused on Biden's statement that "... they have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable." Benediktov wonders: “But why bury the Russian economy? Perhaps Biden has other sources of information, some insider sources? Otherwise, why would he so confidently predict the death of the Russian banking system? Russia, it must be recalled, is one of the largest U.S. lenders, as Biden certainly knows that very well.”

The following is a direct translation of his op-ed in the daily “Vzglyad” paper:

Continue reading "Russia to Biden: Thanks, Joe, We'll Be Fine" »

July 31, 2009

Biden & the Russian Sphere

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Responding to my piece on VP Biden's rhetorical bombshell on Russia, Daniel Larison wonders why we are even worried about a Russian sphere of influence in the first place:

If the tables were turned, it would be as if the U.S. were forbidden from wielding influence over the Caribbean and Central America while the Russians insisted that Cuba and Mexico be permitted to join a military alliance organized to defend against American imperialism. Then imagine that Russia and its allies around the world portrayed the routine exercise of regional power that most Americans take for granted as insidious aggression and sought to penalize America for doing what Russia does as a matter of course in its neighborhood. There would be a much less hazardous diplomatic minefield if we did not insist on having our maximal demands for projecting our power and influence met as the sine qua non of any relationship and simultaneously portray another great power’s natural exercise of regional hegemony as something perfidious and evil.

It seems lost on much of contemporary Washington that the original worry about Russia's "sphere of influence" circa 1946 was that it was on behalf of an ideology that envisioned further territorial conquests. Today, whatever else can be said of Russia, they're not bent on global conquest.


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Photo credit: AP Photos

U.S. Says Russia Could Join NATO

But will the Russians say "nyet?" Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon told U.S. lawmakers Tuesday during the House International Relations Committee hearing that the United States would consider Russian membership in the very institution that has given Russia so much headache over the past 18 years. Gordon added that "if Russia meets the criteria and can contribute to common security, and there is a consensus in the alliance, it shouldn't be excluded."

It's an interesting turn of events, one that is surely to be debated for a while in the halls of power here in D.C. What are the circumstances that can create such a move by Russia - after all, NATO was created to counter a threat, in this case, Soviet Russia itself. One scenario for such a drastic eastward expansion by NATO was once outlined by Tom Clancy in his political thriller "The Bear and The Dragon." In that novel, Russia is admitted to NATO in order to repel Chinese invasion of oil-rich Siberia. If the Americans and Russians are indeed serious about expanding NATO, let's hope it would be done under more peaceful circumstances. But is this idea fully viable, considering how some countries- such as Georgia and Ukraine - are eager to join the military alliance precisely to keep Russia off their back? We shall see.

July 29, 2009

Reports on the Russian "Reset"

This week, US government officials are reporting to the US Congress on starting a new "era" in US-Russia relations. Yesterday, on July 28, House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing titled " The Reset Button Has Been Pushed: Kicking off a New Era in US-Russia Relations." The opening statement by Congressman Robert Wexler, who chairs the Subcommittee on Europe, is available, while the full transcript of the hearing should up on the Committee website in a few weeks.

On Thursday, July 30, House Armed Services Committee will hold its own hearing on the US security relationship with Russia and its impact on the transatlantic security structure. More details to follow.

July 27, 2009

Dependence

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The Hudson Institute's Herbert London isn't happy with the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy:

But there is an underlying philosophical view that has become alarmingly apparent: preemptive declinism, a belief that the United States is not an exceptional nation and is not entitled by virtue of history to play a role on the world stage different from other nations. As Obama sees it, American is merely one of many.

That America is the balance wheel in an unstable world, creating equilibrium out of chaos, is an anachronistic position for this administration. It would seem that it is more desirable to envision a political vacuum or other world powers emerging than assert American influence.

Therefore the Obama administration acts as if it had less leverage in international affairs than it actually has. It appears timorous and fearful sending a signal, willy nilly, that the United States cannot be depended on.

I don't really agree with most of this but I do agree with the final sentence - and that is the perception of American reliability. One of the problems with America's promiscuous use of security guarantees and promises of support is that those on the receiving end of those promises are going to take you at your word. This was the unfortunate fate of Georgia in August 2008 when, after hearing the Bush administration loudly insist that they should be in NATO and are a vital interest of Washington, we did nothing when Russia invaded.

At that moment, Russia effectively called Washington on its rhetoric. But now we're in a position where we've already put our prestige on the line. We'll either have to back down and prove, as London says, an unreliable ally. Or we'll have to continue with the absurd fiction that the security of Georgia is so vital to the United States that it's worth alienating Russia over.

And I think the mixed messages coming from the Obama administration - with Biden poking Russia in the eye and Obama taking a more conciliatory tone - are reflective of the fact that it's not sure how to handle this situation.

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Photo credit: AP Photos

July 26, 2009

So Much for the Reset

Reading Vice President Biden's interview excerpts in the WSJ I think it's safe to conclude that whatever platitudes the administration may mouth concerning U.S.-Russian relations, the atmosphere of mutual distrust and antagonism is going to endure.

July 19, 2009

Russia: Sexy Young Governors and Misfired Missiles

Russia is on course to lower the official age of political participation to 18 - according to President Medvedev. At the meeting of the State Council on Youth Issues, Dmitry Medvedev proposed to reduce the minimum age for election to local government posts to 18 years and urged the governors to appoint those wishing to serve the state without waiting "until they reach retirement age." Russian Duma Deputy Svetlana Horkina got the special attention of President on that issue.

The President discussed civic engagement of young people. According to Medvedev, it is necessary to actively involve youth in political and public life, especially since 27% of the population is between 14 and 30 years of age. Medvedev called for the establishment of a uniform age for election to local government: "I propose to establish in all regions of the Russian Federation a single age for election to representative bodies of municipal government. I think that any citizen who has attained the age of 18 should have the right, should be allowed to be elected in this municipal body."

He recalled that, at present, the minimum age for such election is 19-20 years."This, to some extent, restricts the rights of young people. A person can move about the country alone or with parents. And it is understandable that under these circumstances it is desirable that the rules relating to the possibility to be elected to representative bodies of municipal formations should be standardized... This does not only relate for public office, but also concerns community-based organizations and business structures - we need to select the most prepared and well-educated young people to ensure that they get job placements."

In this regard, he drew the attention of the State Council to the participants invited to the meeting of the State Duma, including a 30-year old former Olympic athlete and champion, and now Member of Duma (United Russia party) Svetlana Horkina. (Clicking on the left side of Horkina's website takes you to her "social life." Clicking on the right side of the screen takes you to her official Russian Parliament page.) With a charming smile, Medvedev noted: "The meeting has traditionally official, attended by respectable-looking people, and many are probably surprised to see that we have in attendance two fascinating women. I am referring to Marina Zademidkova and Svetlana Horkina. You two are a natural fit here, may I appoint you to the post of governor?" Of course, the efficiency of such a young and attractive governor can be questioned, but if she could be appointed by Medvedev himself, surely her assets then are credible enough?

This past Thursday, the nuclear strategic missile cruiser "Dmitry Donskoy" again was unable to launch a new "Bulava" intercontinental ballistic missile. According to official recording, the missile self-destructed on in the 21st second of flight. Out of a total of eleven "Bulava" test launches - considered to be the most promising Russian ICBM - only two were found to be partially successful. This time, however, Russian authorities are taking a page out of a political thriller, calling this particular rocket failure an act of possible sabotage. Russian secret services are officially joining the investigation, according to RIA Novosti news agency. According to a source in one of the special agencies, the missile could fail due to a defective part, "because of the lack of effective control over the quality of either the manufacturer or with the direct assembly of missiles. In this case, given the state importance of adopting a new missile for maritime strategic nuclear forces of Russia, both possible factors could be regarded as acts of sabotage."

The source also noted that the reason for allowing the defective part into the production of missiles could be criminal negligence, and could also be considered as sabotage. Meanwhile Interfax news agency, citing sources in the Military-Industrial Commission, reports that a possible cause of the failed launch of Bulava "was a an internal fire inside the rocket itself. Because of this, the rocket's flight path has changed, prompting an on-board computer to issue a self-destruct command." The source also noted that due the failed missile launches, there could be changes made at the management level of the "Bulava" missile program. Intercontinental sea-based ballistic missile R30 3M30 "Bulava-30" was developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Engineering (MME) under the leadership of chief designer Yuri Solomonov. "Bulava" was to equip the next generation of strategic nuclear submarines "Yury Dolgoruky," "Alexander Nevsky" and "Vladimir Monomakh," currently being built and tested in Severodvinsk Yard.

In a step to further antagonize relations between Russia and its Baltic neighbors, former Estonian anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters - and German sympathizers during WWII - calling themselves "the former forest brothers and fighters for freedom of Estonia" appealed to the city of Tartu Town Hall to change the inscription on the monument to Soviet soldiers who died during Second World War. The monument in question has an inscription: "The Great Patriotic War. The City of Tartu is forever grateful to its defenders and liberators, the sons of all the peoples of the USSR." Authors of the appeal offered to change the inscription - in their view, the monument should say "The victims of Soviet occupation, rest in peace." Otherwise, the monument should be moved elsewhere.

However, the city administration did not support this proposal. Mayor of Tartu Urmas Kruuze opposed "starting a crusade against the monument, and thus creating tension in society." Estonia's Chief Inspector of the Department of the Protection of Monuments Myaesalu Alam said that the monument in the Raadi Park has artistic value, so "as an exhibit, it should remain in its present form." Over the past few years, many Soviet monuments in Estonia were vandalized. In some cases, nationalist appeals against these monuments were supported by local authorities. The worse case of this kind was the transfer of the monument to the fallen WWII Soviet soldiers and their graves from downtown Tallinn. The decision of the authorities to dismantle the monument and start early excavations at the site of the burial sparked riots in Estonia's capital.

Taking the page from their Japanese and South Korean counterparts, members of the Ukrainian Parliament started a big fight at the last day of their session. First, two members of the Regions Party wanted to prevent the Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn from leaving his office. The Speaker had to be escorted to the main hall by two security guards, especially trained for this sort of emergency. Then the fight moved into the conference room. The deputies belonging to the Regions Party tried to block Speaker's Podium, but Litvin entered not through the door - which was already barricaded with chairs - but through a secret entrance. As Litvin opened the meeting, he was immediately surrounded by representatives of the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, since the "Regionals" wanted to pull him down from his official chair. Failing to physically remove the Speaker, the Party of Regions then occupied parliament seats, preventing other MPs from speaking. The "Regionals" repeatedly disabled Speaker's microphone and damaged electronic voting system. No one was clear as to the cause of the fight, which ended as suddenly as it has begun. Ahhh, democracy in action....

July 13, 2009

Russian Investment Boosts Facebook Value

This is one of those zen moments when you say to yourself - I wish I had invested in this venture back in the day ... Add a bit of globalization, and you have a powerful mix - Russian money invested in what is arguably one of the flagship industries of the Western world. Russia's Digital Sky Technologies said it will pay $14.77 a share for Facebook common stock, boosting its stake to as much as 3.5 percent and valuing the world's largest online social network at about $6.5 billion.

More from Yahoo Tech news: While that is below the $10 billion valuation set by Digital Sky's May investment in Facebook, which was for preferred shares, investors have been valuing the social network's common stock at less than $5 billion in secondary markets in recent weeks.

Digital Sky, a Russian investment firm, bought $200 million worth of preferred shares in Facebook in May and said it would buy another $100 million worth of common shares from Facebook employees and ex-employees.

A source familiar with the matter told Reuters that Digital Sky will pay $14.77 per common share. A representative for Digital Sky confirmed the terms, and said the tender offer begins on Monday and runs through August.

Liz Cheney On Obama & the Cold War

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Liz Cheney takes to the Wall Street Journal to denounce President Obama's speech in Moscow:

The basis of the Cold War was not "competition in astrophysics and athletics." It was a global battle between tyranny and freedom. The Soviet "sphere of influence" was delineated by walls and barbed wire and tanks and secret police to prevent people from escaping. America was an unmatched force for good in the world during the Cold War. The Soviets were not. The Cold War ended not because the Soviets decided it should but because they were no match for the forces of freedom and the commitment of free nations to defend liberty and defeat Communism.

It is irresponsible for an American president to go to Moscow and tell a room full of young Russians less than the truth about how the Cold War ended.

I agree that President Obama gave a highly sanitized version of the Cold War. But if Liz Cheney were President, would she stand before a lecture hall full of young Russians and tell them that their country was engaged in brutal repression at home and abroad and that they should be deeply ashamed of themselves and that they should forever go forth into the world carrying the heavy moral baggage of their Communist history?

And what would such a speech accomplish, other than alienating these young Russians?

I'm very doubtful that the president's solicitousness is going to truly transform America's relationship with the rest of the world or meaningfully advance international cooperation on the thorny issues like Iran and North Korea. But the conservative criticism of this approach is unmoored from any serious suggestion of an alternative. Other than giving us a momentary frisson of self-righteousness, what would denouncing Russia in Russia in front of young, impressionable Russians, actually accomplish?

July 12, 2009

Post-Obama Russia Gets Back to Basics

Russian political establishment is musing over what has and has not been accomplished at past week's summit. Colonel-General (Ret.) Leonid Ivashov, Vice-President of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, spoke to daily "Vglyad," insisting that interpretations of what the parties called "breakthroughs" and "steps to compromise" will vary greatly for the Americans and Russians.

Ivashov stated that the signing of a Framework Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms agreement "... was better than we expected. We feared that in the framework agreement each side would be allowed only 1,000 warheads, which would not be beneficial for us. The accepted bilateral communiqué demonstrates that a compromise was found between the administration of the Russian President, government and military community, with all sides is realizing that we must not achieve rock-bottom in numbers of armaments when it comes to these agreements."

On the allowed transit of American military transports bound for Afghanistan, Ivashov stated that: "... for us, this agreement is the continuation of previously chosen policy. After the tragedy of September 11, and under the emotional perception of attacks on the Twin Towers, we succumbed to the temptation to help America and accepted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. And today, we are still tied to this commitment. As for how we will be affected as the country of transit of American goods, depends only on us - or under what conditions we will sign this agreement. In addition, this kind of an agreement must be followed by reciprocal steps. We provide the transit - so, Americans should limit the number of drugs that are entering Russia and CIS from northern Afghanistan, and to ensure that Taliban would not appear on the borders of our allies. Americans should also think about revising their attitudes towards Georgia. If we would be able to reach a number of such compromises, then for us, this Afghan transit issue will be very beneficial."

Asked whether Moscow shows solidarity to Washington on Pyongyang's and Tehran's nuclear programs by promising efforts to fight against nuclear proliferation and suppressing the activity of "nuclear" terrorists, Ivashov answered: "Thus-stated official language is an error of our foreign policy line -or maybe this is where we chose to compromise. The fact remains: neither Iran's nor North Korea's nuclear program is a threat to us. In both cases, these are bilateral conflicts. Iran conflicts with Israel, which has a capable nuclear capability. And North Korea is not satisfied with the presence of American nuclear weapons in South Korea. Its not worth it for us to intervene in these conflicts - they pose no threats to Russia. Moreover, both problems can be solved quite simply. Americans need to withdraw their tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea. And Israel should start the process of nuclear disarmament, or at least put its nuclear weapons under strict international control. After that, the problem of Pyongyang or Tehran will be off the table. And talking about the creation of a joint missile defense is absurd - we can put our money to better uses."

When asked what negotiating tactics work best with Americans, Ivashov remembered: "I sat a lot at the negotiating table with the Americans. And I can tell you: they do not react to any emotions, to any smiles. For them, there is only a factor of balance of forces and interests. When we created a new R-36M "Voevoda" missile, which they dubbed «Satan», Americans understood that they have nothing to oppose such a weapon. It could carry 24 warheads and 40 false targets. It was impossible to intercept. This missile was sufficient to cause a collapse of the United States and thus bring them to the negotiating table. When they see that we are quickly advancing in certain developments, they propose - let's stop and retreat to the original positions. So if we do not find solid arguments in politics or military strategy, the Americans will not negotiate with us on anything."

Russia is still working on entering the World Trade Organization, something that has been denied to it by the United States since the collapse of USSR in 1991. Currently, Russia is trying to create a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Last month, Russia proposed that all three countries enter WTO as a block, but the idea faced massive criticism overseas and in Russia proper. Recently, President Dmitry Medvedev said that it was "more realistic" for Russia to seek WTO entry on its own. He added that Russia will discuss entry conditions with Belarus and Kazakh representatives of the Customs Union: "It is possible, by agreeing on some common standards and positions within the Customs Union troika, to act unilaterally, which, in my opinion, is simpler and more realistic, but subject, of course, to certain the rights and interests of other parties."

Controversial Russian ambassador to Georgia has been reassigned as ambassador to neighboring Republic of Armenia. Vyacheslav Kovalenko represented Russian Federation in Georgia from 2006 to 2008. Prior to that he held the post in Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs that dealt with former Soviet states.

Kovalenko's stay in Tbilisi was accompanied by a number of scandals related to Russia-Georgia conflict, as well as affected by his own actions. In September 2007, he was summoned to the Georgian Foreign Ministry for explanations in connection with his speech at a conference organized by the Foundation of Unity of Russian and Georgian Peoples. Back then, Russian Ambassador then reportedly stated: "You, the Georgians, are now only three million people, you have become a relic and an endangered people. Russia will be able to overcome its demographic difficulties, but you, Georgians, cannot not deal with this problem, you will vanish." Later, the Russian Embassy acknowledged that "this sentence was indeed pronounced," but that it has been allegedly "wrongly interpreted" by journalists and "taken out of context."

In September 2006, Kovalenko was recalled from Tbilisi, when Georgia detained several Russian servicemen on charges of espionage. The servicemen were later released, and the Russian side responded to their detention by winding down diplomatic contacts and launching economic sanctions against the republic, moreover, Russia also responded with an anti-Georgian campaign across the country Part of the sanctions were later lifted, and the Russian Ambassador returned to Tbilisi in February 2007.

Vyacheslav Kovalenko finally left Georgia in September 2008, after the Russian-Georgian war that was followed by official severance of diplomatic relations between two countries. Russian Embassy in Tbilisi and Georgian Embassy in Moscow are not currently working, and consular functions for the citizens of both countries are done the Russian and Georgian sections in the Embassies of Switzerland.

July 11, 2009

High Crime Rates in Russian Army

Responding to official reports that officer-committed crimes in the Russian Army have reached a 10-year high, Gennady Gudkov, Assistant to the Chairman of the Duma Security Committee, told daily "Vzglyad" that no one should be surprised at this outcome: "The number of young officer who refuse to continue their military service, is increasing."

Gudkov stated that "Unfortunately, general military reforms undertaken by the government do not solve the main tasks: improving the quality of the officer corps and improving the general living conditions of our officers. It is sad but true.

... And today we are faced with the fact that we had to face for a while: the deterioration of the quality of the officer corps. This happened because the Army has long been neglected. All these recent years we have fought for an increase in military spending, I have twice made requests to the State Duma with a bill that would establish the best ceiling of expenditure on armaments and to the army in the amount of 3.5% of GDP. And all the time I was faced with resistance from within the Russian Federation Government, especially from the Ministry of Finance. We were always being told that everything is great and the Army is improving. As a result, today we see that the recovery is heading entirely in the wrong direction."

In answering a question about physical assaults by officers of their subordibnates, Gudkov commented: "The Army has remained 'made up of workers and peasants' in the worst sense of the word, including, let's speak frankly, the make-up of the officer corps. There is an erosion of quality of personnel in the Army ranks. I do not want to offend all: there are many honest, smart, intelligent, competent officers, but they do not have enough authority in the Army. The same applies to many senior officers. Our generals are often not promoted because of personal qualities, but because of some special devotion or ability to exercise it at certain points. In the end, 'the congregation is defined by its priest,' so to speak."

When asked about new ideas to improve the situation, Gudkov noted: "In my opinion, the Army needs to enhance the educational structures, it is necessary to give them more opportunities to influence the moral-psychological situation in Army ranks. Unfortunately, not everyone understands this. Additionally, we need public support and social control: if we have officers leaning towards corruption and crime, then someone has to monitor them."

July 10, 2009

The "Lighter" Side of US-Russia Relations

This commercial from an English-language school speaks for itself:

What better advertisement than Russian babushkas singing Britney Spears???

$20 Million!? Just to Go to the Dumb Moon!?

AP:

A Russian TV channel has reportedly cut a segment of the ribald U.S. cartoon comedy South Park that appeared to mock Vladimir Putin.

The channel "2X2" reportedly cut material from the show that aired Tuesday, portraying Putin as a greedy and desperate leader — a decision that prompted criticism and furious discussion on Russia blogs.

It was unclear whether the decision, involving an episode that originally aired in the United States in 2005, was made by channel executives or regulators. Channel executives could not be reached for comment Friday.

A spokesman with Russia's broadcast regulator, Rosskomnadzor, said he knew nothing of the incident.

"We have never interfered with editorial decisions," Yevgeny Strelchik said.

And for proper context, I give you South Park:

July 8, 2009

Give & Take

The prolific John Bolton is back in the Globe & Mail decrying the Obama administration's Russian diplomacy:


But the deterioration in relations came almost entirely from more belligerent and provocative Russian behaviour, not from a desire in Washington for confrontation. Thus, all the “new” directions emanating from the Moscow summit are all essentially reversals of recent U.S. policy. The Russians should be happy; most people are when they get their way.

To phrase this another way, Russia was belligerent when it wasn't getting its way on any issue but now they're happier that the U.S. has begun to accommodate them.

And this is the essential problem with U.S.- Russian relations. On the U.S. side, there is a basic unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of Russian interests. We can proclaim from the rooftops that the Middle East - quite far afield from the territory of the United States - is of such vital strategic importance that we will project and sustain American military power in the region for as long as we see fit. Yet Russian interests in territory directly adjacent to their own borders is somehow beyond the pale and signs of renewed imperialism.

On the Russian side there appears to be no genuine interest in helping the U.S. with either Iran or North Korea because they enjoy having us distracted and tied down. And there's every reason to believe that Putin & co. will drum up nationalistic resentments at the West simply to divert attention from Russia's internal failings.

President Obama's gambit of trying to pick off some low-hanging fruit on the issues where there is agreement in the hopes of laying the groundwork for larger breakthroughs might fail. But declaring - as Bolton does - that any accommodation to Russia is ipso-facto unacceptable strikes me as intrinsically incapable of succeeding.

The View from Russia's Dissidents

Conservatives have been voicing their displeasure of late at President Obama's reluctance to denounce the internal governance of other countries. During his speech to the New Economic School, President Obama did key in on some of those themes:

By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, and minorities, and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when they were denied. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines that were corrupt, ended abuses of power. Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government. Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. If our democracy did not advance those rights, then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn't be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a President. Because at the time of our founding, I had no rights -- people who looked like me. But it is because of that process that I can now stand before you as President of the United States.

So around the world, America supports these values because they are moral, but also because they work. The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.

How was this received in Russia? Russian dissident Gary Kasparov had this to say:

Ideally he would have named names. He made some strong statements about democracy being the solution and the failure of totalitarianism, far stronger than anything we heard from the last two administrations. But he avoided directly criticizing Putin and Medvedev, the core of our dictatorial system. Nor did Obama mention Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose jailing by Putin and continued imprisonment by Medvedev symbolizes everything Obama was criticizing about authoritarian states.

But he was strong and gave a consistent message. He repeatedly emphasized that the important relationship between America and Russia is about the people, not their regimes. That got a very positive reception here. Obama opened direct lines of communication instead of dealing only with official Kremlin channels.

Joshua Keating has some reaction from Boris Nemtsov which is similarly positive.

However it's not all good:

The main question regarding Obama’s visit to Russia is whether the new liberal U.S. president will succeed in reaching out to the Russian people, as well as the government. But the Levada Center’s study found that public opinion is split almost evenly between those who believe that the U.S.-Russian relationship will improve after the meeting of the countries’ presidents (42 percent) and those who think that the meeting will not change anything (39 percent). Meanwhile, 71.2 percent of respondents to a poll on the Echo of Moscow radio station’s website said that the meeting would not improve relations between the two countries. These figures show the depth of ambivalence amongst the Russian public about the “reset.”

Much of that uncertainty may be a reflection of the contradictory portrayal of the United States in the Russian media. The media has recently moved away from traditional anti-American rhetoric to showing a Russia that is interested in building a relationship with the newly elected U.S. president. That in turn mimicked the Kremlin’s own rhetoric - prior to Obama’s visit Medvedev said that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the meeting in an interview to the Italian Raitalia TV channel and Corriere della Sera newspaper. But although the talks between the two heads of state on Monday were reciprocally friendly, it is unclear to what extent the Russian people will be affected by them.

July 7, 2009

Russia's National Interests: Gazprom Edition

Writing in the New York Times, Nikolas Gvosdev puts Russia's interests on the table:

Moscow doesn’t want a nuclear-capable Iran, but it is an annoyance that Russia can tolerate. To get Moscow’s cooperation, therefore, there must be something on the table that alters the Russian calculation.

One potential concern for Russia is that if it joins in putting real pressure on Tehran, Iran could eventually negotiate a Libya-style settlement with the West, clearing the way for major new Western investments in Iran’s energy sector.

Right now, Moscow benefits from Iran’s isolation from the West. Not only are Iran’s formidable gas reserves not accessible to European users, preserving Russia as the Continent’s major supplier, but alternate routes for Central Asian energy that could traverse Iran are also not possible.

Yet resolution of the nuclear issue could open up the vast reserves of Iranian natural gas for use through the Nabucco line, the major pipeline on the drawing boards for getting energy to Europe without going through Russia. The project is currently nearly moribund because there isn’t enough supply to justify the huge investments. Iran would be a game-changer.

Hat tip: Christian Brose

Obama's Nuclear Deal

The Council on Foreign Relations' nuclear expert Charles Ferguson weighs in:

It can be summed up by saying they've made incremental progress. There's nothing revolutionary here and there really were no surprises, but on the plus side there weren't any ugly surprises, or any steps backward. Both countries and both presidents are trying to pick up some forward momentum so that they can build on this current statement on missiles and warheads, which is rather modest but still contains some substance.

I think Matthew Yglesias is right to note the significance of the move, particularly in the context with our relations with China. But, as Gideon Rachman notes, there is another context as well: arms control as a down payment on Russian cooperation on Iran. Now, there are those who clearly believe that pursuing arms control is a good (or an evil) in its own right, but we've heard from the administration's own supporters that Obama's "reset" with Russia is going to yield strategic gains across a wider spectrum than the number of warheads each nation possesses. Time will tell.

Obama in Moscow update

RCP's Cathy Young keeps tabs on Obama in Moscow.

Obama & Medvedev Press Conference

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The remarks of President Obama and President Medvedev at the Kremlin yesterday, after the jump.

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Photo Credit: AP Photos

Continue reading "Obama & Medvedev Press Conference" »

July 6, 2009

Russian Editorial: Can't Start with a Clean Slate

Russian political establishment will hang on every word uttered at the US-Russian meetings in Moscow for the next three days. With so much being said and analyzed prior to Obama's visit, this particular commentary is worthy of notice. Aleksei Pushkov is the Director of the Institute of International Problems at the Diplomatic Academy of Russian Federation's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a Professor at MGIMO - Moscow State University of International Affairs (the most prestigious institution of its kind in Russia). In a lengthy commentary to the daily "Izvestia," Pushkov outlined major themes and thoughts prior to the U.S. president's arrival.

(Full text of editorial after the jump)

Continue reading "Russian Editorial: Can't Start with a Clean Slate" »

July 5, 2009

Understanding Russian Security Interests

Writing in the New York Times, Clifford Levy offers up some insights into post-Soviet Russia:


The Soviet Union’s end was more than a geopolitical breakup. It was also to some extent a familial one. Moscow was the dominant member of the household, and its dependents — the other 14 republics — went off on their own.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Russia reacts viscerally to what it sees as incursions by the West in the region. That sentiment was at the root of Russia’s war last year with Georgia, and will be the subject of heated discussion at the summit.

Russia may be the world’s largest country, but it believes that it is under siege, from the West on one side and China on the other.

“It is not just about imperial nostalgia, it is much, much deeper,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. “Russia’s perception of security is closely linked to what is going on in neighboring territories.”

Now, in the U.S. there is a tendency to cast Russia's interests in her near abroad as illegitimate or revanchist, rather than a function of logical security interests. That doesn't absolve Russia of anything, but it should provide a measure of perspective. The U.S. considers the Middle East a region of vital national interest such that we routinely project power there - yet it is geographically far more distant and less historically relevant to U.S. security needs than Central Asia is to Russia.

July 3, 2009

Putin Responds to Obama

"We do not assume strange postures - we stand firmly on our legs and always look to the future," said Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, commenting on the statement of U.S. President Barack Obama in his address that he stands with one foot in the past, and the other in the present. "This is a feature of Russia in that Russia was always moving forward, strengthening in the process, and will do so in the future, I have no doubt of that," he said. "If we stand with one foot in the past, and the other in front, you know, we have a vernacular saying - we bend over for no one, we stand firmly on our feet."

"If we see something new in other areas, such as our American partners renouncing the deployment of new combat systems in Europe, the ABM systems or the revision of approaches to expand the military-political blocs, or if they completely renounce the use of 'bloc' thinking - that would be a real move forward," added Putin.

Putin also said Russia expects changes in the economic sphere: "In the United States economy, some decisions have been adopted at the height of the Cold War, for example, the notorious Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which we were already promised would be canceled for the past eight years," explained Putin. "It has not yet been abolished. If this happens now, it is also a great way forward."

"We are ready for effective interaction, we really expect much from the new administration. Those signals, which are still presented to us from Washington - they point to a positive dialogue, positive mood," he said. "We are awaiting the arrival of the U.S. President. I express the hope that it will be a useful meeting, it will aim to strengthen our dialogue. We are in need of that, and the United States in need of it, for sure.

"We are the biggest nuclear powers, and therefore the world will closely monitor these meetings."

Following Obama in Russia

As President Obama prepares for his visit to Moscow, RCP's Cathy Young will be keeping track of events on the RealClearPolitics blog, which we'll link to as well. Be sure to check out our Around the World page on Russia as well - which is update daily with the latest news, analysis and opinion on Russia.

One of the central questions facing the United States and Russia is whether the U.S. is willing to permit a Russian "sphere of influence" over the countries in her near-abroad. Such a competition would likely be costly for both the U.S. and Russia, but might work out well for the countries of Central Asia.

Consider the case of Kyrgyzstan. If you recall, earlier in the year, Kyrgyzstan said it would close down Manas air base, which the U.S. was using to support operations in Afghanistan. This news came the same day that Russia had unveiled a generous aid package to Kyrgyzstan. Well, that was then. Last week, Kyrgyzstan reversed its decision and said it will allow the U.S. to continue operating out of Manas, provided the U.S. pay three times as much for the privilege. Russia, in turn, lashed out at what it dubbed a "dirty trick" by Kyrgyzstan.

If you want to know what Russian President Medvedev thinks about U.S-Russian relations, well, he's video-blogging now:

June 29, 2009

Russia: Lose a Deal, Gain French Support

What is adding insult to injury between two close countries like Russia and Belarus? Never mind that a supposed allied union between the two is a long way from actual reality. What's probably irking Kremlin is the fact that Belarus, one of the most active users of Russian military technology, has decided to switch to European technology instead. The first AS 355NP Ecureuil 2 AS 355NP light helicopter was recently acquired by the Belarusian border patrol. At present time, Belarus is using Soviet-made used the Mi-8 helicopters - one of the most wide-spread helicopters variants in the world. Belarus Border Services stated that the current plan is to completely replace Soviet models with the European machines. Earlier, the border service did examine the Russian models as an alternative, but decided in favor of the European helicopters because of Mi-8's high prices and high fuel consumption rate. That's gotta hurt the Kremlin's feelings somewhat. ...

... but not too much. Leave it to the French to boldly expand their military-industrial horizons, all with the help of Russia. According to RIA-Novosti Information Agency, Russia's "Rosoboronexport" defense export conglomerate and France's Thales International Industrial Group will join efforts in promoting their joint production of weapons to the world market. According to Michael Bychkov, one of "Rosoboronexport's" executives, both sides signed a memorandum of cooperation on June 25, pledging to work together on naval developments.

It should be noted that an international industrial group Thales is one of the world's leading manufacturers of defense products. In 2008, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the company delivered its products to customers in the amount of more than $9.3 billion, taking tenth place among other top defense corporations in sales volume. Memo to Pentagon: Thales also actively participates in supplying technology and products to NATO countries, so how exactly will its cooperation with Moscow affect French military relationship with Washington? Especially given how much Russia and US compete on the global arms market? Anyone?

Key areas for Thales is the development and manufacture of aerospace information systems, as well as military and marine supplies. The company also participates in the modernization of weapons from different countries, providing high-tech components to its customers. Back in July 2008, "Rosoboronexport" has signed a contract with Thales for the delivery of French-made thermal vision technology for the Russian Army.

Remember the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine "Kursk" back in 2000? The death of its entire crew, and the subsequent bungled rescue efforts forced Russia to seek Western assistance in trying to raise the ship from the bottom of the Barents sea. Russian military has recently frozen the construction of "Belgorod" nuclear strike carried, the same type of submarine as the unfortunate "Kursk," according to Russian Navy Chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky. Nuclear submarine "Belgorod" - or Project 949A Antey - was to be the latest in a series of similar ships for the Russian naval forces. The vessel was 70-80% ready when the construction stopped.

"While we have not precisely determined the appropriateness of this ship or the direction of funding for the construction of a new series of submarines, this boat will remain in its present state," noted Vysotsky. Nevertheless, an informed source in the main headquarters of the Russian Naval Forces reported of a possible re-equipping of "Belgorod" with the latest set of high-range cruise missiles. Here is a thought - would Thales have anything to do with this, since the first joint Russo-French defense cooperation will be with naval technologies? We certainly hope not. "Kursk" was one of 11 submarines of this type built by Soviet Union and later Russia from 1986 to 1996, some of which are still in service. It is the largest submarine in the world - at almost 470 feet long, it features a "double-hull," is twice as wide as the largest US nuclear strike submarine, and can go to the depth of more than 1,500 feet.

And speaking of large ships - the most successful and effective force projection around the world is done with aircraft carriers. United States operates the largest ships of this kind in the world, and its navy rules the seas and oceans with several carrier battle groups. Presently, China is reading for the construction of its own aircraft carriers to be able to project its forces and defend its economic interests globally. During the Cold War, Soviet Union operated several small aircraft carriers, though none of them was as large or carried as many aircraft as its American counterparts. Given the importance of this type of ship for any aspiring power, the competition for control of the seas would intensify - with a few caveats.

According to Admiral Vysotsky, in the near future, Russia will not build ordinary aircraft carriers, but will develop so-called "naval aviation units," since the establishment of the standard ships of aircraft type today "is dead." In particular, he reported that Russian naval doctrine envisages the construction of new aircraft carriers, which will include a "space component, air, marine and advanced technologies in other areas."

Vysotsky stated that this is a complex issue, which necessitates a thorough study of all the technical details: "We are at the very beginning of the path of a new image of the fleet. Navy is not built for two years. If we want to have a new fleet by 2050, it should have been built yesterday - and we have the capability for that." While such thinking is not new, it is questionable whether Russia can pull of a feat of this kind, given its slow pace of modernization of naval technologies, many of which are past the point of official retirement. Maybe France can give Russia a hand?