The Ukraine Crisis and Russia’s Place in the International Order


I know a lot more about Putin, Russia and Ukraine than I did when I got up this morning. Because Brookings held a seminar event a week ago 20 August to discuss the captioned Russia/Ukraine issue. While cycling today I listened to the 90 minute Brookings audio podcast. Here’s the event description:

For over two decades, the United States and Europe have been trying to integrate Russia into the international order. This post-Cold War strategy yielded some success, but has now come crashing down over following Russia’s aggressive turn and the ensuing crisis over Ukraine. The United States is seeking to isolate President Putin while Russia is trying to distance itself from what it sees as a Western-dominated order. President Obama says this is not the beginning of a new Cold War, but a new era seems all but inevitable, with potentially severe consequences for the global economy, counter-terrorism, the non-proliferation regime and climate change.

On August 20, 2014, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings hosted a discussion on what Russia’s foreign policy turn means for the international order and for U.S. foreign policy. Thomas Wright, fellow with the Project on International Order and Strategy (IOS), moderated a conversation with Brookings President Strobe Talbott, Senior Fellow Clifford Gaddy of Brookings’ Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) and Susan Glasser, editor at Politico Magazine.

There is an uncorrected transcript [PDF].

Obama's time warp: The U.S. is still the bad guy

Michael Barone:

(…)But some people, including Barack Obama, whose college thesis written in those years has never been made public, seem stuck in a time warp in which the United States is the bad guy.

That, at least, seems to explain Obama’s latest foreign policy moves, starting with Honduras, where the president was ousted by the Supreme Court for violating a constitutional provision that forbids any moves to seek a second term. (Other Latin countries, notably Mexico, have similar constitutional prohibitions.) The White House immediately interpreted this as a military coup and decided that, this time, the United States would come out on the side of “the people.” In fact, we find ourselves siding with a friend of the Iranian mullahs, Hugo Chavez, who swept aside similar constitutional limits in Venezuela, and opposing the elected Congress, courts and civil society of Honduras.

Honduras is not the only or, sad to say, most important example of where this administration has come out on the side of our enemies and against our friends. Israel has been told that it must stop all settlement construction, even the adding of spare rooms for newly arrived infants, while nothing is asked of the Palestinians.

In eastern Europe, Obama acknowledged last spring the importance of placing missile defense installations in our NATO allies Poland and the Czech Republic, then reversed himself this month and canceled the program.

The president of Poland, which has sent brave and effective troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, was given an after-midnight phone call, which he declined to take. The president of Russia, which has declined to aid our efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons programs, expressed his delight — and pointedly made no concessions in return.

(…) The reaction to the most recent moves has been harsh, and from unexpected quarters. Leslie Gelb, former head of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the editorial writers of The Washington Post have expressed astonishment at Obama’s apparent switch on Afghanistan. Edward Lucas, Eastern European correspondent for the Economist, wrote in the Telegraph of London, “The picture emerging from the White House is a disturbing one, of timidity, clumsiness and short-term calculation. Some say he is the weakest president since Jimmy Carter.”

Please continue reading…

Obama and Israeli-Russian diplomacy

David Goldman finds some positives in the Obama adjustments of Russian policy – trading chips for support on Iran sanctions?

The one side of Obama’s foreign policy that made sense from the outset was to trade items that Russia considers of fundamental interest, e.g., its influence in former Soviet republics, for Russian cooperation in suppressing nuclear weapons development in Iran. That may be the positive outcome of the present switch in American policy on anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe. The Israeli spook site Debka reports today that “Barack Obama’s decision prompted Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s surprise comment Monday, Sept. 14, that his government no longer rules out further sanctions against Iran – although the Kremlin has always denied its cooperation with the US on the Iranian nuclear issue was contingent on the removal of the US missile shield plan.

”The reflex reaction among American conservatives is to denounce Obama for selling out American interests to the Russians. That seems misguided to me. There are cases where appeasement is precisely the right policy, and it may be that Obama will obtain something of great value to the US — Russian cooperation in containing Iran — by forfeiting something of little value. I’ll do that trade all day. [From Obama’s bluff called?]

Russia: stock markets reflect the price of Putin

You thought the US stock market was troubled? Check out what has happened in Russia:

On paper, Russia’s economy looks to be virtually bullet-proof. With a 7.5 per cent year-on-year growth rate in the second quarter, it has the third largest foreign exchange reserves in the world, low international debt, a huge resource-fuelled trade surplus and nearly $200bn (€141bn, £112bn) stashed away in sovereign wealth funds.

Seen from the markets, however, the situation looks anything but rosy. Stock market indices stand at less than half their May peak, billions of dollars of foreign capital has quit the country and credit has all but dried up. Efforts by the central bank to inject liquidity are having little effect. “What is happening is that no one is lending to each other,” says Garegin Tosunyan, head of the Association of Russian Banks. “This is not so much a financial crisis as a crisis of trust.”

With world markets plunging, Russia’s financial sector has been one of the hardest hit by contagion from the US credit squeeze. On Moscow’s stock exchanges and banks, global conditions have exacerbated an existing crisis whose origin was largely domestic, emerging during the Russia-Georgia war in August.

Trading on Russia’s two stock exchanges was halted for the second day in a row on Wednesday, after investors dumped stocks in the opening hours. While inactive traders fretted, government officials met bankers to discuss what measures to take.


And on the “price of Putin”

…Perhaps Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the prime minister who still seems to be calling the shots in Moscow, ought to pay a bit more attention to such sentiments. In a matter of weeks, the markets in Russia have turned on a combination of economic doubts, business fears and a sudden change in the assessment of political risk. An exodus of foreign capital, a dearth of credit from Russian banks and a loss of confidence among Russian as well as foreign shareholders have transformed the mood in Moscow from over-confidence to gloom.

…Russia’s reassertion of its military muscle in Georgia makes matters worse, even if most Russians believe the action was justified. Being at loggerheads with the US and the western world will not make access to global capital markets any easier. Western investors are not going to pull out of Russia, but they will demand a higher risk premium. The cost to Russia may be far higher than that of invading a small country in the Caucasus.

Russia under pressure

Excellent analysis by the Streetwise Professor:

I have often written that Russia is a natural state, a cartel of violence specialists that is held together by economic rents, primarily generated by natural resources. As I have noted, such states/cartels are fragile, and subject to collapse. Collapse occurs when (a) the rents dissipate, or (b) the time horizons of the colluding parties shorten. Natural states look strong pendant les bon temps roulez, but have a tendency to implode once the music stops.

The crash–crashes plural, actually–of the Russian stock market, the gridlock in the money/banking markets, and the decline in oil prices, are dissipating rents, and arguably convincing the various clans that the game will soon be up. Moreover, the financial crisis has weakened some players (Deripaska is a well-publicized example), which could tempt others to exploit this weakness and grab what they have left. This could induce a breakdown in the uneasy peace between competing factions of violence specialists.


Inside-out "realists"

Where are the realists? When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, it ought to have been their moment. Here was Vladimir Putin, a cold-eyed realist if ever there was one, taking advantage of a favorable opportunity to shift the European balance of power in his favor — a 21st century Frederick the Great or Bismarck, launching a small but decisive war on a weaker neighbor while a surprised and dumbfounded world looked on helplessly. Here was a man and a nation pursuing “interest defined as power,” to use the famous phrase of Hans Morgenthau, acting in obedience to what Mr. Morgenthau called the “objective law” of international power politics. Yet where are Mr. Morgenthau’s disciples to remind us that Russia’s latest military action is neither extraordinary nor unexpected nor aberrant but entirely normal and natural, that it is but a harbinger of what is yet to come because the behavior of nations, like human nature, is unchanging?

Today’s “realists,” who we’re told are locked in some titanic struggle with “neoconservatives” on issues ranging from Iraq, Iran and the Middle East to China and North Korea, would be almost unrecognizable to their forebears. Rather than talk about power, they talk about the United Nations, world opinion and international law. They propose vast new international conferences, a la Woodrow Wilson, to solve intractable, decades-old problems. They argue that the United States should negotiate with adversaries not because America is strong but because it is weak. Power is no answer to the vast majority of the challenges we face, they insist, and, indeed, is counterproductive because it undermines the possibility of international consensus.

They are fond of citing Dean Acheson, Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan as their intellectual forebears, but those gentlemen would have found most of their prescriptions naive. Mr. Acheson, as Harry Truman’s Secretary of State, had nothing but disdain for the United Nations and for most international efforts to solve world problems. As his biographer, Robert L. Beisner, has shown, he considered such efforts evidence of the naive hopefulness of “people who could not face the truth about human nature” and “preferred to preserve their illusions intact.” He strongly supported the NATO alliance but ultimately put his faith not in international institutions but in “the continued moral, military and economic power of the United States.” He aimed to build a “preponderance of power” and to create “situations of strength” around the world. Until the United States acquired this predominant power, he believed, negotiations and international conferences with adversaries such as the Soviet Union were worthless. He opposed talks with Moscow throughout his entire time in office.

…Leading realists today see the world not as Mr. Morgenthau did, as an anarchic system in which nations consistently pursue “interest defined as power,” but as a world of converging interests, in which economics, not power, is the primary driving force. Thus Russia and China are not interested in expanding their power so much as in enhancing their economic well-being and security. If they use force against their neighbors, or engage in arms buildups, it is not because this is in the nature of great powers. It is because the United States or the West has provoked them. The natural state of the world is harmonious; only aggressive behavior by the United States disturbs the harmony.

Excellent analysis by Robert Kagan — enjoy.

The Truth About Russia in Georgia

… isn’t what you have probably seen in the big media. Michael Totten filed this report from Tbilisi, Geogia, which begins as follows:

TBILISI, GEORGIA – Virtually everyone believes Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly provoked a Russian invasion on August 7, 2008, when he sent troops into the breakaway district of South Ossetia. “The warfare began Aug. 7 when Georgia launched a barrage targeting South Ossetia,” the Associated Press reported over the weekend in typical fashion.

Virtually everyone is wrong. Georgia didn’t start it on August 7, nor on any other date. The South Ossetian militia started it on August 6 when its fighters fired on Georgian peacekeepers and Georgian villages with weapons banned by the agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1994. At the same time, the Russian military sent its invasion force bearing down on Georgia from the north side of the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian side of the border through the Roki tunnel and into Georgia. This happened before Saakashvili sent additional troops to South Ossetia and allegedly started the war.

Regional expert, German native, and former European Commission official Patrick Worms was recently hired by the Georgian government as a media advisor, and he explained to me exactly what happened when I met him in downtown Tbilisi. You should always be careful with the version of events told by someone on government payroll even when the government is as friendly and democratic as Georgia’s. I was lucky, though, that another regional expert, author and academic Thomas Goltz, was present during Worms’ briefing to me and signed off on it as completely accurate aside from one tiny quibble.

Definitely read the whole thing. To emphasize the importance of Michael’s report, Michael Yon rang Glenn Reynolds on his satphone from Afghanistan to make sure Glenn saw the report. A commenter on Michael’s blog wrote this:

A clear 3 step process on the part of Russia:

1. Move troops into place.

2. Have Ossetian puppets provoke a response.

3. Invade.

which is a pretty good summary of what actually happened. And do leave a contribution to support Michael Totten’s work.

Bush, Georgia and Russia

Foreign editor Greg Sheridan wrote an insightful piece on 16 August, which begins

YOU have to hand it to the Bush administration. It is very ballsy. Even in its dying days, with its military stretched in the Middle East, it managed, after an initial few days of dithering and hoping the Russians would come to their senses, to find a remarkably effective response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. The US sent its military to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia. It did this after the Russians had committed to a ceasefire. The Georgians immediately and deliberately misinterpreted the move as meaning that the US would be guarding Georgia’s seaports and airports.

No, that’s not right, US spokesmen said. We’re not doing that. But we do expect that the Russians will not interfere with humanitarian aid. And we will be protecting our assets.

This was a brave and dangerous move by the Americans. But it was calibrated. It was tough. And it might just do enough to keep the pro-Western Government of Georgia’s President, Mikheil Saakashvili, in power.

The American move raises the stakes for everyone. It has its share of risks. But it puts the onus back on the Russians. Surely even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his most reckless would hesitate before killing US troops. It’s one thing to attack Georgian soldiers and to murder Georgian civilians. It’s another thing altogether to do that to the US Army or Marine Corps.


Chilling remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Russian revisionist history is corrected by Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott — excerpt:

Russia has been justifying its rampage through Georgia as a “peacekeeping” operation to end the Tbilisi government’s “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” of South Ossetia. That terminology deliberately echoes U.S. and NATO language during their 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia, which resulted in the independence of Kosovo. Essentially, it’s payback time for a grievance that Russia has borne against the West for nine years. The Russians are relying on the conceit that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is today’s equivalent of Slobodan Milosevic, and that the South Ossetians are (or were until their rescue by the latter-day Red Army last week) being victimized by Tbilisi the way the Kosovar Albanians suffered under Belgrade.

This analogy turns reality, and history, upside down. Only after exhausting every attempt at diplomacy did NATO go to war over Kosovo. It did so because the formerly “autonomous” province of Serbia was under the heel of Belgrade and the Milosevic regime was running amok there, killing ethnic Albanians and throwing them out of their homes. By contrast, South Ossetia—even though it is on Georgian territory—has long been a Russian protectorate, beyond the reach of Saakashvili’s government.

An accurate comparison between the Balkan disasters of the 1990s and the one now playing out in the Caucasus underscores what is most ominous about current Russian policy…

Then comes the truly chilling part:

A question that looms large in the wake of the past week is whether Russian policy has changed with regard to the permanence of borders. That seemed to be what Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was hinting yesterday when he said, “You can forget about any discussion of Georgia’s territorial integrity.” He ridiculed “the logic of forcing South Ossetia and Abkhazia to return to being part of the Georgian state.”

Lavrov is a careful and experienced diplomat, not given to shooting off his mouth. That makes his comments all the more unsettling. If he has given the world a glimpse of the Russian endgame, it’s dangerous in its own right and in the precedent it would set.

…Among Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s important tasks in the days ahead is to get clarity on whether a Lavrov doctrine has replaced the Yeltsin one of 16 years ago. If so, big trouble looms—including for Russia….


Russia's cyber attack on Georgia

I just listened to an interesting Popular Mechanics podcast on this topic — which included an interview with Jart Armin, whose specializes in fighting Russian cybercrime. Fragments of the interview are also in print. If Armin is correct, the Russian government is outsourcing cyber attacks to the Russian cyber-mafia — including the attack on Estonia.

Russian troops invaded Georgia’s South Ossetia on Friday, but Russian attacks on Georgia’s major Web sites and overall Internet access began a day earlier. That’s according to Jart Armin, editor of RBNexploit—the community blog that has been leading the reporting and analysis efforts on digital security in Eastern Europe this week, even as Russian officials ordered a stand-down today.