Arming Ukraine: Breaking it down

Should we arm the Ukrainian government forces?

Since the conflict began last year, the U.S. and Europe have been limiting military support for Ukraine to non-lethal equipment; things that enable the individual soldier like body armor, medical supplies, and night-vision goggles. Late last year, President Obama signed a bill that authorized the provision of more lethal weaponry to Ukraine’s military but left it up to the White House to decide whether to follow through on that move. So technically speaking, the decision has already been pre-approved. The question is, should POTUS follow through, or leave it as an option down the road for him or for the Clinton Administration next administration?

Looming over the Minsk negotiations currently underway is the prospect of deeper sanctions on Russia, an economic collapse in Ukraine, and the risk that the conflict descends into an all out war. I would use the phrase “descend into proxy war” as a piece in Bloomberg did, but is it a proxy war if one of the supposed sponsors of said “proxy war” has been openly engaging in the war since last year? A technicality I suppose.  But I digress.

So far, sanctions have failed in their aim of pressuring the Kremlin to reverse course in Ukraine. That’s not to say sanctions haven’t hurt the Russians, but it looks like they are willing to tolerate much more pain than the West is likely to give. And the increase in violence has brought back a question that the Europeans and NATO would rather not ask again: what is the next step if the Russians do not stop?

Below is a collection of most of the arguments for and against the U.S. providing the Ukrainians with lethal defensive weaponry. I read a lot, and I tend to get lost in my own thoughts, so a lot of times I jot things down like this. Welcome to my brain:

Do it:

Perhaps the most cited case for arming Ukraine is a joint report from the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Among the authors are former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO Admiral James Stavridis, former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. If you want to have an opinion on this issue, you should definitely read the report, but for the purposes of this blog post, here are some of the key points:

  • The U.S. should give Ukraine “lethal defensive arms.” This includes more capable counter-battery systems, UAV’s for reconnaissance, electronic countermeasure systems, light-armored vehicles, and anti-armor missiles. Providing them with things such as these will raise the costs for a new Russian offensive.
  • Giving Ukraine weapons will help bring the conflict to a stalemate. Moscow will get the message: the cost of further military action will be too high. From there, a political solution can be seriously discussed.
  • If the U.S. and NATO don’t support Ukraine in a concrete, military-oriented way, the Kremlin will see this inaction as a redux of Georgia in 2008, and turn its attention to destabilizing the Baltics in a similar fashion.
  • The aid won’t allow Ukraine to defeat a new full-scale attack by the Russian military. But it would allow Kiev to inflict significant costs on Moscow if they chose to attack.
  • Deterrence is the main takeaway here. Providing these lethal arms to Ukraine will deter further escalation by Putin. Providing these arms reduces the likelihood that Russia will escalate the crisis.

Pretty straightforward.  Another decent summary is in an Op-Ed written by some of the above-mentioned authors of the report.

Don’t do it:

There has been equal, if not more, push-back by a number of scholars and subject-matter experts of similar stature to the authors of the joint reports. But it’s more scattered.

One piece that stood out was from Eugene Rumer, a Russia and Eurasia expert formerly at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, and Thomas Graham, a former senior director for Russia at the National Security Council. They have made a compelling case against sending lethal arms to Ukraine. Major points of their case, along with a some others:

  • Giving lethal arms will not sway the Kremlin to back down in Ukraine. And it could bring the West one step closer to a direct military confrontation with Russia.
  • We cannot be certain that these arms won’t go to the Ukrainian volunteer armies and private militia groups, which lack adequate training and discipline.
  • It will take many years to reform and bolster the Ukrainian military and security service, which is undertrained, underfunded, scowering for recruits, and crawling with Russian spies, making it unlikely that a delivery of such lethal arms would make a meaningful difference when going toe to toe with the Russians and the separatists.
  • What happens if Russia decides to escalate? Is the U.S. and NATO willing to enter a direct military confrontation with Russia?
  • Short of sending in the 82ndAirborne, it’s extremely doubtful that the U.S. and NATO won’t gain any significant comparative advantage over Russia in Ukraine.
  • If the Kremlin wants to destabilize Ukraine and ensure it does not successfully pivot Westward towards Europe, it will not stop until that happens.
  • Giving lethal arms and aid to Ukraine reinforces the narrative that the Kremlin tells the Russian people: Ukraine is now a puppet of the West, and the next stop for the West after Ukraine is regime-change in Moscow.

If the U.S. provides lethal arms to Ukraine, what next?  Would doing this really change the Kremlin’s calculus? Similar lines of thought are presented herehere, and here.

Since last year’s escapades, each set of talks and ceasefire agreements has only moved towards deeper conflict. The violence in eastern Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis – aside from the thousands killed and wounded, some one million have also been displaced – and a geopolitical crisis, between a European community that has hoped to put armed aggression in its past, and an insecure petro-state in decline determined to relive its imperial past and stick it to the West through armed aggression.

It seems that both sides agree that the Kremlin sees no reason to stop. It is also likely that Putin will try to solidify his gains in eastern Ukraine before the delivery of any more supplies or weaponry to Kiev can make a difference on the battlefield. Long-term, I see a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and I think this is something Putin would not mind having in his hand. I think it is also pretty clear to all parties involved that Ukraine matters much more to the Kremlin than it does to Washington, Brussels, Berlin, and the rest of Europe. What to do about that reality is the million dollar question (or if you’re in Russia, the 6,5109,500 ruble question.)

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Misunderestimating Thucydides: Why Crime[a] and Punishment for Russia will only get the West so far

Whenever I’m perplexed after reading something in the news, I typically turn to a much older set of papers for some context and sometimes, for some inspiration. As told by Thucydides:

The good faith, Lacedaemonians, which characterizes your political conduct and private intercourse towards each other, makes you the less disposed to hearken to what may be said to the prejudice of others; and from this, indeed, you derive a sober-minded moderation, but you labour always under a great misconception of the affairs of other States.

Thucydides was recounting the Corinthians’ address to the Spartan Senate, where they were comparing the Spartans with the Athenians. To the Corinthians, Sparta assumes that since they have a working constitution and a way of life that suits them well, they do not have to change their ways to confront this new issue: the growth of Athenian power. While this attitude is seen as being “moderate,” the Corinthians point out that this shows a kind of ignorance when it comes to foreign affairs.

Whether this account of the Corinthians addressing the Spartan Senate is 100% accurate or not is inconsequential. What it reveals though, is a recurring pattern in History: States and their leaders, try as they may, often misunderstand or do not consider the goals, actions and intentions of other States and their leaders. What does this have to do with Russia?

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you'll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you’ll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

Post Cold War

Voice: “Knock knock”
Putin: “Who’s there?”
Voice: “NATO”

We’ve treated the Russians as a potential threat since the 90s. We’ve expanded NATO to its doorstep, and we’re working on building missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, all to their protest.  And then comes Ukraine, where the U.S. and a coalition of Western governments backed and encouraged protesters that led to the overthrow of a sitting president that kept close ties with Russia, which was soon replaced by an interim government hostile to Russia.  What did Putin think about all of that?  Could this happen to his own government; was Kyiv a dress rehearsal for Moscow?  I suppose you’ll have to ask Putin himself, but it’s likely that he at least entertained the thought.

You’d expect American policymakers to at least try to understand Russian concerns about Ukraine joining an alliance with traditionally adversarial powers (i.e. greater cooperation with the E.U. and NATO). Obama pundits have made the argument that the President invited this crisis in Ukraine because he didn’t take a firmer stance on Syria and chose to pull out of Iraq.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Even if Obama had bombed Syria, he still would be faced with this situation in Ukraine, and he would have been holding the same cards.  Perhaps pundits forget that the last President’s “firm stance,” a rapid expansion of the National Security state and invading two countries, did not stop Putin from invading Georgia.   Russia’s move in Georgia in ’08 and Crimea today is understandable if you accept that most powers do not like hostile governments on their borders and that most powers are always looking to maintain or grow their sphere of influence.  After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, or else.  Like how Canada and Mexico are to us, Georgia and Ukraine aren’t just any states close to Russia’s neighborhood; they’re on its doorstep.  Over here, we live in a country with the Atlantic to our West, the Pacific to our East, Mexico at the bottom and Canada at the top.  That’s geography, and it’s not changing.  We have it pretty good over here.  If you’re Russia though, with Germany and NATO on one side, China on the other, and Japan breathing down your neck, it’s a different story altogether.

So the polls are in and we moved to another stage of this Crimean crisis: the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine, 97% of Crimean voters favored joining Russia, the Parliament formally asked Russia to join the Russian Federation, and the Kremlin signed legislation sealing the deal. Crimea is gone.  Whatever comes next, we have few options to “punish” Russia, at least in the short term, and Putin knows it.

For one, the Europeans aren’t super excited about “crippling” sanctions; London and Cyrpus really like all of that Russian money in its banking system, and from what I’ve gathered, major arteries that feed Europe’s natural gas supply flow through Ukraine, from Russia.  And all of the Western governments are trying to pass legislation to secure a bailout for Ukraine, but when has our Congress ever agreed on anything, especially when right now we’re looking for things to cut, not add to, the deficit?   And if the history of sanctions has taught us anything, it’s that regimes are willing to endure a tremendous amount of pain to secure what they see as their vital interests.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports.  Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports. Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t implement the tools that we have and are willing to use.  But it seems to me there’s little we can do about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Economic sanctions?  Installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?  Seizing assets of Putin’s friends?  Giving the Ukrainians foreign aid [and who aren’t exactly innocent in this affair, and are only united by their hatred for Yanukovych and Putin]?  Go for it.  But the reality is we’re not going to war over Crimea, and Obama has publicly stated that we will not go to war over Ukraine.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Russia is “back.”  Mitt Romney’s comment on Russia being America’s “number one geopolitical foe” falls short (but Obama was also wrong to snub him the way that he did).   This is not to say that Russia doesn’t matter, but let’s not give them too much credit: Russia may be playing geopolitical chess, but he’s playing defense.  This move in Crimea was a move made from weakness.   Ukraine has slowly been moving away from Russia, and inching toward the West.   The West hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Europe hasn’t lost Ukraine.  The United States hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Putin lost Ukraine, and he knows it.   So to save face he took a short term gain (Crimea, and saber rattling towards Eastern Ukraine) but a long term loss, and Russian influence over the rest of Europe will suffer.

Formal Ukrainian elections are going to be held in May, and it’s unlikely that any new government will be a Yanukovych; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respectful to its [Russian] minorities and nudge Russia on with provocative gestures.   The reality is that the stability of Ukraine cannot be guaranteed with at least some level of cooperation with Russia.   After all, Ukraine is “the borderland.”  Point is, we can talk about punishing Russia all we want, but decent relations with Moscow are imperative.  We need their help with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and soon, maybe even China. Anyone who thinks this is just about Ukraine has to stop thinking like a lawyer and more like a strategist.  Thucydides would’ve understood that.

Sidenote: Though the current crisis in Ukraine is complex, we should remember that everything can always be worse.   As per an agreement signed in Budapest in 1994, Ukraine has gotten rid of all their nuclear weapons, and just two years ago eliminated all of their weapons-grade materiel.  A document signed 20 years ago prevented this from becoming a nuclear crisis. And now that’s one less thing we have to think about.

How to Argue with your family about Foreign Policy tomorrow: Thanksgivukkah Special

There are three things people always talk about: Sports, Politics and the Weather. This Thanksgivukkah you’ll be hearing about all three, so here’s a handy guide on how to hold your own against misinformed family and friends at the dinner table.

Guaranteed your first course is going to start off something like: “We don’t make stuff here anymore”

One of the most popular claims that I have wishbone to pick with is when people claim our country’s going to hell in a hand basket because everything’s made in China and all we have to show for it is a “service economy” that just gets us into financial crises. They’ll point out that there are fewer manufacturing jobs in the US today than there were when they were growing up. If you have your smartphone out, pull up this graph and tell them to give it a look:

Industrial Production...Manufacturing

Exports

However, like a good debater, you’ll concede that fewer people are employed in manufacturing today than “back in the day.” And you’ll even show ‘em the numbers to prove it:

All Employees...Manufacturing

The takeaway here is American manufacturing output is enormously higher today than it was 40 years ago [actually, ever…]. However, that growth is at the expense of fewer employees, which in economic jargon means increased productivity; doing more with less. This is because of all sorts of things, like improved business processes and technology to increase efficiency. So we DO make things, lots of things actually. It’s just that we make more things with less people.

Second course: “Jeez, you see Putin lately? Russia’s shoving our face in the dirt and looking better every day. Cold War all over again!”

International Badass? Absolutely. Geopolitical rival? Not quite.

I’m really not sure why Forbes called Putin the most powerful man in the world this year, maybe it has something to do with him being a real-life Bond villain or his Judo black-belt.  In all fairness, in terms of awesomeness and manliness, Vladimir Putin is the Russian Teddy Roosevelt. But back to the point. Snowden’s bound to come up in the discussion, but that’s small potatoes when you’re talking a geopolitical rivalry. The Russians also like to troll us every now and then, especially at the U.N. but that’s to be expected. But put this into some perspective: Russia’s latest achievement was persuading Obama to not bomb a country he didn’t really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that not really vital to the U.S. national interest. To call the Russian Federation a rival you’d have to prove that wherever we go, the Russians counter us. Latin America? No. Africa? Nothing. South Asia? Don’t see them. The only exception here is Central Asia, where all of the countries ending in “-stan” are. That’s it. Showing some graphs and numbers for this point is pointless. There’s not much to compare.

By far, the most heated topic is probably going to be: “Blehblehbleh [something about China]”

China may very well surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, but let’s not eat all the stuffing before you get to the turkey here.

China is rising and taking over the world and the U.S. and the West is in decline. This is the debate of the century, something that’s been the topic of heated discussion by scholars, policymakers, academics, journalists, just about everybody. There’s no way you’re going to “win” this one.

But if you wanted to have an educated conversation about it, here goes nothing. In a Pew survey, 23 of the 39 countries surveyed said China is or will soon become the “world’s leading superpower.” By 2030 (or sooner for some) the People’s Republic will take over the U.S.’s role as the world’s largest economy. So it may actually become the world’s largest economy. But it will not become a superpower. Although it has seen impressive levels of growth over the years, China has its constraints too. China’s leaders know they must slowly reduce the role of the state in the economy; in other words a transition away from model that is too dependent on corporate and government investment. But that’s what the Communist Party has been running on since its inception, so there’s also an identity crisis surfacing. It’s also pretty clear that it’s fudging its growth data. It also doesn’t help that the proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and has started decreasing in 2012. By 2025, 14.3% of the population will be 65 and over. An aging population will increase labor costs, reduce savings and investments, and strain healthcare and social welfare systems. Then there’s also the daily challenge of feeding 1 billion people and keeping them unrebellious. And you can’t really fudge your way out of that.

Fundamentally, the Chinese military has been, at its core, an internal peacekeeping force for the provinces. Though there are signs of China seeking to project power outward in the form of developing a blue-water navy, there are rivals in Japan, India, South Korea and a bunch of Southeast Asian nations. Territorial disputes are just part of the trouble. It’s uncertain how this will all play out, and then there’s always the North Koreans a wild card in itself. There are some choices that China has to make down the road if it wants to avoid a war.

Bottom line: Agree to disagree on this one. It’s kind of 50:50 here. Strong economy? Yes, but in many ways it’s still a developing country. Superpower? Maybe in the future, but not yet.

Obama’s Decision to Arm the Rebels: A Syria(ous) Situation

I apologize for the holdup on this one fellas, I promised on Saturday that I’d post my reflections on the recent development concerning the announcement that the U.S. will begin arming the rebels in Syria but I left my readers high-and-dry. Some things came up that prevented me from typing my big thoughts on my 5-year-old, dying laptop so just bear with me.

Ok so in case your head’s been in the sand forever like how Miss. Utah’s is from last night’s Miss. USA pageant, on Thursday the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, announced that the U.S. would provide direct military assistance to the rebels, after concluding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons on several occasions. Good idea or bad idea? Observe:

  1. Recently, in a major blow to the rebels, Assad’s forces took the city of Qusayr and are closing in on Aleppo.
  2. Hezbollah (the Lebanese militants and Iranian proxy group) has not only been helping them with Qusayr and Aleppo, but has also publicly and fully committed to the Assad regime’s survival.
  3. Iran has supported Assad not only through Hezbollah but also with their very own elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard (the same guys who gave us hell by supporting opposition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan when we were there).
  4. Russia continues to support Assad with funding, armaments and a guaranteed veto in every international conference whenever Syria comes up on the schedule.
  5. The Syrian government, by using those chemical weapons we’ve all been hearing about, has crossed that “red line” that Obama mentioned last year.  The use of chemical weapons, he said, would be a game changer that would warrant more action. 

As you can see from the points above, chemical weapons use is but one part in a five part equation. And because Obama pigeonholed himself in a corner by drawing that line in the sand about chemical weapons, and they’re used, what do you expect him to do? He can’t not do nothing; superpowers do not bluff. Oh, and no, Mr. Obama probably didn’t come to the decision because he succumbed to Bill Clinton’s pressure after he called him a wuss; for the record, if someone calls you a wuss for not doing something, and then you go ahead and do it, that just proves you are, indeed, a wuss. President Obama is no wuss.

I’ll start by saying this, though: Obama’s decision is shrewd and realist. The developments likely got Mr. Obama thinking:

  1. Peace-talks are coming up soon, and the rebels are not likely to come to the negotiating table without some sort of a confidence boost in the form of new gains and outside support.
  2. The rebels don’t have to win, they just have to make sure they don’t lose. That is guerilla strategy 101, used by groups throughout history from Latin America to Africa to those insurgents who welcomed us with open arms in our recent Middle Eastern escapades.

With that in mind, what’s the solution if you’re Obama? What if you could get Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to fight eachother in Syria? What if you could do to Iran in Syria what they did to us in Iraq and Afghanistan?: commit them to a resource-draining war with no end in sight. What if you can keep the rebellion alive to the point of bogging down Iran and their allies in their own resource-draining civil war, and all you have to do is give some Kalashnikovs and humanitarian aid  to make sure the rebels live to fight another day? I’ll take it for now.

That being said, I want to tell you all something that you probably don’t want to hear: this whole Syria thing is going to play itself out for at least another 10 years. With about 1,000 militias and roughly 6 major minority groups (All Christian groups, Jews, Druze, Kurds, Alawites, and other Shia Muslim sects), there are too many players with their own agendas and interests. A report by the New York Times states “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.” There are only Islamists, and less Islamist groups, some with ties to Al Qaeda, and others with the Muslim Brotherhood. The reality is that the fiercest and most seasoned fighters that have made significant rebel gains in this war are the hardliner jihadis.

And if we do end up intervening any more than just sending light weapons, supplies and moral support, it probably won’t change the reality that with Assad deposed, everyone will keep killing each other anyway. Why? Because that’s what happens in a civil war.  If we intervene, than we own Syria, just like Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will again be forced to control an uncontrollable situation. Think of this: the losers in this war and every war like it know what they have coming to them when they do lose (I’ll give you a hint, the technical term is “massacre”), so they will fight to the very end.  Think of Lebanon and their 15 year-long ‘75-’90 civil war that resulted in the ouster of the Christian-minority regime, and Iraq when we invaded in 2003 to overthrow the minority Sunni regime, only to fight them again as guerrillas all the way up until today. No fly zones have to be enforced, and enforcing those increases the risk of escalation and greater miscalculation that could turn ugly. The only thing intervening any further would do is change the reality of who is massacring whom.

There’s a saying: Things usually get worse before they gets better. Unfortunately for Syria, it looks like things will stay the same for a very long time before it gets worse than that. So good idea or bad idea then? For now, it looks like there are only bad ideas and worse ideas; in fact, it’s kind of like taking sides in Game of Thrones.  Looking forward, I see the U.S. involving itself in some good ol’ asymmetric warfare; that is, everything short of committing U.S. forces.