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One by One, Our Old Friends Are Gone…

[ 23 ] August 22, 2014 |

Edge of the West goes the way of all flesh:

It’s time to shut down The Edge of the American West. It’s been a long run, and I’ve enjoyed it, but blogging has become less compelling over the last year or so. I want to stop before writing for Edge actively becomes a chore. The blog has already had a number of lives, and different configurations, but I suspect that this is the last one. I’m proud of what I did here (and proud of what others did as well). Thanks for reading it.

LGM always makes money for its partners.

China’s New Emphasis on Mil-Dip

[ 0 ] August 20, 2014 |

My latest at the Diplomat investigates military diplomacy…

But today’s PLA is a professional force, and for the last two decades it has expanded its presence and influence in the international military community, a trendline that has ticked distinctly up in the last year. This includes not only the participation of the PLAN at RIMPAC, but also PLAAF exercises in Pakistan, PLAN joint exercises with the Russians, and PLAAF participation at Aviadarts.

Hack Attack!

[ 64 ] August 19, 2014 |

I have long argued that Scott isn’t enough of a hack:

Who are these five pundits downplaying the case against Texas’ Republican governor? In order: New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, MSNBC host Ari Melber, political scientist and American Prospect contributor Scott Lemieux, the Center for American Progress’ Ian Millhiser, and the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis. Five guys who work/write for big-name liberal publications or organizations. This, friends, is the Hack Gap in action.

The Hack Gap is defined as the relative lack of left-leaning pundits and media types who will abandon principle in order to move the political ball forward.

Loomis, on the other hand…

Russia and The Nation

[ 56 ] August 17, 2014 |

And finally, a word on the domestic politics of Russian engagement within the United States. Please read the previous post for a sense of where I’m coming from with respect to US relations with Russia; it provides context useful for this argument.

Read more…

Sunday Book Review: Limits of Partnership

[ 23 ] August 17, 2014 |

Angela Stent’s The Limits of Partnership traces the development of US-Russian relationship from the end of the Cold War until the present day (or at least, until just before the latest Ukraine crisis).  Limits of Partnership lays a fair degree of blame on both sides for the ongoing problems in the relationship, but also identifies the intractable areas, explains why they’re intractable, and considers the deftness of the diplomacy in this context.

Stent worked on Russia policy for both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and has a long career of specialization in the area.  She lays out the serial “resets” that the United States and Russia have pursued since the end of the Cold War.  All of these resets have, to some degree, been productive, but all have eventually collapsed under the weight on misperception and momentum. In particular, she suggests that Americans have consistently failed to appreciate the importance of core Russian security interests to Russian diplomatic behavior, just as Russians have failed to appreciate the multifaceted nature of American diplomacy. The Americans fail to understand what the Russians find important, while the Russians consistently overestimate their own importance to Washington.

Stent argues that partisan politics have played a relatively minor role in the United States with respect to Russia policy.  While the opposition party has often maintained a highly critical stance, in practice the policy undertaken by the four administrations has fallen into a very similar set of ruts, with essentially the same high and low points. She points out, for example, that the Bush administration had very high hopes for relations with Russia, believing that Putin could and would prove a useful partner and ally in the wake of September 11.

Stent also contends that US presidents have consistently over-personalized their interactions with their Russian counterparts.  Bill Clinton developed a strong relationship with Boris Yeltsin, a relationship that prevented him from fully appreciating Yeltsin’s faults, or the weak position that Yeltsin occupied at home.  George W. Bush famously believed that he could deal productively with Vladimir Putin based on the strength of their developing friendship.  Barack Obama tried developing a similar relationship with Dmitry Medvedev, although that one crashed and burned as Medvedev’s real position in the Russian policy hierarchy became clear. These personal relationship became counter-productive as the divergence of Russian and American interests pushed the countries into conflict over key issues.  Policymakers on both sides came to view setbacks not merely through the lens of international behavior, but also as personal affronts.

Stent doesn’t fault the foreign policy decision-making of either the United States or Russia for the friction.  Rather, she explains how each country decided to treat the relationship, based on its own set of logics (logics that were often opaque to the other side).  This is a remarkably even-handed account, in the best kind of way; it explains how each side has understood the serial breakdowns, and explains how the misperceptions on either side have allowed them to happen.

And the biggest obstacle to US-Russia comity has, since the end of the Cold War, been the security of Russia’s near abroad. Policymakers in the Kremlin believe that the United States should recognize its right to unilaterally intervene in Russia’s neighbors through economic and military means, and its right to ensure that governments friendly to Russia come to power, and stay in power.  Russia’s concern about its near abroad stems not simply from fear of NATO invasion, but also from fear of revolutionary “contagion” that might destabilize or overturn the Russian government along the same lines as the colored revolutions. This has led to a great deal of confusion on the American part. Bush never fully understand the importance of missile defense to the Russians, in part because he conceived of missile defense in primarily domestic, rather than international, terms.  Similarly, while the Obama administration never had quite the rosy appraisal of Russia that characterized the early Bush years, it did overstate the potential gains from the reset, and was not well prepared for managing relations when conflict inevitably emerged.

The neocons, with their relentlessly grim appraisal of the prospect of US-Russian cooperation, occupy an interesting position. It’s not quite correct to say that Cheney was “right” about Russia, but he (and those close to him) did recognize the basic incompatibility of the Bush and Putin views of international affairs.  This made them much more realistic about the prospects for long-term collaboration, although it should also be noted that the Cheney-ites were willing to leave money on the table with respect to short-term, transactional agreements with Moscow.  It’s only right to say that Russia is a “geopolitical foe” of the United States is we accept as given certain US interests in playing a role in Russia’s near abroad.  On a whole host of issues, Russia and the United States can collaborate productively in ways that the neoconservative approach forecloses.

With this is mind, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the Russian government, and even Vladimir Putin.  From his point of view, the United States consistently violated the unspoken agreements it had come to with Russia regarding the management of Russia’s near abroad, even as Moscow took costly steps to demonstrate its support of Washington. Putin, in other words, has ample reason to believe that his, and Russia’s, grievances are legitimate. The Russian foreign policy establishment believes that it has been betrayed, and the assessment isn’t absurd, given the way that Washington has struggle with developing and communicating its own approach to the post-Soviet space.

Part of the problem is that Washington has, since the end of the Cold War, approached Russia policy on several mutually-contradictory tracks.  On one track, it has sought to accord Moscow with respect by listening to Russia’s voice on major matters.  On another, it has attempted to achieve recognizable gains on a series of issues of interest to both countries, such as non-proliferation and counter-terror. And on yet another, it has attempted to detach several states in the Soviet sphere from Moscow’s orbit, an activity to which Moscow reacts with anger and fury, and takes far more seriously than the other two tracks. In part because of the bureaucratic structure of American foreign policy, the parallel development of these policies aren’t always obvious. The United States government is not well-equipped to recognize and respect Russia’s sphere of influence, a problem exacerbated by domestic ethnic lobbies, as well as the periodically eager diplomatic entreaties of Russia’s neighbors.

The broader problem is that there’s no sustainable solution as long as Russia’s neighbors have independent governments.  Understandably, Russia’s neighbors are reluctant to accept quasi-permanent subjugation to Moscow’s interests.  They appreciate that NATO membership can insulate them from Moscow (there’s little question in my mind that the Baltics would suffer ceaseless economic and political interference if they remained outside the NATO umbrella).  At the same time, a strong Moscow never has an interest in allowing free or fair elections in its neighbors, because such elections might bring to power pro-Western governments that (even if they fail to join NATO) might try to escape Moscow’s orbit.

And so Russia’s neighbors have a) good reason to seek US support, and b) a compelling moral case that the United States should support them. It is difficult, in this context, for Washington to supply a blanket guarantee to Russia that it will not entertain such entreaties, and it’s become even more difficult for Russia to believe the bland assurances that the United States offers about respecting Russian security interests.  This is a fundamental, enduring conflict, and it’s not obvious that any sort of “grand bargain” can resolve it.

Stent is clear, however, that the United States and Russia have accomplished a great deal over the past two decades, despite these differences.  On non-proliferation (both bilateral and global multilateral), economic governance, terrorism, Iran, and a range of other issues, US-Russian collaboration has borne fruit.  Indeed, Stent points out that Putin has facilitated the central economic objectives of the United States with respect to Russia, which involve the security of US investments, the security of Russian energy production, and the full entry of Russia to the global system of economic governance.

For my part, I think it’s entirely sensible to recognize that Russia views its near abroad as a core security interest, and that Moscow will react poorly to what it perceives as US inroads into that area.  In many cases, a practical appreciation of this should forestall US action; the US was right not to intervene in the South Ossetia War, and has (by and large) pursued a reasonable course of action with respect to limiting its support for Ukrainian military activity.  The US shouldn’t even consider fighting a war against Russia in order to save Donetsk and Luhansk, neither of which are worth the bones of a single Pennsylvanian grenadier.

This view is not, however, incompatible with an appreciation that Moscow seeks the political, economic, and social domination of its neighbors, and that given a free hand it will exercise this domination through a variety of violent, anti-democratic means.  “Recognizing Russian security interests” means not recognizing the right Russia’s neighbors to chart their own path.  At certain times, it may be possible to “peel off” certain of Russia’s neighbors and grant them (through NATO) what amounts to immunity from Russian interference.  Another way of phrasing is that Russia’s security interest are real, and should have an impact on the practical application of foreign policy, but they’re also morally and ethically abhorrent, and the United States has no particular responsibility to respect them beyond what the practical demands.

Russia’s Eastern Flank

[ 5 ] August 16, 2014 |

Some thoughts at the Diplomat on Russia’s future approach to the Asia-Pacific:

The post-Cold War relationship between the United States and Russia may now be permanently broken. Although Russia has acquired Crimea, it appears to have lost the rest of Ukraine, perhaps permanently, as well as any sense that the United States will exercise forbearance in the former Soviet space. Moscow wants, more than anything else, the freedom to exercise power in its near abroad, and repeated incidents over the past 20 years have indicated that Washington will not, and perhaps cannot, grant this.

It has been quite some time since Russia would go out of its way to hurt the interests of the United States, but following frustration in Ukraine, Moscow may indeed move towards a policy of open hostility towards the U.S. leadership.

Even with all of the frustrations (on both sides) of U.S.-Russian relations since 1990, most of the players have appreciated the potential of transactional, arms length interactions. The United States and Russia have collaborated effectively on non-proliferation, the containment of Iran and North Korea, counter-terrorism, and the stabilization of Central Asia. But if the deterioration of relations leads to a zero-sum interpretation of Moscow-Washington affairs, all of these transactional interactions could be endangered.

The Ladder of Escalation

[ 97 ] August 15, 2014 |

Well, here we go:

The Ukrainian government says its troops have destroyed military vehicles that crossed the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine.

The office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced the news Friday on the presidential website. It said Ukraine destroyed a “significant” portion of the military column.

British media had reported early Friday that a large column of Russian armored personnel carriers and other vehicles crossed the border into Ukraine. At a subsequent news conference, NATO leader Anders Fogh Rasmussen confirmed the sighting of “a Russian incursion.”

The curse of living in interesting times, and what not.

IP and Cyberespionage

[ 2 ] August 12, 2014 |

My latest at War is Boring investigates the connections between cyber-espionage and intellectual property law.  This is part of the Patents for Power book project, so I’m particularly interested in feedback.

Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system may not work, but China would like to know for itself.

Recent reports indicate that Chinese hackers have attempted to steal data on the Iron Dome from Israeli contractor Rafael. Iron Dome is depicted above in the photo by the AP’s Tsafrir Abayov.

This instance of cyber-espionage is only the latest in a series of attacks targeting different defense firms around the world.

Beyond the obvious fact of the development of the Internet, trends in intellectual property law are transforming the nature of military industrial espionage.


China’s New Nuclear Look

[ 9 ] August 10, 2014 |

My latest at the National Interest takes a look at some of China’s new nuclear delivery systems:

The presumably accidental revelation of the PLA’s DF-41 road-mobile ICBM is only the latest indication that China is modernizing and reorganizing its nuclear arsenal.  Over the past decade, China has worked to modernize its nuclear delivery systems, both on land and at sea.  This work has helped narrow the gap between China and the US-Russia superpower tandem, although Chinese capabilities remain far behind.

This article tracks the most important recent developments in China’s nuclear posture, then discusses some of the political implications of these developments for Asia, the United States, and the rest of the world.

Foreign Entanglements: Next Steps in Gaza

[ 0 ] August 8, 2014 |

On this week’s episode of Foreign Entanglements, Matt speaks with Amir Tibon about Gaza:

Airpower Over Iraq? We’ll Never Be Over Iraq

[ 14 ] August 8, 2014 |

Yesterday, the Air Force dropped 8000 MREs and 5300 gallons of water to Yazidi refugees on Mt. Sinjar.  That’s enough water for roughly 8000 refugees for one day; the MREs can be stretched farther.  USN F/A-18s escorted the mission.  If the US is serious about maintaining the Yazidi, it will need to either scale up the airlift by a factor of five, or use airstrikes to open a corridor for supply from Kurdish held territory.

On that point, F/A-18s struck ISIL artillery near Erbil this morning.  No indication yet of how widely the administration intends to bomb, or of the operational purposes it hopes to achieve.

The Yazidi

[ 112 ] August 7, 2014 |

I have a short piece up at the Washington Post discussing the difficulties of a relief operation for the Yazidi:

The plight of Yazidi refugees in the Sinjar mountains, hemmed in by Islamic State forces and relying on dwindling supplies of food and water, has brought renewed international attention to the war in Iraq. Some have suggested that the United States or United Nations facilitate airdrops to the starving, dehydrated refugees.

But this is more complicated than it seems.

In related news:

President Obama is considering airstrikes or airdrops of food and medicine to address a humanitarian crisis among as many as 40,000 religious minorities in Iraq who have been dying of heat and thirst on a mountaintop after death threats from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, administration officials said on Thursday.

The president, in meetings with his national security team at the White House on Thursday morning, has been weighing a series of options ranging from dropping humanitarian supplies on Mount Sinjar to military strikes on the fighters from ISIS now at the base of the mountain, a senior administration official said.

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