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Category: Robert Farley


[ 48 ] August 27, 2014 |

So this is happening:

The mayor of the town on the Sea of Azov confirmed rebels had entered, as jubilant rebel supporters shared photos of advancing tanks on social media.

Ukrainian forces said they were still in “total control” of the town.

The rebels have been trying for weeks to break out of a near-encirclement further north in Donetsk.

Russia denies it is covertly supporting them on the ground.

Here’s Dmitri Gorenburg:

I should be clear that I don’t think Russia is currently planning a full takeover of any part of eastern Ukraine. The goal remains what it has been for months now: to ensure that Ukraine remains unstable and weak. For now, in order to accomplish this goal, Russia needs to make sure the separatists are not defeated and remain a viable force. Both the escalation in assistance and the opening of the new front are a response to the losses that the separatists had suffered in recent weeks.

In the long run, the only acceptable end to the conflict for Russia is one that would either freeze the current situation in place with separatists in control of significant territory in eastern Ukraine (the Transnistria variant) or the removal of the pro-Western Ukrainian government and its replacement by a pro-Russian one. Participants in peace talks have to understand that this is essentially a red line for Moscow. Putin will not allow the restoration of control over eastern Ukraine by the current Ukrainian government by peaceful means and is clearly willing to directly involve Russian forces in military action to ensure that it doesn’t happen through a Ukrainian military victory.

As I argued some time ago, it was extremely unlikely that this conflict could end with a string of Ukrainian military victories. The pressure on Moscow to escalate, along with its likely dominance at higher levels of escalation, meant that Ukrainian gains were almost certainly going to spur a Russian reaction. At the same time, it was tough for the Kiev government to restrain itself, given its weak domestic position. Relenting while the Ukrainian military apparently held the upper hand would have opened a wide flank to the government’s nationalist critics.

At this point, however, Russia appears to be dealing the Ukrainian military a serious blow. Although this hurts, it also gives Kiev a way out; the Ukrainians cannot beat Russia, and no one thinks NATO intervention is plausible. The issue for Kiev now becomes to achieve a cease-fire before the Russians get to far. The question now is how strongly Russia and it proxies will play their hands. My bet is relative restraint (no march on Kiev), ensuring that the disputed provinces remain in Moscow’s orbit.

See also this excellent piece on Germany’s view of the crisis.

And We’ll See How it Feels, Goin’ Mobile…

[ 16 ] August 26, 2014 |


Our mobile site should be active once again, and should also represent a significant improvement on the previous site. Let me know in comments if there are any problems.




[ 13 ] August 26, 2014 |

Because everyone needs some hot Fulcrum on Typhoon action on their Tuesday morning:

Via Foxtrot Alpha.

ESPN Blows It

[ 10 ] August 25, 2014 |

Screenshot 2014-08-25 13.47.51If Marcus Mariota makes a dime off this, then my enjoyment of college football will be ended forever.

Oregon is selling 25 different jerseys, counting colors and sizes, of No. 8, quarterback Marcus Mariota…

The NCAA and its schools have long contended that numbers don’t necessarily correspond to current players, but common sense, as proven by all the cases above, suggests otherwise.

I think it’s grossly irresponsible for ESPN to imply that the popularity of the number “8″ with fans of Oregon football has anything whatsoever to do with Marcus Mariota. In fact, had Darren Rovell managed even the faintest degree of due diligence on this matter, he would have come to understand the deep connection that many in Eugene have to “The Sideways Infinite.” It’s not my job to explain things to ESPN, but let’s just say that a lot of drugs are involved.


[ 87 ] August 24, 2014 |

It’s the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington! Tea Party types must feel very conflicted…

…And shit like this is why the British Empire fell.

You do not EVER apologize for burning down somebody’s capitol. Ever.

“You Wanna Be A Grifter?”

[ 6 ] August 23, 2014 |

Here’s a helpful list of common grifts, provided by the Inspector General of the Department of Defense. For example:

Fictitious Vendor: In a weakly controlled environment, an employee with procurement responsibilities, or in accounts payable, or an outsider, can submit bills from a non-existent vendor. Normally fictitious vendors claim to provide services or consumables, rather than goods or works that can be verified. Dishonest bidders also can submit “bids” from fictitious bidders as part of bid rigging schemes.

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.

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