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Tag: "russia"

Trump: As Sweet as a Delicious Putin Lackey

[ 38 ] January 4, 2017 |

I guess it’s not surprising that the Russians would see Trump as one of their own, an appealing figure to sell whatever.


The Warhead Gap!

[ 53 ] December 24, 2016 |

1024px-us_navy_101029-n-1325n-005_the_ohio-class_ballistic_submarine_uss_alabama_ssbn_731_returns_to_naval_base_kitsap_from_a_deterrent_patrolTrump’s call for more nuclear weapons, reported NBC News, “boggle[d] nuclear experts“:

While President Barack Obama has proposed a multibillion-dollar plan to modernize the aging U.S. nuclear triad, no mainstream voices are arguing to increase the numbers of nuclear weapons beyond the 4,500 active warheads the U.S. currently possesses, several experts told NBC News.

Indeed, over at the New York Times, Max Fisher attempted to interpret the Tweet. Was Trump referring to modernization—a policy supported, at least to some degree, by most but opposed by some on the left—or an expanded nuclear arsenal? In a subsequent piece, Fisher laid out the consensus case against the latter:

Mr. Reagan principally turned against the arms race because of its dangers, but others came to oppose it for the simple reason that, after decades and billions or perhaps trillions of dollars, it had failed to accomplish victory.

“Building nukes to get others to stop historically has had the same effect as telling everyone in an email storm to cease using ‘Reply All,’ ” Joshua H. Pollack, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, joked on Twitter.

Mr. Pollack added, “There is no last, winning move when it comes to arms racing.”

The first response came from Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Research Laboratory: “But there is a last move.”

But, in fact, there is a small minority of scholars and analysts who do support building more nuclear weapons. One is my friend and colleague, Matt Kroenig. Here, he debates with Joe Cirincione on PBS Newshour. And here is his recent piece in Politico. What Matt thinks matters, both because he’s one of the strongest voices advocating for more nukes, and because, despite being vocally #NeverTrump, there’s a nonzero chance he’ll land in a policy position in the administration.

It should come as little surprise that I think he’s wrong.

First, as Joe points out, when Matt argues for the existance of a “gap” in US and Russian capability, he’s pointing to nuclear warheads rather than delivery capability—that is, the ability to strike your opponent with nuclear weapons. The gap is likely smaller when you include non-deployed nuclear weapons. None of this includes UK or French nuclear capabilities.

The differences at stake here simply aren’t, in my view, enough to worry about. But, more important, we still lack the kind of compelling evidence necessary to guide policy. Matt does have a few academic articles showing that relative number of nuclear weapons can affect crisis outcomes, but the handful of recent studies on how nuclear advantage shapes state interactions points in different directions. You can read a debate on this subject that we hosted at the Duck of Minerva, as well as Erik Voeten’s thoughts on the findings.

Second, as you’ve already guessed, the main argument for increasing the number of nuclear weapons involves Russia. This is, to say the least, a bit odd in the context of an administration that has promised to strike alliances with Moscow. But it also works through a conflation concerning Russian nuclear doctrine. Proponents consistently claim that Russia has adopted a ‘more aggressive’ posture when it comes to using nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. Matt writes about Moscow’s ‘assertive’ nuclear strategy. What they’re talking about is Russia’s nuclear “de-escalation” doctrine:

De-escalation rests on a revised notion of the scale of nuclear use. During the Cold War, deterrence involved the threat of inflicting unacceptable damage on an enemy. Russia’s de-escalation strategy provides instead for infliction of “tailored damage,” defined as “damage [that is] subjectively unacceptable to the opponent [and] exceeds the benefits the aggressor expects to gain as a result of the use of military force.” The efficacy of threatening tailored damage assumes an asymmetry in a conflict’s stakes. Moscow reasoned when it adopted the policy that, for the United States, intervening on behalf of Chechen rebels (for example) might seem a desirable course of action for a variety of reasons. But it would not be worth the risk of a nuclear exchange. Russia, however, would perceive the stakes as much higher and would find the risk of a nuclear exchange more acceptable. Indeed, in the early 2000s, Russian military experts wrote that US interference in the war in Chechnya could have resulted in a threat to use nuclear weapons.

Matt describes the doctrine quite well in his policy paper:

In an effort to counter NATO’s aggregate conventional military superiority, Russia has placed an increased emphasis on nuclear weapons in its military strategy and doctrine over the past decade and a half. Russian strategy calls for limited nuclear “de-escalation” strikes on NATO targets in the event that it is on the losing end of a conventional war with NATO. The strikes would not primarily aim to destroy NATO military or civilian targets, but to signal Russian resolve and thereby shock NATO into suing for peace on terms favorable to Moscow.

Note what this is not. It is not a nuclear warfighting doctrine. Moscow is not signaling that it will, say, compensate for conventional weakness by targeting US conventional forces with tactical nuclear weapons. The idea here is not to be able to wage (and win) a limited nuclear war at lower rungs of the “ladder of escalation.” In warfighting doctrine, you care about having “escalation dominance”: the ability to ‘outgun’ your opponent at each level of nuclear escalation and therefore deter—or at least control—escalation.

Rather, Russian de-escalation doctrine is more like a nuclear tripwire. It signals that Moscow will:

  • Use nuclear weapons first;
  • Do so in the event of a threat to the existence of the Russian state—understood, in practice, as a regional conflict on Russia’s border that draws in the United States and in which Russia faces defeat; and
  • Engage in a limited number of nuclear strikes as a very dramatic way of showing that if the US pushes Russia any further then the result will be mutually assured destruction.

Why would more nuclear weapons, and more flexible nuclear options, be a useful response to nuclear de-escalation? Beats me. Matt’s own explanation only really makes sense if we’re talking about nuclear warfighting:

Deterrence, however, is in the eye of the beholder, and President Putin may not be deterred by the prospect of a conventional-only response, especially one that might take weeks or months to assemble and employ. Moreover, NATO could be quickly outgunned in such an approach if Russia continued to use nuclear weapons in repeated strikes. Furthermore, in the wake of a nuclear attack, the leaders of NATO countries, including the United States, would need to consider the precedent being set and broader Alliance commitments.

The whole point of nuclear de-escalation is that if the US continues to push Russia at all—whether conventionally or with nuclear attacks—Moscow will respond with a massive nuclear attack. In this context, responding by enhancing US nuclear warfighting capabilities isn’t simply  a category mistake—it’s actively dangerous if it encourages Washington to press on after Moscow launches its demonstration strikes.

Third, advocates for increasing the US nuclear arsenal argue that it will deter countries like China and North Korea. It will show them that building more nuclear weapons is fruitless. The answer to this is rather simple. China currently has about 260 warheads. North Korea possesses between six and eight. Neither country threatens to close the gap anytime soon. China remains uninterested in doing so, which means that the biggest risk comes from a shift to a more aggressive American policy.  Indeed, North Korea can never close the gap in any meaningful way, which suggests Pyongyang is not terribly sensitive to the relative nuclear balance with the United States.

Note that the country engaging in the most aggressive increase in its nuclear arsenal isn’t North Korea, China, Russia, or any of the other countries usually discussed in this context. It’s Pakistan.

In sum, there are good reasons to support some degree of US nuclear modernization. At the very least, we need to ensure that America retains the human capital and other infrastructure necessary to adapt to future changes in the nuclear-weapons environment. But there remains no good case for increasing the size of our nuclear arsenal.

The Russian Hacking News: It’s Worse than Scott Thinks

[ 141 ] December 10, 2016 |

Shakezula posted on the Washington Post story last night, and Scott beat me to it today. There’s nothing surprising in the general contours of the emerging reports:

  • Russian agents and organs tried to influence the election.
  • The goal wasn’t simply to undermine faith in American institutions but also to help Trump.
  • We know that because, among other things, Russian agents hacked GOP emails as well but didn’t make use of what they acquired.
  • The intelligence community cannot directly tie the activity to decision makers in the Kremlin.

A lot of this is, if true, confirmation of what experts have long believed about Russian interference in the 2016 election. We should also not react with high moral indignation toward Russia. Moscow is just using the instruments at its disposable to enhance its influence and security. That’s what great powers do. Both Moscow and Washington have long histories of intervening in the affairs of other states—including engaging in regime change. Moscow is particularly reliant on information warfare against western democracies because of its relative geopolitical weakness. Unfortunately, the strategy is working pretty well, and Germany’s next on the list.

But we don’t need to act like hypocrites to recognize the general terribleness of last twenty-four hours of news. We already knew that Mitch McConnell was willing to break the system for partisan ends, but even I never through that he would actually run interference for a foreign power simply to achieve political power.

I’ll go further than Scott: McConnell cannot retain his status as Majority Leader. He has disqualified himself.

But he will retain his status.

Given that Paul Ryan cares more about privatizing Medicare than even worrying about Trump’s massive conflicts of interest, Democrats will have to align with the few Republicans who actually value democratic institutions if we want to avert possible disaster.

And Americans do need to worry. The Trump campaign had a straightforward and appropriate response on Russian hacking and efforts to influence the US election. It could have said: “we condemn foreign interference in American elections. We will do everything that we can to get to the bottom of this, and take appropriate action.” But, instead, their press release simply attacks the Central Intelligence Agency.

Now, you might argue that the Trump campaign is boxed in. Recall that Trump once invited Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. But Trump insisted that he was joking. So that option remains open. But Trump has (so far) refused to take it. Instead he has repeatedly denied Russian involvement. This leaves roughly three possibilities.

First, there’s truth to the apparently “ungrounded” accusations that people in the Trump campaign were colluding with Russian hackers—or, at least, their intermediaries at Wikileaks.

Second, Trump—perhaps influenced by prolonged exposure to Michael Flynn—is simply delusional on this point. That is, he has significant problems dealing with evidence that cuts against his preferences. He doesn’t want to believe the intelligence community. So he simply attacks it. In this case, perhaps it threatens his ego by detracting from his electoral victory.

Third, the Trump campaign wasn’t colluding with Moscow, but it’s still somehow compromised. In its most benign form, Trump just really wants closer cooperation with Russia. In its scarier forms, we start getting into fears about Trump’s business ties to Moscow, or even the idea that Russia has kompromat or some other leverage over Trump, his inner circle, the GOP, or all three. Because Trump never disclosed his taxes, we know little about his business connections with Russia. But we have reason to believe that these—and those of his inner circle— are not trivial. Moreover, the Post story supports the fear that the hackers are holding RNC—and perhaps other campaign-related—emails of the kind used effectively against Clinton and the DNC.

These possibilities are all awful.

What’s even worse? The baseline GOP response is that this story is all about Democrats being “sore losers.” These are people who—and I know that I’m a broken record on this—six months ago were telling us that Obama’s too weak on Putin, repeatedly argue that the United States needs to do a better job of standing up for its allies, and who claim that the they are patriots who put country first.

This is the wages of weaponized partisanship. Party before country.

Well, not everyone.

Strange days, here we come.


Information Warfare and the Progressive’s Dilemma

[ 89 ] November 30, 2016 |

I assume that I don’t need to spend a lot of time reminding readers of the following:

  1. The 2016 election was a breakout year for fake news, and much of that news aimed to delegitimize and demonize Hilary Clinton.
  2. Wikileaks not only supplied significant raw material for these efforts, but was also a vector of packaged disinformation on Twitter.
  3. Russian information-warfare operations played some role in all this—via hacking and Wikileaks, Russia Today and Sputnik, and paid social-media trolls.
  4. Various corners of the online left operated as a vector for anti-Clinton disinformation campaigns. Some of this was related to Russian information warfare. Some of it was not.
  5. Some of those on the left who acted as vectors believed they were spreading truth. Some didn’t care. Some probably knew that they were sharing dubious information, but thought that the end justified the means.
  6. Many of those corners of the left became part of this process during the primary; the increasingly heated contest between Sanders and Clinton probably made them more vulnerable to disinformation through the duration of the election.
  7. We will probably never have a complete understanding of where this disinformation came from, nor the breakdown of the ‘types’ involved.

On top of this, we may be seeing similar patterns elsewhere in the western democracies.

Amid growing concern across Europe over the impact on democratic processes of fake news and Russian interference, Italy is shaping up to be the continent’s next major battleground thanks to the sophistication and wide reach of the Five Star Movement (M5S) propaganda machine.

This machine includes not just the party’s own blogs and social accounts, which have millions of followers, but also a collection of profitable sites that describe themselves as “independent news” outlets but are actually controlled by the party leadership. These sites relentlessly regurgitate M5S campaign lines, misinformation, and attacks on political rivals – in particular, centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi. One of them, TzeTze, has 1.2 million followers on Facebook.

Under lurid, all-capped headline phrases such as “THE TRUTH THEY ARE TRYING TO HIDE FROM US”, the party’s blogs, TzeTze, and other sites in the network have crossposted scores of fake stories. These include claims that the US is secretly funding traffickers bringing migrants from North Africa to Italy, and that Barack Obama wants to topple the Syrian regime to create instability across the region so China cannot get access to its oil.

Stories are often sourced to Kremlin-owned sites such as Sputnik, and the M5S editorial line is sympathetic to Putin and highly critical of the US and mainstream EU leaders.

“The drumbeat is incessant. Every day, all day,” one Italian journalist told BuzzFeed News.

All of this generates something of a dilemma for progressives.

On the one hand, we’re committed to free speech. We know full well the dangers that can come from tarring dissidents as foreign agents and ‘useful idiots.’ When Fox and other conservative outlets claim that George Soros is orchestrating anti-Trump protests, we understand what’s going on—and why it should make us very nervous.

On the other hand, we also should recognize that every item on my list is true. We should be deeply alarmed at the implications for deliberative democracy in the United States (and elsewhere). In this respect, there’s an analogy with Clinton’s expanding lead in the popular vote. Neither that, nor the disinformation campaign involving a foreign power, make the election illegitimate. But they both suggest something is broken, and that we need to take steps to fix it.

The tensions here are all around us, and they’re not going away. Read more…

Trumpology meets Kremlinology

[ 19 ] November 28, 2016 |

Despite showing some questionable judgment about whom to cite, Paul Musgrave has a nice piece in the Washington Post on Russian propaganda and the US election. The whole thing does a good job of synthesizing the current state of play. But it’s real ‘added value’ lies in providing some context for the success of such endeavors.

The big question is what effects such meddling could have. There are two reasons to think that Putin’s gambit might backfire.

First, as political scientists Alexander Downes and Lindsey O’Rourke argue in a new study, installing friendly regimes in other countries often backfires. They write that “once in power, the new leader is focused on ensuring his or her own political survival, a task that is often undermined by implementing the intervener’s agenda.” Given the difficulties U.S. officials faced in exerting leverage over Afghan and Iraqi leaders after establishing those governments, this should not be surprising to Americans.

Russian interference in the U.S. campaign is hardly tantamount to “foreign-imposed regime change,” but a similar logic still applies. As president, Trump’s reputation will depend on promoting U.S. interests, which will remain opposed to Russia’s in many areas. Furthermore, Trump will have many reasons to demonstrate that he can stand up to someone he has described as a tough leader. And nothing in Trump’s past suggests that loyalty or gratitude will temper his pursuit of his private interest.

Indeed, much also depends on whether the balance of power among factions. In Michael Flynn’s world, the west is locked in a generational struggle with radical Islam; the Russians—who, I imagine, show an ‘appropriate’ lack of restraint in fighting the long war—are key allies in this grand conflict. On the other hand, Mike Pence’s rhetoric on Russia matches the more traditional GOP template: the Obama Administration wasn’t hardline enough. That is, if the GOP foreign-policy establishment wins out, Moscow will wind up facing a more, not less, hostile United States.

The second risk of blowback comes from the long-term risks of eroding Americans’ and foreigners’ trust in U.S. institutions. As Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov writes, Trump himself represents a wild card. Other countries will find it hard to predict Trump’s actions or to distinguish between genuine policy statements and off-the-cuff exaggerations. That’s bad enough: As political scientist Phil Arena explains, uncertainty can itself be a cause of war.

More profoundly, as international relations scholar Daniel Nexon [see the lack of judgment that I noted above?] writes, the global political order requires a U.S. government accepted as legitimate at home and abroad to maintain peace and prosperity. If Washington lacks the legitimacy to act, the entire international order may be undermined.

That might work to Moscow’s advantage in the very short term in such areas as Syria or Crimea. But if ending U.S. hegemony results in a prolonged period of global disorder, Russia too would soon find itself impoverished and endangered.

At least one commentator asked me if I still believe that Russia is in a weak position. The answer is “yes,” Despite some signs of economic life, Russia still significantly lags across almost every indicator of power—except nuclear weapons. It’s current asymmetric ability to exploit political cleavages within and among democratic states doesn’t really change such fundamentals.

And the problem, as Paul notes, is that while Trump’s victory presents great opportunities for Moscow—both in terms of the bilateral relationship and increasing the likelihood of Washington committing multiple unforced errors —the downside risks are also potentially quite high.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Each clickthrough takes us one more step toward reconstituting the ‘good’ online public sphere.

Russia and Texas

[ 112 ] June 23, 2015 |


I love the idea of the Russians going full Zimmerman Telegram and actively supporting Texas secessionists. I’m not even sure that stopping this is a bad thing for the rest of the nation.


[ 160 ] December 18, 2014 |

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Although I am always skeptical of moment of journalists using moments of crisis to write of leaders, domestic or international. After all, oil is not going to stay down forever. Still, be real sad to see Putin suffer.

Co-Opting Soviet Monuments

[ 89 ] August 24, 2014 |


I love that everyday Bulgarian citizens are painting over remaining Soviet-era monuments to reflect their own feelings at the time and I equally love that the Russians are really getting upset about it.

Lindsey Graham’s Green Lantern Foreign Policy

[ 47 ] July 21, 2014 |

Lindsey Graham is a very serious and intelligent man. After all, he believes this is what John Kerry and Barack Obama should be doing about Russia:

Host David Gregory then asked Graham how the Kerry has failed in addressing the Malaysian plane and evidence that pro-Russia separatists likely shot down the plane with Russian weapons.

“One, he didn’t call Putin the thug that he is. He didn’t call for arming the Ukraine so they can defend themselves against rebel separatists supported by Russia,” Graham responded.

“President Obama is trying to be deliberative. It comes off as indecisive. He’s trying to be thoughtful. It comes off as weakness,” he continued.

Oh yes, I’m sure calling Putin a thug will not only stop the arming of Ukrainian separatists but also give Crimea back to Ukraine. I mean, we all see how Reagan defeated the Soviet Union by calling it “The Evil Empire” instead of negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev over the desire of the conservative foreign policy establishment. And using the term Axis of Evil has absolutely destroyed the governments of Iran and North Korea; the fact that such language helped cause the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses at the cost of 500,000 Iraqi lives and 4000 American lives is a benefit, not a bug. Why doesn’t Obama give a big speech telling Putin off. Now that’s effective American power!

Sochi in History

[ 29 ] February 8, 2014 |

I suppose there aren’t a whole lot of places in Russia where horrible things haven’t happened. But still:

History has largely been kind to Alexander II, the Russian czar who freed the serfs in 1861, just two years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (the two world leaders even corresponded about their plans.)Modern historians refer to him as the “Czar-Liberator” and compare him to Mikhail Gorbachev for his willingness to engage with the West and reform Russia.

But on the occasion of the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in Sochi and the surrounding areas, it’s helpful to look back and remember that 600,000 locals died from starvation, exposure, drowning and massacres in a concerted campaign by the Russian Empire to expel the Circassian people, as they were called, from the region. The Circassians and the other inhabitants of the Caucasus region did not fit into the Czar’s reform program, because he viewed them as an inherent risk to the security of Russia’s southern frontier and the nation is still coming to terms with the consequences of the czar’s expulsion of the Circassian people today.

The czar’s approval of this rapid expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire resulted in an ethnic cleansing through disease and drowning as overcrowded ferries crossed the Black Sea. The Ottomans were unprepared for the influx of refugees, and the absence of adequate shelter caused even more deaths from exposure. Those Circassians who attempted to remain in the Russian Empire and fight for their land were massacred. Sochi’s “Red Hill,” where the skiing and snowboarding events will take place during these Olympic Games, was the site of the Circassian last stand, where the Imperial Russian armies celebrated their “victory” over the local defenders.

Really, this is like holding the Olympics on the site of Wounded Knee.


[ 78 ] August 16, 2013 |

I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of boycotting the Winter Olympics in Russia because of the nation’s anti-gay laws. Mostly, I don’t think it’s fair to athletes to be used as pawns in a political game and I do think that athletes can become Tommie Smith and John Carlos, protesting in very powerful ways. What would be more powerful, a boycott or athletes on the medal stand making clear statements in solidarity with gay Russians? The latter by far.

That said, the idea that U.S. athletes should “comply” with Russia’s anti-gay laws, as suggested by United States Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun, is deeply offensive. His point is that athletes should always comply with the laws of the country where they visit. 99% of the time that is absolutely correct. Complying with laws that violate basic standards of decency and discriminate against people, well that’s a whole other thing.

Getting to the Second Shot

[ 23 ] June 22, 2013 |

Very interesting video demonstrating the maneuver capabilities of the Su-35S.

Bonus footage of Bill Sweetman talking about what that maneuverability means in a tactical context, especially in terms of fighting against stealth aircraft.

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