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Tag: "russia"

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.

Able Archer

[ 4 ] May 22, 2013 |

My latest at the Diplomat talks a bit more about Nate Jones’ work at National Security Archive:

Like in the United States, the political and military elite of the Soviet Union disagreed on the likelihood of war, and on the predisposition of the new administration in Washington. Soviet hawks took the exercises as evidence of American aggression,focusing on the parallels between the German attack in 1941 and NATO preparations in 1983.  It didn’t help that US-Soviet relations were already at a low in the wake of the September 1983 shoot down of KAL 007.

According to Nate Jones, the editor of the series, the documents indicate that Able Archer included several non-routine elements that could have alarmed the Soviets (or at least given ammunition to the most hawkish elements in the Kremlin). These included a massive, silent air-lift of U.S. soldiers to Europe, the shuffling of headquarters command assignments, the practice of “new nuclear weapons release procedures,” and various references to B-52 sorties as nuclear “strikes.” It wasn’t entirely clear to the U.S. policymakers how the Soviets were interpreting the exercises; Robert Gates, among others, argued that the Russians were taking them very seriously indeed, while Reagan wondered whether ” Soviet leaders really fear us, or is all the huffing and puffing just part of their propaganda?”



Sunday Book Review: Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov

[ 60 ] April 28, 2013 |

Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov- RIA Novosti, Commons: RIA Novosti, P. Bernstein

Stalin’s General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov is a new biography of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov from Geoffrey Roberts. The book is interesting, but ultimately disappointing to most audiences with a taste for Zhukov. Nevertheless, it’s good to see the re-emergence of a popular(ish) taste for Soviet military history in the West.

Product of a not-too-prosperous-but-not-altogether-impoverished peasant family from Strelkovka, Georgy Zhukov joined the Tsarist army in 1915 (age of 19), seeing his first action in the form of a German air attack on Russian rear positions. Zhukov did well for himself as a non-commissioned officer, displaying a flair for combat leadership.  He became a committed Bolshevik shortly after the Revolution, fighting on several fronts during the Russian Civil War. Because of other commitments (as well as bout of typhus), Zhukov missed the Russo-Polish War.

In Roberts’ account, Zhukov does not play much of a role in the intellectual life of the Red Army, especially during the particularly fertile inter-war period.  Zhukov never posted to the armor school at Kazan, or had much of an input into the development of Deep Battle.  On the one hand this isn’t terribly surprising; the intellectual core of the Red Army was decapitated in the great purge of 1937.  On the other hand, the experience of cavalry warfare in the Russo-Polish War and and the Civil War helped informed Deep Battle; it’s interesting that Zhukov managed, as a significant cavalry officer, not to have any impact on the constitution of Soviet military doctrine.

Roberts’ account of the purge isn’t terribly satisfying.  We learn that Zhukov escaped the Great Purge (just by the nape, by his own account), but we get little sense of how this affected the general.  He lost friends, teachers, students, colleagues, and subordinates; there’s very little to indicate how Zhukov felt about any of this. It doesn’t appear that Zhukov ever harbored any serious doubts about the legitimacy of the Communist Party, the Soviet Union, or Josef Stalin; his willingness to overtly display this loyalty may explain his ability to survive three purges.

Zhukov’s first great success (beyond avoiding the purge) was the victory over the Japanese at Khalkin-Gol.  With the advantage of numbers and technology, Zhukov methodically destroyed the Japanese incursion, remaining on site for several months in order to oversee truce negotiations.  Fortunately, this allowed Zhukov to miss the Soviet-Finnish War, which set back the careers of several senior Red Army commanders.  The availability of Zhukov for Finland presents an interesting counter-factual; had he become associated with the failure, he might not have been in line for command in early 1941. Conversely, the Soviet High Command did enough wrong in Finland, from poorly understanding its own capabilities to gravely misjudging the Finns, that you don’t have to imagine any genius stroke to see how Zhukov might have helped. Rather, you can imagine offensives more competently planned and executed, with a leadership more firmly in grip of the situation, leading to victory in shorter order and with far fewer casualties.  Of course, it’s possible that both of these would have been the case; Zhukov could have led the Red Army to a victory over the Finns that was simultaneously quicker than the historical victory, but that still left the USSR humiliated and Stalin deeply unhappy with his senior commanders.

Another way of putting it is to suggest that Zhukov is the sort of commander you would want to fight a war that you should win. Conversely, Zhukov as commander would have been out of place in the Russo-Polish War, where the pursuit of victory demanded the kind of innovative, high risk performance that was more characteristic of Tukhachevsky.  Roberts paints a portrait of Zhukov that makes him very much  Grant, and not a Lee.

It’s hard to pin down the role he played in the major Soviet operations of WWII. Zhukov had formal responsibility for most of the important Soviet victories on the Eastern Front, including the relief of Leningrad, the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, Kursk, Operation Bagration, and the Battle of Berlin. He also experienced some notable failures, including Operation Mars (the northern counterpart to Stalingrad), and some defeats in the early months of 1941. The Red Army was such an immense creature, with such a large staff system and bureaucracy, that it’s not possible to assess Zhukov’s input into particular decisions in the same way that we accord responsibility to Hannibal, Napoleon, Lee, or even Patton. Complicating matters further is the collective nature of Soviet strategic decision-making; Stalin consulted closely with Zhukov and his other senior commanders in development of war strategy. When we think of Zhukov’s contribution, it is perhaps most appropriate to say that he was the “lead architect” of Stalingrad, Bagration, and the Battle of Berlin, with all that does and does not entail. The Zhukov that we’re offered here lacks the dash of Patton, or the intellectual flair of Tukhachevsky or Guderian.He won because he took calculated, high-reward risks, and he felt secure in taking those risks because he did not fear Stalin. Indeed, part of the underlying story of Zhukov is the willingness of Stalin to allow him to fail.  The relationship between the two reminded me (again) a bit of that between Lincoln and Grant in the last two years of the American Civil War.

This should not take away from the following fact: Georgy Zhukov was the greatest general in the largest army in the biggest conflict the world has ever seen, and likely will ever see. On such a scale, “lead architect” of such a succession of victories is, indeed, a magnificent achievement.

Zhukov’s post-war career was, given the arc of Soviet politics, predictable.  He returned to Moscow the conquering hero, but soon came under fire from other senior commanders of the Red Army, almost certainly with Stalin’s assent.  He found himself exiled to several trivial positions, before returning to the capitol shortly before Stalin’s death.  In the disordered period before the rise of Khruschev, Zhukov became Minister of Defense, only to fall to another purge in 1957.  This final purge effectively pushed him out of Soviet public life, leaving his remaining years for writing and compiling his memoirs.

Zhukov was, by Roberts’ account, never anything but loyal to the Soviet state, and the communist ideal.  He harbored no ambitions beyond the position that he had reached, and was always willing to bend the knee to constituted Soviet authority. It is surely worth lingering over this point; Zhukov lived through (and participated in) the worst crimes of the Soviet regime. When we evaluate German generals such as Rommel, Beck, and Guderian, we invariably ask about their relationship to Hitler and the Nazi Party; Zhukov’s complicity most certainly bears mention.

Roberts includes a few personal details, including those of Zhukov’s relationships with his wives, daughters, and mistresses. And of course, Zhukov is the sort of person that his opinion of Bridge on the River Kwai is automatically interesting: “too pacifist for me.  I prefer something with shooting like the Guns of Naverone.” Roberts’ account of Zhukov’s last purge is simultaneously fascinating and frustrating.

I was determined not to be a victim, not to break down, not to fall apart, not to lose my will to live… Returning home, I took a sleeping pill.  I slept for several hours. I got up. I ate.  I took a sleeping pill. Against I fell asleep. I got up again, took a sleeping pill, and fell asleep.  This went on for 15 days… In my dreams I relived everything that had been tormenting me… I disputed. I proved my point. I grieved- all in my sleep.  Then, after 15 days, I went fishing.

This is great, both as a anecdote and coping strategy, but Roberts doesn’t leave us with much to evaluate whether it’s true or not. It’s certainly possible that a 60 year old Russian General took sleeping pills for fifteen days in order to deal with his purge, but I’d say it’s also possible that he drank himself into oblivion for a good two weeks. Having read a book about the man, I’d like to think that I’d have some sense of whether he’s telling the truth about this incident, but the picture Roberts paints is so shallow that I really don’t.

This is a good discussion of Roberts’ lack of detail, although I’d suggest that Roberts commits errors both in overestimating and underestimating his audience; appreciation of Zhukov’s achievements requires more knowledge of the Red Army and of the campaigns that Roberts is willing to grant. Then again,  the history of the Red Army as an institution may have seemed difficult to place, because oddly enough, Zhukov doesn’t appear to have played much of a role in the development of its doctrine or culture.  Frunze, Tukhachevsky, and Voroshilov are much more important figures in this regard. Williams wisely refrains from giving deeply detailed account of Stalingrad, Moscow, Bagration, et al, in part I suspect because it’s hard to nail down precisely what contribution Zhukov made; excellent management is excellent, in some ways, because it’s boring.

But this is part of a problem; I came away from this book somewhat more familiar with Zhukov’s career path, but without any very good sense of what the man would be like in a conversation.  We’re told that he was an authoritarian and a womanizer, which distinguishes him from senior military officers through history in no particular way. It may seem trite, but reading a biography I like to have some theory of who might portray the subject on film.  In this case, I’m left with a blank. This is a great book for people who are kind of interested in the career of Georgy Zhukov, but who don’t really have that much of an interest in either the Red Army or World War II.  As such, it’s not likely to satisfy many readers.

Jets! Possibly Also Sharks!

[ 43 ] February 16, 2013 |

FILE: August 7, 2008: A Russian officer takes a picture of a Tu-95 bomber at a military airbase in Engels, roughly 559 miles south of Moscow. (REUTERS) Via Fox News.

Gonna give everyone the opportunity to contrast this picture with this headline “Air Force confirms Russian jets circled US territory of Guam.”

You Say Proliferation, I Say Diffusion

[ 18 ] January 16, 2013 |

I have some thoughts on the diffusion of anti-access military technology over at The Diplomat

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a strong political incentive to maximize diffusion of its military capabilities.  Proxies with Soviet technology could fight the United States and its proxies on their own. Consequently, states from North Korea to Vietnam to Cuba to Syria, Iraq, and Egypt gained access to the many of the most advanced Soviet fighter, submarine, and missile systems. Often, these systems overwhelmed the capacity of recipients, with buyers lacking the ability to put pilots in planes, sailors in subs, and mechanics in either. Nevertheless, these systems still forced the United States to act cautiously; the combination of a couple Nanuchka class missile boats, some Foxtrot subs, a few MiG-23s and a reasonably sophisticated air defense system could give the US Navy or Air Force a bad day.

Russia doesn’t see much of an upside in this kind of diffusion today.  States get the equipment they can pay for, without political subsidy . China has displayed little interest in developing proxy relationships of the type seen in the Cold War. Moreover, few states have an interest in devoting resources and attention to making life difficult for a superpower.  Still, given the rapidly advancing capabilities of China’s anti-access forces, questions of diffusion and proliferation bear consideration.


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