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Claire has started two excellent discussions here and here about the causes of war. I look forward to reading her argument in subsequent posts. But I also wanted to throw out my anticipatory two cents on the subject without being constrained by commenters’ 250-word limit. In the case of The Big One – China – the causes of war, if there is to be one, will be the same structural ones identified by Thucydides 2,500 years ago. Like Athens and Sparta, this is a paradigmatic case of rising and declining powers clashing. But in the case of lesser conflicts, one can never overestimate the role of ordinary human stupidity and inability to grasp the perfectly predictable consequences of foolish actions.
I confess I have a soft spot for Estonia. I visited for my first and only time when I was six years old. Unlike the other Soviet workers and peasants, who every August flocked en masse to the rocky shores of the Black Sea, my family preferred the wide, uncrowded, sandy beaches, cool northern waters, and fragrant pine forests of the Baltic. The three Baltic capitals – Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius – were ancient Hanseatic merchant towns that, despite 30-some years of Communism, mass-deportations, and Russian colonization, had managed to preserve their distinct Baltic character and culture. To my parents, the whole region – but especially Estonia – looked and felt like Scandinavia or, at least, what they imagined Scandinavia to look and feel like.
Tallinn itself I remember as a medieval jewel straight out of a storybook, with winding cobblestone streets, Gothic windows, and a skyline marked by crow-stepped gables, church spires, fortress towers, and red tile roofs crowned by bronze weathervanes and finials. There were pubs, coffee houses, and jazz clubs. The food tasted different. This place felt … Western. Someone told my mother that, if one stood at the water’s edge on dark nights when atmospheric conditions were just right, one could faintly see the lights of Helsinki across the Gulf of Finland. I clearly remember her standing on the beach at night squinting at the horizon, trying to catch a glimpse of the world beyond the Iron Curtain.
For years afterward, I made childish drawings of Nordic Baroque towers and spires, trying to capture the magic of that place. I often wanted to return, but Tallinn was the one place where my childhood steps remained un-retraced. It was not one of the world’s great capitals, it was off the beaten track and, until the summer after my second year in law school, the right opportunity never seemed to present itself. That summer I tried to visit, but was arrested crossing the Russo-Estonian border, which is kind of a funny story.
Carly Fiorina delivered an epic zinger in last night’s GOP debate on FOX Business Network. It came after Donald Trump boasted that he knew Vladimir Putin. “I got to know him very well because we were both on ’60 Minutes,’ we were stablemates, and we did very well that night,” said the GOP frontrunner. However, Trump was interviewed in New York, Putin in Russia — they never met.
Yesterday, CNN reported that US intelligence believes ISIS brought down Kogalymavia Flight 9268 — the Russian airline out of Egypt — with a bomb. This morning, the WSJ reports that the United Kingdom has come to the same conclusion and has grounded all flights out of Sharm El Sheikh, where the flight originated (there are thousands of Brits there currently on holiday). Several people on Ricochet have previously speculated that the plane was taken out by a bomb near its tail and the Islamic State has already claimed credit for this deed.
My question is this: what does it all mean? Is this the beginning of a broader campaign by ISIS against Russia? Will Chechnya once again explode in violence and terrorism? Will Russia become more involved against battling ISIS, at least to save face?
Conservatives have reason to be optimistic about 2016. The ample supply of viable Republican candidates seems to grow every week, and should they (or at least the more comb-over adorned among them) keep the internecine squabbling short of apoplectic levels, the Republican nominee will enter the general election with the chance to put a fresh face on American leadership.
Opposing them is a Clinton campaign of the mind that generating no news is better than being held to account for anything uttered in the buildup to the primaries. Despite her perfunctory tour of the nation, the USS Hilldog rests in stagnant waters. The most prominent media it can expect for the near future will be the State Department’s monthly email dumps. These should fasten even more barnacles to She-Who-is-Inevitable.
Let us assume that Clinton is in fact just that, at least for the Democratic nomination. She will sell voters the following: inequality rhetoric, a hard-line on immigration, and defense of the Affordable Care Act. In short, she will present herself as their heir to Barack Obama’s coalition, using all the best practices in consultant-based identity politics, and like her predecessor, hers will be a domestic agenda.
In this next installment of our new series of Strategika shows on NATO, I’m talking with Josef Joffe, research fellow at the Hoover Institution and publisher/editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. Our topic: is NATO endangered partially by an erosion of will on behalf of both Europe and the United States? And is European reticence different in kind than the American version or just in degree? You can hear the conversation below or by subscribing to Strategika through iTunes or your favorite podcast player.
In a depressing address to glum members of the Duma last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev enumerated a long list of crises and problems confronting the Russian economy. Medvedev blamed the country’s dire economic conditions on the double whammy of sanctions and falling energy prices, and laid out the anti-crisis measures that his government is taking to prop up banks, municipalities, small and medium-sized business, and the automotive industry, among others.
Two-thirds through his speech, Medvedev turned to two pieces of good news: a record harvest and the successes of the nuclear energy industry, under the umbrella of Rosatom (“Russian atomic energy”), which builds nuclear power plants and weapons. Medvedev proudly characterized Rosatom as “stable” and praised that stability as “of critical importance” to Russia. Per Medvedev, Rosatom’s portfolio of nuclear power plant contracts rose from 12 in the previous year to its current 29. Medvedev praised Rosatom’s technology as cutting edge (contrary to its backward reputation from the Chernobyl era).
Medvedev, of course, did not mention any possible contributions Bill or Hillary Clinton may have made to Rosatom’s success, but the Kremlin propaganda machine claims Hillary Clinton either (A) had nothing to do with Rosatom’s acquisition of uranium reserves in North America or (B) that the transaction was America’s reset gift to Russia to promote warm relations.
Graham Allison, an entirely reputable scholar of International Affairs at Harvard University, and Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, recently published a piece reminding us that Russia is a nuclear power “capable of literally erasing the United States from the map.”
And while most Americans dismiss the possibility of a US-Russian war, they do not:
In the new series of Strategika podcasts from the Hoover Institution, we’re looking at what the revolution in American energy production means for the US’s economic and strategic future. In this first installment, I talk with Williamson Murray, the Ambassador Anthony D. Marshall Chair of Strategic Studies at The Marine Corps University, about what the implications are for our relationships with Russia, Iran, and other countries in the Middle East. Listen in below or subscribe to Strategika through iTunes or your favorite podcast service.
Things always get lively when Angelo Codevilla joins us on the Strategika podcast. In this installment, Angelo looks at the history of American policy towards Russia and Ukraine and argues that we’ve been weakened by a tendency to say one thing and do another. To hear his full diagnosis of the situation, listen in to the podcast embedded below or subscribe to Strategika in iTunes or your favorite podcast player.
At the Hoover Institution, we’ve just released a new set of podcasts from our Strategika series on military history and foreign policy (subscribe to Strategika on iTunes here). We begin this series — which focuses on Russia and Ukraine — with a conversation with the great Victor Davis Hanson, who, amongst his many other accolades, chairs the Military History/Contemporary Conflict Working Group at Hoover that produces Strategika. In this episode, Victor attempts to get inside Vladimir Putin’s mind: analyzing his motivations, his ultimate goals, and the possible means of deterring him.
The official reaction to the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was supposed to play out according to a time-tested formula. The standard script, as perfected after the murders of troublesome journalists (Anna Politkovskaya, Paul Khlebnikov and Mikhail Beketov), calls for the eventual capture, confession, and sentencing of the contract killers, but not the contractors. The killers, of course, would profess to have no idea who their contractor was. They would then disappear into the Russian prison system, knowing their families would be taken care of as long as they maintained their silence.
The news out of Russia, however, suggests that the formula is breaking down this time around:
TASS, the official Russian news service, leading newspapers, and press services reported the sensational news that surveillance cameras around the Kremlin had identified two of the killers (first reports claimed that they were turned off for maintenance), one of whom confessed to being a participant in the crime. Four other suspects were arrested in their Caucasus havens, and another killed himself with a hand grenade while resisting arrest.
With Hillary Clinton set to hold a press conference today over the scandal regarding her State Department emails, I thought this might be a good time to call your attention to a piece of mine over at The Blaze, highlighting the very real prospect that Hillary’s communications may have fallen into Moscow’s hands. As I write there:
Putin’s Kremlin has one of the most sophisticated cyber-warfare systems the world has ever seen.
According to Smoking Gun (which broke the story in 2013), when [the Romanian hacker] Guccifer breached [Sidney] Blumenthal’s account, he discovered Clinton’s email address, email@example.com. When Guccifer supplied Russia’s RT, an official Kremlin media agency, with the Blumenthal emails, it’s a distinct possibility that he supplied the Clinton email address as well.
Boris Nemtsov, a leading Russian opposition figure, age 55, was shot dead Friday night as he walked across a bridge connecting the Kremlin with the embankment district of central Moscow. The youthful and handsome Nemtsov was accompanied by his 23-year-old girlfriend, a Ukrainian model. According to initial BBC reports, he was shot four times by several men emerging from a white car and then speeding away. Nemtsov’s death was confirmed at the site by an aide, who reported that Nemtsov’s corpse lay in front of him on the street, surrounded by police. Contacts in Moscow reported that the murder scene was mobbed by mourners bringing flowers. Nemtsov’s female companion was taken away to be interrogated at police headquarters. (See video) Let’s see how long she’ll remain in custody.
Nemtsov served as Deputy Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin. He was also mayor of Nizhny Novgorod before joining the liberal opposition to Putin. During his tenure under Yeltsin, Nemtsov was considered a possible successor, but handicapped by the fact that he was Jewish.
In a new piece I have up at Forbes, I lay out exactly what’s at stake for the West with Vladimir Putin’s continued aggression in Ukraine. In short, Putin wants nothing less than to unravel NATO. The U.S. has been decidedly unhelpful in assisting Ukraine, even though our allies there are much more reliable than the ones we’ve been arming in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. So what should Ukraine do now? My suggestion:
If I were Ukraine, I might concede Donbass and Crimea on a de facto but not de jure basis. Russia will not let them go under present circumstances. Let the Donbass (or that part that it presently holds) be a problem for Russia and the separatists to contend with; don’t let its self-appointed leaders dictate Ukrainian policy. When the time is right, the Donbass can come back into the fold. I would maintain a formidable standing army to defend the remaining Ukrainian provinces that have come to hate Putin’s Russia with a vengeance. I imagine that Odessa, Kiev, Zaporozhe and Lviv will make short change of self-appointed Muscovites when they arrive to proclaim new people’s republics. Who knows? If active hostilities ended, maybe even Barack Obama would supply defensive weapons. He’s good at shutting the gate after the horse has bolted.
Many commentators have expressed the belief that Russia is more dangerous now that their economy has collapsed because Russian strongman Vladimir Putin has his back against the wall and may react unpredictably. Perhaps. But I have one question for these prognosticators: with what soldiers will he react?
I ask this question because one of the great sources of Russia’s recent military revival has been the comprehensive military reforms begun in 2008, transforming the Russian military from a large and ponderous conscript army to a modern professional army, like those of the United States or United Kingdom. Because of these reforms, the number of soldiers in the Russian army has dropped to 300,000. For the first time ever, the Russian Army is smaller than its American counterpart.
Though smaller, it is much more capable than before. A large conscript army may be good for repelling a general invasion, but it a poor tool for fighting an expeditionary war such as an invasion of Ukraine. This is because long-serving professionals are more competent and motivated at warcraft than are two-year conscripts, something the US discovered in Vietnam. The proportion of conscripts in the Russian military is at an all-time low. In addition, the period of conscription has been reduced to one year from the traditional two.
We now have on our hands Barack Obama’s War, for our latest Middle Eastern war belongs entirely to him. And someone — let it be me! — should alert Sen. Rand Paul to this teachable moment, for Obama’s War (which Rand Paul supports) was brought on by the very policy of non-intervention that he, his father, and the Cato Institute all championed. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has testified in word and deed, there is essentially no difference on foreign affairs between left-wing Democratics and arch-libertarians who sometimes vote Republican.
This war might have been avoided. Had Obama taken the trouble to arrange for a few thousand American soldiers to remain in Iraq — as he easily could have — the Iraqi’s coalition government between Shia, Sunni, and Kurd would have held, despite Maliki’s perfidy. That, in turn, would have prevented al-Qaeda’s reemergence in the Sunni-dominated provinces of Iraq. Moreover, ISIS would not be in control of great swathes of Syria had the president followed the advice of his advisors and allies and backed the secular-minded opposition to Bashar al-Assad from the start.
Do be sure to check out this brilliant, marvelous, incandescently stupendous piece by our very own Messiah of the Moment, Max “I used to be Otto von Bismarck in a previous life” Fisher, in which Fisher explains the Obama Administration’s attempt to deter Vladimir Putin from gobbling up any of the Baltic states. Especially wonderful and heartwarming is Fisher’s tendency to breathlessly explain the principles of deterrence to his audience as though (a) he just learned about those principles and (b) his audience consists exclusively of two-year olds. Consider the following excerpt:
President Obama gave a speech on Wednesday, in a city most Americans have never heard of, committing the United States to possible war against Russia. He said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a Western military alliance better known as NATO, would fight to defend eastern European members like Estonia against any foreign aggression. In other words, if Russian President Vladimir Putin invades Estonia or Latvia as he invaded Ukraine, then Putin would trigger war with the US and most of Europe.
If I were Putin, I would send 50,000 troops into Eastern Ukraine and “liberate” it from the vile Ukrainian rebels who shot down MH17. Sure, the rebels are Putin’s own thugs. But Putin’s been pretending they aren’t his thugs all along. By invading Eastern Ukraine, Putin would be demonstrating his power on the world stage, […]
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