Tag Archives: foreign policy

The Wallet Inspector

So recently the US and Germany have, for some strange reason, reacted with measured optimism toward Vladimir Putin’s latest suggestions about a UN peacekeeping mission in the Donbas region of Ukraine. What a great guy- he starts a war and then sells you the solution! Seriously though, I’m disturbed that the State Department and the German Ministry didn’t immediately tell Putin to shove his peacekeeping plan up his own ass once they heard his “conditions.”

Essentially Putin wants the UN peacekeeping mission to include Russian participation (yeah I’m sure they’ll be totally impartial), he wants it to involve direct negotiations with his proxy actors in the occupied territory, and it should patrol the line of contact between his pseudo-states and government-controlled territory. Just as others have already pointed out, this amounts to nothing but an attempt to solidify control over the occupied territories and permanently freezing the conflict in the manner of Transnistria, South Ossetia, or Abkhazia. UN peacekeepers will keep Ukraine’s armed forces from retaking the territory and possibly firing back when his proxies decide to loose a few shells, and the world will treat the conflict according to the Kremlin’s rhetoric, i.e. as a “civil war.” As if all this weren’t enough to convince you that this plan is nothing but Kremlin bullshit, check out the “DNR/LNR” reaction to the plan, as reported by Russian state media.

Basically, Putin’s “peacekeeping initiative” is the diplomatic equivalent of the “wallet inspector” scam. While it’s obvious he’s not acting in good faith, it’s interesting to speculate why he might be offering this now. There do seem to be signs that Russia might be trying to extricate itself from Donbas. Since early 2015, Russia’s objective has been to shove the territories back into Ukraine so that Kyiv is forced to pay for them while maintaining proxy forces there which could continue to influence Ukrainian politics in the Kremlin’s favor. Of course Kyiv is well aware of Putin’s desire to have his cake and eat it too, which is why they have no plans to grant Russia’s conditions of Minsk II before Russia grants their demands, such as control over the Russian-Ukrainian border.

Putin’s latest offer just seems like an attempt to make an end run around this impasse and perhaps cut costs associated with supplying his proxy forces in the region. Also, if there are Russian “peacekeepers” there, Putin can always use an alleged attack on them as pretext to invade and take more territory, or at least punish the Ukrainian Armed Forces and destabilize the situation for Kyiv. Like in the 2008 Georgia War, Russia would benefit from being able to claim retaliation for attacks on “peacekeepers.”

I could go on, but I think by now it’s painfully clear that there is absolutely nothing good in this offer and really the best answer the US or any country could have sent to Putin would have been a note on official letterhead reading:

Dear Mr. Putin,

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

No. 

Sincerely yours,

(Department/Ministry name)

The media can also help. When reporting on Putin’s peace overtures, they can point out that Putin is actually a party to the conflict, as well as its initiator. As my friend Paul Niland in Kyiv has often pointed out, reporters should stop reporting Russian denials on involvement without adding that said denials are contradicted by “overwhelming evidence.” It’s clear that one more motive for this latest ploy is for Putin to once again promote himself as a peacemaker and advocate of stability. The media shouldn’t give him the opportunity.

Lastly, while everyone’s making wild proposals about peacekeeping missions here, let me present my official Russia Without BS United Nations Peacekeeping Plan for the Donbas (patent pending). It works like this:

Russia pulls all forces out of the Donbas. 

UN Peacekeeping troops deploy along the Russian-Ukrainian border, on the Russian side of it, with the mission of preventing Russia from invading again. 

Crimea, Kuban, and Far East go to Ukraine as reparations.

Sanctions are removed so Russia no longer has to squash cheese with bulldozers.

You may call it extreme, but it’s a small price to pay for peace and stability in the region. You’re not against peace,are you?

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Who’s a realist, really?

Here, as promised, is the post about realism. In case you haven’t heard, “realism” is supposedly the basis of Russian foreign policy. According to them, great powers (and of course they’re a great power) should act according to self-interests without considering morality or ideology. For some unknown reason, those in Russia who claim to support such an approach to foreign policy can’t seem to fathom the possibility that some other great power might find it in its self-interests to stomp all over Russia without regard to morality or ideology. No, as I’ve written before, according to the realists, American foreign policy should be isolationist and concerned mostly with domestic issues, whereas Russia’s allowed to find its self-interests wherever it sees fit. In other words, this whole argument is bullshit.

Those Russians who genuinely support Trump seem to believe that he is a realist with an “America first” policy. This would be a mistake on their part. Trump has no policies; he has only whatever he happens to be saying in response to a question at a given time. The beltway pundits recoil in horror when Trump supposedly ponders leaving NATO members to stand alone, or when he says he’ll have people look into the issue of recognizing the annexation of the Crimea. They really ought not to get their heart rates up; it’s painfully obvious that when Trump answers questions in this way, he has no idea what they’re actually talking about. His answers truly sound like a man who knows he’s been caught with his pants down and needs to give an answer that makes it look as though he’s familiar with the issue. In short, Trump is not a realist. Trump is not anything but Donald Trump, and that’s bad enough.

I have a better question to think about, however. Is Vladimir Putin a realist? Does he practice what he preaches? HINT: No, he is not.

It’s a rare occasion that I find myself agreeing with a conservative pundit, but Twitter Trumpkin slayer Tom Nichols has raised the question of Putin’s “realism” and provided an accurate answer, though I must disagree with his assessment of Putin’s thinking on some levels. Here is the relevant passage:

“Finally, if Putin is a realist, it is a strange realism indeed. This is where counterfactual thinking might help: a realist seeking to increase the power and influence of his state simply would not do most of the things Putin is doing. The Kremlin’s foreign policy at this point violates almost every rule of competent strategy, to say nothing of common sense. From the injunction to avoid the needless multiplication of enemies to the danger of letting emotion overcome policy, Putin has trampled all over “realist” expectations.

This is an especially remarkable series of errors because Russia faces, in the administration of Barack Obama, an America that has no interest in a fight and would just as well walk away from European affairs if only given half a chance. Or put another way, America is being drawn into a European conflict only because Putin is too stupid to know enough to keep us out of it, despite every indication from the White House that we want nothing to do with any of this. If this is Russian “realism,” it’s the dumbest realism in modern history.”

Indeed this brand of realism is a strange one. Nichols goes into more detail regarding what Putin has wrought in Ukraine, but I’m writing this post because I wanted to go a bit deeper.

First of all, according to the realist school Russia could be seen as looking out for its self-interests (for the moment let’s ignore the fact that the interests of a country’s ruling class rarely coincide with the majority) when it engaged in a trade war with Ukraine in order to pressure Yanukovych away from the EU Association Agreement and towards Russia’s Customs Union. But if that is the case, the Russians can’t complain when they accuse the US of orchestrating a “coup” with Maidan. After all, what right have they to say this wasn’t in the best interests of the US? It wasn’t about morality or ideology, after all.

More importantly, however, is the fact that Russia’s reaction to Maidan, almost from the beginning, was incredibly stupid and ideologically-driven. The fact is that Maidan was not a Western-orchestrated coup; what happened is a protest movement grew, the government reacted improperly, and the West saw this and backed the right side. Russia, as has often been the case in recent decades, decided to throw in with the corrupt dictator. Not only is this incredibly stupid strategy, but it was definitely influenced by ideology, inasmuch as you can call the fantasy of Russia being surrounded by enemies and threatened by NATO an ideology.

Russia had other options even before Yanukovych fled. First, they could have dumped him like a bad habit. “Viktor, you idiot! You make this EU trade deal the cornerstone of your administration, and then you walk away from it? The people are right to protest you! Do not blame this on us!” This alone would have been a major game changer.

But let’s not go back that far and instead focus on the moment after Yanukovych left. Instead of seizing the Crimea and starting a war in the Donbas, once again Russia could have scolded Yanukovych publicly. Putin could have pointed out that the idea that Russia is controlling Ukraine is absurd, and to prove this he could have publicly recognized the interim government. This, of course, would leave several million pro-Russian or at least anti-Maidan voters in place throughout Russia. No Odessa riot, no annexation, no war. Russian media would be free to operate all throughout Ukraine. Putin would have a massive “fifth column” of voters and politicians in Ukraine to sabotage or hold up EU reforms. All the while Russia sits back and watches. No sanctions, no bad press over invading another country. No war for corrupt Ukrainian politicians to use as an excuse for their lack of reforms. Ukraine’s official non-bloc status would remain intact, and if the government actually did try something unpleasant to Moscow, well there’s always that contingency plan to seize the Crimea, right?

Such a strategy is obviously far more intelligent than what Putin actually did, and he did it because he’s not a realist and he is driven by a kind of ideology, a propaganda narrative. According to what passes for an ideology in the Kremlin, Putin and his cronies knew that this was orchestrated by the US. They knew it was all about getting Ukraine in NATO. They knew it would make Putin look weak and they’re extremely afraid of Russian-speaking people rising up an holding their government accountable. They were so convinced of their own bullshit geopolitical theory.

The fact is that the Kremlin’s foreign policy isn’t realism. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. It’s driven largely by fantasies that exist in an echo chamber; dissent equals disloyalty. The truth is that when the Kremlin ideologues or their sympathizers peddle this idea of realism to the West and in particular the United States, it’s really just a scam. What they’re saying is “Let’s not strive for a better world. Let’s all be as bad as we like, without criticizing one another.”

I’ll be really frank here- if someone asked me if I think the United States government should be more concerned with the state of its own people, I would generally agree with that statement. Of course I’d also say that the Russian government needs to show far more concern for its own people, and the need is far more urgent than in the US. We have to ask ourselves if it is better to live in a world where countries strive for lofty goals while often falling short, sometimes far short of them, or do we want to live in a world where the majority of people are at the mercy of wheeling and dealing great powers like some kind of neo-Victorian dystopia. I would rather see a world in which Russia improves its human rights record and foreign policy in order to legitimately challenge the moral superiority of the US, than to see the US abandon its stated values and emulate Putin’s Russia as it presently exists. Of course my own politics are far more radical, but while the former scenario falls short of my personal ideal, it is, at least, realistic.

Real Realism

Beware the snake oil known as foreign policy “realism” or “pragmatism,” at least when it comes to Russia. Every time I read something from a “realist” or “pragmatist” it always starts out more or less fine, but then soon degenerates into blaming all Putin’s bad behavior entirely on the West, and suggesting a “compromise” that basically amounts to giving the Kremlin whatever it wants, whatever the case. Usually these people portray themselves as moderates, objective observers standing in no-man’s land between rabid neocons in the West and Kremlin-supported neo-imperialists in Russia. Yet one cannot help but notice how quickly their arguments degenerate into a collection of tried and true Kremlin talking points, and their “solutions” require the West or its allies to make all the concessions while Russia isn’t bound to reciprocate.

If you feel like reading a long takedown of these folks and some of their arguments, there’s a nice piece on the topic by Lilia Shevtsova. Brian Whitmore of The Daily Vertical also has a recent piece which helps toward explaining why the “realist” approach is at best, extremely misguided. But if you’re dead set on reading a response to the “realist” school of foreign policy punditry that contains dick jokes- well, you’d best set here for a spell and read on.

First of all let’s tackle the whole objectivity thing. As I stated in my FAQ when I began this blog, my objectivity stems from not having a stake in the game between the Kremlin or “the West.” I’m not saying this is the only way a person can be objective. I respect striving towards objectivity so long as one is not engaging in balance for the sake of balance and making false equivalencies. I also can’t respect it when someone claims to be objective and then clearly takes one side 100%. Declare for a camp or try to remain a moderate, objective observer, but please don’t claim to be the latter or fly a false flag as you represent the other camp.

Having dealt with the question of objectivity and moderation, let’s get on to the topic of negotiation and compromise, which “realists” seem to misunderstand, occasionally on purpose. Compromise entails a quid pro quo. You do this, we’ll do that. To date I’ve yet to see a single “realist” say what Putin should do for the West in exchange for the long list of concessions they think the Kremlin deserves:

Scrap Minsk and unilaterally pull out of the Donbas, taking their weapons and proxies with them? Oh no! Russia will always feel a deep-rooted connection to those Russian speakers of East Ukraine! This is their backyard after all! They’ll want assurances that Ukraine won’t join NATO! Hell, even Chomsky claimed that Russia had “a case” for invading and carving up Ukraine. And give back the Crimea? Don’t even waste your breath. Deep historical connection, national humiliation, etc. If we just let them have the Crimea, they’ll be more inclined to quit Eastern Ukraine! But if they don’t, well, see the previous explanation.

What about Syria? Well a peace deal would be great, so long as there are new elections and Assad leaves. But you know, we shouldn’t press him to leave. In fact, we don’t really need those elections at all. Let’s just team up with Russia against ISIS and let them do whatever they want in the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East is so important, and Russia is so essential to the efforts against ISIS, that we can’t afford to be worrying about little Ukraine and its problems. Russia was justifiably upset at Western support for Maidan and the new Ukrainian government. Surely if we just recognize the Crimean annexation and put pressure on Kyiv to do everything Moscow demands, the latter will fulfill all its obligations and we can all concentrate on pounding ISIS into dust! 

You get the gist. These articles never seem to explain what Putin will give in return for all of this, and by coincidence, neither does the Russian foreign ministry. Hell, what can they give, some kind of guarantee in the form of a treaty? Whatever treaty they might sign guaranteeing no further intervention in Ukraine, for example, wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. This would be especially true if the price of such an agreement amounted to recognizing the Crimean annexation and allowing Russia to continue exercising influence in the Donbas. Since I’ve never seen any “realist” even suggest Putin actually giving any concessions from his side, it seems like the only possible obligation from Moscow’s side in a “realistic” compromise would be a worthless agreement.

Another misunderstanding common among “realists” and “pragmatists” is their understanding of Western responsibility for Putin’s Russia. They way they put it, the West is responsible for all of Putin’s bad behavior. In fact, this often goes towards justifying said behavior by making it seem like a logical response to Western rudeness, neglect, meddling, or outright aggression. There are legitimate critiques of the West in relation to Russia, and there are not so legitimate ones. Guess which category the “realist”arguments tend to fall into?

One of these illegitimate arguments, for example, are the claims that Putin is driven by a perceived threat of NATO expansion. The NATO expansion line looks pretty solid until you actually bother to study what forces existed in Europe and where they were located. As Kremlin hysteria over NATO expansion grew, troop numbers, especially for the US, steadily dropped. No permanent bases were built in the new member states, including those which bordered the Russian Federation. Even today very little has been done to reverse this trend, the only catalyst for doing so being Putin’s recent sabre-rattling and invasion of Ukraine. And should anyone dispute that last point, feel free to provide some evidence about a buildup of NATO forces on the Russian border, as well as an explanation as to why a country that couldn’t manage a war in Iraq and Afghanistan would decide it could pull off an invasion of the largest country on Earth, which also happens to be heavily armed with nukes.

Still not convinced? Just a few years ago Russia was allowing NATO members, including the US, to use an airport in Ulyanovsk as a military transit hub for the sake of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Just a logistical base, you say? Well take a look at how many US military installations in Europe are basically the same thing. And what about espionage? Why is the Russian government so afraid of NGOs and bloggers yet it was willing to actually allow NATO military personnel to use its airspace and infrastructure? The answer is that they’re full of shit, that’s why. They’re not afraid of a NATO invasion and they never were. In fact, their campaign in Ukraine proved how useless and non-threatening NATO really is. If something scared Putin, it was the Orange Revolution, and Maidan doubly so. The thing he fears most is being held accountable for his actions by his own people, which is why he’d rather have NATO military personnel on Russian soil than civil society groups and opposition parties.

Here is where we get to the crux of “realism” when it comes to Putin’s Russia. The fact is that it isn’t realistic at all; it is either out of touch with reality or in the worst cases, totally delusional. It is for this reason that I wish to present to the “realists” a bit of actual realism, so as to shake you out of these fantasies. Naturally this will be lost on the die-hard Kremlin supporters, particularly those with careers courtesy of the Russian state media or other lucrative business in Russia. This is for those naive types who are really struggling to meet Moscow half way and silently wonder what can we do to make Putin respect the Western position. It’s for those who think this is all just some big misunderstanding and if we could only find common ground Putin would be more than happy to cooperate toward a more prosperous, peaceful world, one in which Western businessmen can keep on making massive profits in Russia. If you’re one of those folks (e.g. John Kerry), brace yourself- this will not be gentle.

Give up. Putin and his elite don’t care about your genuine remorse for how the West has treated Russia, whether the slights are imaginary or real notwithstanding. Whatever concessions you give the Kremlin will be accepted with a smile, but nothing of significance will be given in return. As they smile and shake your hand, their media will be regaling the populace with tales of how Putin and his pals have once again outfoxed the degenerate, ever-weakening West, but also how everyone must still remain vigilant because that same collapsing hegemonic power is still a grave threat to Russia. To use the vernacular of a good friend of mine, they’ll be talking out their neck while you’re patting yourself on the back, thinking you finally got them to see your point of view.

Putin literally can’t pull back or offer any concessions. If Merkel, Obama, and literally every other Western leader came to Putin, asked him what he wanted, and then just granted his every wish, the rhetoric wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t give a televised speech praising the West for coming to its senses, being realistic, and finally burying the hatchet between them and Russia. How do I know? Well for all those years America was getting its military out of Europe, Kremlin propaganda has made it sound as though NATO is gearing up for Operation Barbarossa II. For all those years that American and other foreign companies were pouring millions of dollars into the Russian economy and providing Russian citizens with a wealth of consumer goods their parents and grandparents could only dream of, the same propagandists were screaming about how the West wanted to undermine and dismantle Russia, leaving it destitute. If this is what the Kremlin narrative was during the best of times, what will it be during the worst of times, even with concessions. Indeed, we can see a microcosm of this reality in recent times. While the West leaves Ukraine in tatters and lectures it on the need to fulfill the ridiculously pro-Russian Minsk protocol, the propaganda machine is still droning on about NATO legions with American and Turkish mercenaries. So what will more concessions do?

Once you accept the reality that Putin will not reciprocate for any concessions, there’s the fundamental question of why this is the case. Put simply, Putin is not worried about NATO or the West. Putin and the elite he serves are scared to death of their own people. Back when oil prices were high and times were good, they didn’t have to worry so much. Russians were enjoying their new commodities, hobbies, and foreign travel. Then they got too uppity and demanding and had to be put in their place. The need to do so became even more dire after the Ukrainian people showed they wouldn’t put up with corruption and economic ruin for the sake of non-existent “stability.” Obviously one course of action for the Kremlin to remain secure against popular revolution is to crack down on dissent, which has been the case since 2012. Of course this is a lot easier to do with some kind of justification, therefore we have the sharp increase in anti-Western rhetoric. Yes, Russian citizens will have to tolerate more corruption and declining living standards, but there simply is no choice- we’re at war!

The specific nature of that rhetoric is such that any attempt to deescalate the conflict and promote peace and understanding is seen as weakness and submission. This is especially true as the government has mobilized vatnost, a certain mentality that obsesses over dominance and humiliation. To get an idea of why this is so dangerous, imagine that tomorrow the Kremlin and Washington totally make up and be friends on whatever terms. Obama goes on TV and informs America that Russia and the USA are definitely friends now, and that “New Cold War” is definitely off for good. Apart from some politicians looking to score tough-guy points, the vast majority of Americans won’t care. When I say they won’t care, I mean at all. Assuming they even pay attention to the news, they’ll probably just blink and wonder what that whole two-year Cold War 2.0 was all about before popping some Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits into the microwave. You’re not going to find significant numbers of Americans lamenting the fact that they never got to trounce Putin’s Russia in a military engagement, or that economic trade will resume and there’ll be no repeat of 1991. I was rather young that year, but I don’t remember any celebrations about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was more like shock and the exhilaration that comes from witnessing a historical event of massive significance.

However, as I have stated above, in the same scenario Putin could never make the same announcement, no matter how many concessions America makes. He can never say: “Well it looks like our Western partners listened to their realists and not only recognized our claim to Crimea, but they also agreed to create a buffer zone of neutral, non-aligned states so as to ensure we cannot possibly be threatened by NATO. Therefore, let us stop this animosity toward America and the West and embrace each other in a spirit of brotherhood!” No, Putin could not say this because to the base he now relies on, this still sounds like capitulation. Thanks to the narrative the Kremlin has been disseminating through its media, the only acceptable ending entails America in ruins like the USSR in 1991, and because that’s not going to happen, Putin has to keep up the self-destructive dick measuring contest* they call the “New Cold War.”

To admit that the West is not a threat to Russia is to undermine the legitimacy of his rule and the measures that have been implemented to cement it. Without the NATO bogeyman, there is nothing with which to distract Russian citizens from the real conflict that has been going on this whole time- between the Russian ruling class and the majority. In other words, Putin and his elite will feel just as threatened no matter how conciliatory the West acts. As long as these countries represent an alternative to his corrupt system, and in particular so long as they maintain considerably higher living standards compared to Russia, they will represent a threat to the Kremlin that is far more frightening than any NATO tank division the US might deploy in Europe.

You wanted realism? That’s reality. Deal with it.

 

*Thought I wouldn’t deliver on the dick joke? You thought wrong, my friend.

 

Frankenstein’s monster

A couple hours ago I read that Francois Hollande has called for an end to the sanctions against Russia.  The reaction from some quarters was predictable. The Russian press will be overjoyed at the idea of the sanctions being removed, as this would prove that they don’t work. Then again, the same people also say that they spit on the sanctions, and that it doesn’t matter whether or not they are removed. Never mind them, for a moment. They’ll still be doing their mental gymnastics if we leave them alone for a bit. I’m more concerned with the reaction of the anti-Moscow pundits.

No doubt this will soon be portrayed as betrayal and appeasement. Somebody’s going to make a reference to Nevillle Chamberlain, I guarantee it. These will be some of the same people who warned us about all the influence Russia had bought up in the West in places Berlin and especially London. Russian money was the fifth column of Europe, so to speak.

Personally I can stand these narratives, which absolve the US and European governments of all responsibility. Their only failing was that they were too naive and trusting. Any attempt to point out a causal relationship between Putin’s current behavior and the tolerance shown to him especially by European governments will be labeled “whataboutist.” They will throw out accusations of “moral equivalency,” no doubt.

Well I’m terribly sorry but this radical leftist is going to keep saying “I told you so.” What Putin and his cronies learned over the course of 15 years, is that the neoliberal system is ripe for gaming. Western nations, especially the US in this case, declared the market supreme. Of course the long history of capitalism has taught us nothing it hasn’t taught us that the market is indifferent to things like human rights and democracy.  Everyone’s money is good in the market, and Russia’s leaders accumulated a ton of it thanks to high oil prices.

Essentially, Putin’s Russia today is a product of the neo-liberal triumphalism of the post-Soviet era. It began with the utter lack of concern Western powers showed over the fate of Russia in the 90’s- their lack of criticism over the crushing of protesters with tanks and armed troops in 1993. These people were supposed to embrace democratic values, yet nobody made any concerted effort to explain what those values were supposed to mean, or to make sure those who espoused these ideas knew what they were talking about. The most important human right, the one that mattered more than any other, was the right of private property and the profit derived from it. Nobody cared who got fleeced, only that there was money to be made.

After that, it continued with the acceptance of dirty money coming out of Russia, and the welcoming embrace of the first round of oligarchs.The very same men who made Putin possible were lauded as human rights crusaders living in exile. In the same period, Putin watched and learned many lessons from the US’ war on Iraq. He learned that when you’re powerful enough, you can impose your will as far as your army can reach. He learned that it was alright to take actions and declare whether or not they should be seen as setting a precedent or not. He learned that you could just make some flimsy excuse about protecting people to justify a war.

None of this absolves Putin and his circle of their responsibility for their actions, but any pundit, journalist, or intellectual who does not take into account all these enabling acts is engaging in rank hypocrisy and dishonesty. If Western nations don’t want whataboutist arguments and propaganda thrown in their face, they need to form a far more principled foreign policy, and this goes doubly so for the US. Putin’s cynical worldview draws its lifeblood from the failures of democratic regimes. If these regimes do nothing to improve their behavior, they have nobody to blame but themselves when they unleash monsters. Mistakes happen, but they need to be corrected. It’s called accountability.