Following Russia’s overt intervention in eastern Ukraine late last month the rhetoric from Kiev has dramatically shifted in favor of peace, with President Petro Poroshenko himself pushing legislation to grant the rebellious areas a high degree of autonomy. Vladimir Putin has been largely victorious, for he has accomplished his objective of weakening Ukraine, stalling its integration with Europe and keeping it subservient to Moscow. Aside from the hopelessly outclassed Ukrainian military, the only opposition faced by Putin has been a mild and entirely ineffective sanctions regime. With a ceasefire apparently holding, European leaders will hasten to remove even these limited sanctions and resume normal relations with Moscow. The liberal understanding of foreign policy that informs most EU and NATO capitals does not equip them for dealing with an outlier like Putin, who understands the world through a vastly different paradigm. The debellicized nature of European policymaking has denied the West political instruments that had the potential to resolve the Ukraine crisis on much more favorable terms. Instead of surrendering the initiative to Putin by responding to each aggression with token sanctions, the US and Europe should impose costs on Russia asymmetrically. Two possibilities come to mind immediately:

1. Transnistria

h/t The Economist

h/t The Economist

This small, heavily industrialized sliver of land east of the Dneister river achieved de facto independence from Moldova following a brief war in 1992 when Russian troops intervened on the side of Transnistrian separatists. Still host to a small garrison of Russian troops, Transnistria’s economy has major steel, agricultural, textile and criminal sectors. It also has very long and open border with Ukraine. The enclave is completely isolated from Russian territory, though the recent annexation of Crimea has closed the distance significantly. Conceivably, Ukraine could threaten to occupy the entire territory. Short of that, it could attack Russian forces in the territory, forcing them to surrender and thus giving Kiev a major bargaining chip against Moscow.

2. Kaliningrad

A thorn in NATO's side

A thorn in NATO’s side

The speciousness of the Russian pretext for intervening in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (protection of Russian minorities from neo-Nazi hordes in historically Russian territory) is thrown into sharp relief by Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave along the Baltic coast that was historically German before being conquered by the Soviet Union in World War II, whereupon the population was decimated and expelled. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO eastward, Kaliningrad is now completely surrounded by NATO states. If 3 to 5 NATO brigades were to deploy to Poland for “joint exercises” near the Kaliningrad border, the Kremlin would be forced to redeploy assets away from Ukraine in order to respond and its propaganda would be undermined.


In the last six years Russia has destabilized, invaded and dismembered two Western-leaning states along its frontier. There is a very real possibility that Putin’s next confrontation will be with NATO itself. It need not be overtly military in character; the modus operandi for revisionist powers in the 21st century is a campaign of incremental actions, each action falling below the threshold that would provoke response, which cumulatively results in a change to the status quo. Putin’s most likely course of action is to subvert the Baltic states by covertly mobilizing their ethnic Russian minorities to agitate for special political rights and possibly autonomy. Open rebellion – like what occurred in eastern Ukraine – will not be necessary. Protests, demonstrations, strikes and rioting should be sufficient. The objective is to force the Baltic capitals to grant political concessions to their Russian minorities without NATO invoking Article 5 or otherwise responding in a significant fashion. If NATO does not back them up and the Baltics capitulate, the credibility of the alliance will be shattered and the states of eastern Europe will begin aligning themselves with the Kremlin out of self-preservation, thus reestablishing a Russian sphere of influence.

The threat to NATO is significant. Pro-Russian placards and sit-ins on the streets of Tallinn will not seem a threat to most observers, but what is at stake is the future of the European order. Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to be prepared to move things up the escalatory ladder, beyond the level that Putin is willing to accept.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters along with Iraqi special forces have retaken the Mosul dam from ISIS, who captured it earlier in the month. However, reports filed by journalists who visited the aftermath of the battle suggest that the Kurds and Iraqis were not alone:

Several compounds bore the marks of airstrikes, their walls collapsed and blackened. A large armored personnel carrier sat belly up, its body little more than strands of metal connected to a frame. The force of the blasts tore trees in two, spreading a blanket of branches and needles over a sloping road leading into the community.

The airstrikes were directed with what seemed a high degree of accuracy. Single homes were leveled, while neighboring ones stood in good order, exhibiting only the scars of shrapnel.

This level of coordination and accuracy can be achieved only with US personnel operating on the ground with their Iraqi counterparts, directing close air support against ISIS vehicles and strongpoints. This should not be a surprise; the US military and intelligence community has decades of experience in Iraq and has developed a large number of experienced cadres capable of close liaison with Iraqi personnel. 

Furthermore, the “Afghan model” – supporting indigenous forces with airpower coordinated by small numbers of embedded special operations personnel – offers a great deal of potential for rolling back ISIS: Iraq is much closer to US air power, many of the networks and contacts established by the US during the war are still intact, infrastructure is still in place, local forces are much more sophisticated than the Northern Alliance was, and all the regional governments would support the campaign. Unlike the urban Iraqi insurgents that US forces battled for almost a decade, ISIS has assembled into battalion-sized formations that are vulnerable to annihilation from the air.

Overall, this strategy strikes a balance between the need to confront ISIS on one hand, and President Obama’s disinclination to become deeply involved in a Third Iraq War on the other. I expect to air strikes continue for several weeks, and President Obama to stretch his self-imposed mandate in creative ways.

Probably no horses this time

Probably no horses this time

Patrick O’Sullivan and Jesse Miller conclude a now-dated regional analysis of the Middle East with comments that still ring prescient:

Mackinder’s pivot was the region which the horsemen of the steppes swept out of under pressure of limited resources and internecine competition. The prize they most keenly sought lay in the region we have just delineated, now divided among the fragments of Islam, created by these riders from the plains. The source of instability now lies in the confusion of Islam. People who have been sheltered from changes in the west by the conservative, legalistic code of Islam now have to face accommodation with 400 years of technical, social and political evolution all at once. One possible reaction is to deny the morality of what has come to pass and retreat into the past as the Wahabis did and Khomeini would do. At the other extreme is a radical embracing of change in the fashion of Ataturk. Shah Reza Palavi attempted this but did not succeed. Whatever the ploys of government, the people will be caught in the quandary of going both ways at once, and social schizophrenia can lead to savage action and reaction. This imbalance, plus the presence of oil and Israel, turns this into the percussion cap of the world. (p 155)

On Monday, the United States formally accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which bans ground-launched missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Originally signed during the waning days of the Cold War, the treaty placated both the Soviet Union, which was eager to restore tactical nuclear superiority on the Eurasian landmass, and the Western European allies, who preferred that any NATO-Soviet war quickly escalate to a strategic nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, which would exhaust the main belligerents but leave Europe itself intact [in theory, at least]. The United States, however, ended up sacrificing a valuable class of weapons (such as Pershing II) that gave it a measure of tactical nuclear parity with Soviet forces.

The accusation stems from Russian testing of two different systems, beginning in 2007. The first is the RS-26, an authorized ICBM, but Russia has been testing it at intermediate ranges, a circumvention of the INF Treaty. The second is the R-500 cruise missile, which can be deployed from existing Iskander launchers. There is evidence that the latter system has already been deployed, menacingly, opposite the Baltics.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

Test launch of the R-500 on May 27, 2007.

On the face of it, Monday’s accusation seems appropriate, given the clear evidence of violation and Russia’s current belligerence over Ukraine. Obviously, the Russians disagree:

The statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry accused Washington of airing old grievances and using ‘megaphone diplomacy’ to try to score political points during the Ukraine crisis.

Unfortunately, the problem is that the Russian statement is closer to the truth on this issue.

Take another look at the timing: evidence of prohibited testing has existed since 2008, and the White House was facing Congressional criticism for inaction as far back as 2012. And yet, only now, after Russia has invaded and annexed sovereign Ukrainian territory, sponsored an insurgency that has torn apart eastern Ukraine, made predatory glances toward the Baltics, and been complicit in the destruction of a civilian airliner, does the Administration bother making an official report of a treaty infraction. The problem is not that the accusation is false or unwarranted, but that, just as the Russians suggested, the Obama Administration considers it just another arrow in a weak quiver of diplomatic sanctions against Russia. Presumably, the US is willing to drop the issue – along with the other sanctions – when Putin scales back his involvement in eastern Ukraine. If the US was serious about enforcing arms control treaties, it would have reported the infraction years ago, when conclusive intelligence on the testing became available. Apparently, it avoided doing so to maintain the possibility of future agreements; it’s hard to sell Congress on a new arms control treaty when the current ones are being violated.

Far too often in American history, arms control has been pursued not as a legitimate objective of national security, but as a legacy project for the incumbent President. The more agreements signed, the higher his place in the cosmic pantheon of peacemakers. When combined with the operative motto of most Western arms controllers – “a bad agreement is better than no agreement” – this ambition has left America with a long list of disadvantageous treaties, including INF, that have unnecessarily weakened its strategic position.

It is extremely unlikely that Russian will return to compliance with INF. China and India are not party to the treaty. By acceding to the agreement in this strategic environment, the US is piously martyring itself before the altar of the False Trinity: arms control, disarmament and world peace. A more sensible course of action is a strategic reassessment concerning the role of the INF Treaty in US national security. Ground-launched missiles within the banned ranges are very relevant to the US position in east Asia: an offshore balancer attempting to deter China from a handful of small island bases.

The Geography of Warfare, published in 1983, is a collection of strategic and political musings by Patrick O’Sullivan (Professor of Geography at Florida State University) and Jesse W. Miller (Professor of Accounting at State University of New York). Like many other similarly themed books published around the same time, the book is a wide-ranging, searching work; a modest contribution to the strategic remooring that was just beginning to occur as America recovered from the post-Vietnam haze and responded to the perceived Soviet ascent.


Not quite so simple…

Their post-mortem analysis of the domino theory shows the value of remembering that strategy occurs in a physical plane and is still subject to geographic limitations:

Since there is no formal statement of the domino theory, in order to analyse its logical structure we can only examine the mechanics of the analogy. The elegant, rippling collapse of a row of dominoes derives from its artful arrangement in a state of unstable equilibrium so that any disturbance will be transmitted along the row. The pieces are endowed with potential energy by standing them on their ends so that each will strike the next as it falls. If a gap greater than the length of a piece separates two dominoes, the chain reaction ceases. The dominoes have three states: standing, falling and fallen. That ‘falling’ and ‘fallen’ equate with ‘going communist’ may satisfy the moral perspective of those who apply this theory. On the other hand they might have been disturbed that the fallen state was a stable equilibrium while standing was unstable. The red and white characterisation of politics implied by the analogy is not only naïve and insulting but also runs contrary to a geographical sense of uniqueness. It utterly fails to capture the significance of regional or national identity which daily we see dominating mankind’s sense of self and place.

The model treats of aggression from one end of the row as the potential energy of the first domino is translated to kinetic energy by an initial tap. It falls, registering a change to the same affiliation as the aggressor and, in so doing, imparts this character to the next domino as it strikes it down and so forth. What the necessities of similar size and appropriate spacing translate into in geographical terms is unclear. Obviously in order to land on the beaches of San Diego some very large dominoes would have to be stationed on the Philippines, Wake Island and Hawaii. The existence of a gap like the Pacific should quiet fears of the red menace wading ashore in California. In the proliferation of the theory’s use, oceans or intervening nations are obviously not seen as gaps containing the contagion, but can be conveniently erased. The nature of the contamination process is not made very clear by the analogy. ‘Knocked over’ is redolent of liquor stores rather than nations and hardly provides a rich enough description of the process to prescribe preventative action. ‘Propping up’ has been used to indicate one type of solution, but has proven difficult to translate into successful political, military and economic operations. ‘Knocking out’, the lateral displacement of one or more pieces to provide a fire-break to check the progress of the conflagration, does appeal to some military minds as a feasible action. (p. 100-1)


In 55 BC, after several jolly years of massacring various Gallic and Germanic tribes, Julius Caesar found himself along Gaul’s Channel coast and within range of a tempting and lucrative target: Britain. The conquest of such a distant and reputedly wealthy island would bring great glory to Caesar, and thus he prepared a small amphibious expedition of about 2 legions (VII and X) to reconnoiter Britain in preparation for a larger invasion in the future. Caesar’s own narrative of this campaign describes one of the earliest amphibious assaults in history, in that the landing had to overcome opposition on the beach itself:

The natives, on realizing his intention, had sent forward their cavalry and a number of the chariots which they are accustomed to use in warfare; the rest of their troops followed close behind and were ready to oppose the landing. The Romans were faced with very grave difficulties. The size of the ships made it impossible to run them aground except in fairly deep water; and soldiers, unfamiliar with the ground, with their hands full, and weighed down by the heavy burden of their arms, had at the same time to jump down from the ships, get a footing in the waves, and fight the enemy, who, standing on dry land or advancing only a short way into the water, fought with all their limbs unencumbered and on perfectly familiar ground, boldly hurling javelin and galloping their horses, which were trained to this kind of work. These perils frightened our soldiers, who were quite unaccustomed to battles of this kind, with the result that they did not show the same alacrity and enthusiasm as they usually did in battles on dry land.

This imagery reminds me of Omaha Beach, with heavily laden U.S. soldiers having to wade under fire through 200 yards of neck-deep water before because the landing craft dropped their ramps too far offshore.

Caesar also describes how he used warships as fire support platforms to cover the infantry trying to fight their way ashore:

Seeing this, Caesar ordered the warships – which were swifter and easier to handle than the transports, and likely to impress the natives more by their unfamiliar appearance – to be removed a short distance from the others and then to be rowed hard and run ashore on the enemy’s right flank, from which position slings, bows, and artillery could be used by men on deck to drive them back. This maneuver was highly successful. Scared by the strange shape of the warships, the motion of the oars, and the unfamiliar machines, the natives halted and then retreated a little.

With the infantry struggling to capture a beachhead in the face of determined opposition, Caesar ordered some of his reserves from the transports onto more maneuverable vessels that could rapidly exploit weaknesses in the enemy’s defensive line. This ultimately won the day for Caesar.

Both sides fought hard. But as the Romans could not keep their ranks or get a firm foothold or follow their proper standards, and men from different ships fell in under the first standard they came across, great confusion resulted. The enemy knew all the shallows, and when they saw from the beach small parties of soldiers disembarking one by one, they galloped up and attacked them at a disadvantage, surrounding them with superior numbers, while others would throw javelins at the right flank of a whole group. Caesar therefore ordered the warships’ boats and the scouting vessels to be loaded with troops, so that he could send help to any point where he saw the men in difficulties. As soon as the soldiers has got a footing on the beach and had waited for all their comrades to join them, they charged the enemy and put them to flight, but could not pursue very far, because the cavalry had not been able to hold their course and make the island.

What I find remarkable is the extent to which this operation, over 2,000 years ago, presaged the fundamentals of modern amphibious warfare – including mobile offshore fire support, the abandonment of failed lodgements and the exploitation of successful beachheads with waves of reserve infantry – albeit on a reduced scale.

Caesar would return to the continent not long after. He again invaded Britain in 54 BC with a much larger force and this landing was unopposed. However, Britain turned out to be much less wealthy than Caesar had thought, and garrisoning the island was far more trouble than it was worth. Again Caesar returned to the mainland to deal with restless tribes. Rome would not return to Britain for another century.

Extreme southeast Britain, with the approximate landing site highlighted in yellow, between Deal and Walmer Castle

Extreme southeast Britain, with the approximate landing site highlighted in yellow, between Deal and Walmer Castle

I recently discovered that at least one Japanese publisher has released a manga version of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

Somebody can't spell...

Somebody can’t spell…

During the chaos and confusion at the end of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, Wu Zixu and Sun Zi leave their native land of Chu for the land of Wu after their parents are killed. They take an oath of allegiance to fight for King Helü of Wu. The story portrays the life of Sun Zi and the superior art of war that he develops during the two year conflict between Wu and Chu.

I also found a similar product [possibly the same one?] on Amazon.

I cannot read Japanese, and I do not know much about anime, manga, or Japanese popular culture in general, but these productions do not surprise me. Whenever popular culture regurgitates a strategic artifact, the subject almost invariably is Sun Tzu, and The Art of War retains wide appeal throughout Asia, for obvious reasons. No Western strategist – such as Jomini, Clausewitz, or Mahan –  can claim nearly as much popular stardom, despite their arguably greater impact on history.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers