Our Thermian elites

In the 1999 sci-fi comedy Galaxy Quest, Tim Allen stars as Jason Nesmith, a washed-up egotistical actor from a long-defunct television series in the vein of Star Trek. The show was cancelled 18 years ago, so Nesmith and his fellow co-stars make a living doing skits for advertisers using their old characters, going to fan conventions and signing autographs for $15 a piece.

Unbeknownst to them, broadcasts of Galaxy Quest reached the Thermians, an alien race locked in a genocidal struggle with the evil General Sarris. Interpreting the television show to be actual historical documents, the Thermians model their entire civilization after the heroic adventures of Commander Peter Taggart and his loyal crew. Eventually they travel to earth and recruit the unwitting Nesmith and his co-stars to lead them in battle against Sarris.

The Thermians are incomprehensibly naïve, leading to this exchange as the actors try to explain that they’re not really astronauts and can’t help them in their war with Sarris:

Life imitates farce.

In recent months I have been repeatedly reminded on the hapless Thermians by the comments of Western elites concerning the unraveling world order. No matter the issue – Russian aggression in eastern Europe, the Assad’s regime’s unwillingness to make peace with rebels, Iranian adventurism throughout the Middle East, China’s territorial ambitions, etc. – American and European policymakers seem completely unable to understand, let alone respond to, events. Comments in press conferences and media interviews haven acquired notes of despair. It is not simply that Western elites are disappointed by the failure of liberal internationalism and consensus-based foreign policy to secure peace; they seem bewildered…occasionally petulant. This indicates a deeper failing, as if more realist schools of thought are not even known to exist, and therefore no contingencies were made in accordance with their proscriptions. We are witnessing the complete intellectual failure of Western institutions, at least vis-à-vis foreign policy, akin to that which occurred in the years before World War II.

Edward Hallett Carr described those years in a way that could be seamlessly transposed to the present:

The statement that it is in the interest of the world as a whole that the conclusion eventually reached, whether maintenance or change, should be reached by peaceful means, would command general assent, but seems a rather meaningless platitude. The utopian assumption that there is a world interest in peace which is identifiable with the interest of each individual nation helped politicians and political writers everywhere to evade the unpalatable fact of a fundamental divergence of interests between nations desirous of maintaining the status quo and nations desirous of changing it. A peculiar combination of platitude and falseness thus became endemic in the pronouncements of statesmen about international affairs.

Listed below is a small sampling of illustrative quotes drawn from recent newspaper articles. I encounter similar comments with such frequency that this may become a recurring feature on the blog:

Worst possible city in which to host cease-fire talks.

Russian Intervention in Syrian War Has Sharply Reduced U.S. Options

MUNICH — For months now the United States has insisted there can be no military solution to the Syrian civil war, only a political accord between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured, divided opposition groups that have been trying to topple him.

But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of Aleppo back into the hands of Mr. Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the United States wrong. There may be a military solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our solution,” but that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Confusion Reigns Over Syria Cease-Fire Deal

“There’s this concern that the Russians have a broad definition of terrorists and are going to essentially continue striking what they consider to be terrorist targets,” said a senior U.S. official who took part in the Munich talks.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

Russia Plays Familiar Hand in Syria 

Western officials say they are losing patience with Mr. Putin, accusing Russia of in effect pushing more moderate Syrian opposition into the arms of the extremist Islamic State…the Kremlin’s pattern of obfuscation – for instance, sending troops in unmarked uniforms to occupy Crimea while maintaining deniability – have left many skeptical of the latest diplomacy.

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Hospitals in Syria Bombed as Fighting Escalates

State Department spokesman John Kirby said the bombing of civilian targets “casts doubt on Russia’s willingness and/or ability to help bring to a stop the continued brutality of the Assad regime against its own people.”

Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, also condemned the continued bombing. “We think it runs counter, frankly, to the commitment made in Munich on Friday,” she said.

Break out the big guns…

U.S. to have ‘very serious conversation’ with China over suspected South China Sea missile deployment

The United States is very concerned about China’s growing militarization of the South China Sea and intends to have a “very serious conversation” with Beijing after reports emerged that it had deployed suspected ­surface-to-air missile batteries on a disputed island, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.

“There is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another,” Kerry told reporters when asked about the reported deployment, agencies reported. “It’s of serious concern.”

“We have had these conversations with the Chinese, and I am confident that over the next days we will have further very serious conversation on this,” Kerry said.

U.S.-Beijing Spat Escalates Over South China Sea

The Obama administration sharply criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday after charging that China’s military had deployed batteries of advanced missiles on a disputed South China Sea island.

Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile deployment was at odds with a pledge made by Mr. Xi while visiting the White House last year to refrain from militarizing clusters of disputed islands throughout the South China Sea.

“When President Xi was here in Washington, he stood in the Rose Garden with President Obama and said China will not militarize in the South China Sea,” Mr. Kerry said on Wednesday. “But there is every evidence, every day that there has been an increase of militarization of one kind or another. It’s of serious concern.”

China Positions Missiles on Disputed South China Sea Island

Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that he didn’t have confirmation of the missile deployment but that if true “it could be an indication of militarization of the South China Sea in ways that the president of China, President Xi [Jinping], said he would not do.”

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

A Language Putin Understands

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.

Was the Soviet Union “defeated” in Afghanistan?

Gen. Mohammad Yousaf, who as an ISI officer coordinated the Afghan resistance campaign from 1983 to 1987, concludes his lively [and utterly parochial] memoir with the following comment:

Although I am reluctant to admit it, I feel the only winners in the war in Afghanistan are the Americans. They have their revenge for Vietnam, they have seen the Soviets beaten on the battlefield by a guerrilla force that they helped to finance, and they have prevented an Islamic government replacing a Communist one in Kabul. For the Soviet Union even their military retreat has been turned into a huge political success, with Gorbachev becoming a hero in the West, and still his hand-picked puppet, Najibullah, remains unseated, dependent on Soviet aid for his survival.

The losers are most certainly the people of Afghanistan. It is their homes that are heaps of rubble, their land and fields that have been burnt and sown with millions of mines, it is their husbands, fathers and sons who have died in a war that was almost, and should have been, won.

Yousaf defined “victory” in terms of establishing an Islamist regime in Kabul, which was the best case scenario for both Pakistan’s national interests and Yousaf’s own fundamentalist ideology, which was shared by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan. By this measure, the hazy conclusion of the Soviet-Afghan war was an obvious disappointment, though only a few years later they did get their victory when the Taliban seized power.

Yousaf’s comment reflected the dominant narrative of events in the U.S. at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. For obvious reasons, the intervening decades have cast serious doubt on the notion of an American “victory” in Afghanistan. Instead of rehashing that ongoing debate, a more interesting question is to what extent the Soviets were truly “defeated.”

Continue reading

Putin Runs Bartertown

It’s winter again in Europe, which means last month occurred the ritual Russia-Ukraine gas dispute. On January 1, Gazprom – the state-owned Russian energy company – helped Ukraine ring in the new year by completely cutting off its supply of natural gas. The flow was not resumed until January 19. Because nearly half of the EU’s natural gas is supplied from Russia via Ukraine, the dispute affected over a dozen European countries, severely straining their energy supplies in a period of high demand.

There are multiple dimensions and layers to this controversy, including a commercial one: Ukraine had been receiving subsidized natural gas for decades and has been reluctant to start paying market rates. But more importantly, there is a political dimension as well: as Europe’s main energy supplier, Russia has always been willing to use energy as a weapon, and has repeatedly done so against Ukraine since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” brought a Western-leaning government to power in Kiev. Indeed, with its other instruments of power weak, Russia has been relying on energy as a means to reassert its dominance in the “near abroad.” I’ve actually managed to obtain a video of this strategy in action:

Continue reading

“America is still doomed…we mean it this time.”

The Future?

The Future?

 

We can always count on Russia for producing news that is both bizarre and entertaining at the same time. With Russian and American interests now in conflict, the semi-delusional revisionists in the Kremlin are trying to sell the idea that Russia’s return to great power status will be accelerated by the concurrent decline of the US. The problem is that much like everything else Russia does, the method is divorced from any logic of proportionality or constraint. Thus enter Igor Panarin, an ex-KGB analyst and the current dean of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic Academy, who, in that peculiar Russian fashion, takes American declinism beyond all bounds of reality, predicting the disintegration of the United States about 18 months from now. From the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a Civil War next fall and the collapse of the dollar. Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the US will break into six pieces with Alaska reverting to Russian control…

He predicts that economic, financial and demographic trends will provoke a political and social crisis in the US. When the going gets tough, he says, wealthier states will withhold funds from the federal government and effectively secede from the union. Social unrest up to and including Civil War will follow. The US will then split along ethnic lines, and foreign powers will move in.

California will form the nucleus of what he calls “The California Republic,” and will be part of China or under Chinese influence. Texas will be the heart of “The Texas Republic,” a cluster of states that will go to Mexico or fall under Mexican influence. Washington DC, and New York will be part of an “Atlantic America” that may join the European Union. Canada will grab a group of northern states Prof. Panarin calls “The Central North American Republic.” Hawaii, he suggests, will be a protectorate of Japan or China, and Alaska will be subsumed into Russia.

Panarin’s little fantasy has certainly made him popular in the fashionable circles of his home country, and probably Europe as well. Envisioning the destruction of America — with or without nuclear fire — has always been a hobby for a certain breed of Russian nationalist. But Panarin’s ideas are notable for their comical lack of any pretense of realism. How exactly would Canada seize control of 15 US states? The EU is going to admit the American East Coast? Utah and Arizona are doomed to fall under Chinese hegemony? Aside from anti-Americanism, which has reached epidemic proportions in Russia, Panarin’s theory, assuming he sincerely believes it, reflects a frightening naïveté about both the United States and international politics in general. Russia may never again be a superpower, but it is certainly not irrelevant; if this is the guy training their future diplomats, our own negotiators are in for a wild ride.

But the great irony of Panarin’s ideas is that they have much relevance for his own country; it is almost as if he examine d the long-term forecasts of Russia’s future and simply mirror-imaged them on to the United States. The dangers of the 1990s have not yet passed. The Russian economy has improved in recent years, but it has evolved into a petrostate that is completely reliant on the oil and natural gas extractive  industries. When commodity prices decline, as they inevitably will, growth sputters and recession sets in. Most tragically, Russia is experiencing a demographic crisis that may see their population drop below 100 million bt 2050, which could compromise the territorial integrity of the state itself. Forget retaking Alaska; Russia will barely be able to hold on to the territory it does have, especially with the massive Chinese population eager to exploit the sparsely populated and largely untapped Siberian expanse. Compared to Russia’s long-term prognosis, America’s current troubles look insignificant. Russia may not disintegrate, but it is in store for a very painful reckoning.

War in the Caucasus

Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvilia, is quite the gambler. Information is still sketchy, but it appears that on Friday, after weeks of skirmishing in South Ossetia, Saakashvilia attempted a fait accompli by mounting a full-scale invasion of the separatist republic while the world’s attention was on the opening of the Beijing Olympics. It is now clear that he committed a grievous strategic error.

Continue reading