Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

New Zealand goes it alone.

datePosted on 18:47, March 28th, 2018 by Pablo

The New Zealand Labour government’s refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing. The 27-nation solidarity coalition expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from their soil includes all of New Zealand’s major security partners as well as important trade counterparts. New Zealand is a member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, so it has better knowledge than most as to what evidence the UK has to indicate that Vladimir Putin’s regime ordered the hit on Skripal. New Zealand is an extra-regional NATO and EU associate, and like the majority of the members of the coalition, it is a democracy. New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic interlocutors in what is largely a symbolic gesture of repudiation of Russian misbehavior abroad.

The decision was made all the more quixotic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that there are “no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives” in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone. She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that was the case, even though MFAT has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer, declared or undeclared (that is the job of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)). She later changed her story to saying that her advice did in fact come from the SIS, but without acknowledging her original misstatement (which happened during a RNZ interview so is recorded for posterity). Her repeated comments that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about her competence when handling security matters.

Discussion in New Zealand about the issue has been muddled by the PM’s remarks. The minor aspect of the story is about whether there are Russian intelligence operatives in NZ and whether they should be expelled. The answers to that are “yes” and “possibly.” “Possibly” depends on the answer to the major aspect of the story: the reasons why NZ decided not to join the so-called “expulsion coalition.” I shall focus on the latter but suffice it to say that all of the 150 Russian personnel expelled by the coalition hold diplomatic passports so by definition are not working undercover as spies without diplomatic immunity. Nor were all of those expelled intelligence officers working under official cover (i.e. with diplomatic immunity).

The detour into what constitutes an “undeclared intelligence agent” was unnecessary and unhelpful in clarifying the reasons behind NZ’s decision to reject the UK request to join it in repudiating the Russian assassination attempt. That reasoning continues to remain unclear at present. Claiming that the decision to not adhere to the collective expulsion action is because there was no one who met the definition of “undeclared intelligence agents” operating in New Zealand is a diversion from the underlying rationale because it puts the focus on the instrumentalities of response rather than the reasons for it.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate, or perhaps better said, alienate itself from its traditional allies and major security partners? To be sure, members of the coalition have their own histories of foreign skullduggery and intrigue, to include extrajudicial killings abroad. Moreover, diplomacy is often no more than hypocrisy masquerading as self-righteousness standing in defense of principle. Perhaps the Labour government wants to give the lie to the posturing of its most important allies.

Even so, pragmatic assessments usually inform foreign policy decisions, particularly those involving choosing sides in international disputes. That is particularly true for small states when confronted with the demands of quarreling powers to take a position in favour of one side or the other. This “Melian Dilemma” is an unavoidable part of being small in a world dominated by competing great powers, so Lilliputians such as New Zealand usually think long and hard before taking an unpopular stand—particularly amongst its friends.

New Zealand’s decision not to participate in the solidarity coalition was made in the face of a direct request from the May government and in spite of the fact that the collective action is largely symbolic. Although Russian intelligence operations will be adversely affected in places like the UK, US and Germany, many of those being expelled are “normal” diplomats who can be recalled at some future date. So the downside to joining the coalition would seem relatively small even with Russian threats of retaliation, and the upside in terms of being seen to be a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms could well outweigh whatever the Russians can respond with.

Perhaps there lies the explanation. New Zealand’s foreign policy in recent years has been trade obsessed and speculation has it that members of the foreign policy establishment see the possibility of advancing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia in the vacuum left by the trade sanctions levied on it in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and annexation of Crimea. New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards. Official advice from the foreign ministry is that violating the sanctions regime to try to exploit a possible window of opportunity vis a vis Russia is counterproductive at best.

But talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not. Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, or that it interfered in US and European elections, and has refused to name Russia as the perpetrator of the attempted Skripal hit, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its “independent and autonomous” foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government’s rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners. Given the animosity felt towards Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Teresa May) amongst Labour supporters as well as those of its coalition partners (New Zealand First and the Green Party), this is a way of playing David versus Goliath(s) for domestic audiences.

New Zealand could also be signalling the international community. After all, over 140 nations did not sign up to the collective action, including major trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. No Pacific Island nation (other than those represented by France, the UK and US) signed on to the deal. So in terms of demonstrating its sovereign resolve to remain out of great power conflicts when and where possible, this Labour government may be channeling the spirit of independence championed by David Lange during the 1985 nuclear showdown.

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short and long term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia. By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin’s regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits even if it does not interfere with the daily business of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the Five Eyes and other security partners.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favor with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences. The play is both short and long-term in nature, with the question being will a short term move of this sort translate into longer term benefits or losses.

In the diplomatic world the shadow of the future hangs heavily over present decision-making. Sequels are uncertain and memories are elephantine in nature. The consequences of being shortsightedly contrarian are determined not by the contrarian but by those refused support on a matter of international consequence and foreign policy alignment. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may risk the wrath of those slighted but win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian (even if principled)  stance?

A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.

NATO toasts Putin.

datePosted on 12:18, March 27th, 2014 by Pablo

The end of the Cold War left NATO without its raison d’être. Its creation was predicated on the existence of an existential threat emanating from the USSR, one that would take the military shape of high intensity warfare: waves of armored columns crossing the central European plains backed by massive infantry formations covered by blanketing air cover and even tactical nuclear weapons. NATO was designed as a collective security arrangement whereby superior counter-force on the part of the US and its Northern Hemisphere allies served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. That strategic orientation was at the heart of the Cold War.

With the Soviet Union gone, so was the need for that strategy. NATO first sought to incorporate, over Russian objections, former Warsaw Pact states into its embrace. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined first, followed by  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, most recently, Albania and Croatia. It shifted its focus towards multinational peace-keeping and peace-enforcement, irregular low-intensity conflict operations such as those in Kosovo in the late 1990s (the size, scope, pace, depth and range of weapons used in kinetic operations determine the relative intensity of combat). Later it cast its collective gaze further afield, involving itself in the International Security Assistance Force occupation of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The irony is that these strategic shifts did nothing to allay Russian concerns that NATO’s  primary focus remained on curtailing its ability to project force to its West and South, but in Western capitals the belief was that NATO needed to re-boot given the shifting geopolitical landscape and strategic priorities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

None of the new NATO missions substituted for those designed to counter the threat posed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and with the exception of the US, this was reflected in diminishing defense budgets, numbers of uniformed personnel and overall military significance within policy-making circles in member states. However it tried to redefine its core mission, NATO was increasingly seen by elites and public alike as a security organization without a purpose. Many felt that it should be disbanded and replaced by more flexible military agreements that would eliminate the costs of maintaining a permanent NATO infrastructure in Brussels and annually contributing, both militarily and financially, to its operations. It was believed in some quarters that this could be done without significantly impacting on any nation’s self-defense in what was seen as a largely benign European strategic environment where conflicts were more intra-rather than inter-state in nature.

It was for that reason that I penned this column as part of my late “Word from Afar” series as Scoop.

Now, thanks to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, that has changed. In the eyes of its champions, NATO is once again confronted by hostile Russians on its Eastern flanks. Not surprisingly, US and European military-security officials, especially but not exclusively in places like Poland, have been quick to raise the specter of Russian imperialism in the former Eastern European bloc, calling for a revitalization of NATO’s original primary and core concern: containing the Bear.

The justification for NATO revitalization is based on the belief that Putin will not stop in Crimea or even the Eastern Ukraine, but has intentions to at the very least “Finlandize” a number of former Soviet Republics on Russia’s border that he feels have gotten too politically close to the EU and their Western neighbors. Given that the uprising in Ukraine was seen as a vote in favor of closer ties with the EU, the Russian response in Crimea is taken as indicative of its approach towards other “pro-EU” governments in its near abroad.

Just as Putin was able to capitalize on Russian nationalism as a generator of support for the invasion of Crimea, so too can conservative politicians in many European states use his actions as a catalyst for nationalistic appeals. Fear of the Bear is widespread and often visceral in many parts of Europe, especially those that suffered under Soviet occupation or at the hands of Soviet troops during the Great War. They and their descendants provide receptive audiences for anti-Russian appeals made on both politically opportunistic as well as principled grounds.

This is music to the ears of European defense bureaucrats, even if the US is not quite as capable of shouldering the burden of their collective defense in the measure that it once used to. For European security elites, the good ole days of robust defense spending, new weapons acquisitions, force expansion and significant military say in national policy making are now set to replace the politics of austerity and neglect that characterized the post Cold War period. Security decision-makers will make the argument that resurgent Russia is as much a threat today as it was back during the Cold War, even if its reach is now more regional than global in scope and its power is derived as much from its energy exports as it is from its military capabilities. Their argument will dove-tail nicely with those of anti-Russian nationalists, so the die is set for another re-casting of NATO’s mould.

Of course, while NATO went through contortions of re-defining itself after the Cold War, Russian strategists continued to focus primarily on defending their land borders and promoting Russian influence in neighboring states so as to provide a buffer to would-be aggressors, particularly from the West. For the Russians the “liberation” of Crimea is just a natural and justified reaction to the steady erosion of Russian influence in regions in which it has core historical, cultural and political interests. It is this “natural” reaction that has prompted the calls for NATO’s strategic re-orientation, which in turn means that the two strategic visions have once again been counterpoised.

This will be welcomed by Russian military and NATO officials because it marks the return to the common logics of collective defense that justify their positions and the arguments for counter-force deterrence that bound them together in opposition during the Cold War. However, for the citizens affected by a return to Cold War logics the prospects may not be so rosy.

Whatever the case, there are bound to be more than a  few NATO officials quietly hoisting a glass in honor of Vladimir Putin, for it is is he who has given them importance once again.

Playing Checkers on a Chessboard.

datePosted on 12:32, March 3rd, 2014 by Pablo

So John Kerry says that Russia’s military intervention in Crimea demonstrates that it is acting “in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on (a) completely trumped-up pretext.” He goes on to say that “It’s an incredible act of aggression,” and threatens Russia with expulsion from the G8 and a raft of sanctions.

My oh my. I realize that an essential element of politics and diplomacy is to be able to lie with a straight face and turn hypocrisy into an art form, but this really is up there on the chutzpah scale. Has someone pointed out to Mr. Kerry that this incredible act of aggression has resulted in zero deaths, unlike, say, some other military interventions over the last ten years? In any event, such rubbish is about all that the US has left when it comes to effectively replying to the Russian gambit.

Before I delve into why Putin is playing a larger game while the US reacts and responds simplistically, let me ask a couple of questions. Does military intervention by an autocracy feel any different from military intervention by a democracy on the part of those being occupied? And if the locals welcome the intervention even if their government does not (and in Crimea both the regional government and locals overwhelmingly welcome the Russian intervention), does that legitimate the use of force against a sovereign state?

Putin’s move reiterates his resolve to protect Russian interests and ethnic Russians along its borders. Already proven in Georgia, this latest move secures Russia’s strategic interests by defending its warm water naval bases in Crimea as well as the local Russian population. If extended to Eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are a majority, it could well provide a significant, albeit riskier bargaining chip for the Russian leader. His time window is relatively short, but if played right the strategic gains for Russia could be significant.

For example, withdrawal of Russian troops from the Crimea and/or Eastern Ukraine could be traded off for more than the continuation of a pro-Russian status quo in Kiev. The Russians can tie such a withdrawal to better terms for the Assad regime in Syria (where Russian strategic interests are also at stake), and even more- favorable-to-Russia terms for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program (which the Russians have an interest in given the larger interest in maintaining Iran as a buffer against Western influence in the Middle East). The Russians also have numerous points of contention with the West (particularly the US) in its near abroad, particularly in Central Asia amongst the various “Stans.”  Any of these can be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations to secure a Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine.

The ball is the Russian court, They have presented the West with a fait accompli in the guise of boots on the ground. They are going nowhere soon and will not be dislodged by force.

Why? because after nearly two decades of continuous war the US is exhausted of fighting. GOP and Fox News chickenhawks notwithstanding, the US public has no stomach for another fight and the US military is suffering from a slow burning crisis of morale than has been seen in gross ethical lapses from command to barracks across all of the armed services, to say nothing of the 20-30 military suicides per month and the epidemic of PTSD amongst young veterans. The US may still have a technological edge when it comes to weapons systems and a more experienced combat force, but its strategic interests in Ukraine are less than those of Russia and its emotive stake in a Ukrainian conflict is closer to zero when compared with that of Russian troops defending their ethnic kin living in Ukraine.

Then there is the small matter of escalation should the US and its allies get involved, which given the relative stakes and nuclear arsenals sitting at the top of each side’s weapons pile, is as good a deterrent as any.

If the US will not respond with force, then no one else will. NATO troops will go on alert, but even an increased supply of weaponry or foreign military advisors to the Kiev government will risk Russian retaliation beyond what the Europeans will find acceptable. If the Ukrainians go to war, no one will come to their defense other than to provide covert logistics and intelligence. But that will not be enough to overcome the Russian military advantage, although it might raise the costs of it remaining in Ukraine for a long period of time. So counter-force is not a real option.

As for the idea that the CIA somehow orchestrated the Ukrainian uprisings as part of some master plan (a theory put forth by at least one Left commentator), well let’s just say that the recriminations with the Beltway about a lack of warning, to say nothing of this outcome, would suggest not. In fact, the contrary is true: given the ethnic tensions within and Russian historical ties to and strategic interest in the Ukraine, the failures of intelligence and diplomatic reporting when it comes to assessing possible outcomes have been major (if for no other reason than this is the stuff of basic comparative foreign policy research). That means that Western intelligence services also will have limited to no effective say in the eventual resolution of the crisis–they will just report on developments as they occur.

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 (signed by the US, UK, Russia and the Ukraine), which pledged non-interference in and respect for Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for it giving up nuclear weapons on its soil, is a dead letter. It is not a Treaty and has no enforcement mechanisms other than what each country or countries choose to impose on each other. The Russians claim that the right to self-defense supersedes the memorandum, and that the presence of military bases and citizens in Crimea give Moscow the right to militarily intervene in their defense against Ukrainian aggression, even if done preemptively. In fact, if the Russians wanted to be really cynical they could invoke the “responsibility to protect (R2P)” doctrine that was used by NATO in Libya to justify its intervention against the Gaddafi regime (and R2P does not need UN sanction to be invoked).

Kerry flaps his jaws about expelling Russia from the G8 and imposing sanctions on Russian businesses. The EU makes lapdog noises about “serious consequences.” Does anyone think that Putin is cowed by those remarks? In fact, if anything the day of reckoning is upon Europe, not Russia. For instance, Germany is seriously dependent on Russian energy imports and has re-calibrated its foreign policy in recent years towards Russia. What is it going to do  now, abandon all of that in order to make a point about the Ukraine?

Diplomatically, Russia has the upper hand has the upper hand here and it involves (but is not limited to) its relations with Europe and the US.

As for the issue of economic sanctions threatened by Mr. Kerry.

Russian capital has flowed out of the mother country and is now invested–seriously invested–all over the world, to include places like the UK, Singapore, Dubai and the US. Are these states seriously going to consider freezing the assets of those who have made such investments? Will there be a united response when it comes to sanctions or will it be fragmented, porous and ineffectual?

Russia is not Cuba, South Africa, Iraq under Hussein or even Iran and North Korea today. Imposing sanctions on it is a far more difficult proposition, both in terms of getting states and private entities to adhere to any sanctions regime as well as with regards to Russian retaliatory capabilities.

Russian energy supplies are a lifeblood for many countries as well as Russia itself. States that choose to genuinely hurt Russia economically do so at their peril.

The UN will condemn the intervention and resolutions will be introduced in the Security Council to that effect. Russia will veto them. Nothing concrete will be done. If it were to get kicked out the G8–which is a long shot–then Russia can turn to the G20 for diplomatic support. Among its members are nations not entirely enthused about the US, UK and other colonial powers, so it is easy to suppose that its response will be lukewarm to any proposed sanctions or collective punishment.

Bilaterally, it will be hard for all but the most powerful nations to do anything meaningful to Russia. Perhaps countries will issue statements of regret and disappointment, perhaps even suspend talks on items of mutual interest, perhaps even recall or expel an ambassador. But symbolism aside, does anyone think this is going to sway Putin one way or the other?

Putin has a domestic constituency to consider. He may rule from behind a rigged electoral facade but he does represent a specific, and fairly broad constellation of Russian interests. These interests converge when it comes to defending Russia’s borders and near abroad, as well as Russians living outside the motherland. These constituents matter far more to Putin than the likes of David Cameron or John Kerry.

For all these (and several more) reasons, the Russians have the dominant hand in this situation. They will use it to extract concessions on matters of concern to them in exchange for an eventual, likely phased and partial withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Their strategic interests will be reaffirmed and recognized by their adversaries.

Barring a miscalculation or over-reach on Putin’s part that would bog his troops down in a protracted war (which would inevitably be irregular, unconventional and asymmetrical given the forces involved), Russia stands to gain most from what basically amounted to a window of opportunity created by the Ukrainian uprising.

Policy-makers in Western capitals should have thought about this before rather than after Putin made his move.

 

Sovereign Democratic Realism

datePosted on 12:18, August 6th, 2009 by Lew

2003849206Via Scott Yorke’s excellent Imperator Fish, pics of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Siberian vacation photo-op.

The wider photoset (you’ll have to google around for all the photos, since each website only contains part of the set) is a strong statement of Russia’s new national identity as a fit, keen, ruggedly independent nation which is the master of its own destiny, answerable to nobody. Vladimir Putin idealises Russia as it wants to see itself.

The wider campaign propagandises Putin’s adopted doctrine of Sovereign Democracy, essentially ‘we call our system democracy, so democracy it is’. It fetishises Putin’s personal capability and authority; his command over nature, his idolisation by ordinary Russians (even those thousands of miles from Moscow), his statesmanship. Closely resembling what I/S calls Heinlein’s psychopathic frontier barbarism, Putin rides horses, treks in the mountains, fishes in a wild river, pilots a fast boat, builds a fire, helps rescue a beached whale, comforts an Ingushetian politician injured in a suicide bombing, works in a metallurgists’ plant, gives orders as to a train crash, visits a political youth camp, meets Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow, and shares tea with the locals. All with the cameras in attendance (and in some cases, with the sound guy in-shot – no attempt at pretending it’s not a propaganda exercise).

There has been much speculation as to the import of this photoset, ranging from the suggestion that, by appearing bare-chested in the outdoors on a holiday with the Prince of Monaco, Putin is sending a signal of tolerance about homosexual rights, referencing Brokeback Mountain. The semi-official spin, naturally, is that it’s simply a demonstration that Putin knows how to relax – a signal that he will retire peaceably at the end of his second term as Prime Minister.

I am not so convinced. This lays the groundwork for a perpetuation of Putin’s role as Russia’s eminent statesman of the 21st Century, and in a much more subtle and compelling way than either Hugo Chávez or Manuel Zelaya’s clumsy attempts at circumventing constitutional term-limits. The key to sovereign democracy is its illusory consent – the appeal to Russian independence, strength, unity and capability which Jonathan Brent and others have argued (audio) present the danger of sliding back to a new form of Stalinism, even with the support of those who would suffer under such a system. This is a strong warning to Dmitry Medvedev, who has criticised ‘sovereign democracy’ as a form of authoritarian doublespeak, and to the Russian people that if a ‘real’ leader is needed, one exists. Former KGB officer Putin, here, is presenting himself as another Man of Steel.

L