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Friday, March 21, 2014

The Onset of Cold War II

Regarding the situation in Crimea and its annexation by Russia, the most interesting question pertains to the motivations and intentions -- in essence, an attempt to place Russia’s behavior in the context of international relations theory. However, following the primary question, the other issue of interest is to address the overall international situation as it presently stands. In this, a new Cold War may be seen as developing.

The original Cold War was characterized by quickly-deteriorating relations between Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States toward the end of, and following, World War II, swiftly resulting in military competition, diplomatic competition, high rhetoric, sanctions and threats thereof, and, most visibly, so-called proxy wars. Over the past 14 years, not coincidentally the current length of President Putin’s tenure, Russia has seen substantially increased economic prowess, a recognition of its revitalization in the international theatre, and demonstrably greater foreign influence. During this period, Russia has markedly expanded its military/defense, technological, and energy sectors, all to great success. Moreover, relations between the two states have been deteriorating in parallel to Russia’s power projection efforts, particularly since President Obama and his Administration entered the White House in 2008 with a more cogent global American strategy than seen in the previous Administration.

Even without any further detail, a case for the re-emergence of the Cold War could be begun -- all the hallmarks of the half-century quiet conflict stand in the present, excepting open conflict and the ever-present threat of mutually assured destruction, although the latter is, essentially, implicitly understood by any number of states in the modern context of warfare. However, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine in 2014, both under the same pretenses (protecting Russian nationals and ethnic Russians) and using nearly identical strategies of silent, but overwhelming, influence. These small, former Soviet satellite states are no military match for Russian might, making even the barest threat of actual warfare terrifying.

There is no indication that Russia intends to cease the re-acquisition of its former territories, or at least the most valuable parts, especially as it presently remains unchecked and noticeably defiant. Similarly, there is no viable justification for Western intervention, as yet, because of the way in which the circumstances have been orchestrated and the lack of formal Western affiliations, such as NATO, OSCE, or the European Union. This is, no doubt, a deciding factor in which states to target for subversion and liberation/annexation.

If this path is continued, declaring Cold War II would be no exaggeration; presently, it would even seem an appropriate fit. Diplomatic relations have been severely strained, both states have implemented sanctions against the other, Russia is carrying out nationalistic expansion, the West is demanding it cease immediately, and the underlying threat of war between Russia and the United States, if not the West, remains strong. Open warfare between two such powers -- one, the dominant, sole, and unquestionable international force, and the other, a strong, bold, and untested force seeking the title of Great Power -- would be immeasurably devastating for, in all likelihood, all of Europe, Russia, and large swaths of the United States. It is, of course, far from any rational actor’s list of desires.

This is precisely why Cold War II may be an apt declaration, particularly as the conflict continues, but always without proceeding to outright war. Unless circumstances drastically and unexpectedly change, Russia will continue its present course as a nationalist, pro-Russian state that eerily mirrors its Soviet predecessor. The United States, too, can be expected to mirror its past behaviors, by fortifying and bolstering states it considers to be potential Russian targets, particularly those with formal Western affiliations. Neither state will wish to withdraw or admit to any potential validity of the other’s actions, which will merely perpetuate the present dilemma, even as hard-line nationalists, on either side, push for greater provocation and more dramatic action. If true, there would be no easy method of de-escalation -- the last time required the entire destabilization and collapse of one of the two states.

This is Cold War II.

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Update (April 20, 2014 10:30am EST):  Events are far beyond my ability to post updated reflections, as the daily developments are perpetually complex, intriguing, and quickly evolving.  A near-future post on the broad strokes, however, will eventually be posted on Sense and Security, focusing on my own particular interests and analysis.

Russia, Crimea, and Comprehensive Realism

As previously addressed, Russia inches the world ever-closer to war, having now annexed Crimea following an independence referendum of questionable veracity.  The case for this as a so-called bloodless coup d'etat is strong and has been repeatedly, very visibly made, but the realization that this is yet another expression of Russia's perceived perennial physical insecurity1 is much slower to arrive, even if it has been just as publicly discussed.  In fact, Russia's present behaviors make a perfect case for Comprehensive Realism.

Comprehensive Realism, as explored in a forthcoming paper, is the understanding of a state's behaviors within the context of realism, but with the understanding that there are motivations, including domestic ones, not immediately explainable by traditional realist theories.  This motivation is, here, therefore determined to be externally accessible through the grafting of established psychological theories onto a realist understanding of the world.  In essence, it is a theory still determined by state security and self-interests, but one aware that what could be perceived as security threats or actions in a state's own interest is very much determined by the state's past and present, and its people.

Applying this to the present Russia-Ukraine-Crimea situation, it becomes immediately clear that Russia sees Crimea as a security interest (due to its counterpoint access to the Black Sea) in a region where it has already taken security-seeking action on other pretenses (with Georgia) and at a time where Russia is feeling both revitalized and threatened.  There is no doubt that the United States' projection of power, around the world, is making a historically security-sensitive state nervous; perhaps this is further exacerbated by the continued destabilization of Syria and other states within the Russian near-abroad and the increasing threat (although largely only perceived) of China.  In any case, Russia, under a President who has reshaped the state in his own ideological image for well beyond a decade, feels threatened and it has taken action.

This action manifests not only as increased rhetoric and escalating challenges to Western authority, but also as attempts to re-establish control over territory it has historically sought for a simple geographic security buffer, if nothing else.  The latter is why Russia, in all its sovereign forms, has expanded and contracted over the course of its history -- it is also why Poland, a sovereign state with a history of countless homeland violations, is scrambling to fortify its defenses, even with still-sovereign Belarus between.  When Russia becomes nervous about its security and insecure about its place in the international order, borders are expanded or wars are fought; or both.

Crimea is, here, no different.  There is no standard realist explanation for why Crimea should have been invaded and annexed, even in such a quiet and well-planned fashion, other than because Crimea has a desired seaport presence and Russia could.  Typically, these would be insufficient justifications for realist action.  If, however, Crimea is seen as simply another trophy in the game of Russian domestic security -- inherently requiring an appropriate understanding of the Russian mindset and the motivations behind the state's actions -- then it seems a perfect candidate for Comprehensive Realism.  Without this theory, Russia's annexation of Crimea appears unnecessary, haphazard, and reckless, particularly when the outbreak of war -- traditional, covert, or a new iteration of the Cold War -- could very easily be the result.  There was, and remains, no guarantee that Western forces would not openly and militarily counter Putin's actions in an attempt to avoid a 21st century Appeasement.

Having already undertaken action twice -- a region within Georgia and a region within Ukraine -- there exists a pre-determined test for whether this understanding of Russian behavior is accurate:  whether Russian territory continues to expand.  Belarus and the rest of Ukraine remain untouched, despite their extensive shared history with Russia, as do the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Armenia and Azerbaijan (Georgian neighbors), and a handful of other states found in Central Asia and Central/Eastern Europe, all of which are former Soviet territories.  If this twice-used strategy is once again employed -- perhaps in Azerbaijan for the Caspian Sea or a Baltic state for the Baltic sea -- then not only can the Russian strategy be understood and explained, its future behaviors can be predicted, using the perspective designed through Comprehensive Realism.

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[1] Here, again, my two-year old undergraduate thesis on Russia, its democratic pretense, and its fears is extremely relevant.  It cannot be stressed enough how dependent Russia's actions, particularly under Putin, are upon the state's socio-cultural history.
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Update (April 20, 2014 10:30am EST):  Events are far beyond my ability to post updated reflections, as the daily developments are perpetually complex, intriguing, and quickly evolving.  A near-future post on the broad strokes, however, will eventually be posted on Sense and Security, focusing on my own particular interests and analysis.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Israel and Realism: An Inquiry

Israel continues, on a regular basis, to engage in its open, quasi-asymmetrical warfare with the Palestinian people, those it deems terrorists, and those it claims provides the means for terror activities, in spite of near universal international acrimony and rancorous results.  The demonstrable value, beyond Israel's domestic politics, in undertaking such a course of action is difficult to see and understand in the context of its own self-interest and security interests.  After years of claiming imminent existential threat as the justification for a variety of military engagements -- with the clear result of an increased, rather than decreased, threat level -- the question remains as to what end Israel hopes to achieve through the repetition of behaviors successful only within a strictly military framework.

By providing existential threat as the justification for physical invasions of foreign territory, missile strikes, and an assortment of other military engagements, Israel has explicitly defined its behaviors, in this regard, within a realist paradigm: self-interest and security over diplomacy, international collaboration, and the interest of others.  However, since the goal is increased security and the successful pursuit of self-interest, it seems that Israel's realist border and near-abroad policies have fallen somewhat short of success.  The motivations for these policies -- typically strongly and nationally militaristic with anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim overtones, although this is not, in any way, explicit -- cannot even be described within the paradigm of Comprehensive Realism, simply because the actual realist foundations are missing.

As such, perhaps the assumptions of Israel's goals in its near-abroad are inaccurate and the open claims of existential self-defense are intentionally misleading, due to a more selfish goal with substantially less potential for public support: continued destabilization of current, perceived, and possible threat actors.  Whether the threat actor is Egypt, Syria, Iran, the Palestinians, or others, Israel may be pursuing their intentional and continued destabilization for existential purposes, operating under the assumption that a destabilized, demoralized, and demobilized opponent is the best form of opponent.  There is, here, a certain kind of logic: if a threat actor cannot muster the resources for a sizeable attack, then the possibility of catastrophic Israeli loss substantially decreases.

This approach, of course, has a number of drawbacks, four of which are both clear and pressing.  First, and foremost, it would be difficult to find domestic and international support for perpetually seeking Israeli interests to the extreme detriment of others, which provides suitable grounds to bar any such admission.  Second, a state-level actor too destabilized becomes a different form of threat with increased unpredictability and irrationality, as is currently the case with both Egypt and Syria.  Third, and an evolution of the second drawback, a destabilized state-level actor has increased potential to produce sub-state threat actors that are substantially more difficult to guard against.  Fourth, such near-abroad policies require significant resources to maintain, with the risk of policy failure should sufficient time and effort not be devoted.

If Israel is, in fact, pursuing a course of near-abroad destabilization out of self-interest, then a realist paradigm, based upon perceived existential threats, applies rather neatly, so long as sub-state actors are not weighted too greatly.  Although this will win no allies and result in both the subjugation of various peoples and the subsequent development of anti-Israeli sentiments, it may serve its purpose, so long as it is properly maintained.  If, however, constant Israeli engagement with its neighbors and perceived threat actors is intended to result in a cessation of conflict, much less any policy change, then no rational paradigm of international relations theory can, therefore, be successfully applied.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Ukraine, Russia, and the United States: Inching Closer to War

As the Ukrainian situation devolves ever faster -- now with Russian Parliamentary approval for troops to move into Ukraine, although they seem to have already been in place, and quasi-ambiguous aims that seem to mirror those of the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia -- important considerations must be made,1 especially after President Obama and the United Nations took such a strong position against Russian invasion prior to its occurrence.

First, and foremost, comparisons between Syria and Ukraine are incorrect, making any extrapolations of Western behavior from the response to Syria irrelevant.  Syria was, and remains, a non-essential state in the realm of realist American concerns, and although the humanitarian issues within the conflict are known to be widespread and catastrophic, they remain of decreased concern to outside state interests.  This is why aid and vocal support have been provided, but no intervention or overt military assistance.  A more apt comparison would be between Ukraine and the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, which was similarly undertaken and for potentially identical reasons, but the Western, particularly American, response should not be expected to be repeated:  2008 was a contentious year in American politics where foreign intervention was all but impossible.  President Obama, in 2014, is considerably less constrained by the domestic political environment and has a more precocious, if not vibrant, foreign policy reputation.

Second, Ukraine may not be of much strategic importance to the West, but it is of great importance to Russia, particularly at a time when Russia is attempting to resurrect its image as a great power.  Ukraine provides another point-of-access to the Black Sea; acts as a parallel point-of-power for the Russian Navy stationed across the Sea; stands as an all-important land buffer between Central Europe and direct access to Russian territory; and, as a former satellite state, is a point-of-pride for the Russian Federation.  Russia, particularly under the iron fist of Putin, will not allow anti-Russian interests to present a threat so close to its borders and in a state secretly still desired.  This is precisely why the defense of the Russians -- both ethnic and national -- inside Ukraine are being used as an excuse for invasion, just as with Georgia.

Third, Russia is a serious enemy, and sometime ally, of the West and moreso of the United States.  Any substantial American presence or influence east of Berlin is deeply unappreciated by the Russians, and it is very often perceived as a threat: Poland; the Czech Republic and Slovakia; Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia; Greece; Cyprus; Turkey; Georgia; and even Syria all stand as prime examples, both historically and presently.  President Obama, however, is similarly unlikely to lightly interpret Russia's invasion of a separate, sovereign state, since it is not only in violation of international law and the stated wishes of the West, it is also a play of power.  If Putin is not resoundingly barred from imposing his will upon the states that border his own, he will feel emboldened to act further in this regard, and likely will, presenting a situation not unlike that of Chamberlain and Hitler in the years before World War II.  The West has no interest in creating a Russian-adjusted version of Appeasement, particularly given both the failure of its most famous instantiation and the rather overt Russian nature.

Finally, the United States has been at a crossroads of foreign policy for the last few years, undertaking a reduction in physical foreign presence and a withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq while simultaneously increasing the use of small, covert operations to pursue valued targets and furthering the diplomatic cause.  This has, arguably, seen largely positive results, but some criticisms have posited a general weakening of American strength and force projection, although this only appears to be the case because there has existed no need for large-scale military operations.  If Russia sees fit to continue to disregard the requests, demands, and overt warnings of the United States -- especially regarding the sovereignty of other states incapable of defending against a Russian offense -- then the United States may feel compelled to provide a swift and staunch response.2  Such a response would more than likely have the full support of the United Nations, NATO, the European Union, and the myriad other small states throughout Central and Eastern Europe that feel threatened by the shadow of a resurgent Russia, creating a much more entangled and complex engagement than with which Russia may comfortable.

Update (March 2, 2014 8:25am EST):  There's now more explicit evidence that Russia's behavior is making its neighbors very nervous.

Update (March 4, 2014 11:30am EST):  Here's two very good analyses on the still-rapidly-developing situation: one from Sean Kay via the Duck of Minerva and the other from Peter Beinart at the Atlantic.

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[1] My undergraduate honors thesis from Spring 2012 provides an in-depth look at the history, influences, and mindset of the Russian government and its people, particularly regarding the Russian identity and security of the Motherland.  It may be worth a look.

[2] However, outright war is, at this point, extremely unlikely.  "Inching Closer to War," found in this post's title, is a more appropriate description of the entire relationship between the United States and Russia, not necessarily of this specific situation.