The Korean Dilemma

United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration.  Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.

The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile.  Experts differ on that estimate.  Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018.  No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.

When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area.  Thus the question:  How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real?  There is no easy answer.

The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table.  The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action.  To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some.  In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located.  Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible.  It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target.  To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.

However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning.  So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.

The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul.  This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.

The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.

The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China.  President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans.  Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula.  First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States.  Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall.  Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.

Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed.  He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility.  For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view.  Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival.  Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him.  Here is what he sees.

Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.  Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs.  We now know that both actually did give them up.  One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung.  Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick.  He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him.  Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens.  Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.

During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality.  There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.  Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons.  (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons.  There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims.  It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces.  But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)

It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD.  Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight.  If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.

Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program.  On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur.  Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution.  They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.

There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran.  While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement.  First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement.  It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia.  Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run.  The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future.  Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors.  No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.

Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue.  However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions.  To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles.  So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.

For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program.  Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder.  This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.

Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war.  Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.)  Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.

Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.

Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate.  This seems to have the biggest chance of success.  If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.

While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies.  While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight.  Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.”  For now, the deployment continues.

It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea.  Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future.  It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness.  What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.


Doing The Right Thing

Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria.  The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished.  This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.

The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple.  Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario.  They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.

The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences.  Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies.  It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences.  Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.

The larger question is “what next?”  Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come.  What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.

The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts.  The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month.  It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.

On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike.  What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened.  When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook.  Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet).  Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.  President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night.  Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.

Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not.  There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea.  However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.


It’s Not Funny Anymore

“What in the wide, wide, World of Sports is going on here?”

— Slim Pickens as “Taggart” in Blazing Saddles

I made a promise to myself, and to many others, that I would give President-Elect Donald J. Trump a chance to prove himself as our next president.  After all, I reasoned, he has yet to take office, has not had any Cabinet officers confirmed or proposed any legislation to the Congress.  I thought to myself, let’s give him a chance and see what he actually does rather than what he might do.

Too late.  Mr. Trump is already showing us what kind of president he will be.  In so doing, it appears to me that he has forgotten that he is not yet the president.  We only have one president at a time and currently Barack Obama is our president, like it or not.  Yet Mr. Trump has already meddled in foreign affairs, the market place, labor union affairs, and other areas properly the purview of the person that is the president.  In addition he continues to refuse to reveal anything about his business interests, or tax returns or any other aspect of his dealings that may well impact his decisions as president.  Mr. Trump was to have a news conference this Thursday to outline how he will deal with all of those interests, but he announced yesterday that the news conference has been deferred to an unspecified date in January. Don’t count on him actually holding it.  Despite frequent promises, he has not held a news conference since 27 July 2016.  In that one, he famously invited the Russians to hack Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails.

My biggest concerns with his actions thus far relate to national security.  He has been reckless in his statements and actions to date.  One can argue that in the United States domestic economic concerns are the biggest motivators to the voting public.  However, the number one role of a national government is national security.  If the government cannot protect its citizens from all enemies foreign and domestic, then it has failed.  Otherwise, there is no ability to focus on any other aspect of government.  I find that Mr. Trump is woefully uninformed and reckless in his actions thus far and has already put our national interests in jeopardy.  One can only imagine what may take place once he assumes the office.

If you have only glanced at the news (real news, not fake news) you know that Mr. Trump has muddled our relations with both China and Taiwan.  His original conversation with the Taiwanese President sent shock waves through our diplomatic corps and the Chinese were not amused.  This week, Mr. Trump compounded the mess by saying in an interview on Fox News Sunday that in essence, his comments on China and Taiwan was an opening gambit in trade negotiations.  This thrilled Taiwan because now they are considered bargaining chips in our relations with China.  Their take away over the last 48 hours is that Mr. Trump would not expand the relationship with Taiwan but rather bargain them away as a pawn if it meant a “good deal” with China on trade.  In only a few days he managed to scare and to irritate both a friend and a foe, without stating any clear policy to move forward.

There are always new policies and ways of doing business with each new administration.  But as they say on Monday Night Football, “c’mon man!”

Most troubling, and seriously dangerous, is Mr. Trump’s reaction to the profoundly disturbing news that the Russian involvement in the presidential election is much deeper than imagined.  As I have written in this space before, it was disturbing to me that during the campaign the discussion was about the juicy tidbits in the hacked information and not that it was illegally obtained through the auspices of a foreign nation.  If you have not recently read about the intricate details, there is a primer in the New York Times that provides the outline of the case and what is known and unknown.

In short, the Russians have been acting deliberately to interfere with our election in a wide variety of ways.  One can argue whether the intent was to “merely” undermine the integrity of the democratic process or whether it was actively trying to derail Secretary Clinton’s campaign in order to help Mr. Trump.  Either way, we as a nation should be outraged and demand an investigation.

Unless you are Mr. Trump or his advisers that is.  They repeatedly called the notion “laughable” and “ridiculous.”  Or as Mr. Trump said on Sunday;

“I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why, and I think it’s just — you know, they talked about all sorts of things. Every week it’s another excuse. We had a massive landslide victory, as you know, in the Electoral College.”

— Mr. Donald J. Trump on Fox News Sunday on 11 December 2016

This followed a Friday night press release where they ridiculed the CIA and Mr. Trump has repeatedly said that he does not take the daily intelligence briefs because “I am a smart person.”

It baffles me why Mr. Trump and his advisers didn’t just say something along the lines of this:

We are deeply troubled by the revelations of possible Russian intrusion into the 2016 presidential election.  While there is no evidence that the election results were tampered with or otherwise illegitimate we welcome the Congressional investigation into what happened in order to confirm the basic tenets of our democracy.  President-Elect Trump looks forward to working closely with the intelligence community to keep our nation safe.

Here is the problem.  He must believe that the CIA and other intelligence agencies — which are unanimous in their conclusion that the Russians tried to influence the election, but not on why they did so — are not good at their job and politicized.  Either or both assumptions are dangerous to our well-being.  Today Michael V. Hayden, former director of the NSA and later of the CIA wrote an opinion piece that explains the danger.  The question is not really about whether or not there are political overtones to the Russian involvement or what their intent may be.  The real question is why Mr. Trump refuses to seek the assistance of the intelligence agencies in solving problems and to use the information to help inform his decisions.  An adversarial relationship with the intelligence agencies is not going to help protect our nation.  To be dismissive of the information that they provide is reckless.

Through my personal experience and confirmed by all knowledgeable accounts, the members of our intelligence communities work very hard to keep us safe.  More importantly in this context, they are career professionals that have faithfully served both Republicans and Democrats.  They are apolitical. They seek only the facts.

There are cultural differences between the agencies, which could be used to the new president’s advantage rather than as a weapon to delegitimize their efforts.  For example, the CIA lives in a mushy world where the preponderance of evidence gives them signals to interpret events and to predict potential adversarial relationships in order to inform decision makers as they set policy.  They themselves do not set any policies.  The FBI on the other hand, has a different culture.  They are a law enforcement agency that works to convict criminals and others in a court of law.  They must gather proof beyond a reasonable doubt that can stand up in court.  An entirely different mission.  Add to that the fact that the CIA is focused on the international scene and that the FBI has an internal domestic focus. Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are areas for disagreement as to the degree of surety about a particular case.

Look at it another way.  Many CIA employees risk their lives to gather information to keep our nation safe.  How motivated are they going to be to do so if the Commander-in-Chief basically calls them liars and political operatives attempting to “re-litigate the election”?

As a side note, but related, Mr. Trump seemingly due to his thin skin and lack of understanding, attacks anyone that he surmises does not support his election.  And that happens to anybody that does not tout his “landslide” victory.  I have yet to conclude whether Mr. Trump’s numerous untruths are the result of wishful thinking, studied ignorance or outright lies.  I suppose it could be all three, but it is continual. Let’s just use the election results as an example.  Mr. Trump claims that he won the election in a landslide.  The fact is that his percentage of electoral votes ranks him 46th out of the 58 presidential elections in our history. Not even the top half.  He is also losing to Secretary Clinton in the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes — her total is more than that received by any presidential candidate in history except Barack Obama — a result he claims is the result of “millions” of illegal voters that otherwise would have afforded him the outright win.  There is no proof of any voter fraud, much less “millions.”  I could go on but I don’t have enough time or space to enumerate the misinformation that comes from him and his aides — even if I just limited it to the last seven days.

This is dangerous.  We need an informed and truthful president — or at least one that doesn’t create his own facts.

Even more troubling is his cozy relationship with Russia and seemingly endless admiration of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Let’s take a look at but a few examples.

Mr. Trump’s son said that Russian investors are a major factor in the family business.  Or more precisely he said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Members of his campaign and future administration have close business ties with Russia, including his national security adviser LT General Michael Flynn, USA (ret.).  He famously sat at a banquet with Mr. Putin and lambasted American news media outlets during a Russian propaganda television broadcast.

Mr. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State is a personal friend of Mr. Putin and was awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship in 2013.  Oh, by the way, Mr. Rex Tillerson, as the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, has done a lot of business with Mr. Putin and other Russian oligarchs over oil.  Secretary-nominee Tillerson is a staunch advocate for removing sanctions against Russia imposed after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. He is quoted as saying the sanctions cost his company one billion dollars.  I am sure that will have no bearing in his dealings with the Russians.

I have no doubt that Mr. Trump did not personally collude with the Russians to interfere with the election and I am equally sure that no actual votes cast changed as a result of the Russian actions. I do feel strongly that their actions did impact the election, but it is impossible to know whether the outcome would have been any different without the Russian efforts.  Mr. Trump will be our president.

That said, I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate the extent and intent of Russian interference.  I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate Mr. Tillerson’s ties to Russia and his other dealings.  I think it perfectly reasonable to investigate Mr. Trump’s business dealings and relations with foreign powers. I think it perfectly reasonable for Mr. Trump to continue to receive pressure to release his tax returns and to build a firewall between himself and his businesses — just like everyone that works for him will have to do.

Thankfully, members of the Senate are going to do that on a bi-partisan basis.  They should dig deep and hard.  The point is not to undo the election.  That will not happen.  The point is make sure that undue influence from foreign powers is deterred in future elections and to make sure that going forward, the ties to Russia that are obvious to all but Mr. Trump do not inhibit the national interests of the United States of America.  Our nation and citizens come before the business interests of the billionaires that apparently will be running our country.  Let’s keep the pressure on Congress to provide the over sight needed to keep our nation safe.

 

 


A Growing Dilemma

In case you lost track, events in Ukraine are increasingly leading towards a chance of significant conflict. Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning the escalating fighting in Ukraine.

Roughly a year ago, Chancellor Merkel stated that she would no longer deal with President Putin until he became serious about working for a solution to the problem in Ukraine.  Nothing has changed regarding Putin’s stance on events there.  He continues to claim that there is no Russian involvement there and that, indeed, NATO troops are the bulk of the fighters for the “illegal” Ukrainian government. Yet Merkel felt it necessary, along with the other most influential leader in continental Europe, to go to Moscow. This demonstrates their concern that the situation in Ukraine is becoming increasingly dangerous. Influencing their decision to meet with Putin is a growing sentiment in the United States Congress and with senior advisers to President Obama that the United States should provide the Ukrainian army with increased aid, including heavy weapons.  At present, the U.S. supplies only non-lethal aid and diplomatic support to the Ukrainians.

Last September, the Ukrainians and pro-Russia separatists agreed to a ceasefire that held, with some exceptions, until early this year.  Since the new year began, the separatists have launched several offensives to expand their territory to the west and south.  Fierce fighting in cities and towns left scores of civilians dead, in addition to casualties among those fighting.  The situation continues to escalate. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine this week to renew U.S. pledges of support to the Ukrainian government and to call for renewed sanctions if Russia does not bring the fighting to a halt. Indeed, last week, the European Union voted to consider increased sanctions against Russia.

You will recall that I wrote about this subject last September (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) and stated that over time, the events in Ukraine potentially provide a bigger threat to our long-term strategic goals than does ISIS.  I also pointed out that European leaders should review their history as NATO was formed for this exact reason — to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion. Ukraine of course is not a member of NATO, but the threat is the same and nothing that Putin and the Russians have done since last fall provides any shred of evidence that the Russians intend to stay out of Ukraine.  In fact, it is very much the opposite, and in my mind, the situation is even more dangerous. Yet the United States, and indeed all of Europe, walk a tenuous high wire trying to balance our strategic interests elsewhere in the world, while working to inhibit Russian adventurism.

According to most experts, the sanctions have had a real impact on the Russian economy.  The exchange rate for the Russian ruble plummeted over the course of 2014 and the Russian economy is suffering. Even Putin admits that the economy is in bad shape but places the blame squarely on the West and claims that western nations are trying to destroy Russia.  Exacerbating their economic woes is the plunging price of oil, which until the bottom dropped out of the market, allowed Russian economic policies to continue through oil revenue.  No longer.

Given the extent and effectiveness of Russian propaganda within their own population, Putin has been able to build an “us against them” mentality.  Historically, what is the track record of nations run by dictators and near dictators when they face economic troubles or domestic unrest? They drum up a problem outside the country’s borders, rally the population around (in this case) the Motherland, and blame all internal problems on external forces. Putin and his cronies are experts at this.  The tightening of sanctions only validates his story.

At the same time, when Ukrainian and Western European leaders call on the Russians to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, the Russians claim that there are no Russian troops, equipment or aid to the so-called rebels fighting for their “freedom.”  It is difficult to imagine how the West will get Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine when he steadfastly argues that none are there.

Other complicating factors to unified western action include:

  • the close economic ties of several European nations to Russia
  • the requirement for unanimous consent among the European Union’s twenty-eight nations to take action on further sanctions or anything else
  • the same requirement for the twenty-eight nations in NATO (not all the same ones as in the EU)
  • the need to have Russia at the table to bring Iran to heel
  • the many cooperative endeavors between Russia and the U.S. not the least of which is the manning and resupply of the International Space Station
  • the many other areas of strategic interest around the world where Russia must either be included, or pacified to keep them from meddling.

In short, given the degree of the response from the West, the large number of areas where western nations want Russian cooperation, and the positive impact on Russian domestic politics of continued adventures in Ukraine, with little to no adverse effects, Putin has no incentive to cease his meddling.

So, what can be done?  As I wrote last September, as a minimum the West should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat posed by trained Russian “volunteers.” These Russians operate weapons beyond the capability of Ukrainian “farmers” and “factory workers” rebelling against the central Ukrainian government.
  • Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
  • Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe.  These deployments underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.  Although such deployments are underway, it is at small levels with minimal impact on public or diplomatic perceptions.
  • Increase meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy, but the costs of dealing with Putin will only increase over time.

To be sure, there are dangers in this approach, or any approach that Putin feels threatens Russia. Some caution that arming the Ukrainian military and escalating the conflict only plays into Putin’s hands, providing an opening for invading Ukraine and leading to a much wider conflict, with more casualties, and one that the West does not have the will to stop.  Indeed, Russia holds the strategic and tactical advantage in geography, troop levels, and will to win.  It is unclear that the EU or NATO will be willing to engage Russia militarily should Putin decide to expand his adventure in Ukraine and annex large parts of the country as he did in Crimea.  Putin declared last fall that he could “march into Kiev” at any time — he had only to give the order.  Some argue that the West could give him the incentive do so if the situation escalates through increased military support or harsher sanctions.

In my view, Putin is playing the long game and will continue his adventurism until he is stopped.  The sooner the West demonstrates its resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.  In the end, only diplomatic solutions will provide a long-lasting resolution to this crisis.  However, it is clear that increased military resistance is the only thing that is going to make Putin decide to end his shenanigans.  And it is the only thing that will keep him from playing similar games to restore other portions of the former Soviet Union. In addition to Crimea, one need only look at Georgia, Chechnya, and Moldova to see that Putin will not hesitate to use his Armed Forces in the interest of “protecting” Russians.  A quick survey of the map and a review of nations formerly part of the Soviet Union, or in its sphere of domination, will determine that there are large ethnic Russian populations in many other areas that Putin could decide to “protect.”

Putin will only stop meddling when he determines that the costs outweigh the benefits.  To date, he is a long way from that conclusion.  It is time for the West to demonstrate true resolve.


Why Would He Do This?

Yesterday Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress in February, which he accepted.  While on the surface this may seem relatively innocuous, it would not be the first time that he addressed Congress, in reality this invitation is an “in your face” move by Speaker Boehner and a direct challenge to President Obama. While technically not required, as the Speaker pointed out he can invite anyone he pleases to speak to Congress, it is highly unusual as the Speaker gave no advanced notice to the Obama Administration.  Diplomatically, historically and in keeping with protocol, not to mention good manners, the Speaker should have coordinated the invitation with the administration.  It is customary that a head of state invite, or at least tacitly agree to, another head of state coming to the United States on official business.  And oh yeah. According to the Constitution, the Executive Branch is responsible for foreign affairs.  This does not, of course, mean that the Congress does not have a role to play in oversight of foreign affairs.  Indeed they do have a role and an important one at that. The Senate is tasked with the duty to “advise and consent” to Ambassadorial appointments, treaties and other functions related to foreign affairs.  The House does not have that role, but they do control the money and that is the primary way that they influence such matters.

Equally rude was the revelation that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not inform the Obama Administration about the invitation either.  It could be because the Israelis did not want to get in the middle of an American political dispute.  It could be because the Prime Minister is himself in the middle of a contentious re-election campaign and an appearance before the U.S. Congress can only help him in his bid.  It could be because the Israelis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, could care less about any American policies, they are only interested in protecting their own interests.

Why is this a big deal?  Besides the theatrics and political gamesmanship, behind Speaker Boehner’s move is the ongoing negotiation with Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions.  Many Republicans, and some Democrats, (and certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu) believe that President Obama is about to make a “bad” deal with the Iranians that will give them the ability to produce nuclear weapons on short notice.  Those that oppose any deal, or at least the deal currently under negotiation, with the Iranians want to impose more and more severe sanctions now on the Iranians and keep them on until they, in essence, capitulate and remove any nuclear capability whatsoever.  The current negotiations would allow the Iranians to keep peaceful nuclear reactors for generating electricity and for research, but with significant restrictions and under a severe inspection regime.  There are currently sanctions in place with Iran which, coupled with the dramatic drop in the price of oil, have a significant impact on their economy and brought some in their government around to the possibility of agreeing to the constraints on their nuclear program.

To be sure, there are Iranian hard-liners in influential positions in their government that oppose any deal.  The current negotiations are not a sure thing.  President Obama clearly states that there is “probably less than a 50-50 chance” of the negotiations succeeding.  He is willing to put more sanctions in place if the negotiations fail, but strongly opposes any further efforts now as he argues that the chance of success will fall from 50-50 to zero.  It will also have an impact on negotiations with other nations as the move would be perceived as the United States (and other nations, more on that shortly) reneging on their good faith negotiations.

These are not unilateral negotiations.  Negotiating partners (sometimes referred to as the P5+1) include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China working to get Iranian concessions on their nuclear program.  In a press conference during his visit to the United States last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said  that he told U.S. senators that “it is the opinion of the U.K. that further sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.”  In today’s Washington Post the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the European Union wrote an opinion piece directed at the United States Congress delineating the progress made to date in gaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iranian reactors and other progress in providing oversight, and subsequent limitations, on the Iranian ability to produce a nuclear weapon.  They ask that diplomacy be continued to allow further progress and specifically make the point that:

“new sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far.  Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”

Given such overwhelming international support and concern, it baffles me why members of Congress would actively work to undermine our negotiating position.  Several have advocated military action to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities, a view shared not coincidentally by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  President Obama did not take military action off the table, stating only that it should, rightly in my opinion, be the “last resort” when no other option remains.  We are not there and probably will not be there for some time.

I do not mean to impugn the good intentions or character of members of the House and Senate that truly believe that Iran poses an imminent threat to the United States and its allies.  However, I do not believe that all of those that advocate increased sanctions on Iran do so out of that belief.  I think that Speaker Boehner’s move to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will undoubtedly advocate for increased sanctions, if not military action, against Iran is motivated by domestic politics to embarrass the president and to imply that the president is not concerned about the well-being of Israel.

Speaker Boehner is playing with fire.  Perhaps he is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing harsh sanctions on Iran, causing them to withdraw from the negotiations, and thus providing the opportunity to spout an “I told you so” about the president being naive, weak, a poor leader or all of the above.  The usual talking points.

Again,  the best analysis is that there is a 50-50 chance that the negotiations will succeed.  The best analysis, including from our closest allies, is that harsher sanctions will doom the process and sink that chance of success to zero.  The process has only a few more months to play itself out.  Why must the Congress act now?  Harsher sanctions may indeed be in order if the Iranians withdraw, or dissemble, or otherwise bargain in bad faith.  But we are not there yet.  This is a serious issue and there are serious arguments that can, and are, made on each side of it.  In the end, our national security is only our business and no one else’s, we need to do what is right for our own national interests.  Got it.  Let the debate begin.  But this spiteful move is not what one would expect from the Speaker of the House.

So why would he do this?  To use a domestic political ploy to embarrass a sitting president of another party by playing with serious international problems.  Speaker Boehner, you’ve made your point.  You won’t be ignored.  Now let’s get serious.


Danger, Will Robinson!

It may be time to heed the warning of the robot in the 1960’s television show “Lost in Space” when it comes to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Kremlin yesterday concerning the annexation of Crimea.  (The Kremlin transcript of the speech may be found here.  If one takes him at his word, and I think we should, beware.)

It is past time to stop categorizing Putin’s pronouncements as nothing more than incredible Russian propaganda.  He is serious.  Yesterday he laid down a blue print for restoring Russia to what Putin believes is its rightful place in the world order.  I do not think he is bluffing and I do believe that he says what he means in this speech.  In it, he uses several historical references to bolster his claim that what Russia did in the Crimea was in keeping with previous precedent.  He is taking the long view  — a vision of Russia for the future — in the speech.  Clearly when he uses words like “plundered” in reference to the end of the cold war and the loss of Crimea to Ukraine and the departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)  (the immediate follow-on to the Soviet Union) of former Soviet republics, he is laying the groundwork for his case that Russia should reclaim its historical lands.  (Historical in the context of a Russian empire, not necessarily the context of the totality of history.)  He follows it up with claims that following the break up of the CIS, Russian citizens “went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”  Given his actions in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine, this statement should set off all kinds of alarm bells in Europe, the United States and indeed, the rest of the world. When he speaks of an “outrageous historical injustice” it is not rhetoric, it his view of the world.

He may not act in the next few weeks, or even in the next year, but clearly Putin has designs to restore the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union.  In my view it does not mean that he will literally do so, and it does not mean a return to communism in Russia (he and his pals are getting too rich off the current system to want to go back).  It does mean that he intends to restore what he sees as the glory of the Russian state and that he will not tolerate nations on Russia’s borders that do not bow in the direction of Moscow.  He doesn’t need to occupy as long as he can intimidate them and have them join his Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states vice join the European Union and move towards the west.  This is where Ukraine ran afoul of the Russian bear.

In his speech, Putin uses a very legalistic approach as he delineates why the Russians not only can act, but should act.  To me, this further defines that his speech is not meant as propaganda or even only to justify his actions in Crimea.  It means that further actions in the same context are justified.   Clearly, time and again in the speech, Putin makes clear that Russia has been wronged and that it is time to act to rectify the situation and to restore Russian greatness.  He refers to the policy of containment in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the west and sees it as the height of “hypocrisy.”  In so doing, he claims that “our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”  Sound familiar?

A significant trigger to his actions is the growth of NATO.  This is considered a direct threat to the well-being of Russia.  Ukraine joining NATO (whether or not that was a realistic development) was probably the last straw in Putin’s view.  As he says; “For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

Despite some of the domestic political rhetoric in the United States, it would not have mattered who was sitting in the Office of the President of the United States when the events in Ukraine unfolded.  Putin acted predictably when his chosen ally, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the country and a pro-western interim government emerged.  The question is now what to do about it?

International diplomacy is a tough, slow endeavor.  This is especially true in a situation such as the annexation of Crimea where the average European or American citizen cannot really see what difference it makes to their lives.  So what?  Likewise, the west has been trying to give Putin “off ramps” and face-saving solutions to the problem.  Why?  Putin is now rubbing the results in our face — he is not interested in saving face because he feels that he has the upper hand.  It is the west, in his view, that needs to save face.

Coupled with this is the clear unlikelihood, barring an outright military invasion of Poland (sound familiar?) or other NATO nations, of US or NATO military action and Putin knows he is in the position of strength.  Just as after World War I, the US and Europe have expressed their war weariness following Iraq and Afghanistan and have expressly demonstrated no interest in engaging in another military action.  (See Syria:  Pundits blame President Obama for drawing a “red line” on Syria and not following through, but remember that it was the UK Parliament and the US Congress that refused to support it, among others.)

Make no mistake, I am not advocating military action to return Crimea to Ukraine, nor should any other direct military action now be on the table under the current set of events.  The steps taken to reassure our NATO allies with increased deployments of aircraft, although more symbolic than militarily effective, are sufficient for now as a military response.

Where we do have the upper hand is economically.  Russia’s economy is very weak and both the nation’s economy and the oligarchs surrounding Putin depend heavily on exports of gas and oil.  This is where significant efforts to convey to Putin that we take him seriously, and he should take us equally seriously, can be made.  Russia has threatened counter-sanctions should the west impose sanctions and follow-up on the rhetoric.  So be it.  Taking the long view, Russia will suffer far more than Europe or the United States.  The problem is that few people take the long view.  Short term comfort or profit seems to be more important.  It’s cold so we need natural gas.  We like the money the oligarchs have invested in the west, especially Germany and the UK.  (How many people know that the NBA Brooklyn Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov?  I’m not saying he is necessarily a Putin crony, just that most people do not know how wide-spread the business interests of Russian billionaires — making their billions in the post-Soviet chaos of Russia in the 1990s — may be.)

Likewise, major US corporations are heavily invested in Russian markets and fear losing those investments if the US and Russia get into an economic tit-for-tat.  They have been lobbying heavily for minor actions to protest Russian movements without jeopardizing their stake in Russia today.

What is clear is that putting sanctions against seven relatively minor Russian officials and four former Ukrainian officials is not going to have any impact on Putin or his decisions.  (The European Union put travel bans and asset freezes on twenty-one people — still not even really a slap on the wrist.)

Additionally, US and European actions thus far have been reactive in nature.  Telling Putin “if you do this, then we may do something” is not going to deter him, especially when the actions we do take are more symbolic than practical.  We are in a period where miscalculation on either side can lead to long-term negative consequences.  Stop sending ambiguous messages and formulate specific meaningful actions.

Look, I am no former Cold Warrior looking to restore the good ol’ days of yesteryear.  Those days are gone — good riddance — and I don’t think that in this interconnected world that we will see those days again.  I do believe, however, that the world continues to be a dangerous place with dangerous people in it.  Taking Russian actions around the world in totality — support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, support to Iran, granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the nationalistic display at the Sochi Olympics, etc. etc. — means that the Russian bear must be taken seriously.  We cannot become grand foes once again, but we must have our own interests at heart and follow through on our commitments.  In my mind, we have yet to do so concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the impact on surrounding nations that we now call our friends.

Just as I think our inaction in Syria sends a signal to the world, inaction here will strengthen the misperception that the US is too tied up in domestic issues to get involved in world issues.  As a nation, it is time we put partisan politics aside, buckle our chin straps, and get into the game.

Danger, Will Robinson.  We cannot ignore it.  I am not an alarmist or war-monger, but I think we are coming up short on our understanding of Putin’s intentions.  We need to take the long view, put Putin’s actions in their historical context and work to keep his nationalistic adventurism in check.  Deterrence, not reaction is needed.  Serious economic sanctions are our best weapon.