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Iran, Russia, and the Ukrainian Crisis

The Buzz

The Ukrainian crisis poses a threat to cooperation between Russia and the West on many issues of international security and, above all, to the dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program. The dialogue with Iran is led by the P5+1 (the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China and Germany) with the goal of preventing Iran from creating an atomic bomb. In November 2013, thanks to the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, these negotiations achieved their first success:  an interim agreement called the “Joint Action Plan.” The parties are scheduled to complete work on and then sign a comprehensive agreement in July 2014.

The crisis in and around Ukraine, in which Western sanctions have already been applied against Russia and relations between Russia and the West have started to resemble the Cold War, could seriously complicate further negotiations. There remain in Iran influential political groups and organizations that aim to reach the “nuclear threshold” and continue to advance toward this goal, using any conflicts between the countries of the P5+1 to their advantage.

Dilemmas of Russian policy

Russia is undoubtedly against Iran developing nuclear weapons. Russia is also not a supporter of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, as it wants to sell Iran its own nuclear fuel for Iran’s Russian-built nuclear power plants (one reactor was put into operation at the Bushehr power plant, and a minimum of two more, and in the long term up to eight, reactors are planned). In 2006-2010, Russia voted in favor of six UN Security Council resolutions (including four with economic sanctions) designed to punish Tehran for continuing its nuclear program.

However, Moscow has never officially shared opinions about the military nature of the Iranian nuclear program and always prioritized diplomacy rather than economic sanctions or, especially, military force for resolving this issue. During the last several years, Moscow as aimed to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the United States, convincing Washington that it could incline Tehran to make concessions. This was one of the Russian political “trump cards” in relations with the West. However, in actuality, Iranian concessions came as a result of the election of a new president under conditions of economic crisis created by the oil embargo and financial sanctions of the United States and Europe.

During all the previous years, the Iranian issue was the subject of an intense struggle within Russia between enemies of the West, supporters of traditional ties with Iran and other Asian neighbors, and advocates of cooperation with the U.S. and strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime.  It is clear that, due to the Ukrainian crisis, the position of the latter group has weakened significantly.

Today the fundamental dilemma of Moscow’s policy lies in whether it is worth cooperating to achieve a comprehensive agreement with Iran under conditions of confrontation with the West over Ukraine. After all, such an agreement would primarily be a success for the United States and its allies’ policies, and would improve their relations with Tehran and sharply increase their influence in the Near and Middle East. In the course of a new Iranian president and in public sentiments, after over thirty years of isolation, pro-American attitudes and hopes for wide cooperation with the West are growing (according to a poll from September-October 2013, 80-90% of Iranians consider the reestablishment of relations with the United States necessary).

Furthermore, the removal of sanctions against Iran and the appearance of Iranian oil and gas in the world market would lead to a decrease in hydrocarbon prices or, at a minimum, would create serious competition for Russia. And hydrocarbons are Russia’s main export product, the fundamental source of its budget income, and the most important instrument of its foreign policy, including during the Ukrainian crisis.

On the other hand, the breakdown of negotiations with Iran would even more severely strain relations between Russia and the West, and would likely lead to a new war in the Persian Gulf—with extremely destructive economic and political consequences for the region and the entire world, including Russia. And, apart from the threat of war, the continuation of sanctions against Tehran harms Russian economic interests in Iran. Finally, the negotiations’ failure would not bring back Russia’s political “trump card” of a special relationship with Iran.

Historical background of relations

One must not forget that relations between Russia and Iran are much wider than the question of Iran’s nuclear program and have several hundred years of history.  Iran is the main state in the extremely unstable region neighboring Russia. Tehran has significant influence over events in the Near and Middle East, the South Caucasus, and Central and South Asia (including Afghanistan). Developments in this wide zone directly affect Russian national security, for which Islamic radicalism and terrorism remain a top threat. Additionally, Iran is a country with a largely young population of 80 million people, significant potential for economic development, and enormous reserves of oil and gas.

Shia Iran is regarded in Russia as the only counterbalance in the region to the increasing influence of the United States, Turkey, and Sunni extremism (Wahhabism and Salafism), which is particularly active in the Russian North Caucasus and in neighboring Central Asia. The unprecedented current tension in relations between Russia and the U.S./NATO has made the value of Iran as a partner even greater in Moscow’s eyes.

Additionally, Tehran is Moscow’s only ally in supporting the government of Syria, where the United States, its European partners, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Al Qaeda all take the side of the armed Sunni opposition. From the beginning of the Syrian crisis until 2013, Iran provided the regime of Bashir al-Assad (an adherent to Alawi Islam, a form of Shiism) financial assistance of $17.6 billion, including a loan for purchasing Iranian oil. Tehran also provides Damascus with weapons, and military specialists from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps command operations by units of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Syria.

Syria under the leadership of Assad is one of Russia’s few remaining political partners in the Middle East, buys its weapons, and provides the Russian Navy its only international base in both the Mediterranean Sea and the world (Tartus).

Economic interests

Trade and economic relations with Iran are of great interest to Moscow. In the years before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, more than 60 large infrastructure projects including hydro- and thermal power plants, gas pipelines, metallurgical factories and machinery plants were built in Iran with the help of the USSR. In recent years economic relations between the two countries plummeted due to UN, EU and U.S. sanctions. Iran's share of Russia's foreign trade has dropped to historic lows, and in 2013 amounted to less than 1% ($ 1.6 billion). Major oil field development projects were canceled by Russian companies including Lukoil, Norsk Hydro and Gazprom Neft.

The interim P5+1 Agreement with Iran from November 2013 and prospects for a comprehensive agreement along with the complete lifting of sanctions offer an opportunity for Moscow to significantly expand economic relations with Tehran. Russian exports to Iran are dominated by metals (46%), food (28.2%), machinery and equipment (6.4%). Russian imports from Iran consist mainly of agricultural raw materials (71.2 %) and chemical products (10.8%) with a plan in place to buy oil products in exchange for manufactured goods (to start at 500,000 barrels a day - 12% of Iran’s oil production). A permanent bilateral commission has been created to coordinate economic relations between governmental agencies and companies in both countries.

For the future, priority has been given to the energy sector. Russian companies are planning major investments in the development of Iran’s large gas fields in order to strengthen the global position of Gazprom in competition with U.S. shale gas exports. Russia also plans to continue aiding in the development of Iranian nuclear energy, having achieved a unique position as Iran’s partner in building the Bushehr nuclear power plant during the county’s international isolation over the last decades. Deals totaling $10 billion have already been outlined for the construction of hydro- and thermal power plants. Space cooperation also looks promising, as Iran has no carriers for launching satellites into orbit and expects to cooperate with Russia on this like many other countries do. Another attractive possibility is investment in the expansion and modernization of Iran's railway infrastructure, an area in which Russia has vast experience and technical capacity.

Arms trade

Military technology cooperation has been of particular importance for Moscow. The sale of arms and military equipment, including nuclear technology and materials, and missiles and aircraft engines is just a portion of Russia’s high-technology exports. However, this trade is about more than money for Russia. It provides international prestige and distinguishes Russia from the community of petro-states.

Starting in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union supplied Iran with large deliveries of armored vehicles and artillery, and built factories for the repair and production of military equipment (in Isfahan, Shiraz, Dorude, and near Tehran). After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Russia's share of Iran’s military imports rose to 60%, and in the 1990s Iran became, along with China and India, a major buyer of Russian weapons, including fighter aircraft (MiG-29, Su-24), helicopters (Mi-17), anti-aircraft missiles (S-200, TOR-1), Kilo diesel submarines, tanks (T -72) and infantry fighting vehicles (BMP-2).

However, military-technical cooperation between the two countries has not always run smoothly. In 1995, during the Russia-U.S. summit, President Boris Yeltsin gave in to pressure from President Bill Clinton and pledged not to enter into new agreements with Iran, a promise which was then formalized in a secret memorandum signed on June 30, 1995 by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Since 2000 when Vladimir Putin came to power, Russia has refused to adhere to the Gore-Chernomyrdin protocol but Russian military sales to Iran have not reached their earlier volume.

Another blow to cooperation between Moscow and Tehran stems from a 2007 agreement according to which Russia pledged to sell Iran the famous Russian anti-aircraft missile system S-300 for $800 million. In June 2010, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1929 imposing new sanctions on Iran's nuclear program. As a result, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued an order to cancel the deal with Iran. The Kremlin made ​​this political decision in the context of the "reset" of relations with the U.S. and the signing of a new START Treaty, which resulted in Tehran seeking international arbitration and a penalty of $4.2 billion from Moscow for having violated their deal. So began a new downturn in relations between Russia and Iran, while Moscow's image as an arms trade partner suffered in the eyes of countries that import Russian weapons. Iran still demands the restoration of the S-300 agreement as a condition for the resumption of military-technical cooperation with Russia.

Future alternatives

It is clear that the hope for rapid growth of economic and military-technical cooperation between Russia and Iran depends on the collective withdrawal of UN sanctions and the unilateral sanctions of the U.S. and its allies. For this reason, Moscow remains interested in concluding a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. The economic expectations of Russian big business and government agencies outweigh their fear of widening Western influence in Iran and increased competition from American, Chinese, European and Japanese companies in the Iranian market and over Iranian hydrocarbons.

However, if worsening relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine lead to “crippling” economic sanctions against Moscow, the latter will side with Iran in its quest to ease restrictions on its nuclear program. This will particularly apply in negotiations of an agreement on the acceptable scale of Iran’s uranium enrichment program (Iran insists on the right to have 50 or even 190 thousand centrifuges - ostensibly to provide fuel for Bushehr and future reactors, although Russia is contracted to supply this fuel). It would also affect the closing of the Fordow underground enrichment facility and efforts to answer questions about Iran’s past nuclear activities, its rocket program, and other issues. In such a situation, if the U.S. does not separately reach an agreement with Iran, negotiations will hit an impasse, and a third Gulf War will be inevitable. Moreover, Russia and the West, as during the Cold War years, would be on opposing sides of the front line.

In the case of de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, Russia will seek to play the role of a mediator between Iran and the West in negotiations on the nuclear issue. Counting on the growth of cooperation with Iran, Moscow will try in advance to provide itself with the most favorable political background for relations with Tehran. In the current environment, one can hardly expect from Russia (or China) a hard line in unity with the United States and its European allies to achieve the maximum concessions from Iran on the permissible quantity of centrifuges and other issues—even if it does not allow for the achievement of a comprehensive agreement by the planned date of July 20.

This goal was also apparent during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Iran at the end of 2013, when he said "The main thing is to do is everything we’ve agreed upon, not to seek an extended or narrowed interpretation of this agreement." President Putin's upcoming visit to Iran in 2014 is likely to give new impetus to reaching an arrangement with Tehran for the period after sanctions are lifted.

For Russia, in addition to future economic benefits, the development of relations with Iran furthers a major political goal. According to Moscow’s plan, Iran (after the resolution of its "nuclear issue”) and Syria (after the restoration of peace there) shall be the two main pillars of Russian influence in the Middle East. Together with the dominance of Moscow in the post-Soviet space and the development of relations with China, this is considered essential for the revival of Russia as a global power. This is the principal strategic objective of the Kremlin’s current domestic and foreign policy.

Alexei Arbatov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIran

Israel vs. Hamas, Round Three: What Comes Next?

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For the third time in less than six years, violence directed towards Israeli civilians from Palestinian militant groups in Gaza has forced the Israel Defense Force to plan and execute a coordinated and large-scale operation in the coastal enclave.  The latest operation, initiated in the early morning hours of July 8 and codenamed Operation Protective Edge, is nearly identical to the IDF’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.  However, the intensity of Israel’s current campaign over the first three days—and the countermeasures Hamas has taken—are far more persistent than the eight-day air campaign over Gaza twenty months earlier.

Over the first seventy-two hours of Protective Edge, the Israeli air force has struck approximately 1,752 sites that the army has labeled “terror targets.”  On July 10 alone, the IDF successfully hit 210 targets either affiliated with the Hamas movement or connected to any number of smaller Palestinian militant factions—such as the Islamic Jihad group—in the strip.  The length and scope of Israel’s targeting list, including command-and-control nodes, underground tunnels, rocket launching sites, individual militant commanders, and the homes of senior Hamas or Islamic Jihad members is a robust illustration of how extensive the government’s offensive is.  

Despite the sheer animosity that Israel and Hamas have for one another’s existence, both sides appear to understand that a further escalation of the situation along the Israel-Gaza border could result in a far more unpredictable and uncontrollable situation.  Having experienced a high number of condemnations from the international community over its January 2009 ground offensive in Gaza, the IDF neither desires to mimic the past military plans, nor does it wish to send Israeli combat soldiers into a densely populated and hostile environment.  Hamas, regardless of its public statements and propaganda, is ill prepared for a massive Israeli ground operation in its stronghold, having seen its smuggling tunnels sealed off from the new Egyptian Government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.  Israel’s vastly superior military capacity assures that Hamas will lose a significant portion of its military prowess and capability in the event of a ground incursion.  Each party is most likely searching for a way out of the current conflict, with the reinstatement of a ceasefire terminating the rocket fire and airstrikes the most obvious solution.

In the absence of a game-changing event such as a rocket or airstrike that claims dozens of lives simultaneously, a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hamas is still the most plausible option at this point in the conflict.  Although Hamas firmly rejected Egypt’s ceasefire proposal, calling it a “joke” not worth the paper it was written on, the group will have an incredibly difficult time withstanding an expanded Israeli military campaign for weeks on end.

A cessation of hostilities, depending on the terms being offered, is still in the interest of both Israel and Hamas; both want calm, and have no interest in a full blown war that lasts for weeks or months on end. It’s a pattern that observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have known all too well since 2009:  a period of intense rocket fire and airstrikes eventually produces an arrangement that produces a relative degree of deterrence for both sides.  Unfortunately, it is also a likelihood that any calm produced by a cessation of hostilities will be capitalized by Palestinian militant groups in Gaza--all of which will try to recuperate from their losses and prepare for the next round of fighting.

Without a long-term ground offensive and re-occupation of Gaza that the IDF is unwilling to unleash, the Israel-Hamas standoff will continue in the same way that it began: cyclically, where quiet along the border is at times interrupted with unpredictable and deadly violence, before quiet is restored again.    

Image: Israeli Defense Forces Flickr

TopicsSecurity RegionsMiddile East

Job Posting: Assistant Director at The Center for the National Interest

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The Center for the National Interest seeks an outgoing, pro-active, results-oriented individual to serve as its Assistant Director.  The Assistant Director has an important role in coordinating office operations, managing programs, conducting outreach, and writing and editing institutional materials.  The position also offers an opportunity to the highly-motivated individual for independent writing, particularly for the Center’s magazine, The National Interest.  The Assistant Director will support the President and the Executive Director and report to the Executive Director.

Applicants should have a bachelor’s or preferably a master’s degree in international relations or a related field and at least two years’ experience in an operational or program-related role in think tank or in a similar setting.  Strong writing skills and the ability to maintain close attention to detail while simultaneously managing multiple assignments are critical to success.  IT, web and audio/visual experience is a plus.  Please note that this is a hands-on and detail-oriented junior management position with an opportunity for independent writing; administrative skills and an organizational mindset are essential.  The position is best suited for candidates with some relevant experience who are still at early stages in their careers.

Duties include:

· Operations and facilities management

Leading administrative staff to ensure smooth functioning of the office, including implementing office rules and procedures as well as maintaining information technology and audio/visual systems

Producing regular reports for senior management and program directors

Working with building management and vendors/suppliers

Other tasks as required

· Program management

Coordinating the planning and execution of seminars, conferences, briefings, and other meetings to maintain high quality

Writing and editing online meeting summaries

· Outreach

Managing web site updates and drafting regular email bulletins to subscribers

Ensuring that key databases are adequately maintained

Serving as the point-of-contact for media interviews and drafting press releases, newsletter articles, and other materials

Contacting current and potential donors and advertisers

Supporting the president and the executive director in planning annual fundraising events

· Analysis/Commentary

Writing analysis/commentary articles in areas of expertise as other responsibilities permit

The Center for the National Interest is a non-partisan foreign policy think tank based in Washington, DC.  The Center’s principal programs deal with U.S. relations with China, Russia, Europe, Japan and the Middle East as well as with transnational issues like energy, non-proliferation and terrorism.  The Center also publishes the foreign policy magazine The National Interest and its award-winning web site,

To apply, please submit a resume and a cover letter—including salary requirements—and two short writing samples to Paul Saunders, Executive Director, by email at or by mail at 1025 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 1200, Washington, DC  20036.  No calls or visits please.  If applying by email, please type “Assistant Director” in the subject line.

TopicsJob Posting

The Biggest Threat To China's Growing Military Might

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China’s main geopolitical enemy isn’t Japan. It isn’t Russia. It isn’t even the United States. In lockstep with the rising tensions in the South China Sea, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has begun an internal war against the “flies and tigers” of military corruption, aware of the fact that no matter how many guns you own, their effectiveness comes from the people and institutions who wield them.

Yet his recent expulsion of two high ranking officials from the Communist party for graft—Zhang Youren, the former chairman of Anhui Military Industry Group, and Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission—highlights the deep, institutional hurdles China’s military establishment still must overcome before they can ever truly flex their military might abroad. As China’s military budget swells and threats emanate in the South and East China Seas, Beijing must begin to seriously question what the military would rather defend: their pockets or their homeland.

According to military historians Millett, Murray, and Watman, “Victory is not a characteristic of an organization but rather a result of organizational activity.” Military effectiveness requires regular dialogue and coordination across the political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels of military activity, or put differently, a strong civil-military structure. A weak link in it can strip a government of its legitimacy, and lower morale and leadership to such an extent that no one is left to fight for their country. Peter Feaver described the civil-military challenge as “how to reconcile a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask them to do with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorize them to do.” Thus, institutions in which political loyalties and bribes rather than education and experience becomes the basis for promotions inevitably exhibit strategic inefficiencies and in the most dire of cases, war losses.

Nowhere else has corruption become as much a national security priority as in China. General Liu Yuan, political commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, which services the 2.3-million-strong PLA, delivered a fiery speech before his department in 2012 criticizing the unchecked mentality of "malignant individualism” that beset the PLA. Officers openly sold their services at “clearly marked prices,” followed orders only suiting their professional interests, purchased promotions, and blackmailed CCP leaders. While actual numbers are unattainable, corruption has become so profuse that some experts consider it a conservative estimate to assume that even 10 percent of procurement contracts and administrative spending—accounting for 0.65% of China’s $8.27 trillion GDP—are used as kickbacks or bribes, if not simply stolen!

No wonder that corruption has come at a serious toll to the CCP’s legitimacy and national security interests. Joseph Basco explains:

The economic fairness pillar of domestic legitimacy has been crumbling in recent decades. The nation’s remarkable growth in wealth, combined with the CCP’s ongoing monopoly on power and opaque governance, has spawned massive corruption at all levels of political and military authority. Every year, China experiences almost 200,000 public protests against land seizures, environmental degradation, bribery, and other official misconduct.

Corruption at home has created a dangerous disjuncture between the political and military levels that is sure to constrain its international aspirations. This loss of legitimacy underpins the widespread warning now seen across Chinese news sites: “A corrupt army has no ability to fight and cannot win wars.”

As of yet, indictments have proved ineffective at curbing corruption. In 1998, Chinese politician Zhu Rongji complained before the PLA of backroom dealings and smuggling in the General Political Department’s Tiancheng Group, despite a ban on the PLA from engaging in commercial enterprises: “Every time our customs officials tried to snare these bastards, some powerful military person appeared to speak on their behalf.” A year later the Yuanhua Group was found guilty of using military connections, including top officials as high as the Politburo Standing Committee member Jia Qinglin and then director of the Intelligence Department of the General Staff Major General Ji Shengde to evade $6.3 billion in taxes—money that could have been invested in research and development. Still, by 2005, the military raided the lavish home of Deputy Director of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, Gu Junshan under charges of extortion, bribery, and misuse of state funds for professional gain, finding a pure golden bust of Chairman Mao and hundreds of boxes of high-end Chinese liquor.

The fact is that despite Xi’s “progress” against corruption, graft is sure to persist in a military establishment obscured from public scrutiny and beholden to a single-party elite rapt in cronyism and money. In a state where the degree of corruption rises with the military hierarchy, as Teng Biao showed, the probability of catching the “tigers” of corruption and the severity of their punishment is slight. Without full-scale civil-military reform, every inch of economic growth will further dislocate China’s military from its homeland and constrain their ability to stage an effectively military presence abroad.

Thus, while Xi’s ongoing campaign against corruption strikes fear into the hearts of some, particularly officials worried about a more effective Chinese military, it should sound some hope for seeking peaceful resolutions with Beijing.

On the one hand, greater civilian participation and transparency in the military would send a positive signal to the U.S. and Japan about their intentions to democratize, in addition to opening channels for mutual understanding, information sharing, and dialogue. On the other hand, further indictments without reforming an institution permissive of corruption will undoubtedly cause China’s military to atrophy over time, if not implode from domestic protest. That’s a scenario that could prove dangerous not only for Beijing, but also the rest of the globe.

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsChina

The South China Sea Crisis: Part of a Much Bigger Problem

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Forget the crisis in Iraq, Syria, or the ongoing situation in Ukraine.  While those issues and parts of the world are clearly important, when we think about the future of international relations, power politics, or the flows of trade investment there is no issue of more importance than the future trends of Sino-U.S. relations. Considering the stakes--like a $550 Billion bilateral trade relationship, the amount of territorial claims and counterclaims Beijing has with multiple U.S. allies (who we would have to go to war for if things got out of control), as well as China’s growing flirtations with a certain neighbor to the north--nothing else really comes close.  

The solution by and large is also known: finding a way to respect a rising Beijing’s growing interests in the Asia-Pacific and much wider Indo-Pacific without upending the status-quo or sparking a conflict no one wants.

The preferred American option, neatly summarized by Michèle Flournoy and Ely Ratner for the Center for New American Security, or CNAS, was to imesh China into the international system. As they explain in a recent Washington Post op-ed:

“The current approach has been premised on the idea that China’s integration into the prevailing economic and security order not only is in China’s interest but also benefits the United States and the whole world. Washington has supported China’s accession to leading multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, and steadily enhanced bilateral relations with Beijing through a panoply of diplomatic engagements, including the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue that will convene in Beijing in July.”

As a result of this embrace, the theory goes, China’s stake in the international system would increase over time. By virtue of self-interest, it would come to see the benefits of contributing to stability and upholding existing rules and norms, such as freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes, even as it became more capable of violating them. This would eventually lead China to emerge as, to use former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s indelible phrase, a “responsible stakeholder.”


Unfortunately, America’s preferred strategy when it comes to the rise of China is finished. As the CNAS duo points out:

Following decades of double-digit economic growth, China’s behavior took a notable turn in the wake of the global financial crisis. Many in Beijing anticipated a rapid U.S. decline, and this triumphalism fused with growing nationalism and wealth to generate a more assertive Chinese foreign policy.”

In the South China Sea, we have perhaps the greatest example of the China challenge--Beijing’s “more assertive” foreign policy--attempts to alter the status quo using non-kinetic methods, a strategy that the U.S. along with its Asian allies have very few ways to negate. China is slowly asserting its claims and authority over an increasing area of this important body of water where trillions of dollars of goods pass through every year, which could also be endowed with plentiful natural resources. Turning the area into de facto Chinese territory would have global ramifications and endanger the very idea of the global commons--something all nations should be concerned about. And while the international community received a bit of good news--that China was ending drilling operations off the coast of Vietnam--Beijing made its position to Washington very clear, according to a report by Reuters: “China told the United States on Tuesday to stay out of disputes over the South China Sea and leave countries in the region to resolve problems themselves, after Washington said it wanted a freeze on stoking tension.”

Several days ago in these pages, I offered the idea of using “lawfare” in the South China Sea as a way to restrain China’s ambitions, a partial answer to the challenge Beijing presents:

“All of the various claimants that have disputes with China in the South China Sea should appeal collectively to any and all international bodies that could possibly hear their claims. Only together can they hope to get Beijing to halt its aggressive actions...While even this might not stop China’s moves to enforces its claims in the area around its nine or ten-dash line around the South China Sea, if shaming Beijing is the goal, and considering the stakes (not just who controls sea lanes worth trillions of dollars, but the very idea of the global commons, space that no one owns), this might be just the best way to do it.”

In response to my post, Julian Ku, a Professor of Law at Hofstra University, begs to differ for two reasons:

1) China has opted out of any “compulsory” system of international dispute resolution that would rule on its territorial claims in the South China Sea (or anywhere, for that matter).  This “opt-out” is perfectly legal and may very well prevent the Philippines from even making their full case to the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal.  There are no other legal institutions that have jurisdiction.  So the only way “lawfare” can work here is if China consents to arbitration. But if Kazianis is right that this is a strategy by China’s neighbors to block its expansion, then why would China ever agree to arbitration?

2) Even if compulsory jurisdiction were somehow found in one of these international bodies, there is very little chance that China would feel compelled to comply with any negative ruling.  This is not a China-specific problem, but rather a problem almost every country faces when considering arbitration over territorial disputes.  The effectiveness of tribunals in these contexts is highly limited since they depend for enforcement on the individual state-parties.  This is why voluntary arbitration tends to work better than compulsory arbitration in these kinds of territorial disputes.  The U.S. and Canada, for example, have managed to settle (most of) their often contentious land and maritime borders through a combination of non-arbitral commissions, and then special bilateral arbitrations.  In the famous “Gulf of Maine” case, the U.S. Senate actually approved a special treaty with Canada to send a maritime dispute to a special chamber of the ICJ.  Although clunky, this model is far more likely to succeed in getting state compliance.

I thank Professor Ku for his smart analysis and contribution to this debate. However, I would argue that Manila or Hanoi don’t need to win a lawsuit against Beijing or even get China to show up to a hearing. China is using means short of conflict such as non-naval maritime assets, “mapfare,” oil rigs and other non-kinetic means to carve out its claims in the South China Sea--essentially winning the perception game over time and wearing down the will of others. Claimants in the South China Sea could use lawsuits in the same way. They need to fight China’s claims in the court of public opinion, using a shaming strategy to get opinion on their side--to enact some measure of costs for China’s actions. Washington could then support those who have filed the claims to seek a solution to the crisis through legal frameworks. If Beijing declines to participate in the process, as they have already in the case of the Philippines, or declining multiple times with possible additional filed claims, this would set Beijing up to lose the perception battle.

While the above strategy is clearly imperfect, it does give the United States and its allies in Asia at least one set of tools to increase the costs of China’s provocative actions. Even if this was to work and Beijing backed off its claims, America along with its allies would still have many more issues with China hampering overall ties. In many respects, the challenge America faces along with Asia as a whole is as old as history itself: the concept of a rising power bent on modifying the international system for its own wants and needs--a long term problem no court or shaming strategy can fix.

Harry J. Kazianis serves as Managing Editor of the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula.

TopicsDefense RegionsSouth China Sea

Dr. Drezner’s Bad Medicine

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Dear Professor Drezner,

Thank you so much for vividly reminding me in your little Washington Post parody “What if realpolitik were marketed like a prescription drug?” about why I am happy that I am no longer a college student. Not because I’m uninterested in foreign policy or don’t like to learn about new things. Quite the contrary. If anything, international relations theory was always my favorite subject.

Still, I must confess that the topic always left me frustrated by its inability to provide practical solutions. But of the competing theories, it always seemed to me that realism had the most to offer and, contrary to your gloomy assessment, is actually selling pretty well these days, as Sen. Rand Paul’s surge in the GOP might seem to indicate. But in your post, you suggest that realism needs some marketing help and that it might be effectively marketed as a drug called Realaxil. That Americans can just tune out difficulties. But is this really a realistic message about what constitutes foreign policy realism?

Not a chance.

Realism isn’t about ducking for cover or numbing the senses. Rather, a prescription, of any kind, should be about establishing priorities. Does your foot hurt? There is a pill for that! But wait, you might experience severe nausea and become temporarily suicidal. At this point, you should be asking yourself how much does my foot really hurt? Is it worth these side effects? If you answered yes or no, then congratulations, you just established a set of priorities.

Foreign policy is about prioritizing interests on a national level based on the situation at hand. Establishing a set of priorities requires an accurate diagnosis of the problem. Realism in this regard has always provided the best framework for describing and understanding conflicts because it holds that each country operates on its own set of national interests. Many of the international conflicts that the Obama administration has been faced with recently are better understood from this realist standpoint.

Ukraine is not a little thing gone wrong. The Ukrainian crisis raised several major issues, which should have the US reassessing its foreign policy in the region and beyond. For example, state sovereignty, legitimate use of force, and reconciling opposition forces. Questions such as how to ensure a democratic transition of power or how to deal with a country when hard power is not an option and soft power is not working just touch the tip of the iceberg. Iraq and Syria are not little things gone wrong. China’s decision to quietly incorporate several disputed territories into an official map, is not a little thing gone wrong. These are all issues that touch at the heart of how the United States prioritizes its national interests.

The wonderful thing about democracy is that these issues are up for debate, but absent of an informed analysis most arguments boil down to knee jerk reactions, which can hurt our overall interests as a nation and lead to much more serious ailments (hopefully none involving radiation as a treatment). Following the Hippocratic oath--first do no harm--is probably the most sensible path we can follow. For there is no such thing as a miracle drug. Every decision has side effects or opportunity costs. If the patient resists advice or refuses to change his habits, there’s little to be done. The best we can do is inform the public. Intervention, medical or otherwise, should be a last resort. Anything else amounts to false advertising.

Katrina V. Negrouk is a Program Associate at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: Creative Commons. 

TopicsRealism RegionsUnited States

Is it Time to Bring Containment Back?

The Buzz

Since Russian forces first moved into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in February, the United States’ approach has emphasized threatening Russia with diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. Due to a combination of disagreements with European allies and a desire within the Obama Administration to avoid provocation, these threats have borne limited fruit, as Russia continues arming the separatists and threatening military intervention, even as Ukraine’s military has recently succeeded in dislodging the rebels from Slavyansk and some of their other strongholds.

Not only has the threat of sanctions been undermined by a lack of follow-through, it was always a dubious proposition whether economic pressure alone could change Russian calculations about Ukraine. Instead of concentrating on sanctions whose imposition looks increasingly unlikely, Washington should also develop a strategic response to the crisis, one centered on preventing the expansion of Russian influence in its neighborhood by bolstering the political and economic resiliency of vulnerable states, and providing them the military resources they need to resist Russian intervention. In addition to Ukraine, the highest priorities are Moldova and Georgia, though with a commitment to greater political reform in the future, this approach could also be relevant to states like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, or even Uzbekistan that seek to bolster their sovereignty against Russia.

This approach, whose broad outlines are similar to the containment policy Washington pursued against the USSR for much of the Cold War, has the advantage of costing the U.S. comparatively little, and of avoiding the need to gain consensus among Washington’s European allies, who remain deeply divided on handling Russia.

The U.S., as well as its European allies, has already taken some steps to help these states address their political and economic vulnerability. Ukraine has received billions of dollars in aid, much conditioned on steps to tackle the corruption and market distortions at the source of its weakness. Similarly, the association agreements Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have negotiated with the EU provide for significant reforms to improve governance that will in the long run also strengthen the legitimacy of their governments.

Visiting Kyiv for the inauguration of new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in early June, Vice President Biden announced an additional $5 million of U.S. aid to Georgia and $8 million to Moldova, bringing U.S. assistance to the two countries up to $65 million and $31 million respectively. While this aid is helpful and signals Washington’s growing interest, it remains comparatively small in scale. It also lacks lethal military assistance, which would provide a much stronger signal of U.S. interest and would help these states deter and if needed defeat Russian-sponsored separatism, thereby significantly raising the cost to Moscow of Ukraine-style interventions.

Largely because of their aspirations for closer ties with the West, Georgia and Moldova have come under increasing pressure from Moscow in recent months, even as the Russian-supported insurgency in eastern Ukraine shows no signs of fading.

In addition to ramping up economic pressure, Russia continues funding and supporting separatist movements and political parties throughout the region, whose states Moscow does not accept as fully sovereign. Russian-backed separatists in Moldova’s Transnistria region have appealed for annexation by Moscow. Separatist forces have also conducted military exercises with Russian troops who remain illegally stationed in Transnistria. Similar machinations are underway in Moldova’s Turkic minority inhabited Gagauzia region.

Though Georgia has been comparatively calm, Russia continues efforts to “borderize” the frontier between Georgia proper and the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Moscow recognized as independent states following the August 2008 war. Not only do these efforts reduce the likelihood that Tbilisi will ever recover the disputed regions, the Georgians see a creeping annexation of additional territory as Moscow pushes these boundaries further into Georgia. Russian aircraft have also violated Georgian airspace in recent months, while Moscow is covertly funding a range of pro-Russian groups and parties in Georgia.

The United States has an interest in preventing the expansion of Russian influence in the region for both moral and strategic reasons. The spark for Russia’s current de-stabilization efforts was the Ukrainian, Moldovan, and Georgian peoples’ attempts to forge a closer relationship with the West and to create more decent governments at home. Despite Moscow’s threats, all three have pushed ahead with their EU association agreements, and all are pursuing political reform, even as Russia goes in the opposite direction.

Yet officials and analysts throughout the region speak of becoming warier about taking risks to support the U.S., as Georgia has done with support for U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they increasingly question Washington’s willingness to protect them in turn.

Russian efforts to undo the progress Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have made in the last few years also represent a threat to broader U.S. interests. A Russian proverb states that “the appetite grows with the eating,” and the more Russia succeeds in rolling back U.S. influence in its neighborhood, the more its strategic aspirations will expand, and the more strident its recent anti-American turn will grow. The same is true in with other potentially revisionist powers such as China, who also view U.S. actions in Ukraine as weak.

Facing war weariness at home and an increasingly complex set of challenges abroad, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to offer a forceful challenge to Moscow’s expansionist aims. Administration officials too often present a false dichotomy between the current limited support and fighting a war with Russia. In reality, Washington has more robust options available that fall far short of military action.

Most important is ensuring that Georgia and Moldova, as well as Ukraine, succeed in their efforts to create functional, decent, and pro-Western states capable of maintaining their sovereignty in the face of potential Russian aggression. That means assistance budgets and high-level visits should be increased. It means stronger rhetorical support for these states’ rights to defend their territorial integrity, with force if necessary. Washington should in that sense give strong public support to Kyiv’s “anti-terrorist” operations in the east. It also means providing the Georgia, Moldovan, and Ukrainian militaries the capabilities they need to protect themselves, including especially anti-tank and air defense weapons, along with an offer of stronger military ties both bilaterally and through NATO. Signs that NATO’s upcoming Wales summit will see the alliance bolster its support for Georgia—including possibly deploying air defense systems—are a welcome development.

This policy of strengthening vulnerable states to resist Russian-sponsored subversion has a long pedigree: it was the original basis for the well-known Cold War policy of containment. In his famous 1947 “X article,” George Kennan called for “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.” While today’s context is different, that basic approach remains the right one for dealing with a Russia that rejects the legitimacy of both post-World War II international norms and borders inherited from the Soviet collapse.

To the end of his long life, Kennan argued that his ideas were misunderstood by top policy makers, leading the U.S. to get bogged down in conflicts such as the Vietnam War in regions not critical to U.S. national security. Rather than rushing U.S. forces to every country threatened by a Communist insurgency, Kennan believed that Washington should help these threatened states help themselves. In an era of straightened defense budgets and public exhaustion, it is Kennan’s version of containment, not that of his more hawkish successors, that Washington should follow in Eurasia.

In the late 1940s, Soviet expansionism, underpinned by Marxist-Leninist ideology, was a global phenomenon. Today, the expansionist tendencies of Vladimir Putin’s Russia are narrower, focused on the states of the former Soviet Union and based on an ideology of not much more than Russian nationalism, while Russia’s economy is not robust. Containment today is thus unlikely to lead to a four-decade Cold War, which Russia can hardly afford, but it can frustrate Putin’s efforts to forcibly drag the post-Soviet region back under Russian influence at relatively little cost to the United States.

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program. He is the author of Russian Foreign Policy: The Return of Great Power Politics (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) and a frequent commentator on international security, Russian foreign policy, regional security in the Caucasus and Central Asia, ethnic conflict, and energy security. Before coming to CSIS, he served as an adviser on U.S.-Russia relations at the U.S. Department of State as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow. From 2008 to 2010, he was associate director of International Security Studies at Yale University and an adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Image: Office of the President, Russia. 

TopicsRussia RegionsEurasia

The Fatally Flawed Fragile States Index

The Buzz

Just as “this is not a pipe”, the newly named Fragile States Index (FSI) is not the welcomed change it appears to be. Since 2003 the non-profit research and educational institution the Fund for Peace (FFP) has annually released the Failed States Index–a comprehensive ranking of “178 nations based on their levels of stability and the pressures they face” meant to forecast violence to policymakers—if only to confirm what we already knew: that the world is indeed a dark and scary place. Each year following that release the Fund for Peace has received a slew of criticism dismissing the index for creating a false binary between failed and not failed states, so much so that Krista Hendry, Executive Director of the FFP, justified renaming it The Fragile States Index in this year’s report: “we ended up having more conversations about terminology than substance.” Hendry may slap a more palatable name on it but substance, not an already ambiguous terminology, is the real reason why people will continue to dismiss the FIS. Fragile or Failed, the index maintains an equally dangerous message, which is that the cause of the world’s calamity lies in other states, not our own foreign policies.

The Fragile State Index is derived from the FFP’s Conflict Assessment System Tool. “Guided by twelve primary, social, economic, and political indicators (each split into an average of14 sub-indicators), the CAST software analyzes the collected [primary source documents] using specialized search terms that flag relevant items”, and derives a score “representing the significance of each of the various pressures for a given country.”  Ranking states for their level of economic growth, poverty, inequality, corruption, human rights abuses, access to public services, sectarian violence, and authoritarianism attributes fragility somewhat tautologically to weak state institutions and the people themselves.

FSI dangerously implies, as Lionel Beehner and Joseph Young observe,  “the antidote to many of the developed world’s conundrums related to transnational violence and terrorism is more state-building.” The current report advises states “be prepared to take the necessary actions to deal with the underlying issues or otherwise mitigate the negative effects of state fragility.” In fact, CAST flags foreign military intervention and the provision of military aid as an indication of fragility, independent of other factors.

This misleads policymakers to believe that external intervention can be a proper reaction to rather than a cause of state fragility. Yet if there’s anything to learn from over 350,000 lives killed by violence and $4.4 trillion spent in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it is that this neoconservative type of state building is not the answer.

In response to former President Bush’s ill-managed and misguided De-Ba'athification policy in Iraq—OPEC’s second largest oil producer—chronic sabotage and looting created massive challenges in access to medical services, sanitation, and electricity that many officials now feel is worse than under Saddam. If we look even wider, it is hard to deny that the U.S. meddling in the Middle East instigated the civil wars sweeping Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and the Egyptian revolution against Hosni Mubarak—a man historically emboldened by U.S. military aid.

Is it any surprise that most fragile states are former colonies or sites of Cold War era proxy wars, if not both? Would further state building by the U.S. have prevented the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) from publicly crucifying eight anti-Assad fighters in Syria, or would it merely inflame this type of sectarian violence into the future?

The flaw with the FSI isn’t terminology. It is that its methodology masks the painful lessons of the past in a stale, numerical ranking of present circumstance. Claire Leigh rightly criticizes, “It gives us no clue why certain countries have the dubious distinction of topping the chart. It offers no policy prognoses or prescriptions.” With recent crises like the current ISIS incursion into Iraq putting the issue of unilateral intervention back on the table and giving think tanks greater currency in policy circles, this lacuna threatens to repeat history to the detriment of our own national interests, regardless of whether or not we call it a Failed or Fragile State. FSI’s name change serves as a reminder of how incomplete analyses can lead us to strategic blunders of the Vietnam and Iraq-type.

This is not to say that intervention is always a bad thing. Rather, all good foreign policies are contextual—historically, culturally, and strategically. Coordinating with, short of deferring authority to, regional powers like Iran may be a better alternative to stabilize a region.

The solution, then, is not to simply make the terminology more digestible or “throw FSI in the policy dustbin.” Instead, we can better inform U.S. interests abroad and refine our development strategies through additional historical and statistical comparisons of what policies worked in the past and saw success in the present rather than just marking off a checklist of “ahistorical” problems to be quickly alleviated.

TopicsFailed States

Allies and Airpower

The Buzz

In discussions about the future of ANZUS last week, I introduced a discussion of Australia–US cooperation in air combat and strike. Because of recent force structuring decisions, I think Australia’s well set up to make substantial contributions to coalition air-power operations in the future, but it’s worth thinking through how we might best do that.

History provides some valuable lessons. Australia’s first air operations with the United States were during World War II’s Pacific campaign. Australia started the war with equipment that wasn’t up to speed, and relied heavily on imports from the U.S. and UK. Both of those nations had their own priorities and it took the RAAF some time to catch up.

As a result, the Australian contribution to the allied air campaign wasn’t always especially helpful. As aviation historian Michael Claringbould observes, turning up for coalition operations and bringing along outmoded equipment can be counterproductive:

The formation of 10 Operational Group in late 1943 hindered the [US] 5th Air Force… [T]he limited contribution the RAAF would make at Nadzab [PNG] was at the expense of valuable apron space, badly needed by advanced US types. The fact that No. 10 showed up with obsolete or superfluous types frustrated the Americans, [who] were forced to allow the RAAF to operate from Nadzab for reasons of political compromise, rather than contribution to the war effort.

Flightpath, February–April 2012

So it’s possible for an ally—especially the junior one—to be a nuisance rather than an asset if its forces aren’t what the local commander needs. Balanced against that is the political payoff in having allied support, and it can be a net positive if mere presence is sufficiently valuable. That wasn’t the case in WWII because it was a war of survival, but in operations of a more discretionary nature the calculus can be different. Many of the smaller contributions to coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan can be filed under "little or no operational benefit but politically valuable."

Of course, it’s better to make a valuable contribution to the politics and the operation, as Australia managed to do in subsequent wars. By 1945 the RAAF was the world’s fourth largest air force (admittedly after some of the former high-rung position holders were displaced with extreme prejudice), with an inventory of capable aircraft and experienced personnel. The Navy was assembling a capable air arm, and the RAAF and RAN were significant front-line contributors over Korea. The RAAF later took its Canberra strike bombers to Vietnam and worked successfully with American tactical air units, flying over 11,000 missions.

But those successful exercises in alliance air power haven’t been repeated. Australian defense spending fell dramatically after announcement of the Guam doctrine and the end of the Vietnam War, and by the 1990s, Australia’s defense forces were suffering from a scarcity of resources and the inevitable "hollowing out" of capabilities. The ADF played no direct combat role in the 1991 Gulf War and when an American request for Australian F-111s was made for Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the aircraft weren’t fit for purpose, lacking critical electronic warfare equipment. Similarly, the Australian contribution to the air campaign in the 2003 Iraq War came only after Iraq’s air defense system had been effectively eliminated by U.S. forces.

Together, those examples show that Australia has been a valuable contributor to air operations when it had capable and well-maintained equipment which allowed the RAAF to operate effectively alongside American forces. At other times we’ve been an ineffective but tolerated flag flyer (and in Desert Fox not even that).

Today, after a decade of investment into its air-combat capability and with more to come, the ADF is well-placed to be a real contributor to allied air operations, should the government of the day choose. Super Hornets put it on a par with the U.S. Navy air combat and strike capability, and early next decade the F-35 will move Australia further up the American capability curve.

But tactical strike fighters mightn’t be the most valuable contribution we could make. The US won’t lack those—it will have 600+ Super Hornets and more F-35s by early next decade. Turning up with "more of the same" could be useful, as it was in the widespread wars in Korea and Vietnam, but in a more focused campaign it could complicate American command and control while adding little extra combat capability. To avoid that we could instead contribute capabilities that are almost always oversubscribed in modern air warfare: electronic-warfare support, airborne early warning and control and air-to-air refueling. Again the RAAF is well placed, with small but capable fleets of all those types.

It remains to be seen whether the government will opt for further investment in alliance-specific capabilities. But if it does, the less glamorous but always-valuable air-combat support assets would be a good place to start.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. This article first appeared in ASPI's The Strategist here

Image: Wikicommons. 

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia-Pacific

A Two State Solution Is the Worst Solution—Except for All the Others

The Buzz

Given the “facts on the ground,” Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue that Washington should recognize the two-state solution is dead and get on with burying it.  There are two problems with this. A one-state solution would be a calamity for both sides. Furthermore, the so-called “facts on the ground” as interpreted by the Leveretts hardly make it inevitable.  


While the Kerry Framework collapsed, this does not make a one-state solution the next logical step.  The historian Benny Morris points out that just as two-state solutions have failed, so have one-state solutions to the Arab-Israeli dispute.  Rather than leading to a lasting peace, a one-state solution would transform the former British mandate into another Yugoslavia. 


The international system has been repeatedly characterized as anarchic, where the life of states can be “nasty, brutish and short.”  However, warring groups have greater protection under anarchy than if they were forced to live under the same roof. 


Neither side can credibly commit to the safety and security of the other.  If a single, binational state were created, the Palestinians would form the majority.  However, it is unlikely that the Jewish minority would be able to trust such a government.  A unitary state would demand the Jewish minority disarm its military forces in exchange for a binational one, leaving them vulnerable to future attacks.  (Similarly, the Palestinian side would have no recourse other than violence if the Jewish minority decided to renege on its end of the bargain.) 


Under a two-state solution, both sides can mitigate the consequences of receiving the sucker’s payoff should one of them decide to cheat on an agreement.  They can bolster their defenses, formcounter-balancing alliances, and raise (or hold onto) their national defense forces.  They can raise the costs of aggression by bringing in third-party monitors.   These are just a handful of the strategies states use to ensure that their rivals comply with their agreements.  While none is foolproof, they afford greater protection for both sides than unilateral disarmament and a one-state solution.


On the fourth day of Operation Protective Edge, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated several of his longstanding positions in a press conference, including his support for a two-state solution.  The facts on the ground give credence to several options that would ultimately separate the two sides. 


Albert B. Wolf is a Fellow with the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsIsrael