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Don’t Underestimate Putin’s Ambitions in Ukraine—Instead, Shape Them

The Buzz

What are Vladimir Putin’s intentions towards Ukraine?  Is the Russian leader bent on annexing eastern portions of the country, or are his ambitions much more limited than his most ardent critics—including hawks in Washington—would suggest?  More to the point, how should leaders in western capitals respond to what they believe is being planned in Moscow?

There are those who believe that Putin’s goals in Eastern Europe are relatively circumscribed.  Harvard’s Stephen Walt, for example, recently posted on Twitter to ask whether there was any “hard evidence” that Putin wants anything more than to prevent Ukraine from drifting (further) into the orbit of the west.  Although posed as a “serious question,” Walt’s subsequent tweets seem to clarify that his true intention was to cast doubt upon the notion that Moscow is acting upon expansive revisionist designs.  “Don’t believe the hawks,” Walt was essentially saying.

Walt, of course, is a defensive realist.  His theory of international politics holds that states tend to want to preserve a balance of power between themselves and their adversaries.  As such, leaders usually keep a lid on the extent of their geopolitical ambition.  To do otherwise would be to risk incurring the negative repercussions of strategic overreach.  For Walt and others of his genre, offense is not always the best form of defense in the long run.

Like any good theory, Walt’s brand of realism makes some valuable contributions to our understanding of world politics—cautioning against exaggerating the threat posed by Russia and implying a set of policies that might be implemented to manage the geopolitical fallout of Putin’s meddling (as well highlighting the policies that ought to be avoided).  Yet no analytic perspective is without its costs; each obscures certain facets of reality even as it usefully brings others into sharp focus.

The drawback of presuming until proven otherwise that Putin harbors limited ambitions towards Ukraine is that such a presumption risks over-estimating the importance of leaders’ long-term intentions.  Even the best laid schemes in world politics rarely pan out as intended.  Events, both domestic and international, intervene to throw diplomacy into disarray and to present leaders with opportunity structures that they are ill prepared to navigate.  This inherent unpredictability of international relations has been markedly evident in Putin’s recent foreign policy moves.

Indeed, if Putin’s long-term intentions truly translated into foreign policy outcomes via anything even approximating a perfect conveyor belt then the current crisis in Ukraine would never even have materialized; Kiev never would have been allowed to entertain closer relations with the EU and NATO in the first place because Russia would years ago have nipped the attempted realignment in the bud.  Nor does it appear credible that Putin nurtured plans to annex Crimea before the opportunity presented itself in February-March of this year; that he ultimately decided to do so is not so much evidence of Putin’s long-term calculations as it is of ruthless pragmatism on his part.  In short, Putin is responding to events as well as playing a decisive role in shaping them.

While Walt and others may be right that Putin currently has no particular design on eastern Ukraine, then, it is important to recognize the limits of such a presumption.  If the present crisis has demonstrated anything about what drives foreign policy, it has shown that leaders respond to short-term factors and exigencies as much as (if not more than) they adhere to long-term strategic plans.  Like any self-interested political leader, Putin can be expected to devour low-hanging fruit and exploit opportunities as they present themselves, even if for no other reason than to improve his bargaining position vis-à-vis his detractors on the world stage.  It would thus be wrong to assume that Crimea was a one-off.

Putin’s intentions towards Ukraine are not fixed.  Politics, after all, is the art of the possible.  As the realm of possibility facing Putin expands and contracts, so too will his political ambition wax and wane.  The challenge for western leaders is to influence, even if not entirely manage, the extent of that ambition—not merely to gain an estimation of it.

Image: Office of the President, Russian Federation. 

TopicsRussia

Doing Damage While Keeping the Home Folks Content (For Now)

Paul Pillar

What do a plan by China to construct 50 coal gasification plants, and Israel's pressure on the United States to reverse a security-based ban (since lifted) by the Federal Aviation Administration on commercial flights to Tel Aviv, have in common? They both are examples of governments trying to shield their populations from immediate consequences of the government's own destructive policies, and thus to shield themselves from political pressure to change those policies. While coddled constituencies are spared right now from effects that otherwise might have gotten them riled up, the harm is felt by other populations, by future generations of the same country's population, or by the world at large.

The Chinese gasification project is intended to reduce the air pollution in the biggest Chinese cities, which results in large part from reliance on coal-fired power plants and which has become bad enough to be a major source of discontent among the politically relevant urban middle class. The air in the cities would not be so awful if they were electrified instead with coal-derived gas, but under the plan much pollution would simply be transferred to the less populous remote parts of the country where the gasification plants are being built. Even worse, the gasification process produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide. According to one estimate, the 50 projected plants would release carbon dioxide equal to about one-eighth the amount currently released by all of China, which already is the world's most profligate emitter of greenhouse gases. So global warming is accelerated and the planet, and its inhabitants, suffer accordingly while Chinese city-dwellers are kept sufficiently docile for now.

The FAA safety directive that the Israeli government did not like, and lobbied hard to reverse, was triggered by a Hamas-fired rocket that landed uncomfortably close to Ben Gurion International Airport. The government contended that those doing business with Israel need not worry and should continue to fly in and out of Tel Aviv without concern about their safety. The Israeli government's posture, as Mitchell Plitnick points out, involves a rather blatant contradiction: it is assuring business partners and other wanted visitors that all is safe and sound, while at the same time proclaiming that Hamas's rockets so endanger Israel as to justify the deadly devastation that Israel has been wreaking on the Gaza Strip. This contradiction is only a variation on the two faces of the current Israeli government's posture toward the Palestinians that has prevailed even during what passes for normal times, and not just during upsurges of violence such as Operation Protective Edge. Palestinians live under suffocating, debilitating blockade or occupation as well as regular applications of lethal Israel force, while just a few miles away most Israelis enjoy life in one of the more prosperous societies in the world. Most Israelis simply have not been made uncomfortable enough to press the government to change its policies. The government itself is determined that things stay that way.

China and Israel are not the only countries where governments structure things to keep their immediate constituents sufficiently content while the costs of their policies become externalities felt by others. We have seen something similar in the United States, particularly with costly overseas military expeditions. The all-volunteer military force has made it possible to conduct such expeditions while confining the direct American human costs to the small segment of the population that has worn the uniform. Regarding the fiscal costs, the outstanding example is the launching of an extremely costly war of choice in Iraq while also enacting unaffordable tax cuts, quickly turning what had been a budget surplus into a ballooning deficit (with those who holler most loudly today about deficits evidently not giving a hoot about them back then).

The costs of China's destructive energy policy will be borne by all of us, inhabitants of the planet Earth. The costs of Israel's destructive policies toward the Palestinian territories are borne most directly and heavily, of course, by the Palestinians, but they also will be borne by future Israelis as long as they live in a country that leads itself into isolation and permanent war. The financial costs of mistakes of the United States, and the fiscal carelessness that has accompanied them, will be borne by future generations of Americans.

It is politically difficult to counter these tendencies, because short-sighted shoring up of support in what are considered to be the most immediately relevant constituencies is something politicians everywhere do. No single ameliorative approach fits all situations, because each situation is different. The Chinese environmental problem may be the most difficult one of the examples mentioned above. Besides international shaming of planet-damaging policies, perhaps we need to place hope in the Chinese middle class becoming sophisticated enough to know that the environmental damage to themselves and their children is not limited to the airborne particulates that their eyes can see and their lungs can feel right now.

Hope for change in Israeli policies should not be placed in sufficient numbers of Israeli civilians feeling physically endangered. Physical harm to Israeli civilians is unacceptable, just as is physical harm to Palestinian civilians. Economic discomfort, however, is another matter; the Israeli government's objection to the FAA flight ban was ultimately driven by economic motivations. It has long been overdetermined that an end to the automatic U.S. subsidy of over $3 billion annually that Israel receives no matter what it does would be a wise step (however politically unrealistic it seems in Washington). It would be in the fiscal interest of the United States, and it would mean U.S. taxpayers would no longer be forced to pay for bombardment of apartment buildings in Gaza. And the more that Israeli taxpayers rather than U.S. taxpayers foot the direct bill for the destructive policies of their own government, the better would be the chance of meaningful pressure on that government to change the policies.

Fixing the short-sightedness embodied in such U.S. policies as expensive overseas military expeditions may mean institutionalizing a requirement to take longer-term costs into account. The proposal by Michael Cannon and Christopher Preble to make advance funding of medical care for veterans a part of any decision to go to war is an example of the sort of idea worth considering.                                      

TopicsChina Israel United States

Why Asia (and the World) Should be Worried: The Death of the Great Bargain

The Buzz

In 1972, Nixon and Mao met in Beijing to begin the Great Asia Bargain. Nixon called it the week that changed the world. The Republican and the Revolutionary ushered in a glorious period.

Almost as an aside—a prelude to the geopolitical plotting—they launched an economic engagement that turned China into the phenomenon of the modern age. As the man who took the U.S. dollar off the gold standard, Nixon started a process that will see the Yuan become a global currency to equal the greenback. Talk about unintended consequences. And that was just an aside.

Look back at what Mao and Nixon wrought because of what Shinzo Abe’s is now doing. Making Japan a security power—even claiming Japan’s right to be a “superpower”—marks the demise of an important residual element of the Bargain.

Of course, much else disappeared long ago. The central driver of the Bargain was the primary threat from the Soviet Union. For both leaders, Russia was the number one danger. Kissinger judged that following military clashes along the Soviet–China border, Beijing moved beyond ideology to deal with the U.S. “Their peril had established the absolute primacy of geopolitics. They were in effect freeing one front by a tacit nonaggression treaty with us.” With that tacit treaty, China was aiming to use “one set of barbarians to balance another.”

Today China and the U.S. see each other as their greatest threat, the binary reality rendering the Bargain an artifact of history. Even so, as with the economic deal, security elements of the Bargain have continuing effects, often of major importance. Losing those lingering security deals after four decades tells us how much uncertainty now envelops Asia.

Beyond China–U.S. national self-interest, the Bargain rested on understandings about U.S. interests in Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. The explicit understanding on South Korea also carried implications for what China would do to restrain North Korea—another area where the Bargain failed long ago.

Mao assured Nixon that Taiwan was not an important issue and China could show patience about its return to the motherland. Kissinger quoted Mao: “We can do without them [Taiwan] for the time being, and let it come after 100 years.” For all the push and shove since, that promise holds.

That long view on Taiwan was linked to acceptance of the U.S. alliance with Japan and a particular understanding of how the alliance should work. Kissinger quoted this from Mao: “Japan must not feel neglected by the U.S.; Japan was inherently insecure and sensitive. He would see to it that China did not force Tokyo to choose between the U.S. and China. That might polarize; it would surely enhance Japanese insecurity and might give rise to traditional nationalism.”

Kissinger wrote that China came to accept America’s argument that the U.S. alliance with Japan should be viewed “as a guarantee of America’s continued interest in the Western Pacific and a rein on Japanese unilateralism.”

The military balance in the Bargain was elegant. The U.S. would keep its troops in Japan to maintain a firm foot on Japan’s neck. China’s former occupier was not to return to any form of assertive nationalism, much less military power.

If Washington was to maintain boundaries on Japan, then Beijing should do the same to North Korea. Allowing North Korea to go nuclear rates as a major breach of Mao’s undertaking not to disturb Japan or South Korea.

All this is context for Japan’s Defense Minister, Itsunori Onodera, arguing Japan is more than just back. Japan, he says, is “drastically moving its security policy forward: because of “severe challenges” to Asia’s security order. Expanding defense cooperation with the U.S., Australia and Southeast Asia is normal: “It is natural for a great power like Japan to play a responsible role for the region based on the significance of the area and the increasingly acute regional security environment.”

That “great power” line led the Wall Street Journal to ponder Japan’s identity confusion and whether it is, indeed, a great power. The fascination in the piece was the link to Amy King’s analysis of Chinese writings, showing that Beijing certainly does not view Japan as a great power; that Great Bargain effect persists in Beijing, even if the U.S. and Japan have ditched it.

Asia has long outgrown the Bargain bequeathed by Mao and Nixon; I was going to say blessed rather than bequeathed, but that confers too much grace on a hard-eyed geopolitical compact. If the Republican and the Revolutionary—a pro and a tyrant—could do the deal, their successors should be as competent and as ambitious in seeking a new power-sharing order in Asia or a new responsibility-sharing order.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. This article originally appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist website here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

Will Hamas Accept a Ceasefire?

The Buzz

Nearly 800 Palestinian killed; 36 Israelis (the vast majority soldiers) lost in the line of fire; an estimated 150,000 Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip scurrying to safer places in order to protect themselves and their families from the fighting; hundreds of homes and buildings destroyed in strikes from the Israeli air force.  Operation Protective Edge, the code name for Israel’s latest military operation against Hamas militants in the sealed-off enclave, is now in its second week of combat.

As of July 24, those are the raw numbers—a set of disturbing figures that will continue to go up if Israeli and Palestinian factions are unable to arrive at an arrangement that would calm the waters, stop the rockets from flying, and cease the pounding that has pummeled Gaza’s already terrible infrastructure for the past two and a half weeks. 

After nineteen months in the job, Secretary of State John Kerry has guaranteed himself the label of the planet’s most famous, recognizable, and tireless negotiator.  The discussions over Iran’s nuclear and uranium enrichment programs, Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, Ukraine’s war against pro-Russian separatists, and the attempt to arrive at an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, however different they may appear, have one thing in common: Kerry is the middle of all of them.  The flare-up in violence between Hamas and Israel, however, has stretched Secretary Kerry and the Obama administration’s national security team to a breaking point.  Right now, getting the quiet restored along the Gaza-Israel border—and saving countless Israeli and Palestinian lives in the process—is a foreign policy priority at the very top of the administration’s “to-do” list.

John Kerry and his State Department team have been camped in the region since July 21 and are doing as much as they can to send home the message to Israel and Hamas that a cessation of hostilities is in both of their best interests.  John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Elliot Abrams, and the folks at the American Enterprise Institute may like to remind him of his failures over the past year and a half as America’s top diplomat, but what the critics cannot do is call Kerry passé or lazy.  Indeed, just as he sought earlier in the year to create and push forth a two-state framework that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority could accept (with reservations), Kerry is again choosing to sacrifice more of his diplomatic capital on the Israel/Palestine portfolio.  The only difference this time is that his efforts today are far more immediate and could be the difference between life and death for the tens of thousands of civilians in the middle of the conflict through no fault of their own.

The United States, of course, is not the only powerbroker in these ceasefire discussions.  Qatar, Turkey, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the Arab League, and the European Union are all involved and each party is talking with the other for precisely the same objective: a full and immediate stop to the violence.  Qatar and Turkey, two countries that have the best relations with the Muslim Brotherhood to which Hamas is technically a part, will be crucial in getting Khaled Meshal to sign on any dotted line.  The U.S. and Europe will serve the same function for the Israelis.  The Arab League, the United Nations, and Egypt are important as well: for any ceasefire to stick, it will be vital for all three of these actors to endorse the accord in full and provide guarantees that longer-term issues—a loosening of Israeli restrictions in Gaza, demilitarization of the territory, the opening of the Gaza’s borders, post-war economic reconstruction, international investment, political reform, etc.—are addressed to the fullest extent possible.

It reports are accurate that Secretary Kerry has drafted a new ceasefire proposal, the war that has filled the world’s television screens and newspapers for the past two and a half weeks is now at its most dramatic point.  An acceptance to the proposal could pave the way for a difficult but much needed discussion on the grievances that have driven Gaza into war three times over the past five years.  A rejection by Hamas, on the other hand, could persuade Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his security cabinet that expanding the Gaza ground operation, deploying more troops into the field, and setting more ambitious goals for the campaign is the only way to deal Hamas a heavy blow over the long-term. 

The onus is on Hamas.  John Kerry and the rest of the international community hopes that the group will wise up and make the right decision.

Image Credit: Israeli Defense Forces/Flickr.    

TopicsHamas

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and Iran Air Flight 655

Paul Pillar

The heavy coverage by U.S. media of the downing last week of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the rebellious portion of eastern Ukraine has made remarkably little reference to the prior event that most resembles it: the shooting down with a missile by the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes of Iran Air Flight 655 on July 3, 1988, killing all 290 persons aboard. The Vincennes was in the Persian Gulf as part of U.S. military operations there during the latter phase of the Iran-Iraq War, which had been affecting shipping to and from Arab countries on the south side of the Gulf. U.S. and Iranian naval forces already had clashed in the months before the downing of the airliner, and tensions were high.

The crew of the Vincennes mistakenly believed the airliner on their radar was an Iranian F-14 about to attack their ship. All indications are that the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner was a similar case of mistaken identity, not an intentional downing of a civilian aircraft. Indeed, part of the evidence made public to support the case that Ukrainian rebels were responsible involves conversations among the rebels expressing consternation when they discovered that what they had thought was a Ukrainian military plane was not.

One of the first thoughts that this pair of tragic incidents should elicit is: there, but for the grace of whatever force determines fate in such circumstances, go we. A frequent comment about the downing of the Malaysian airliner is that it was terribly irresponsible for Russia to put highly sophisticated weapons in the hands of a poorly controlled rebel force. Probably so, but the Iranian airliner was downed by a well-trained U.S. Navy crew that was part of a well-established chain of command and manning a ship with the most advanced available systems for tracking and identifying aircraft.

The comparison should be a reminder that our responses to the actions of other states should not hinge on accidents of fate, or probably on accidents at all. This certainly is not to excuse in any way what happened in the skies of eastern Ukraine. But we need to assess the behavior of the rebels and their patron on grounds that do not depend on such accidents. Any U.S. policy response needs to be fully defensible if the only planes the rebels had ever shot down were in fact Ukrainian military craft.

President Obama spoke of the Malaysia Airlines crash as a “wake-up call”. It is acceptable to refer to such an event in this way to try to elicit greater cooperation from others—in this case, to get more European cooperation in responding to Russian behavior in Ukraine. We need to distinguish clearly in our own minds, however, between this kind of tactical reference to a single salient, however accidental, event to persuade others to support our policies, and the sort of unemotional analysis, not dependent on accidents, required to formulate sound policies in the first place.

There are many differences, of course, in the circumstances surrounding these two tragic events. The events in the Persian Gulf do not have a clear counterpart to the Putin government's trouble-making in Ukraine. But before we too quickly use any differences to dismiss any comparison to the two episodes, we should note some of the other characteristics about what happened in 1988. In getting involved in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States was in effect intervening on the Iraqi side—the side of the original aggressor, Saddam Hussein. Tactically, it would be very hard to find grounds to excuse away what the Vincennes did, despite the tensions of the time and place involved. The airliner was flying on a well-established commercial route to Dubai and emitting all the proper signals for identification. It was increasing, not decreasing, in altitude at the time it was assumed to be an F-14 coming in for an attack. Other U.S. Navy ships in the immediate area did not identify it as hostile. The airliner was in Iranian airspace, and the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters, at the time of the shootdown.

Our own responses to the incident in the Persian Gulf ought to provide some perspective for looking at how others have responded to similar incidents. The downing of Iran Air Flight 655 was not taken in the United States as a black mark on American military history. The United States never issued a formal apology, although it did pay monetary compensation and expressed regret over the civilian deaths. The career of the captain of the Vincennes did not suffer; he received an award for his time as skipper of the ship, notwithstanding the 290 innocent civilians who were killed on his watch.

We also can use our own strong feelings about the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 to gain some perspective on how others view U.S.-caused accidents, whether or not they are viewed as accidents. The prevailing Iranian interpretation of the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 was, and probably still is, that it was intentional. Given the circumstances of the incident, including the advanced capabilities represented by the Vincennes and its crew, Iranians have found the description of the incident as an accident to be not credible. The episode, along with other indications of what Iranians take to be ill intentions of the United States, helps to explain why many Iranians still regard the United States as hostile and untrustworthy, with its statements of intentions not to be believed.                         

 

 

TopicsUkraine Russia Iran

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