Putin's Gambit

The Buzz

With the ceasefire in Ukraine showing early signs of holding, international attention will now intensify towards finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis facing the country. For Kiev and its Western backers, prospects are bleak for bringing about their desired settlement. But it will also not be easy for Vladimir Putin to convert his considerable short-term bargaining power into lasting strategic gains.

On the face of it, Russia’s position in Ukraine is strong. Even though the Russian economy has taken a battering as a result of Western-imposed sanctions, Moscow still enjoys a commanding position on the ground. Only with Russia’s blessing can the conflict be brought to a permanent halt, which would seem to grant Moscow a sizable degree of leverage for extracting concessions from its Western adversaries.

There has been much speculation about what Russia’s long-term strategic goals might relate to: its fear of NATO expansion, its desire to recreate a sphere of influence in the former Soviet space and its deep-seated craving for prestige on the world stage. But the overlooked point is that if Vladimir Putin wants to convert his position in Ukraine into a lasting victory along any of these dimensions, then he needs to play his diplomatic cards very carefully indeed. And even if he does so, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

Putin’s ability to win meaningful concessions from the West—a renunciation of the Western interest in Ukraine’s future or broader recognition of a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, for example—will depend upon his ability to engineer a fissure among the powers ranged against him. Putin will not succeed in ambitious reforms to the European security architecture if the other great powers stand firm. Instead, his gains will be limited to influence over eastern Ukraine at most. But if Putin is able to broaden the appeal of Russian foreign policy, he will emerge from the crisis with a permanently stronger hand in global affairs. Simply put: Putin needs allies.

History suggests that the most effective revisionist powers are those able to split potential opposition to their policies. Nazi Germany was able to remilitarize and expand its influence across Mitteleuropa partly because Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union were either slow to see Hitler’s regime as a menace or else were convinced that others would deal with the threat. Imperial Japan’s rise to power during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was facilitated by a military alliance with Britain, which served to deter others who stood to lose from Japan’s rise from doing anything to stop it. And during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was at its most threatening to the United States when Moscow looked close to splitting the Western alliance—through lobbying West Germany to make a separate peace with the Warsaw Pact, for example, or by encouraging leftist governments to “go neutral” (or “Finlandize”).

The challenge for revisionist states, then, is to ensure that their actions do not provoke unified opposition. Judged against this yardstick, Russian diplomacy is looking less than stellar. From rekindling relations with North Korea to buzzing coastal Britain with nuclear bombers, Putin appears to place more stock in flexing Russia’s muscles than in showing diplomatic restraint. Such bullish grandstanding might play well in some domestic circles, but it does no favors to foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, who might otherwise be disposed to serve as a bridge between Moscow and other Western capitals and could feasibly mediate a grand bargain that would cement some lasting strategic gains for Russia.

If Russia continues to represent itself as a military threat to its neighbors, it will find itself isolated and unable to reshape international politics in the truly fundamental ways that its leadership would like to. This is good news for those who would like to see Russian influence stop at Russia’s borders. But complacency must not be allowed to take hold. The danger for Western capitals is Putin finding a way to break the diplomatic cordon sanitaire—if the United States loses enthusiasm for protecting the peace of Europe; if dovish European states pursue appeasement over deterrence; or if the great powers of tomorrow, China and India especially, turn out to be silent partners (or worse) in Putin’s challenge to the liberal order.

Indeed, weak in their condemnations over the annexation of Crimea and continuing to make noises in favor of concessions to Putin, there seems to be at least some appetite in Beijing and New Delhi for seeing Russia succeed in chipping away at Western stewardship of world affairs. As the localized conflict in eastern Ukraine begins to stabilize, then, the global effort to keep Russia contained and isolated must be redoubled.

Image: Flickr/theglobalpanorama/CC by-sa 2.0

TopicsDiplomacyPolitics RegionsEurope

Russia Is Building New Aircraft Carrier, Navy Chief Confirms

The Buzz

Russia is building a new aircraft carrier its navy chief confirmed on Monday, according to reports in state-owned media outlets.

On Monday Itar-Tass News Agency reported that Viktor Chirkov, Russia’s top naval commander, announced Russia is building a new aircraft carrier.

"The Navy will have an aircraft carrier. The research companies are working on it, and strictly in compliance with the requirements from the Chief Commander," the reported quoted Chirkov as saying. Itar-Tass did not report any additional details except that Chirkov made the remarks while speaking to workers at the Kolomensky Zavod plant. The plant makes diesel electric engines for navy vessels. which makes diesel electric engines.

Russia currently has one operational aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1985. However, last month Russian media outlets began reporting that the government-owned Krylov State Research Center was in the rudimentary stages of developing a new carrier-class for the Russian navy.

The reports said that the carrier was still in the conceptual phase of planning. However, when completed the new Russian aircraft carrier would reportedly be able to hold roughly 100 aircraft on board. That would make it 10 percent larger than America’s current Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, which can store roughly 90 aircraft carrier.

In addition, the reports last month claimed that the new carriers would utilize catapult take-off launch systems. All Soviet-era carriers used ski-ramps to launch aircraft from their flight decks. However, a scaled mockup of the new carrier shown on Russian television had the old ski-ramp style launch systems.

The reports last month were greeted with some skepticism abroad. Writing in Reuters, for instance, War is Boring’s David Axe said the new carrier “is likely to remain a paper concept. A quarter-century after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia lacks the money, expertise and industrial capacity to build aircraft carriers.” He later added: “But the Kremlin has failed to maintain its expensive shipyard facilities and perishable worker skills. So it can’t actually complete the new vessel any time soon.”

In recent years, Russia has launched a massive program to modernize its military equipment. The program was announced by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in a speech in early 2010. At the time, he said the goal was to revamp “arms and equipment at a rate of 9 to 11 percent per year for the next decade, in order to reach a target of modernizing 70 percent of military equipment by 2020.” That same year Russian officials said the rearmament program would cost around $600 billion.

While many foreign analysts dismissed the announcements as mere bluster at the time, since then Russia has been debuting new weapon systems at an impressive rate. As Nikolas Gvosdev wrote in The National Interest last year, “Russia is now engaged in its largest military buildup since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than two decades ago.” He went on to observe, “The rest of the world is taking notice.”

Image: Wikimedia/Gaz Armes


The Real Subject of Netanyahu's Congressional Spectacle (It Isn't Nukes)

Paul Pillar

Benjamin Netanyahu will talk next week, as he has innumerable times before, about how an Iranian nuclear weapon is supposedly an extremely grave and imminent (he has been saying for years that it is just around the corner) threat to world peace and to his nation. There has been genuine concern in Israel about this subject, but Netanyahu's own behavior and posture indicate this is not the concern that is driving his conduct and in particular his diplomacy-wrecking efforts. He is acting out of other motives, ones that—quite unlike the objective of avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapon—are not shared with the United States and instead directly conflict with U.S. interests.

There have been plenty of reasons to doubt all along Netanyahu's alarmist rhetoric. There has been his history of wolf-crying on the subject, against the background of an Iran that has not even decided to build a nuclear weapon. There is the further background of Israel's overwhelming military superiority in the region, at not only the conventional level but also at the level about which Netanyahu is raising such alarm. And there are the repeated indications that his alarmism goes beyond what even his own security services believe.

But even those reasons are not the main ones to conclude that Netanyahu is not acting on behalf of precluding an Iranian nuclear weapon. The main, and most obvious, reason is that he is pushing for an outcome that would remove restrictions and enhanced monitoring of the Iranian nuclear program and would give the Iranians more freedom to expand that program than they otherwise would have. That would be the result of destroying the negotiation process that Netanyahu is trying to destroy, while destroying along with it the preliminary agreement that has kept the Iranian program more heavily restricted and monitored than it had ever been before. An absence of agreement is the only plausible alternative to whatever agreement emerges from the current negotiations, and Netanyahu is smart enough to realize that.

The made-for-TV (and for Israeli campaign ads) platform in the House of Representatives chamber does not give members of Congress an opportunity to ask questions of Netanyahu. All that members can do is to bob up and down out of their seats in a gluteus-abusing way of supposedly expressing their “support for Israel.” But if they could ask questions, the glaring question begging to be asked is, “Mr. Prime Minister, if you really are so concerned about the possibility of the Iranian nuclear program leading to a nuclear weapon, why are you urging us to take actions that would result in that program having fewer restrictions, and less international monitoring, than it otherwise would?”

The prime objective that Netanyahu is pursuing, and that is quite consistent with his lobbying and other behavior, is not the prevention of an Iranian nuclear weapon but instead the prevention of any agreement with Iran. It is not the specific terms of an agreement that are most important to him, but instead whether there is to be any agreement at all. Netanyahu's defense minister recently made the nature of the objective explicit when he denounced in advance “every deal” that could be made between the West and Tehran. As accompaniments to an absence of any agreements between the West and Iran, the Israeli government's objective includes permanent pariah status for Iran and in particular an absence of any business being done, on any subject, between Washington and Tehran.

From Netanyahu's viewpoint this objective serves several purposes. It diminishes the freedom of action of a major competitor (the second most populous country in the Middle East) for regional influence, and one that will continue to be highly critical of Israel as long as the Palestinian issue endures. By postulating a permanent, ominous threat emanating from Iran, one of the assumptions underlying a U.S. strategic relationship with Israel is retained. By opposing—and to the extent Israeli efforts are successful, preventing—the United States from doing any worthwhile business with Iran, whether on nuclear matters or on anything else, the Israeli claim to being the only reliable and effective U.S. partner in the region sounds more convincing.

The specter of Iran and especially of its nuclear program also serves as the best possible distraction and diversion from issues in which Israel is the chief problem and that Netanyahu and his government would rather not talk about. This especially includes, of course, the continued Israeli occupation of, and policies in, Palestinian territory. Netanyahu repeatedly and quickly responds to efforts by others to engage on these other issues, and especially to any direct criticism of Israeli policies, by reminding us that Iran is the “real” threat to peace and security in the region. Permanent festering of the Iranian nuclear issue serves Netanyahu's objectives better than any resolution of the issue would.

The United States does not share an interest in any of these objectives, and some of them are clearly contrary to U.S. interests. The United States does not have an interest in blanket favoring of any one competitor for regional influence over others; it instead has interests in many individual issues, on some of which its interests might align with those of particular regional players and on others of which it may share interests with other players. It is contrary to U.S. interests to give the right-wing Israeli government any means to perpetuate the occupation and the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, given the multiple ways, including having the United States share blame for the occupation in the eyes of most Middle Easterners, that the occupation redounds to the disadvantage of the United States.

Probably the most direct conflict with U.S. interests comes from Netanyahu in effect telling the United States that it cannot do business with certain other countries, and that it cannot fully use its diplomatic tools to pursue U.S. interests as it sees fit. It is in the U.S. interest to use diplomacy with Iran, most obviously and immediately to restrict the Iranian nuclear program but also potentially on many other issues of importance to the United States. Netanyahu is trying to keep one of the United States' hands tied behind its back. He is trying to restrict the freedom of action not just of Iran but of the United States.  That is bad for U.S. interests no matter what party is in power in Washington, no matter who is the U.S. president, no matter what other countries U.S. diplomacy may touch, and no matter what specific policies the U.S. administration of the day may want to achieve and ought to have both hands free to try to achieve.

Amid all the understandable controversy about the highly inappropriate way in which Netanyahu's Congressional appearance has come about, there have been appeals to focus on the substance at hand. Good advice—as long as we recognize the actual substance and the actual game being played. We should not be diverted by the scaremongering rhetoric from the man at the podium, who is acting so inconsistently with the implications of his own rhetoric, any more than we should dwell forever on the underhanded political games that got him there. In between the bounces on their seats, members of Congress should think hard about whether it is Likud's interests or U.S. interests that they have at heart, and how efforts associated with the former are undermining the latter.                                               

TopicsIsrael Iran RegionsMiddle East

The New Battleground in the U.S.-Iranian Covert War

The Buzz

The emergence of cybersecurity as a global problem reveals that states are harnessing cyber technologies in the service of their respective national security and foreign policy interests. One question arising from this phenomenon is how the embrace of cyber means and methods might affect strategic and geopolitical competition among rival powers. Will the increasing exploitation of cyber technologies destabilize power politics given the technologies’ unique qualities? Or will these technologies become just another tool rivals use jockeying for international influence?

David Sanger’s story in the New York Times on February 22 about the “growth of cyberwarfare between the U.S. and Iran” provides some food for thought concerning how rival states are using cyber means. The story analyzes an April 2013 NSA document published by The Intercept, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that contained talking points about Iran for then-NSA director Keith B. Alexander.

Sanger emphasizes “the striking acceleration of the use of cyberweapons by the United States and Iran against each other” and the “computer competition between the United States and Iran.” Sanger quotes David Rothkopf as arguing that, in U.S. strategic decision-making, the cost of using cyber weapons is sufficiently low that U.S. officials seem to believe that “we can’t afford not to use them.” That certainly appears to be the attitude with respect to Iran, with the document highlighting NSA’s successful cooperation with Britain’s GCHQ on “multiple high-priority surges” against Iran that allowed NSA to “maximize our target coverage.”

Based on Sanger’s analysis and the NSA document, it looks as if Iranian officials have reached the same conclusion. The document describes Iranian cyberattacks against U.S. financial institutions and Saudi Aramco in retaliation for cyber attacks Iran experienced, including the Stuxnet operation and a cyberattack on its oil industry. The NSA notes Iran’s “clear ability to learn from the capabilities and actions of others” and its “striving for increased effectiveness by adapting its tactics and techniques to circumvent victim mitigation attempts.”

Here, competition is taking place in two contexts. First, the United States and Iran are engaged in cyber-centric competition, with each side playing offense and defense in cyberspace. According to the NSA, Iran developed and used cyber means and methods to retaliate against cyber attacks it suffered. The retaliation involved unsophisticated DDoS attacks in response to Stuxnet, and cyberattacks to destroy data on Saudi Aramco computers “after having been a victim of a similar attack against its own oil industry.” In this cyber-on-cyber context, Iran is increasing its capabilities and demonstrating its willingness to use them.

The second context involves the larger strategic and geopolitical relationship between the United States and Iran. The U.S. government faces multiple challenges with Iran, including—as the NSA document mentions—the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s efforts to “extend [...] its influence across the Middle East.” Neither of these are specific to, or dependent on, cyber technologies. The NSA document reveals the U.S. government bringing its cyber capabilities to bear on these challenges, including cyber espionage designed to support U.S. negotiators in the nuclear talks and integration of cyber inputs into crisis contingency planning for Iran. In this cyber-in-realpolitik context, the United States applies its cyber capabilities, in parallel with other sources of material power, to advance its overarching strategic and geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Iran.

Sanger characterizes the NSA document as evidence of expanding cyberwarfare between Iran and the United States, which implies that cyber-on-cyber competition between the two has the potential to destabilize the broader strategic and geopolitical relationship. I read the document differently.

In the cyber-on-cyber context, the Iranian actions described in the document are retaliatory and do not appear to involve escalation from the attacks it experienced. In that sense, the Iranian counter-strikes look calibrated to respond in kind, signal commitment and capabilities to compete in this realm, and perhaps deter future attacks. Presently, neither DDoS nor destruction-of-data attacks constitute warfare. The United States has not treated them as such, as evidenced by its labeling of the North Korean cyber attack on Sony, which included the destruction of data, as “cyber vandalism.”

The destabilizing strategic factors for the United States in the NSA document—Iran’s nuclear program and its attempts to spread its influence in the Middle East—do not arise from cyber-on-cyber competition. The strategic nightmare of Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability is what led the United States to deploy its cyber power against Iran in the Stuxnet operation. Even in this cyber-in-realpolitik context, neither the Stuxnet attack nor the escalating “cyberwarfare” has stopped the two countries from continuing to negotiate a possible nuclear deal, which demonstrates how subordinate the cyber elements of this rivalry are in the broader scheme of things. The expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East also has nothing to do with cyber-on-cyber competition, and this geopolitical problem is not one the United States will manage effectively by focusing on cyber power.

In addition, the U.S. attempt to use a cyber attack to address its strategic concerns about Iran’s nuclear program did little, it appears, to mitigate that threat, but, according to the NSA document, contributed to Iran’s ability to compete more effectively in the cyber-on-cyber context. This boomerang effect suggests that using cyber attacks as leverage for strategic and geopolitical interests might be counterproductive because they have little impact on the balance of influence and advantage but can help the adversary, in the NSA’s words, “learn from the capabilities and actions of others.”

One leaked two-page document does not, of course, tell us everything about how cyber technologies affect power politics now or in the future. Cyber-on-cyber competition might, one day, prove sufficiently disruptive to upset strategic and geopolitical calculations among rivals. But, based on the NSA document in question, that is not what is happening between the United States and Iran.

David P. Fidler is a Visiting Fellow for Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University and an Associate Fellow with the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House.

This article originally appeared on CFR's Net Politics blog here.

Image: Flickr/ Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Martyrs Wanted: ISIS' Devastating Defector Problem

The Buzz

As the pressure on the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) mounts against the backdrop of coalition attacks and a Kurdish offensive in Syria’s Raqqa region, militant recruitment has become a pressing matter for the radical organization, which has lost many fighters in clashes around Iraq and Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), out of 1,800 people killed during the Kobani battles, 70 percent belonged to ISIS. On February 14, 132 fighters died across Syria, including forty-four ISIS militants. Given mounting losses, ISIS expansion has relied on a two-pronged recruitment approach: targeting foreigners looking to join the new caliphate and enlisting members of the local population. While the foreign recruitment strategy appears successful, local recruitment faces growing obstacles in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS has relied on a powerful branding strategy, diffusing violent images on social media, YouTube and Twitter. The organization has released several documentaries boasting its military exploits such as the Flames of War featuring heroic-looking militants and gruesome footage of bombings and executions. This systematic glamorization of violence has allowed the terror group to attract foreign recruits. In January, a new study by International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimated that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria had reached about 20,000.

ISIS’s local recruitment approach has been described in Idarat al Tawahosh (The Management of Savagery), a book written by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004, which ISIS has adopted. Naji argues that the first step for recruitment is “the creation of organizations to improve the management of the areas under our control.” ISIS applied this technique initially following its surge in June. The groups managed everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques in Raqqa. One activist admitted at that the time that the organization had been doing “massive institutional work.”

A second recruitment tool imagined by Naji was the manipulation of tribal antagonism in favor of the organization. ISIS attempted to mobilize Arab crowds ahead of the battle of Tel Hamis in Syria last year using flagrant anti-Kurdish discourse. In accordance with Naji’s recommendation to use money or power as incentives, activists in Raqqa report that ISIS offered cash and sabaya (female slaves) to local tribal leaders to encourage them to swear allegiance.

Indoctrinating local populations and its youth was another cornerstone to Naji’s manifesto. Since its inception, ISIS has imposed religious and military training on children in the Raqqa province. The same activists report that the group uses two training camps—Sharea Ashbal and Maahad Ashbal al-Khilafa—to indoctrinate and train children. According to a Syrian Human Rights Committee report in August, at least eight hundred children under eighteen had been recruited by ISIS. Other reports highlight the more than thirty kids fighting with ISIS in Kobani. An ISIS defector said that militants targeted the young to “[break] down traditional authority structures: the alliance to the family and to the tribe.”

While these strategies succeeded initially, they appear more difficult to maintain in the wake of the continuous coalition, Kurdish and Shia militia attacks on ISIS. The counteroffensives have killed many militants and disrupted the transfer of goods between regions under the organization’s control. Naji’s governance tool appears to be faltering as residents in ISIS-controlled areas increasingly complain of rising food and fuel prices and declining services. The price of staples such as bread has also risen significantly and basic products have become scarce.

ISIS has since resorted to aggressive means for youth recruitment, triggering resentment in some areas. One Iraqi activist notes that the organization often recruits children without the knowledge or approval of their families, leading to a drop in school attendance. A wave of conscription among youth in Mosul, Hawija and Kirkuk in Iraq has in some cases led to kidnappings to coerce families to provide them with fighters (although reports could not be independently confirmed). ISIS militants also arrested forty ex-fighters in the Nusra Front and rebel factions from the village of Abriha and town of al-Sahil and trained them in sharia camps before sending them to battlefronts. Syrian activists said that ISIS also began forcing male members of foreign families that had come to live in the Islamic State, but did not want to fight, to participate in battles.

As a result, ISIS has suffered increased defections in Syria, particularly after the fall of Kobani. Militants have tried to return home or join other groups. ISIS executed one hundred jihadists who attempted to defect. Defections have left the organization possibly facing a shortage of willing martyrs. Other reports point to ISIS police arresting four hundred fighters in Raqqa for not reporting for duty. The same Iraqi activist reported that the organization banned truck drivers from transporting ISIS fighters to limit desertion. In both Raqqa and Mosul, the transit of residents in and out of the city has been closely monitored.

Decreasing human resources may account for ISIS repositioning across areas under its control. ISIS had to transfer in late December eight hundred Chechens, Afghans and Syrians with their families to the city of Tel Affar (50 km west of Mosul), which was the scene of heavy fighting. The number of Islamic State checkpoints and patrols also dwindled in the Syrian border town of al-Bokamel in January, with troops possibly funneled into Iraq.

ISIS relies heavily on the loyalty of both its muhajireen (foreign fighters) base and ansar (local supporters). While the organization’s successes bolstered its appeal among foreign fighters, warlords and tribes, whether in Syria or Iraq, new losses may be starting to chip away at its aura of power. The rate of recruitment has dropped by more than half in February (only fifty-four recruited) compared to January 2015. Compare this figure to June 2014, when nearly six thousand fighters had joined ISIS.

Growing defections, rising tensions and declining local recruitment puts added pressure on ISIS and provides the U.S.-led coalition and the Baghdad government with a window of opportunity to degrade the organization. But in Iraq, other social, political and economic reasons account for local support of ISIS. Naji’s tactic using tribal antagonism to breed organizational loyalty may not have had enough time to sink in, but for many Sunnis—particularly in Iraq—no credible alternative to ISIS has emerged. The Iraqi government will need to take concerted steps to diffuse sectarian tensions and present itself as that alternative. ISIS also benefits from the use of both Syrian and Iraqi territory according to its military needs. The anti-ISIS coalition will need a more comprehensive approach in Syria if it hopes to win the day.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center currently reporting from Iraq. She is a French-Lebanese journalist and based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami. This piece originally appeared here, on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Magharebia/CC by 2.0