Perceptions of Russian Expansionism: Looking at Ukraine through Afghanistan

Paul Pillar

Much of the discourse over the past year about responding to Russian moves in Ukraine has been couched in terms of the need to stop aggressive expansionism in its tracks. Hillary Clinton has even invoked the old familiar analogy to Nazi expansionism in likening some of the Russian actions to what Germany was doing in the 1930s. With or without the Nazi analogy, a commonly expressed concept is that not acting firmly enough to stop Russian expansionism in Ukraine would invite still further expansion.

Underlying such arguments are certain assumptions about wider Russian intentions. If Vladimir Putin and anyone else advising him on policy toward Ukraine see their moves there as steps in a larger expansionist strategy, then the concept of stopping the expansion in its tracks is probably valid. But if Russian objectives are instead focused on narrower goals and especially concerns more specific to Ukraine, the concept can be more damaging than useful.

As long as historical comparisons are being invoked, one possibly instructive comparison is with an earlier episode involving application of military force by Russia or the Soviet Union along its periphery. This episode provides a closer correspondence than pre-war Nazi maneuvers, but it is still distant enough to provide some perspective and a sense of the consequences. It is the Soviet armed intervention in Afghanistan, which occurred 35 years ago as of this December.

Once Soviet forces entered Afghanistan, a key question for policy-makers in Jimmy Carter's administration was the Soviets' purpose in undertaking the operation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance would later summarize in his memoirs two competing answers to that question. One view was that Moscow's motives were primarily local and, insofar as they extended beyond Afghanistan, focused on worries about possible unrest among Muslims in the Central Asian republics of the USSR. The other view was that the Soviets had concluded that the relationship with the United States had already deteriorated so much that they should seize the opportunity not only to quell their Afghan problem but to improve their larger strategic position in South and Southwest Asia, moving ever closer to those proverbial warm water ports that have traditionally been a goal of Russian strategists.

The different interpretations had significantly different policy interpretations. An appropriate response to the latter, more expansive, Soviet strategy would be to slow the Soviet advance by making Afghanistan even more unstable than it already was, particularly through assistance to the mujahideen insurgents. But if the first interpretation were correct, stoking the insurgency would only prolong the Red Army's stay, put more nails in the coffin of U.S.-Soviet détente, and perhaps lead the Soviets to make other moves that would start to turn a Soviet threat to Pakistan from a fear into a reality.

It was the expansionist interpretation of Soviet objectives that implicitly became the basis for the Carter administration's policies. It became so without any thorough analysis by the policy-makers of Moscow's motives. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser whose thinking became the chief basis for the Carter administration's policy toward the USSR, did not even think such analysis was necessary. He later wrote that “the issue was not what might have been Brezhnev's subjective motives in going into Afghanistan but the objective consequences of a Soviet military presence so much closer to the Persian Gulf.” Thus ensued a U.S. response that included a broad array of sanctions, withdrawal from the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980, enunciation of the bellicose-sounding Carter Doctrine about willingness to use force in the Persian Gulf region, and most consequentially, increased material aid to the Afghan insurgents.

Despite the significant differences between that situation and what the West faces today in Ukraine, there are some applicable lessons. One is the importance of careful consideration of Russian objectives, rather than just making worst-case assumptions. Another lesson is the need for humility in realizing that our initial thoughts about those objectives may be wrong. The Carter administration's thoughts and assumptions about that may have been wrong. With the benefit of hindsight, a good case can be made today that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was not intended to score strategic gains by moving closer to oil and sea lanes but instead was about avoiding a substantial loss for the Soviets: the overthrow of an existing Communist government in a country bordering the USSR by an insurgency that could lead to trouble among Central Asian residents of the USSR itself.

Another lesson is to be wary of how domestic U.S. politics may push decision-makers in unhelpful directions. A major pusher of Carter's policies was his political need to get tough, or to be seen getting tough, with the Soviets. When Carter had said in a televised interview shortly after the Soviet intervention that the intervention had helped to educate him about Soviet goals, his political opponents jumped all over this comment as supposedly a sign of naȉveté. Carter's political weakness at the time also stemmed from the near-simultaneous crisis that had begun a few weeks earlier with the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The constant hammering away by Barack Obama's political opponents of the theme that Mr. Obama supposedly has been too weak and insufficiently assertive against U.S. adversaries offers an obvious parallel regarding the potential for political considerations pushing policy into unhelpful directions.

Finally there is is the importance of taking fully into account all the consequences, including longer range and more indirect consequences, of how the United States responds to Russian moves. A full balance sheet on the results of U.S. aid to the Afghan insurgency would be complicated and subject to argument, but a major downside has been contribution to varieties of militant Islamism that for most of the past 35 years have been more of a worry for the United States, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, than anything the Russians have been doing. Some of the violent elements that are principal adversaries in Afghanistan today are descendants of elements that received U.S. aid in the 1980s. The Afghan insurgency against the Soviets also continues to be a major influence, as an inspiration and in other respects, helping to sustain transnational Islamist terrorism.

No one has a monopoly of wisdom on what exactly are Russian goals in and around Ukraine today. Maybe even Vladimir Putin does not fully know what those goals will be, and is in large part reacting to moves by Ukrainians and by the West. Applying the framework of what the Carter administration faced in Afghanistan, however, it is reasonable to characterize the objectives as more local than expansive in a larger geopolitical sense. The most explicitly expansionist thing Putin has done—the annexation of Crimea—can be seen as a one-off given the unusual historical, demographic, and emotional circumstances associated with the peninsula. Much of the rest of Russian policy has to do with the specter of NATO's expansion into Ukraine. Unfortunately Ukrainian President Poroshenko does not seem inclined to give that issue a rest.

Image: Creative Commons/Flickr.         

TopicsRussia Ukraine Afghanistan RegionsSouth Asia Eastern Europe

Hagel's Fate Was Sealed Long Ago

The Buzz

To the surprise of many, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel resigned his post Monday, apparently under heavy pressure. According to some accounts, this development has been brewing for weeks. In reality, it was presaged nearly two years ago in the former Army sergeant and Nebraska Senator's farcical confirmation hearings before his one-time colleagues.

Writing at the time in this space, I defended Hagel's "fumbling and apologetic" answers as a byproduct of the political theater in which Senators were trying to score points with the voters back home and the nominee had to absorb their punches, many of them score settling for his turning against the Iraq War, as the price for ultimate confirmation. I observed that "Hagel is that rare public official who's always said what's on his mind and voted his conscience on the issues without much caring what anyone thought about it" but that, in the hearings, "For perhaps the first time since Basic Training, he wasn't free to speak his mind."

As it turned out, that didn't change once he took the helm at the Pentagon. Instead of having to placate those Republican Senators who saw their erstwhile colleagues as a turncoat for having switched sides on an unpopular war and then agreed to work for a Democratic president, he'd have to defend contradictory administration policies in the Middle East--where among other things we were on both sides of a civil war in Syria, simultaneously bombing ISIS, aiding their allies in the Free Syria Army, and opposing the Assad regime they are both against--while pretending we were pivoting to Asia and shifting to a peacetime force posture. Hagel was visibly unenthusiastic with his role, often appearing disengaged while, if reports are to be believed, often actually left out of the policy discussions.

Before leaving for my present position last August, I spent six years at the Atlantic Council, where Hagel served ably as chairman until taking over the Defense Department. His predecessor, General Jim Jones, had been picked to join Obama's "team of rivals" as National Security Advisor. Both men were highly accomplished public servants, widely respected by Republicans and Democrats alike for their competence, intellect, and integrity. Indeed, Jones may very well have been selected as National Security Advisor or another prominent role had John McCain prevailed in 2008. (Interestingly, Hagel was followed by Jon Huntsman, the erstwhile Republican governor or Utah and presidential candidate who'd alienated his base by serving as Obama's ambassador to China.)

In both instances, the qualities that got them chosen made them poor fits. In an administration that sees foreign policy as an extension of domestic policy, simply asking "What's in the US national security interest?" isn't enough. In case after case, the administration chose half measures that would appease the Democratic base while minimizing criticism from Republicans on the "weakness" front.  So, they announced a military surge in Afghanistan that was far less than requested by the commanding general while simultaneously announcing a premature deadline for withdrawal. They authorized military action against the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the Assad regime in Syria, and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria but without any obvious consideration of the strategic consequences.

It didn't help that Jones and Hagel were outside the inner circle of foreign policy advisors that Obama had brought with him from the campaign and the Senate. Their willingness to work across the aisle may have won them plaudits from the broader foreign policy community but it meant that they would never be trusted team players. They were constantly being sniped at by anonymous staffers in the press and were ready scapegoats for failed or unpopular policies. Meanwhile, the president has shown steadfast loyalty and infinite patience with Susan Rice and others.

Among the reported reasons for the president wanting yet another change at the top of the Pentagon—Hagel’s successor will be the fourth in Obama’s less than six years in office—is that Hagel has frustrated the longstanding administration goal of closing Guantánamo by pointing out the problems of repatriating detainees to Afghanistan and that he’s clashed with Rice on the Syria issue, pointing out that the administration’s Assad policy is at odds with itself. Being obviously right, apparently, is not a defense.

Ashton Carter is among the top names being floated, again, for the post. But whoever gets the nod is going to face the same obstacles as Hagel if national security policy continues to be seen as the extension of an unending electoral campaign. An astrategic strategy won’t be any less so by changing the faces at the table.

James Joyner is a security studies professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.

Image: US Department of Defense. 

TopicsDefense RegionsUnited States

What Could Undermine China’s Anticorruption Efforts? Suicide

The Buzz

On November 13, the deputy commissar of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Vice Admiral Ma Faxing, committed suicide by leaping from a building at a naval complex in Beijing. In the same month, at least two other important officials took their lives. They were among the more than forty officials who have killed themselves since January 2014, more than double the total in all of 2011.

These numbers are small compared to the number of officials that killed themselves during the Cultural Revolution (estimated to be 100,000-200,000) or the total suicide deaths each year in China (estimated to be 287,000). Still, the rapid increase of officials who commit suicide is occurring when the overall suicidal rate in China has seen a significant drop since the 1990s. A New York Times report found that the suicide rate among this segment of the population—6.9 per 100,000 officials—is 30 percent higher than the overall suicide rate in urban China.

What accounts for the spate of suicides by Chinese officials? Given the lack of transparency in China’s officialdom, it is difficult to pin down any specific cause. Most of the suicide deaths were officially attributed to depression or high pressure. This is in sharp contrast to the views of the general public and China scholars, who tend to connect the deaths to corruption scandals.

Depression or high pressure might be factors behind the deaths of many Chinese officials, but they cannot fully explain the increase in suicides by Chinese officials in recent years—as early as 2005, a survey of 200 middle-aged government officials found that nearly 50 percent of them were “mentally unhealthy.” Indeed, of the thirteen officials who killed themselves in 2014 and for whom official explanations of the cause of death were available, only five were said to have suffered from depression or high pressure, and at least six of them were associated with corruption-related investigations. An examination of the suicide cases clearly pinpoints the impact of the anticorruption campaign launched by the new leadership (which took over in November 2012). During the period 2011-12, a total of forty officials reportedly killed themselves. But since 2013, at least eighty-eight officials have done the same.

The officially publicized suicide cases also suggest the growing extent and intensity of the antigraft investigations under the leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Between 2003 and 2013, for example, there were no reports of high-ranking military officials who committed suicide. But in 2014, in the span of three months two senior naval officers (a vice admiral and a rear admiral) jumped to their deaths. In addition, between August 2003 and April 2014, around three officials at and above the bureau and prefectural level killed themselves annually. Since April 2014, however, there has been a rise in both the frequency and the rank of official committing suicide. Within two and half months, more than ten officials at and above the bureau and prefectural level killed themselves.

As the new leadership gears up its antigraft campaign, officials are facing greater pressure, especially those who are already under investigation. Still, why do these officials throw away their lives so easily? One explanation is that the campaign put undue pressure on officials who feel they have no choice but to kill themselves to escape their distress. In most cases open to the public, officials appear to kill themselves without experiencing apparent coercion and duress. Another possible explanation is that the growing pressure associated with the campaign exacerbates the depression of some officials, leading them to commit suicide. But again, a majority of officials in publicized cases did not suffer from depression before they killed themselves.

A more convincing explanation treats suicide as a means to escape seemingly inevitable punishment. On the one hand, the antigraft campaign, with its unprecedented intensity and breadth, sends a strong signal to venal officials that this time they can no longer expect to be let off the hook. In a political hierarchy where cadres can only be promoted but not be demoted, being caught and sentenced to jail (or even death) for corruption would mean not only public humiliation but also the forfeiture of all titles and illicit gains. On the other hand, under the existing law once the guilty party dies, prosecution is terminated and the party no longer bears legal responsibilities. This presents an institutional opportunity for the corrupt officials. If they commit suicide, not only would they retain their rank and reputation, but their illegal gains would not be confiscated. Furthermore, by taking his or her own live, the individual official sacrifices for the greater good of other members on the same corruption chain, and the latter usually would take care of the victim’s family members. This “altruistic suicide” (as proposed by sociologist Emile Durkheim) therefore has the potential to undermine China’s anticorruption efforts.

This piece was first published by CFR’s blog Asia Unbound here.

Image: Creative Commons License. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

A Hard Truth: Iran Will Remain a Nuclear Threshold State

The Buzz

Despite intensive efforts, the negotiations between the P5 +1 and Iran on the future of its nuclear program, led by the United States, once again failed to produce a final agreement, postponing the moment of reckoning for at least seven months. The details of the negotiations are as yet unknown, and this is a classic case where the devil is in the details. The extension will, however, continue to essentially freeze the Iranian capability, though not contribute to its partial dismantlement, as the United States sought, and will provide Iran with limited, ongoing sanctions relief.

For reasons of both American strategy and domestic politics, there are limits to the concessions Obama could have made, even if he wanted to, and he does not. For reasons of both Iranian strategy and domestic politics, Tehran apparently refused to make significant concessions on key issues, even at the risk of heightened sanctions. Iran’s intransigence may partly reflect what it perceives to be a lack of Western resolve to stay the course and risk confrontation, but this is water under the bridge and the issue now is the agreement under negotiation, not the one we hoped for.

Based on what we know of the negotiations, the hard truth is that Iran will have succeeded in becoming a de facto nuclear threshold state, i.e. one that will remain just months from an operational capability; the threat of a nuclear Iran will be with us for years to come, and, in effect, we will be talking about ongoing conflict management, not resolution. Moreover, even if a final agreement is reached, Iran will not have abandoned its long-term nuclear aspirations; they will have just concluded that their realization is too costly at this time—the situation will have been frozen and a potential confrontation postponed to the future.

Conversely, international pressure will have forced Iran to remain a threshold state, at least for the meantime, and for a highly conflict-averse U.S. administration, kicking the ball down the field—hopefully even to the next administration—has the advantage of avoiding an imminent moment of truth and crisis with Iran. Iran, too, has a clear interest in avoiding an explicit acknowledgment of failure, which will have domestic consequences for the Rouhani presidency and beyond, and lead to heightened sanctions. Moreover, the dynamics of the negotiating process have been in Iran’s favor, leading to greater Western concessions, and are likely to remain so in the future; and in the current situation in the region, the United States seeks greater cooperation with Iran, not confrontation.

Facing a potentially existential threat, Israel has a greater interest in a positive diplomatic outcome than any other player, but is justifiably reluctant to accept a final agreement that will allow Iran to remain a threshold state. Obama, however, has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of taking, or sanctioning, military action, and the return to sanctions—his declared intention in the event that negotiations fail—is a highly unsavory outcome. Been there, done that—it did not make Iran cave. In these circumstances, an ongoing extension of the interim agreement and playing for time may be the best Israel can realistically hope for.

For some, the absence of both an American and Israeli military option will be welcome, but it was the threat of Israeli action that finally motivated the Europeans and other allies to join the United States in imposing comprehensive sanctions on Iran, and it was the sanctions that forced Iran to come to the table. Should a final agreement fail to emerge, the threat of military action should be renewed.

Given Iranian intransigence, a final agreement by next July is hard to imagine. In the absence of demonstrable progress, both sides will be hard-pressed to justify a further extension, but both have a strong incentive to avoid a showdown and a further extension remains a likely outcome, nonetheless. Should an agreement be reached, it will be the kind that no one wants, but will postpone the moment of truth to the future. With no truly good options, this may be the least of the bad options we face. The question is whether Iran is playing tough brinkmanship and intends to reach an agreement, or is totally rejectionist. Either way, it has succeeded in establishing itself as a nuclear threshold state. It is essential that it be kept as far away from that line as possible and never be allowed to cross it.

Chuck Freilich, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, 2012.

Image: Iran president website

TopicsDiplomacyNonproliferationNuclear Weapons RegionsIranUnited States

One Way to Cut Tensions in Asia: Building a Regional Natural-Gas Pipeline

The Buzz

Building a regional natural gas network is the biggest step Asia can take over the next 5-10 years to reduce destructive climate change.

In the journey from coal to clean energy, natural gas will play a key transition role in energy markets.

Once this transition is complete (say, sometime between 2030-2050), gas will give way to better energy sources -- like solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and even closed-cycle nuclear.

As new, better, lower emission energy resources come online and make gas obsolete, gas pipeline networks can shift to carrying other fuels -- like hydrogen or bio-energy. This flexibility offers enormous long-term economic value.

Events already are moving in this direction. China recently announced two deals with Russia to build natural gas pipelines to bring Siberian natural gas to China’s eastern and western regions. A third pipeline, passing through China to South Korea, also is possible.

These pipelines will increase China’s domestic gas supply. As markets change, and China’s gas supply needs fall, China can trade some of that Russian gas with its neighbors. Buyers could include Japan, South Korea and/or the Association of Southeast Asian Nation states. Cross-border trading can alleviate gluts and shortages. This benefits everyone.

As Asia (and the world) reduce carbon emissions over the next 10-30 years, natural gas almost certainly well be the ‘benchmark’ fuel price against which other energy sources (like nuclear, solar, biomass, hydro and wind) are initially compared. These discounts or premiums will provide crucial price signals for investment.

At the recent APEC meeting in China, the US and China announced a bilateral deal on carbon emission reductions. The United States agreed to cut its emissions between 26-28% from 2005 levels by 2025. China agreed its carbon emissions would would be capped by 2030, with non-fossil fuels accounting for 20% of domestic energy supply at that time. The deal lays the groundwork for a global climate agreement in December 2015 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

For a global climate agreement to succeed, energy markets must evolve. With an interconnected regional gas network, and the world’s largest regional energy market, Asia’s natural gas price will become the world’s benchmark price. This will benefit everyone.

At present, the ‘Henry Hub’ price set in the United States is often used as a global benchmark.  That’s because the US has (at present) the world’s largest open, interconnected and integrated national gas pipeline network. One result is that many natural gas contracts in Asia are being pegged to the Henry Hub price, even though the Henry Hub price doesn’t necessarily reflect supply-demand fundamentals in Asia.

Given its own integrated, cross-border natural gas pipeline network, ‘Asia’ (ie China, Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN states, East Timor and Australia) could have its own benchmark trading price -- most likely set in Hong Kong or Shanghai.

Both Hong Kong and Shanghai are gas pipeline hubs. Both also have Liquid Natural Gas import terminals either operating or planned. This makes them ideal for arbitraging price differentials between pipeline gas and Liquid Natural Gas. This will improve Asian investment signals, particularly if prices are denominated in China’s currency expands its role in international trade.

In Australia, ill-considered construction of Liquid Natural Gas export infrastructure (some of it to China) has led to cost overruns, negative environmental consequences and bad long-term economics. These investment mistakes have been caused by poorly-interpreted price signals (for natural gas, carbon emissions and tanker transport, to name three), the infrastructure complexity and inflexibility of LNG and the rapidly falling cost of energy alternatives ranging from solar PV to pipeline gas delivered from Siberia.

Most energy economists estimate initial carbon prices of $20-30 per tonne are needed to start shifting global infrastructure and energy resource development investment toward low-emission energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear and away from coal. In 2011, the energy-related carbon emissions of China, Japan, South Korea, the ASEAN states and Australia amounted to 12.7 billion metric tonnes. Priced at $25 dollars per tonne, that’s $317 billion per year that could be recycled into new infrastructure investment. This money could flow through such organizations as the Green Climate Fund, the Asian Development Bank or China’s proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

A large amount of this infrastructure investment would probably flow from Chinese state champion infrastructure companies like China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Petrochina and State Grid Corp. of China. These companies have built up world-class expertise in delivering large infrastructure projects in China’s over the past two decades.

Therefore, the expertise exists to build a cross-border gas pipeline system in Asia to alongside which other energy infrastructure -- like High-Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) power lines -- can be added later. This will add to the network flexibility of the system by enabling fuel switching between natural gas and electricity.

A regional natural gas pipeline infrastructure also can offer a solution to worsening territorial tensions in the South China Sea and East China Sea. These could be shelved for decades if China and her neighbors were to agree to a series of offshore Joint Development Areas (JDAs) in the South China Sea and East China Sea. These could be connected to market by gas pipelines, which could find a second life delivering deep sea methane hydrates to market once the gas runs out. If supplemented by power lines, offshore wind farms and ocean thermal energy could be developed. And all of it would create enough infrastructure to consider large scale offshore aquaculture to meet the growing protein demands of ever more affluent Asian consumers.

Taking this kind of long-term view of postponing final determination on sovereignty issues opens a window for the for China and the US to cooperate militarily in providing maritime security for both JDAs and the infrastructure serving them. That, in turn, could lead to deeper US-China military cooperation in other areas, such as fisheries protection, humanitarian disaster relief and protection of commercial shipping lanes.

The benefits above add a positive geopolitical benefit to the undeniable economic and climate change advantages of the proposals.

In hosting meetings of the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) this year, China has stressed cross-border connectivity to deepen regional economic integration and create an Asian Maritime Silk Road to fulfill a longer-term goal of an ‘Asia-Pacific Dream’ of rising regional living standards.  

Deepening energy market connectivity through investment in a long-term, economically-catalytic, cross-border gas pipeline network provides a powerful spur to fulfilling all these goals at once.

Stewart Taggart is principal of Grenatec, a research organization studying the viability of a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of high-capacity power lines, natural gas pipelines and fiber optic cables stretching from Australia to China, Japan and South Korea.

TopicsEnergy RegionsAsia-Pacific