Blogs

A Global Popularity Contest

The Buzz

Is Russia making a global comeback in spite of Western sanctions and political pressure from the United States and Europe? On the surface, it certainly seems like it.

Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin paid a very public two-day visit to Egypt, cementing the burgeoning strategic partnership he has diligently cultivated with the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The lavish reception he received—complete with street placards bearing his likeness and wall-to-wall coverage in the Egyptian press—left no questions about Cairo’s attitudes toward the Kremlin. New political forces on the Old Continent, like Greece’s recently elected left-wing Syriza government, have likewise embraced an increasingly pro-Russian outlook. And the Russian leader apparently enjoys massive popularity in China, where his biography is a bestseller and his authoritarian political style is the subject of serious study. All of which led Foreign Policy magazine to dub Putin the “new model dictator,” and the gold standard for autocrats everywhere.

Perhaps he is. But look a bit closer, and you’re liable to find that Russia’s recent geopolitical advances are very much the exception rather than the norm. A year into the Kremlin’s asymmetric campaign in Ukraine, its global image—and its alliances—is much the worse for wear.

The problems begin close to home. Last month’s summit of the Eurasian Economic Union—a bloc that ranks as Putin’s premier regional initiative—was a decidedly lackluster affair. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, the Union’s constituent members (Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan) are increasingly wary of Moscow’s regional policies and of the possibility that they, too, could become the targets of the Kremlin’s territorial acquisition. Additionally, Western sanctions and a plunge in global oil prices have hit Russia’s economy hard, making Moscow increasingly unable to bankroll its political and economic vision for the region.

As a result, there’s growing dissension in the ranks. "Those who think that the Belarusian land is part as what they call the Russian world, almost part of Russia, forget about it!" Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko recently told reporters in Minsk. "Belarus is a modern and independent state." That Belarus—once Russia’s staunchest ally in the region—feels empowered to take such a stance speaks volumes about the Kremlin’s plummeting regional cachet.

Belarus, moreover, isn’t the only one. Neighboring Kazakhstan has also begun distancing itself from Moscow—albeit more quietly. Last year, the Moscow Times notes, Kazakhstan’s imports to the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union fell to just 6.1 percent, roughly half of what they were in 2010. That’s as telling a sign as any that Kazakhstan’s leaders no longer have much confidence in Russia’s political and economic projects.

But the now-likely demise of the Eurasian Union could end up being the least of Putin’s problems. Increasingly, Russia is losing ground globally.

Just how much can be seen in a mid-2014 poll of global attitudes toward Russia carried out by the Pew Research Center. That study found that anti-Russian attitudes had skyrocketed among the majority of the forty-four countries surveyed. More than half of Middle Eastern countries polled now see Russia negatively, anti-Russian sentiment is on the rise across Latin America, and Europe is unified in its anti-Russian position as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

Indeed, of all the nations polled by Pew, Russia’s global image had improved in just nine. And only in two—China and the Palestinian Territories—did it grow by double digits.

In other words, countries like Egypt and Greece—which are now making common cause with the Kremlin—are political outliers, rather than representatives of an emerging global consensus. And Russia’s increasingly frenetic global activism isn’t a sign of strength or defiance. Rather, it should be seen for what it truly is: a desperate attempt to stave off deepening international isolation.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Agência Brasil/Roberto Stuckert Filho​/CC by 3.0 br

TopicsPolitics

Sorry, Al Jazeera: A Leaked Mossad Cable Doesn’t Reveal Netanyahu Lied to the UN

The Buzz

Qatari television network Al Jazeera has obtained a cache of secret intelligence cables, apparently from South Africa, and they’re eagerly promoting them as “the largest intelligence leak since Snowden.” Yet one of the first baubles plucked from this alleged treasure trove is fool’s gold—even with their attempts to represent it otherwise.

The Qatari-government-funded station argues that the cables reveal that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “misled” the United Nations in his famous September 2012 address to the United Nations General Assembly—that Israeli intelligence had an assessment of the Iranian nuclear program that “appears to contradict the picture painted by Netanyahu of Tehran racing towards acquisition of a nuclear bomb.” There were plenty of things wrong with that Netanyahu speech, and there’s plenty of evidence that Netanyahu and his intelligence services don’t always see eye to eye on Iran. But what the network has uncovered doesn’t contradict Netanyahu, and offers little that wasn’t already known to the public.

A cable from October 2012, apparently from the Mossad, assesses the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Al Jazeera notes that the document says that “Iran at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons,” but “is working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment, reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time instruction is actually given.” They contrast this with “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2012 warning to the UN General Assembly that Iran was 70 per cent of the way to completing its ‘plans to build a nuclear weapon’” and (in their video report) with his line that “by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.”

The Mossad report doesn’t actually contradict this.

Making nuclear weapons is complicated. A working warhead is the result of several distinct lines of technical development. You need enough enriched uranium to sustain a rapid chain reaction (the core of the bomb), and you need a way to induce that chain reaction (the mechanism of the bomb). (You’ll also probably want a way to deliver the bomb, a third line of technology.) Netanyahu’s argument rested on this distinction: he said that the world must draw a red line on Iran’s activities that could be useful for making a core because those activities are much harder to hide than those for making the mechanism:

For Iran, amassing enough enriched uranium is far more difficult than producing the nuclear [detonation mechanism]....it takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they’re still vulnerable. In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear detonator...in a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months. The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop...So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

Bibi was, in other words, not asserting that an Iranian nuclear device was coming soon—he was saying that Iran was approaching the end of the phase in which its nuclear program would be easiest to interrupt. The Mossad’s statement that Iran “is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons” doesn’t contradict that, particularly when read with their line that Iran’s activities at the time would “reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time instruction is actually given.” Iran was taking steps that made weaponization easier, even if it wasn’t weaponizing. A closer reading of the speech, and a better understanding of the underlying technical issues, would have revealed the harmony between the two positions.

That closer reading also would have answered the question the presenter asks at the end of the video report: “The ‘Spy Cables’...begs [sic] the question: where did [Netanyahu] get this information?” As Netanyahu said at the time: “What I told you now is not based on secret information. It’s not based on military intelligence. It’s based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Anybody can read them. They’re online.”

So the Qatari-backed press might not be the best source for news on Israel. But there are still two interesting points of tacit discord between Netanyahu and his spies, points which Al Jazeera does not acknowledge.

The first: Netanyahu says that “by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, [the Iranians] will have finished the medium enrichment and move [sic] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.” In other words, enriching to weapons grade will follow the accumulation of enough medium-enriched uranium—Iran will take the next step as soon as it is able. The Mossad document is agnostic on that—it has Iran taking the next steps “when the instruction is actually given” by its leaders. Netanyahu’s Iran is in a mad dash to the bomb; technical obstacles are the only things slowing it down. It will only respond to the threat of force—to the declaration of a red line. Mossad’s Iran is more cautious—it’s taking steps to reduce the time it needs to build a weapon and to “preserv[e]” and “retain” its old weaponization infrastructure. But the choice to actually weaponize has not been made. There’s no mad dash and perhaps no inevitability.

The issue of Iranian caution points us to a second dissonance. Netanyahu argues that Iran is on the brink of “finish[ing] the medium enrichment” phase along the path to having enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb. “Finishing” this phase, and being ready to move on to the next one, has two inputs: centrifuges and medium-enriched uranium. With enough of both, you can quickly get to weapons grade—and speed is essential, since taking this final step would remove many doubts about what Iran’s nuclear program is for. Yet, as the Mossad report notes, Iran’s stockpile of medium enriched uranium was not expanding at the time, “as some [of it] is being converted to nuclear fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor].”

This was widely perceived as an attempt to reduce tensions by limiting the size of the most threatening part of its nuclear stockpile. This is not behavior we’d expect from Netanyahu’s mad-dashing Iranian fanatics. In Bibi’s defense, there was debate at the time on how meaningful conversion was—the Institute for Science and International Security, for example, would complain a year later that “although conversion of uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide and fabrication into fuel elements does limit Iran’s ability to quickly use this material in a breakout scenario, the only iron-clad way to prevent further enrichment is for an outside country to hold this material in escrow prior to irradiation” in a reactor. But it is worth noting that the Mossad report does not seem to take such concerns seriously: it flatly states that “the amount of 20% enriched uranium is...not increasing,” citing the conversion activity.

Netanyahu’s speech was far from perfect. But his most questionable statements were about Iran’s intentions and motivations, not about the details of its nuclear program. His apparent divergences with the Mossad on that matter are largely a matter of framing, not of fact.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranIsrael

3 Issues Poisoning U.S.-Israeli Ties

The Buzz

Much of the punditry regarding the current state of the U.S.-Israeli alliance has focused on the volley of slights and insults between Jerusalem and Washington. A small number of former Obama administration insiders, such as Derek Chollet, have pushed back, pointing to the personal ties between American and Israeli defense ministers. The alliance is not breaking up, but we would be in serious denial to keep saying ties are not strained (or that they are stronger than ever). The problem is not (entirely) personal. For all of our shared interests, America and Israel diverge on three key topics: Iran, Syria, and Qualitative Military Edge (QME).

Yes, recent U.S. and Israeli defense ministers have had excellent relations. This did not stop the Obama White House from snubbing Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s request for meetings with everyone from Vice President Biden to Secretary of State John Kerry after he made a series of insulting remarks. But this misses a more fundamental point. Relationships matter, but they aren’t everything. When former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was Ambassador to Washington, Henry Kissinger was his mentor. When Rabin succeeded Golda Meir as Prime Minister after his stint in Washington, Rabin’s personal ties did not stop Kissinger from threatening to “reassess” the relationship unless Israel moved forward with the peace process with Egypt.

Today, Israel and the United States have divergent interests on three fronts: Iran, Syria, and the maintenance of the Jewish state’s QME.

On Iran, America is from Mars and Israel is from Venus. Many Israelis have been apprehensive about a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement since the end of the first Gulf War for fear that Iran would displace Israel as America’s lead ally in the region. Today, the mistrust between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations is palpable. The Netanyahu government is angry that it is being cut out of key decisions; the Obama administration is fearful of Israeli leaks that could encourage a hawkish Congress and spoil any deal with Iran. An Iranian nuclear breakout (or sneakout) poses an existential threat to Israel. For the United States, a nuclear Iran is an unwelcome but deterrable threat.

The Obama administration hopes that it will be able to clinch a deal that would halt Iran’s potential march to a bomb and bring about a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. For both the Netanyahu government and its challengers in the Zionist Camp, even if Iran is a year away from nuclear breakout, that is twelve months too short. A nuclear Iran would limit Israel’s ability to project force in the region and could set off a series of nuclear dominoes among Jerusalem’s quasi-allies in the Gulf.

The differences over Syria are an extension of the divide over Iran. For now, the United States is focused on rolling back the Islamic State’s (IS) advance. For Israel, Hezbollah, not IS, is its biggest concern because it is the long arm of the Pasdaran, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. As a result, the United States and Israel are actually on opposite sides in Syria. As the United States bombs targets with the tacit approval of the Assad regime, Israel reportedly worked with the Nusra Front during the fight for Quneitra in order to safeguard the Golan Heights.

The Obama administration has been quick to point out that Israel has been the recipient of the most advanced weapons in the United States’ arsenal. However, this may change as Congress debates the future of QME. While the United States has made commitments to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military superiority over the rest of its neighbors, some in Congress feel that the threat from IS necessitates expanding the program to Arab states on the frontline.

For some, expanding QME to other states is premature and risky. The Islamic State’s recent ascendance was fostered by its capture of U.S. military equipment abandoned by a fleeing Iraqi army. Should another state fall after receiving QME, it would be déjà vu all over again.

The U.S.-Israeli alliance is not over. However, our interests diverge on three key points: Iran’s nuclear program, the civil war in Syria, and QME. We are in a state of willful ignorance when we deny it.

Albert Wolf is an Analyst for Wikistrat. He can be followed on Twitter @albertwolf82

Image: Whitehouse.gov 

TopicsDiplomacyPolitics RegionsUnited StatesMiddle East

Time Bomb: China's Debt Is Out of Control

The Buzz

“Once you start thinking about growth, it's hard to think about anything else,” remarked the economist Robert Lucas, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the topic. Policymakers in China agree.

Since 1979, GDP growth has symbolized the nation's dynamism, determination and confidence, and China's growth machine has spawned an industry of forecasters who jostle over decimal points.

In recent years, the totemic 8 percent has been gradually guided down to 7-7.5 percent as “the new normal.” National GDP hit 7.4 percent last year, controversially missing the 7.5 percent official expectation. Policymakers are attuned to market reactions, so feel obligated to deliver “7-point-something.” Growth at all costs has become a dangerous obsession, without heed to prudent economic management. There is a law in economics stating that variables become meaningless once targeted; Chinese GDP might well qualify.

(Recommended: The Real China Threat: Credit Chaos)

Of course China's GDP isn't meaningless. It's huge, it's real, and it's merely slowing “from a very big base.” It represents a stunning 40 percent of total world growth and it seems churlish to question it. Still, there's always been something a little fishy about this dataset. It gets reported far sooner (in 19 days) than in any other major economy. In punctual Tibet they report even before quarter's end!

More advanced economies regularly revise growth data retroactively; China's GDP is suspiciously accurate and seldom corrected. And it seems no longer to correlate well with other underlying indicators, suggesting officials or statisticians may be smoothing the data.

Shanghai's recent removal of its target is likely to be followed by other provinces currently in thrall to “GDP-ism.” The economy's high and rising dependence on investment has been criticized as unsustainable. “7.X” growth, like the magic formula for Coca-Cola, is seen as contrived. There are a few cynics who mutter that the Chinese growth number is a fiction, too good and too stable to be true.

(Recommended: Tokyo Time Bomb: Japan's Looming Debt Disaster)

There is another explanation: Beijing really is delivering the reported number but is straining to do so.

China's national balance sheet is starting to look ragged. Goldman Sachs thinks China's industrial debt is, at 240 percent of GDP, approaching American levels, but at a much lower development stage. McKinsey reckons China has piled on 83 percent debt/GDP in 2007-14. In this period, total debt has quadrupled, certainly the world's largest ever credit buildup but also one of the fastest. This latter point is significant. By Goldman's count, China is coming off a “97th-percentile” episode of credit accumulation. Historically about half of such events have culminated in a banking bust. Since China “doesn't do crises,” it must eventually correct through rebalancing.

China has much going in its favor.

It has excess savings, which are captive. Although foreign borrowing has soared, external liabilities are less than 10 percent of GDP. There is large “catch-up” potential remaining. Goldman calculates cumulative capital return rate is 15 percent, double America's, meaning there is still much room to deploy investment. But as Greg Clark has noted, that doesn't mean it will be done efficiently in the future: “a manager of the Eastern Bengal State Railway, touring the United States in 1901, remarked that most American railways were not up to European or Indian standards.” Clark's point is that long-term growth is derived from the efficient use of railways (to take a germane example), not how “advanced” the locomotives are.

Much of China's capital is trapped in dud state companies that are all too capable of pursuing white-elephant projects. Many of these companies are local government entities, and stories of alarmingly leveraged municipalities (here and here) are surfacing. Undeterred, 14 provinces (of China's 31) have already unveiled US$2.5 trillion of new projects for this year “to bolster economic growth.”

For now, total debt continues to outpace nominal GDP growth by 6-7 percent annually, meaning that debt/GDP keeps piling up. There is an insouciant view, expressed once to me by a Japanese central banker when discussing quadrillions of yen of public borrowing, that debt is “just a bunch of zeroes.” It doesn't matter, since it's “owed to ourselves.” But Japan's experience actually informs otherwise. And Goldman's historical database suggests that a growth hiccup of at least 2-4 percentage points would normally ensue. The days of 7-point-something growth may be over soon.

Julian Snelder is a Kiwi who has resided in Asia for almost a quarter-century. This piece originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.

Image: Flickr/Premshree Pillai

TopicsEconomics RegionsAsia

U.S. Seeking Submarine-Launched Stealthy Anti-Ship Missile

The Buzz

Lockheed Martin is developing a submarine-launched stealthy long-range anti-ship missile for the U.S. Navy.

Last week Inside Defense reported that Lockheed Martin has begun work on an undersea-launched variant of its Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). The report, which is based on an interview Inside Defense conducted with a senior Lockheed official, said that the submarine-launched LRASM would utilize the same type of system that currently launches Tomahawk missiles. It went on to say that Lockheed is “working to integrate the missile with different targeting systems as well as different software and electrical interfaces.”

The report quoted Frank St. John, Lockheed's vice president of tactical missiles, as saying that “The primary work there is to just get it out of the sub, free of the water, and then once the engine starts it runs just as if it was dropped off a plane or shot off a ship." Testing is scheduled to start sometime in the third quarter of this year.

As previously noted, the LRASM has a reported range of 500 nautical miles and carries a 1,000-lb. penetrator and blast-fragmentation warhead. It is primarily designed to provide the U.S. Navy and Air Force with a precision-guided long-range stand-off capability that can survive in aggressive electronic warfare environments. To achieve this, it uses on-board sensors and a semi-autonomous guidance system to reduce its dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, network links and GPS navigation. It also employs “innovative terminal survivability approaches and precision lethality” to avoid advanced enemy countermeasures while still reaching its intended target.

The LRASM is being funded by the U.S. Air Force and Navy as a stop-gap measure because the existing Harpoon anti-ship missile has a limited range and cannot survive in contested anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environments. It underwent its third successful test earlier this month and is currently expected to reach early operational capability on the Air Force’s B-1s in 2018 and Navy’s F/A-18 Super Hornets the following year.

Lockheed Martin is using internal funds to conduct the ongoing research into the submarine-launched variant with an eye towards winning the second increment of the LRASM contract. Bidding for that contract is expected to begin sometime in the next few years. Inside Defense quoted St. John as saying that Lockheed has already invested $50 million in developing the three variants of the LRASM and expects to invest upwards of $100 million before all is said and done.

"All this is done on our own investment to prepare for an eventual Navy competition," he is quoted as saying in the report. “It's a significant, significant activity for us, it's one of our most important pursuits."

Image: U.S. Navy Photo

TopicsSecurity

Pages