Tag Archives: Russia

Putin’s Long Game

crimea-mapThe onset of sanctions between the West and Russia are like the opening moves of chess–and like any chess game the victor will be decided later in the game.  To predict who will be in checkmate we must examine the wants and desires of the players on either side of the board.  Simply put, what does Putin want 10 moves from Crimea?


Putin faces losing Ukraine to the European Union which threatened his long-term dream of the Eurasian Union.  Set to launch in 2015 the Eurasian Union was never hollow talk, it was meant to be a genuine alternative to the West for countries bordering Russia.   So far only Belarus and Kazakhstan have signed on for the Eurasian Union and this isn’t a strong base on which to build.  Belarus is largely subsidized by Russia and oil rich Kazakhstan needs larger markets to grow–enter Russia’s Gazprom.   However Ukraine is the second largest economy is the post-Soviet region. More than just an economic power house it is also the birth of the Russian state–in medieval “Kevian Rus” and is still apart of the “Russian world.”

Putin’s opening moves in Ukraine have exposed the ambiguity of his Eurasian Union and threatened it’s future before it began.  The Eurasian Union was meant  to be an equal partnership between member states where they could pursue political and economic goals and also act as a buffer against Western style liberalism.  However, Putin’s blitz in Ukraine has opened Russia to a premature check.  Putin has justified his Crimean gambit with a vast but vague “responsibility to protect” doctrine.  No one knows if this doctrine will be backed by military force or whom he he intends to protect: ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, anyone that Russian feels needs protecting?  This aggression calls into question the equality of the Eurasian partnership and has understandably spooked Russia’s neighbors.

Domestically Putin is playing a dangerous game.  Set to leave in 2018 he is attempting to ride on the military paradigm.  By stirring a strong sense of nationalism and “anti-westernism” Putin can ride on the approval of the Russian people. Leaders tend to gain favor in war time but this can fade as it did with George W. Bush after Iraq.

The West also has much lose.  If the Eurasian Union were to be a success…some thing that would require the joining of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan to name a few, it would be a powerful buffer against Western ideals.  Spreading democracy, anti-corruption and advocating for LGTBQ rights would become much more difficult if these countries are backed by a larger oppressive union.


In the long game larger military action is unlikely.  By the numbers, Russia spends about 9% of the larger NATO budget on military and much of that goes to kickbacks.  The U.S. alone spends more than any other country on the planet, but Ukraine does expose some of the weaknesses of the western front, namely the lack of other options. Sanctions could work to place Putin in check but but they will take time to come into effect and in the meantime smaller Russian gas dependent countries like Bulgaria and Slovenia will suffer.





Ukraine and Putin: Redrawing the Map


A piece in the Telegraph stated that it may be better for Ukraine to agree to a partition on diplomatic terms rather than face a Russian lead military occupation.  While I disagree with this stance the article does make  the crititical argument that post-soviet Ukraine politics have been marked by the failure of East and West Ukraine to unite the country in  a meaningful way.

Russia’s show of force however has a larger implication–one that speaks to the central issue which is not what pieces of land belong to Ukraine or Russia but that borders shouldn’t be changed by a show of force.  Crimea’s current status is the result of a Russian invasion a quarter of millennium ago and a arbitrary reassignment of the region from the Russia SSR to the Ukraine SSR in 1954.

Unless these borders  are re-drawn via mutual consent of the parties involved as was the case with Czechoslovakia, the larger parties should stay out.

There is the possibility that this is something that Putin has in mind, but this is unlikely.  Putin is the anti-Yelstin and the anti-Gorbachev and amicable divorces rarely being with a show of force.

Why Egypt won’t be another Syria

imagesThe removal of the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-Morsi supporters took a violent turn as security forces killed at least 525 people and injured almost 4,000 people nearly all of whom are Morsi supporters.  People who saw the assault have reported  bulldozers smashing camps and security forces opening fire on unarmed citizens.  One protestor is on record stating:

“Some onlookers were standing at the surrounding buildings, terrified by the unfolding deaths. Others smiled at the thought that the sit-in, which paralyzed their everyday lives for over a month, was coming to the end.”

Despite these last few tumultuous weeks and the “Day of Anger” scheduled today Egypt will mostly likely avoid spiraling into a civil war. First off, Egypt is held hostage to foreign influence such as aid from the U.S. and other Gulf States all of whom funnel billions of dollars into Egypt.  It’s unlikely that those external forces would allow one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East to fall into civil war.  Without that outside support its unclear if the military could sustain a civil war like the Assad government, which is propped up by military aid from Iran and Russia.  It’s true that arms have been smuggled into Egypt from Libya using Bedoin underground channels but these are mostly rifles and small arms, not the heavy artillery one would need to combat the Egyptian military for a prolonged length of time.

Second, up to now all signs point indicate that General Abdul Fatah el-Sisi has no interest in actually governing. Instead he is more concerned with the material perks of power, not the day-to-day running of a country such as the dispersal of public goods and managing a hard hit economy.

Lastly, Syria is run by a minority sect while Egypt is mostly Sunni and doesn’t have the deep Sunni/Shite tensions that plague other Middle East states such as Iraq and Syria.  Even the killings of Coptic Christians doesn’t seem to be stirring the embers that would ignite a full-blown civil war.

The conflict now is less of a civil war and more of a propaganda war where the Muslim Brotherhood has gained the world’s sympathy and the military might be pushed by public opinion to allow for more liberal forces to enter the political debate.  If the Muslim Brotherhood can maintain its non-violent stance then Abdul Fatah may back down thus ending one of the most violent crackdowns in history.  However the military must find a way to save face and realize that they cannot eradicate the Brotherhood with violence.

Syria: Military Intervention or Realist Chess Game?

I’m a little late to the party, but I feel the discussion on Obama’s strategy in Syria could use some revising. The death toll in Syria has reached 100,000 and 1.6 million refugees have fled the area. The Obama Administration has evidence of nerve gas used by Assad.  Obama has even stated the Administration will provide weapons to the opposition forces. But to what end?

Arguments abound in the media, both for and against, in predictable points of view for our involvement in Syria. Citing the awful death toll,  the hard drawn line of the use of chemical weapons, and, on the other hand, the dangers of military intervention in such a mission.  While these are all valid arguments, I feel they miss the larger point and therefore the real goal of the Obama White House.   

Obama has long been an adherent to Realism the political theory where states primary goal is the obtainment of resources, act on self interest through military build up, often leading to a security dilemma.   

On paper, Obama has a very clear goal — to support a rebel victory that results in Assad’s removal. He believes that opposition forces are the best way to go about achieving that goal.  He may also be attempting to balance the power in the region with Iran and drain Russia and Hezbollah of resources. In a classic Realism when your enemy gains, you accelerate supplies; when your enemy faces loses, ease back gain.    

If Syria has become a Realist chess board then Obama will have accept some rather dubious claims including that arming the opposition forces will:

1)   Halt the regime’s gains and give the forces a fighting chance

2)   Win influence over the groups and the people they defend

3)   Balance the power that Iran, Al Nursa or any Sunni forces may have gained

4)   Unite the more secular forces and drive out Al Qaeda backed groups

What’s wrong with these points? A few things…

· The Syrian Army uses attack helicopters and tanks to bombard towns from far away so small arms will not help the Syrian forces make gains nor improve defenses

·Interventions like this tend the prolong conflict  

·Research shows that external support generally fractures groups 

·No research has ever proven that a patron or country can reliably “buy” influence from a group or groups 


In order for Iran to lose this chess match, the rebels have to make political and military gains.  For Iran, a victory would just be avoiding an outright U.S. win.  If Obama’s gamble fails it will only reinforce just how weak U.S. influence in the region has become. And then, checkmate.    

Despite the tragedy that is the loss of life, culture and history of Syria, a greater one awaits the Syria population if this power game continues.  They will not be collateral damage. They will not even be pawns. They simply will be the board on which this game of power struggle continues.  

Many commentators, including David Brooks, have made comparisons to a Post 9-11 Iraq. This is folly. Instead, I recommend we view this situation as Afghanistan in the 1980s where President Reagan made the decision to arm opposition forces to combat the Soviet Union. A choice that birthed some the same forces we face in Syria today in the form of Al Nursa and Al Qaeda.

Limiting the discussion of whether or not to intervene not only misses the underlying issue but is short sighted.  Why limit your tools to only rooks and bishops that attack in straight predictable lines?  Predictable military strategies result in a lot of time being wasted attacking and defending positions instead of looking at all the players on the board and seeing what is happening.

Acknowledging where this great chess game is going and getting the players to sit down for diplomatic talks requires a more flexible strategy with more flexible players. If Obama wants to reach any end game in Syria he needs to release his knights. Jump over near by obstacles and get to the heart of the matter. U.S. foreign policy has been here before, a diplomatic response would go a long way improve relations with Gulf States and U.S. standing.