Provoking or Tempting the Bear

by Steve Saideman

I wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail where I advocate Canada take a significant role in NATO’s new “persistent presence” mission on the Eastern Front (the Baltics plus Poland).  I didn’t spend much time arguing for the NATO mission itself, as it is a done deal to be announced at the Warsaw Summit in July.  Instead, I argued for Canada’s participation, which is really the decision up for grabs this week.

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The Most Important Corpses

By Steve Saideman

I was on twitter talking with some folks about what Canada might promise at the Warsaw Summit, with the focus on who is going to provide the troops for the four battalions that will be based in the Baltics and Poland.  The conversation went into a bunch of directions, so I had an epiphany while shopping–it is not about proximity or folks who have ties to the Baltics–it is about whose corpses would have the greatest international political relevance.

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Crimea Is Not Kosovo, Kosovo Is Not Crimea

The standard line for Putin apologists and Russophiles is that Crimea is just Kosovo but a bit to the east.  This is lousy comparative politics, so let’s list how they are different:

  • The US and its friends took a decade to intervene in Kosovo (one can start the clock anytime, but I choose to start the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy within Serbia) after years of both massacres and negotiations.  Crimea happened immediately after Russia’s stooge fled Kiev.  Russia moved before any effort could be made to bargain, to send a peace keeping mission or preventative mission.  this really is the key
  • US and its friends did not conquer Kosovo and annex it.  Russia did hold a sham referendum and annexed Crimea.
  • Oh yeah, we could compare how the decisions were made.  Kosovo’s parliament voted for independence years after the local populace demanded it.  Crimea’s referendum happened shortly after Russia de facto occupied Crimea, the opponents were roughed up and/or arrested, and it is pretty clear that the results were just a bit fraudulent.
  • Kosovo was after … Bosnia, where the west had dithered while genocide happened.  Oh, and Kosovo was also after Transnistria, where a Russian military unit essentially seceded from Moldova and after Russia’s support for Armenian irredentism, and other Russian efforts in the former Soviet Union.  Crimea was after … Georgia where Russia did a nice job of playing Georgia and then created not one but two de facto independent states/failed states from territory carved out of Georgia.
  • US and its friends did not use nuclear threats during the crisis or afterwards, although SACEUR Gen. Wesley Clark was determined to confront Russia’s moves to Pristina.  Russia has been making nuclear threats in many directions.
  • The aftermath of American and Russian intervention tends to create failed states.  In the former, this is mostly not intentional.  In the latter, it is entirely intentional.
  • After Kosovo, the US and its allies stopped.  There was no more armed intervention in the Balkans but the US (ok, one minor effort to stop Macedonia from imploding in 2001).  After Crimea, Russia launched a war in Ukraine, not just supporting separatists but sending its own forces, prolonging the conflict and violating ceasefires.

Of course, the US is not blameless in the world, as one could criticize the invasion of Iraq (which I have done repeatedly since it happened).  But that does not legitimate or excuse what Russia is doing now.  Russia’s behavior threatens European security in ways that Kosovo never did precisely because there was never a threat that the US/NATO would be invading anywhere else.  Russia?   It is not done with Ukraine–the conflict goes on because Russia wants it to go on.  And Russia has been making provocative moves towards the Baltics ever since.  Where is that Estonian officer that got grabbedStill in Russia.

One can argue that all interventions are illegal, although responsibility to protect may suggest otherwise.  Kosovo, whatever its flaws, was an effort to prevent further massacres after all other efforts had failed.  Crimea and now Donbass are efforts by Russia to destabilize a neighbor after Russia lost its grip.  Yes, we can compare the two, but the comparison reveals significant differences and only superficial similarities.

Stephen Saideman

Fighting Fire with Water: Counter Putin’s Ambiguity with Clarity

I was at a very interesting roundtable at the Lithuanian Embassy in Ottawa a couple of days ago.  I cannot say what others had to say due to Chatham House Rule, although a former CF general had some interesting things to say that I will need to think about.  But what I can discuss is what I said and what the conversation provoked me to think about more.

One of the themes of the conversation was that Putin uses ambiguity to his advantage.  Who owns those little green men who show up?  He only claims credit for sham referenda after the fact.  He has stretched plausible deniability to the breaking point or perhaps not, as Europeans of various stripes still consider Ukraine in ways that buy some of Putin’s spin.

So, I wondered is the best way to respond to ambiguity is with more ambiguity or with clarity?  My bet is on clarity, and that is what drove my comments/recommendations.

How best to make the situation less opaque?  How to make it easier for outsiders (and insiders) to understand and assess?

  1. Make the condition of the Russian-speakers in the Baltics better.  Putin has claimed the plight of Russians in the near abroad as a justification for Russian aggression.  While he will always be able to say that Russian speakers are oppressed, the more obviously false this is, the better.  Citizenship for Russian speakers varies among the Baltics.  My recommendation in Brussels two weeks ago and since is for the European Union to dump a heap of cash on the areas where Russian speakers live in the Baltics to improve the local economies.  It would also make sense to run an info ops campaign showing the Russians of the Baltics what life looks like in Moscow, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (not to mention Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, etc).
  2. The governments of the Baltic Republics should make it abundantly clear that any effort to subvert or salami slice will be met aggressively.  My recommendation, which is plenty provocative, is that the rules of engagement for the Estonian, Latvia, and Lithuanian militaries should be to grant the low ranking officers on the ground with the authority to shoot at “little green men” if their communications to their headquarters are disrupted.  Yes, shoot first, and ask questions later.  Actually, that is the first step, and the second step is to let everyone (Putin/Russia, NATO) know that they have delegated this authority.  This would mean that any Russian effort here would immediately spiral.  This is good, yes, good, because Putin is an opportunist and, as far as we can tell, not suicidal.  The threat to use nuclear weapons is always incredible, but the threat to start something that might spiral out of control is not.  Any Russian attack (cyber, unconventional, whatever) will lead to discussions at the North Atlantic Council (NATO’s decision making body) that may take days, and Putin wants to get inside that decision loop, acting faster than NATO and then presenting with faits accompli.  Delegating authority to soldiers on the ground AND letting everyone know that would make those faits accompli have an automaticity to them–of escalation.
  3. The Baltics should try to entice the US to base troops on a more than just continuous basis.  Give the US discounts on property, subsidize exercises or even the movement of stuff to be based on their territory.  Anything they can do to make it easier for the Americans to base permamently is a good thing.  Continuous exercising, the NATO fudging, is not clear, and we need more clarity.  Ambiguity in this might be good for getting consensus at the NAC, but the US can do this on its own.  It might hurt NATO solidarity a smidge, but Putin acting in the Baltics would do far more damage.

I did suggest one other thing–that the more pressure NATO faces, the more the stakes become about NATO, the more NATO will respond.  NATO’s history is one of reluctance until pushed and then unity: Bosnia 1995, Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan for years (even those who left early returned in another capacity).  So, the more Putin makes NATO his target, the more NATO will show up and unite.

by Steve Saideman

The NATO Russia Founding Act is O.B.E.*

*O.B.E is one of my favorite acronyms that I learned while working in the Pentagon for a year: overcome by events.

Some argue that NATO cannot do much more in the east because of commitments made as part of the NATO Russia Founding Act. My take is that the agreement is dead, dead, dead.  Let’s take a look.

There is a key line in the second paragraph:

NATO and Russia do not consider each other as adversaries.

Um, oops.  That has been overcome by events.  Putin/Russia has been making nuclear and other threats towards NATO members, and has been guilty of killing citizens of NATO countries via the downing of the airliner.  So, this basic assertition is dead.

Ok, now lets look at the big conditions necessary for this all to work out (my commentary in red and bold applied wherever I feel like):

To achieve the aims of this Act, NATO and Russia will base their relations on a shared commitment to the following principles:

  • development, on the basis of transparency, of a strong, stable,
    enduring and equal partnership and of cooperation to strengthen security
    and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area; [do any of these terms still apply: stable, enduring partnership, cooperation?]
  • acknowledgement of the vital role that democracy, political
    pluralism, the rule of law, and respect for human rights and civil
    liberties and the development of free market economies play in the
    development of common prosperity and comprehensive security; [this almost reads like a joke.  How is that rule of law thing going in Russia?  Civil Liberties?  Kleptocracy and capitalism are often confused but are not identical]
  • refraining from the threat or use of force against each other as
    well as against any other state, its sovereignty, territorial integrity
    or political independence in any manner inconsistent with the United
    Nations Charter and with the Declaration of Principles Guiding Relations
    Between Participating States contained in the Helsinki Final Act; [this is the killer principle that no longer applies as Russia has used force, it has violated the territorial integrity and sovereignty if Ukraine, it has issued threats against Denmark and the Baltics, nuclear ones, as well as others that I am forgetting about for the moment.  Repeat: the invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea is about as complete a violation of Helsinki as one can imagine]
  • respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of
    all states
    and their inherent right to choose the means to ensure their
    own security, the inviolability of borders and peoples’ right of
    self-determination as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE
    documents; [Do I need to repeat myself?  Irredentism is inherently a challenge to borders]
  • mutual transparency in creating and implementing defence policy and military doctrines; [Not so much]
  • prevention of conflicts and settlement of disputes by peaceful means in accordance with UN and OSCE principles; [Given that Russia’s first response to political change in Kiev was the use of force, we can pretty much write this principle off as well]
  • support, on a case-by-case basis, of peacekeeping operations
    carried out under the authority of the UN Security Council or the
    responsibility of the OSCE.

So, tell me, which principles that are supposed to serve as the basis of NATO-Russia relations are still intact?  Yes, exactly.

here is a fun paragraph:

Provisions of this Act do not provide NATO or Russia, in any way, with a
right of veto over the actions of the other
nor do they infringe upon
or restrict the rights of NATO or Russia to independent decision-making
and action. They cannot be used as a means to disadvantage the interests
of other states.

This could be read both ways, of course, but seems to me that NATO should do what it needs to do, considering the implications for Russia’s security but not subjecting itself to veto by Putin.

Another:

NATO and Russia affirm their shared desire to achieve greater stability and security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

I guess this is just a “we agree to disagree” over what stability and security mean when Russia takes a hunk of a neighbor and calls it an effort to improve its security even as it creates insecurity for the neighbors.

Here is the key commitment that should not be seen as a commitment any longer:

NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security
environment
, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and
other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration,
and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent
stationing of substantial combat forces

Guess what?  The security environment has changed.  Russia has seized the territory of a neighbor and when that was not sufficient, invaded, using separatists as cover.  So, the security environment now is different from that in 1997.

Of course, folks can say that it changed with Kosovo, but there are many differences.  The big one, of course, is that NATO only used force after much effort to reach a peaceful settlement.  Russia, on the other hand, used force immediately after the change in regime in Kiev and did not give peace any chance at all.  The fait accompli was not driven by real fears of Ukrainian ethnic cleansing but by the desire to impose a new reality before anyone could react.  Good for judo, but not justified.

The NATO Russia Founding Act has been overcome by events.  If the Europeans (well, if Germany, France and Italy) want to stick to the letter of the agreement, then the US should act with willing partners to do what they feel is in the best interests of the allies.  This might hurt NATO a smidge, but abandoning the Baltics because one feels like this dead agreement still constrains is probably far more dangerous to the alliance.

By Steve Saideman

Putin’s Cynical Nationalism

By Steve Saideman

It has been a while since I focused on the events in Ukraine, so let’s check in and see where things stand now. The Crimea sham referendum seems to have done the trick—no one is really talking about rolling back Russia’s annexation despite the fact that it challenges international norms (Helsinki Accords, etc.) far more than the support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Despite more over-flights over the Baltics and other minor military maneuvers, Russia’s irredentism has remained quite inconsistent—only focused on Crimea and some regions of eastern Ukraine and not aimed beyond.

Still, the good news of the limits of Russia infiltration reminds us that Russia has been quite aggressive. The latest news has Ukraine finally winning some battles against separatist groups, retaking territory and Russia providing far less assistance to the separatists it had inspired, supported, organized, armed and staffed. Indeed, defeated separatists have been denied entry into Russia and have even been shot at. It is almost as if they are being treated like potential immigrants. [1]

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Inconsistent Irredentism: The Limits of Greater Russia

By Steve Saideman

This morning, Vladimir Putin completed the second step of the Irredentism Two-Step: annexing Crimea after recognizing its independence yesterday.  The question moves from how credulous does Putin think the world is, after a blatantly sham referendum, to what next?  And there are two dynamics to consider: Russia’s irredentism and NATO’s future.

First, when we speak of irredentism, we refer to efforts to unify a “lost” territory inhabited by ethnic kin.  What Russia is doing today is irredentism.  Irredentism is almost always very controversial and almost always very costly because it usually requires war.  Countries do not give up pieces of themselves all that willingly and when they do, it is to create new countries, not give hunks of territory to their neighbours.

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