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NATO

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Ukraine: No Big War

The Russian-Ukrainian naval clash in the Black Sea is not going to end up in a world war. Ukraine would love to be part of NATO, but the existing members won’t let it join. Why? Precisely because that might drag them into a war with Russia.

Russia doesn’t have any real military alliances either. Various countries sympathise with either Ukraine or Russia, but none of them have obligations to send military help, and they are not going to volunteer.

Secondly, there’s not even going to be a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine because Ukraine would lose. Russia has more than three times the population and its economy is ten times bigger. The Russian armed forces are far bigger and vastly better armed. No sane Ukrainian would choose an all-out war with Russia regardless of the provocation.

The Russians obviously have more options, but conquering Ukraine is probably the furthest thing from their minds. It has no resources they need, and if they occupied the country they would certainly face an ugly and prolonged guerilla war of resistance. They have nothing to gain.

They actually have a lot to lose, because a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would trigger a Western reaction that would come close to bankrupting Russia. NATO would conclude that this was the first step in President Vladimir Putin’s plan to reconquer all of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and start re-arming in a very big way. The Russians would go broke if they tried to keep up.

They did go broke trying to keep up with Western military spending back in the Cold War, and in the end the entire Communist system collapsed. Russia is now a largely de-industrialised country with half the population of the old Soviet Union, and the collapse would come a lot faster – probably sweeping Putin away with it. He knows that, because he lived through the collapse last time.

So what we have here is really just a local crisis. The Russians started it in order to make a specific local gain, and they know that they can win. They will not face major Western retaliation because it’s just not a big enough issue.

The actual clash on Sunday saw three Ukrainians injured, 29 others arrested, and three Ukrainian navy ships boarded and seized. The ships were trying to pass through a Russian-controlled strait from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, a relatively shallow body of water (maximum depth 14 metres) that is about the size of Switzerland.

Until the Russians took Crimea from Ukraine four years ago, the strait had Russian territory on one side and Ukrainian territory on the other. A treaty signed in 2003 said that
both countries had free access to the Sea of Azov and their respective ports along its coasts, no permission needed.

In 2014, however, Russia infiltrated troops into Crimea who pretended to be a new local militia. They took control of the entire peninsula and its two million people, staged a referendum on whether it should become part of Russia, and won it. The Ukrainian government protested, but it didn’t have the troops or the nerve to resist the takeover by force.

Russia tried to justify its action by pointing out that the great majority of the people in Crimea spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and that it has been part of Russia for centuries until a Soviet leader with strong Ukrainian connections handed it over to Ukraine in 1954.

International law does not accept border changes imposed by force as legitimate, and Russia has been under severe Western sanctions on trade ever since it annexed Crimea. Its economy is in serious trouble, but the annexation was immensely popular in both Russia and Crimea, and Putin will not reverse it.

Since there was no land connection between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, Putin decided to build an 18-kilometre bridge joining the two sides of the Strait of Kerch. By a happy coincidence, that would also give him the ability to control or even block shipping trying to get to Ukrainian ports on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.

The bridge is now open, and Putin is exercising that option. The Ukrainians tried to send their (rather small) warships through to show that the treaty of free passage signed in 2003 still applies.

The Russians didn’t actually deny that, but said that they were closing the strait temporarily for operational reasons. The Ukrainian warships pushed on, and the Russians attacked them.

The Russians are legally in the wrong, but they are going to win this one because Ukraine had almost no navy left and nobody wants a bigger war. Ukraine has imposed martial law in areas that border on Russia for the next 30 days, but that’s mainly window dressing. There may be further sanctions against Russia, but that’s as far as it goes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“They did…time”; and “Russia…1954″)

The Khashoggi Tapes

How odd! Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends an audio recording of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to the governments of all Turkey’s major NATO allies, and the only one that gets it is Canada.

What happened to the copies that President Erdogan sent to the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Germany? Lost in the mail-room, no doubt, or maybe just lying unopened on somebody’s desk. Or perhaps the Turks just didn’t put enough stamps on the packages.

“We gave them the tapes,” said Erdogan on Saturday. “They’ve also listened to the conversation, they know it.” But still not a word out of Washington or London acknowledging that they have heard the recordings, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denied that France has received a copy.

When asked if that meant Erdogan was lying, Le Drian replied: “It means that he has a political game to play in these circumstances.” Like most Western politicians and diplomats, he is desperate to avoid calling out Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as a murderer.

The French have a highly profitable commercial relationship with the oil-rich kingdom, mostly selling it arms, and they don’t want to acknowledge the evidence on the recording (which may directly implicate the Crown Prince) because it could jeopardise that trade.

Erdogan was furious when the French foreign minister issued his denial, and his communications director insisted that a representative of French intelligence had listened to the recording as long ago as 24 October. But it was all just ‘he said/she said’ stuff until Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau blew the game wide open on Monday.

Yes, Trudeau said, Canadian intelligence has the recording, and he is well aware of what is on it. In fact, Canadian intelligence agencies have been working very closely with Turkey on the murder investigation, and Canada is “in discussions with our like-minded allies as to the next steps with regard Saudi Arabia.”

Why did Trudeau come clean? One popular theory is the nothing-left -to-lose hypothesis. Last August the tempestuous Crown Prince killed all future trade deals with Canada, pulled thousands of Saudi Arabian foreign students out of Canadian universities, and generally showered curses on the country after Canadian officials called for the release of detained Saudi campaigners for civil rights and women’s rights.

Canada’s bridges to Saudi Arabia have already been burned, according to this theory, so Trudeau felt free to say the truth. But he’s not really free: Canada still has a $13 billion contract to build armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia that the Saudis might cancel, and this is a real contract, not one of Trump’s fantasy arms sales.

Maybe Trudeau is just braver than the others, but his purpose is clear. He waited more than three weeks after getting the recording for the “like-minded allies” to agree to a joint policy towards the murderous prince – nobody believes Khashoggi could have been killed without Mohammed bin Salman’s consent – and then he spilled the beans.

Of course all the major NATO governments have the recordings. They have had them for at least three weeks. They were just dithering over what to do about them, and Trudeau decided it was time to give them a push. Good for him, but what exactly can they do about Mohammed bin Salman’s crime?

It almost certainly was MbS (as they call him) who ordered the killing. Since his elderly father, King Salman, gave him free rein to run the country less than three years ago, he has become a one-man regime. Nothing happens without his approval, least of all the murder of a high-profile critic in a foreign country by a 15-strong Saudi hit squad including several members of his personal security team.

No Western leader (except perhaps Donald Trump) will be seen in public with MbS any more, foreign investment in Saudi Arabia this year is the lowest in several decades, and the price of oil is falling again. So he has to go, if it’s still possible for anybody in Saudi Arabia to remove him from power. But that’s the big question.

The Saudi royal family is no longer a tight, united body that can just decide MbS has to go and make it stick. It’s a sprawling array of people many of whom scarcely know each other, and without the agreement of King Salman any smaller group within the family that organised a coup against the Crown Prince would almost certainly fail.

So he may go on for while despite the disaster of his military intervention in Yemen, his pointless, fruitless blockade of Qatar and even this ugly murder. He wouldn’t be the only killer in power. But the bloom is definitely off this particular rose.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Why…sales”)

It’s Not (Quite) As Bad As It Seems

In a particularly bad week for wrecking behaviour, Donald Trump trashed the NATO summit, declared the European Union a “foe”, undermined Prime Minister Theresa May’s attempts to get a ‘soft’ Brexit for Britain, sucked up to the Russians and betrayed his own intelligence services. But his actions made it clear that the NATO alliance is of limited relevance and that a new military confrontation with the Russians would be pointless folly.

He didn’t actually say either of those things last week (although he has said them both in the past). But despite the usual blizzard of off-the-cuff, contradictory Trumpian statements, a couple of truths did become obvious.

One is that Trump is Russia’s man in the White House. It is not clear what kind of hold Moscow has on him, but it clearly has one. The other is that there is almost no military dimension to the ‘Russian threat’ in Europe, so NATO does not need to spend more money.

Trump likes to sound tough. “Get ready, Russia, because (American missiles) will be coming, nice and new and smart!” he tweeted over a transient crisis in Syria three months ago. After last week’s NATO summit he claimed to have bullied the Europeans into spending much more on defence (against the Russian threat, of course).

But he never fired those missiles although the Russians didn’t back down. He didn’t really get any new promises from the Europeans last week to spend more money on NATO. And when he went to Moscow on Sunday, he declared that America was to blame for the poor state of US-Russian relations.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” Trump tweeted. Three hours later the Russian Foreign Ministry replied: “We agree.” And it’s true, apart from the bit about the ‘witch hunt’.

After a two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with only translators present, Trump announced that he accepted Putin’s denials about Russian attempts to use social media to influence the 2016 US election. “They (the US intelligence services) think it’s Russia,” Trump said. “President Putin just said it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be.”

Well, Putin himself mentioned one plausible reason for Russia to interfere in the US election at the very same press conference: he wanted Trump to win the election. But there was a great outcry in every part of the United States about how Trump had “thrown America under the bus,” as one Fox News reporter put it.

Now, let’s pick this all apart and try to make sense of it. Trump’s betrayal of the American intelligence services was a natural and necessary part of his campaign to discredit them, because he fears that they have or will discover evidence that links him to the Russian intervention in the US election.

There was a huge backlash in the US because even Trump’s own supporters were dismayed to see him value the Russian dictator’s words more highly than those of American intelligence professionals. Within a day he had been forced to admit, for the first time, that there had indeed been Russian meddling in the US election process in 2016.

He also had to backtrack on his claim that the United States was to blame for the heightened tension with Russia, tweeting that “We’re all to blame” and that he held “both countries responsible.” But actually, he was right about that the first time.

If the United States had treated the badly wounded post-Soviet Russia less brutally in the 1990s, nurturing the fragile new Russian democracy instead of taking all the Eastern European countries into NATO and pushing the alliance’s military frontier right up to the former Soviet border, there might never have been support in Russia for an aggrieved nationalist like Putin.

It’s too late to fix that now, but Russia is still not a major military threat. It has lots of modern tanks and missiles, because that’s what nationalist leaders do, but its economy is only the size of Italy’s and it could not sustain a prolonged military confrontation with NATO. That’s why Putin concentrates on non-military initiatives like his interference in the 2016 US election (and apparently in Britain’s 2017 Brexit referendum as well).

So it makes perfectly good sense for NATO’s European members to spend 2% or less of their resources on defence. NATO is really about defending Europe, and Europe doesn’t need much defending.

It’s true, as Trump regularly points out, that the United States spends 4% of its GDP on defence, but that’s because it has military commitments all over the world. In fact, it’s unlikely that even 2% of US resources is spent on forces, weapons and tasks that are specifically related to NATO.

The good news is that though the populists and ultra-nationalists are on the rise in the West (including Russia), raw military power still plays a minor role in the relations of the great powers. Hacking and the other digital dark arts are playing a much bigger role, and it is proving hard to get them under control. But which would you prefer?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 15. (“Our…hunt”; “Well…it”; and “It’s…NATO”)

Ukraine Again

Four years into a stalemated war, it takes something very big or very bizarre to get Ukraine back into the headlines. Even the news in April that the United States has started delivering lethal weapons (Javelin anti-tank missiles) to Ukraine didn’t do the trick, but the non-assassination of Arkady Babchenko last week did just fine.

Babchenko is a Russian journalist, turned into a critic of the Putin regime by his service in the Russian army in two wars in Chechnya, who took refuge in Ukraine last year after receiving death threats in Moscow. Last week it was reported that he had been gunned down outside his apartment in Kiev, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Groysman immediately blamed Russia.

There was footage of Babchenko’s lifeless body lying in a pool of blood and being borne away in an ambulance. But the following day he walked on stage at a press conference to reveal that the assassination had been faked with the help of the Ukrainian intelligence service, the SBU.

‘Intelligence’ may not be quite the right word here, since this was an exceptionally stupid thing to do. The Putin regime condemned the episode as ‘fake news’, and will have much more credibility the next time it needs to deny killing a critic. The Ukrainian government’s reputation for telling the truth, never that high, is shot to pieces.

Why did the SBU organise this deception? According to Babchenko, the fake murder was planned for a month, even to the extent of having a make-up artist come to his apartment on the day of the ‘assassination’. “I was made up, the blood was natural, everything was for real,” he said.

It was allegedly part of a clever plan to trap a real Russian operative who was plotting Babchenko’s murder, but that doesn’t even make sense. Was the SBU expecting the ‘real Russian operative’ to break down in tears of frustration when he heard that somebody else had got to Babchenko first? This is really just more evidence of how dysfunctional the whole Ukrainian state is.

The three-month confrontation on the Euromaidan in Kiev in the winter of 2013-14, ending in a bloodbath that left 130 demonstrators dead, was supposed to be the revolution that finally freed Ukraine from rule by corrupt oligarchs backed by Moscow. It wasn’t.

The previous revolution had manifestly failed, with the pro-Moscow leader who had been rejected in the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, back in power through a free election in 2010. The 2014 revolution drove him out of the country entirely – but by overthrowing Moscow’s man in Kiev again, Ukrainians greatly alarmed Moscow.

Vladimir Putin feared that Russia’s big southern neighbour would end up joining both the European Union and the main Western military alliance, NATO. In the spring of 2014 he therefore incited a rebellion in two Russian-speaking provinces of eastern Ukraine, backed the revolt with Russian troops, and annexed the Crimean peninsula outright.

These illegal acts began a war that still rumbles on in the east, with 10,000 dead (mostly civilians) in four years. However, Putin is clearly not out to conquer all of Ukraine (which he could do quite easily). He just wants to paralyse the government in Kiev and make the situation in the country so problematic that NATO would never consider taking it aboard.

That’s not hard. In the presidential election of May 2014 the Ukrainians elected another oligarch, Petro Poroshenko. He’s just as corrupt as his predecessor, and there have been no reforms in the system that keeps him and his fellow oligarchs rich and the rest of the country poor. (Ukrainian GDP per capita is less than a third of Russia’s.)

The basic problem is that practically everybody who has expert knowledge or administrative experience relevant to government has been co-opted into the system. Many veterans of the Euromaidan protests were elected to parliament, but they are struggling on $600-a month salaries while they know that voting the right way can get them ten times that.

The opposition has done no better at staying united since 2014 than it did after 2004. The war in the east is largely a charade (although real people get killed in it), and it’s widely known that Poroshenko and Putin frequently have amiable late-night telephone conversations. Presumably they are discussing business deals, since there’s no money in talking about politics.

So what are the odds that the two men might one day cut a deal that ends the war? It’s possible. Putin wants an end to sanctions, and given certain guarantees he’d be happy to see the two rebel provinces rejoin Ukraine.

“Russia wants the regions (controlled by pro-Russian militants) re-integrated as a blocking share in the Ukrainian political system,” explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian International Affairs Council, in 2016. “The aim is to guarantee that Ukraine does not join NATO or move too far from Russia.”

The real obstacle to a deal now is probably Crimea. Russian nationalism won’t let Putin give it back, and Ukrainian nationalism won’t allow Poroshenko to let it go. But if the United States wants to ensure that there is no deal, it might try giving Kiev enough modern weapons to get things moving again on the military front.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 12. (“Intelligence…said”; and “The basic…deal”)