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Nuclear Posture Review

The US ‘Nuclear Posture Review’ published by the Pentagon late last week announced that the United States will be getting two new types of nuclear weapons to provide, in the words of US officials, “more flexible capabilities to give tailored deterrence.”

‘Tailored deterrence’? What on earth is that supposed to mean?

It’s a brand new euphemism that is designed to disguise an old, largely discredited and very dangerous concept. The United States is once again playing with the notion of a ‘limited’ nuclear war – and everybody else is very unhappy about it.

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, called the move “confrontational”, and expressed “deep disappointment”. The Chinese defence ministry said: “We hope that the United States will abandon its Cold War mentality [and] earnestly assume its special disarmament responsibilities.” Even the Iranian foreign minister warned that the new move would bring the world “closer to annihilation.”

What the United States is actually going to do is change some of its existing nuclear weapons so that they make a smaller explosion. It’s also going to to put nuclear-tipped cruise missiles back on some of the navy’s ships. At first glance, this is not very exciting stuff, but it really is very foolish and quite dangerous.

Various justifications were offered for the new weapons by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, including the “growing threat from revisionist powers” such as China and Russia. ‘Revisionist powers’ are countries that would like to change the world’s pecking order so that the United States is no longer the sole superpower. It doesn’t mean they are planning to attack the United States.

The main reason that the Nuclear Posture Review gives for the new weapons is that the US military are worried that other countries may see its existing nuclear weapons as too big to be used. So the Pentagon also wants lower-yield bombs and ‘low and slow’ cruise missiles in order to convince everybody else that the US would actually use them.

Really? Do they really think that when those ‘revisionist powers’ see the new, smaller American nukes (no bigger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima), they will say to themselves: “I never believed the Americans would use megaton-range thermonuclear weapons on us, but they might actually use piddling little atomic bombs, so I’d better not invade Lower Slobbovia after all.”

Nonsense. The Pentagon pretends that the new nukes will just fill a gap under the deterrent fence so that “Russia understands that any use of nuclear weapons, however limited, is unacceptable,” but what it is really after is a credible nuclear war-fighting capability. This is the old fantasy that you can safely fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war in some distant part of the world without risking major damage to the homeland.

It’s a fantasy that has been killed many times, but it never stays dead for long. It just seems wrong and unnatural to the military mind that you should have these hugely powerful and expensive weapons and never be allowed to use them in any circumstances – that they exist entirely and exclusively to deter the other side from using its own nuclear weapons.

It’s so frustrating that in every military generation there are people who spin theories about how you might safely fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war. The first time their ideas gained a temporary foothold in American strategic thinking was in the late 1950s, and they have resurfaced for a while at least twice since then.

Here they come again. It’s as predictable as the monsoon, and once again more sensible people will have to devote time and energy to defending the core concept of nuclear deterrence.

As Bernard Brodie, the father of the theory of nuclear deterrence, wrote in 1946: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose.”

That is true, but it is not compatible with traditional military thinking, so ‘limited’ nuclear wars that you could actually fight keep sneaking back onto the agenda, usually in disguise. The current proposal is not some transient whim of Donald Trump’s. It has been gestating within the US military for some time.

It may be possible for the US military establishment to sell this really bad idea to the American media, the Congress and the White House, but do not imagine that the Russians or the Chinese are fooled. They know exactly what the Pentagon is up to, and they don’t like it one bit. In due course they will respond, and the world will get a little more dangerous.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 6. (“Various…States”)

The Great October Revolution

China Miéville, a novelist I much admire, has published a history of the ‘October Revolution’ to mark its hundredth anniversary (which is actually on 7 November, since the Russians were still using the Julian calendar in 1917). It had an unusual effect on me. It made me question whether I was right about the utter futility of that revolution.

We all know it ended horribly: first civil war and famine, then three decades of lies, oppression and mass murder – Stalin, the Great Purge, the gulag – followed after Stalin’s death by the ‘era of stagnation’, a dying fall of three and a half decades of petty tyranny and economic failure. I got to know the Soviet Union well as a journalist in the last decade of its existence, and I don’t miss it a bit.

Miéville doesn’t have any illusions about how early and how badly the revolution went wrong; what he questions is the inevitability of all that. In an article in The Guardian last May, he quoted the lifelong revolutionary Victor Serge, born in Belgium to an exiled Russian revolutionary couple, who traveled to Russia to serve the Bolshevik revolution and was later persecuted and jailed by the Stalinists.

“It is often said that ‘the germ of Stalinism was in Bolshevism from its beginning’,” Serge wrote in 1937. “Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it.

“To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse – and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?” Serge was insisting that it could have come out differently and better, and Miéville is agreeing with him.

Well, I dunno. I can remember sitting in the old Akademicheskaya Hotel in Moscow in the mid-1980s, flicking paper-clips at the cockroaches and writing an angry piece about how much better off the Russians would be if the Bolsheviks had not seized power in late 1917.

After all, Russia had a rapidly developing economy at the start of the 20th century, about on a par with Italy’s. If the ‘bourgeois’ democratic revolution of early 1917 had survived and normal capitalist development had resumed in Russia after the First World War ended, Russians might be as free and as prosperous as Italians today.

Instead, Russian GDP per capita is only $10,000 a year, even a quarter-century after the Communists finally quit. Italian GDP per capita is $30,000. Italy is also a democracy, whereas Russia is run by an oligarchy of gangster capitalists. And to achieve this splendid success, at least ten million Russians died at the hands of their own fellow-citizens.

Even Vladimir Putin, the oligarch-in-chief, was moved to ask two weeks ago: “Was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood and ruthlessly fracturing millions of human lives?”

You can imagine an alternate history in which the “February Revolution” survived and the Bolshevik coup never happened, but that’s not what Miéville is asking. He wants to know if the real, radical revolution could have had a different, better outcome, and he has made me think all that through again.

Let’s put all this in context. For several hundred thousand years all human beings lived in circumstances of absolute equality. All our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands, rarely more than a hundred people, and made all their decisions by consensus: there were literally no leaders, and powerful social customs blocked any take-over bids by ambitious men.

Then we invented agriculture, developed into the mass civilisations – and every one of them turned into a brutal hierarchy of power and privilege. It probably had to be like that, because these were complex societies where somebody had to make the decisions and enforce them. A million people cannot make those decisions by consensus, especially if they are almost all illiterate.

And finally, about two-and-a-half centuries ago, it became theoretically possible for mass societies to make their decisions democratically: they were literate, they had the printing press, and so they could all talk to one another. We immediately began to reclaim our old heritage of equality through revolutions, beginning in the United States and then France – and the Bolshevik revolution does belong to that sequence.

It was extreme, of course, but that’s because it aimed at full equality, not the halfway houses of democracies with ‘equal opportunity’ but huge practical differences of income and privilege that most of us live in today. This was not some petty economic argument between the followers of Hayek and Keynes. It was about the big issue: equality.

And most of us have concluded, partly on the evidence of the Russian revolution, that modern mass societies have to settle for what you might call managed inequality. The social, political and human cost of trying to make old-style absolute equality work is just too high. But you can see why Miéville rages against that fact.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Instead…again”)

Trump and Iran

“…One orb to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Five months ago, during Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he was invited to open the “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology”. (I’m not making that up.) The huge, darkened room they were in looked like a cross between a starship bridge and a television control room. And there was a photo op, as there always is at these events, but this one was different.

There was a glowing orb on a pedestal, with the continents in black and the seas in pale grey. Trump, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and Egyptian dictator General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi all put their hands on it as if they owned it – and held the pose for almost two minutes.

The radiant globe (and the illuminated floor) lit their faces from below. If you want to make somebody look evil, light the scene dramatically from underneath, and they did look evil in a comic-book sort of way. Like the three witches in Macbeth, suggested conservative commentator Bill Kristol. And everybody knew that their curses were aimed at Iran.

Now Trump has directed more curses at Iran, declaring that he will pull the United States out of the 2015 agreement that prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons for the next ten years. Or rather, he has announced that Congress will do that – but the Republicans probably don’t have enough votes in the Senate to make it happen.

Why didn’t he do it himself? Maybe he just wanted to share the blame. Every one of Trump’s senior officials and advisers has told him not to do it, and so have all of America’s allies. Every other signatory to the treaty – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the European Union – also says it will continue to abide by it no matter what the United States does.

Trump says Iran is cheating on the deal, but Yukiya Amano, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran is implementing it faithfully, and all the other signatories agree. Trump doesn’t like the fact that Iran tests ballistic missiles, or supports dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and says they are against the “spirit” of the treaty, but those things were not part of the deal.

If there is one thing Trump understands, it’s contracts. If the words are in the contract, then it’s part of the deal. If they aren’t, then it’s not part of the deal. There is nothing in the treaty with Iran that says it has to do everything the US wants, and nothing either that says it must not do things that Washington does not like. It’s strictly about Iran not working on nuclear weapons, and the other countries dropping their sanctions against Iran.

And why does Trump want to kill the treaty anyway? One reason is that he is pursuing a bizarre vendetta against ex-president Barack Obama, seeking to erase every one of his legislative and diplomatic achievements regardless of their value. But he has also fallen in with bad company.

Trump really is one of the three witches now: he has joined the alliance of conservative Arab states against Iran, although it doesn’t serve any imaginable US interest to get involved in a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You can blame that choice on Trump’s ignorance, perhaps, but Saudi Arabia and Israel are run by well-informed and intelligent people. Why do they want to cancel the nuclear deal?

On the face of it, it makes no sense. If your choice is between Iranian nuclear weapons some time after 2025 (if the treaty isn’t renewed or extended before then), or Iranian nuclear weapons in one or two years’ time (if it is abrogated now), why would they prefer the latter? Yet they do. Their unspoken calculation may be that if the nuclear agreement does get trashed, then there will eventually be a war – but the United States will be on their side.

There is no doubt that Trump can pull out of the treaty even if Congress will not do it for him. He just has to declare new sanctions against Iran, which is well within his power. And if he does, other Western companies trading in Iran will find themselves banned from the huge American market unless they go along with the ban, so they will probably comply no matter what their governments say now.

But even if all that comes to pass, Trump cannot stop Iran from making nuclear weapons once the treaty is gone. The United States would probably suffer no grave damage as a result, as it is a long way from Iran. The Arab states and Israel could suffer greatly, but turkeys vote for Christmas all the time.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 8. (“If there…Iran”)

Russian Victory in Syria

Two years ago this month, the Russian air force was sent in to save the tottering Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad from collapse. The air was thick with Western predictions that Moscow had made a dreadful mistake.

“These (Russian) military actions constitute a further escalation and will only fuel more radicalisation and extremism,” said the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a joint statement three days after the first Russian bombs fell. The evil, stupid Russians were backing Assad, they were bombing the wrong groups of fighters, they were bombing civilians, and they would end up trapped in an endless war.

Why didn’t the Russians listen to such expert advice, especially from the United States, which has more experience in losing wars in the Muslim world than anybody else? Nobody likes to be patronised, but the Russians didn’t get into a slanging match about it. They just kept quiet and carried on doing what they were doing.

Two years later, they have won. “All the conditions are in place for the final stage of defeating ISIS in Syria,” said General Alexander Lapin, the commander of the Russian army in Syria, and that is the simple truth. Only parts of the eastern cities of Raqqa and Deir-es-Zor remain under ISIS control, and both cities will fall before the end of the year.

It’s a bit tricky in the east of Syria, where Western, mostly US troops and their Kurdish and Arab allies are still in the game, so Deir-es-Zor, at least, will probably end up partitioned between the Syrian government and the Americans in the short run. But in the long run Assad gets it all back.

All that remains to do is reconquer the big enclave around Idlib in north-western Syria that is ruled by the al-Qaeda affiliate that used to be known as the Jabhat al-Nusra. (It has taken to changing its name every month or so in an attempt to disguise its origins.) But the Russian have promised to help Assad reconquer that territory too.

“The operation to destroy the fighters of the Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups on Syrian territory will continue until their complete and guaranteed destruction,” promised General Lapin last week. Taking down al-Nusra will be a major enterprise, but it is quite doable because the Islamist outfit’s former supporters in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have abandoned it.

Indeed, the Russian and Iranian effort to save Assad has been so successful that what once seemed impossible is becoming a reality: the whole country will be reunited under Assad’s rule.

Much of the population that falls back under his control will hate it, and it is far from clear what will happen to the six million Syrians who fled abroad during the war. Most were anti-Assad, and many will never go home. Losing a civil war is a bitter experience, but one way or another everyone will have to come to terms with that fact.

How did the Russians (and their Iranian allies, who provided most of the fighting strength on the ground) win the war in two years when the United States had fumbled unsuccessfully with the issue since 2011? By being cold-blooded realists, deciding which was the lesser evil (Assad), and then single-mindedly focussing on a military victory.

By 2015 it was absolutely clear that there were only two possible victors in the Syrian civil war: the brutal but secular and reasonably competent men of the Ba’ath Party that has ruled Syria for the past half-century, or the violent religious fanatics of Isis and al-Nusra.

So while the US, equally appalled by both parties, spent years trying to find or invent a third ‘moderate’ option that never existed, Russia and Iran just went flat out to save Assad. (The Syrian army was within months of collapse when the Russians intervened in 2015.) They have succeeded, and the US will eventually have to pick up its marbles and go home.

And do bear in mind, as you contemplate the Syrian tragedy, that there are degrees of iniquity. Neither the Russian nor the Iranian regime is a model of democratic virtue, but Syria’s Ba’ath Party is a great deal nastier, and there have certainly been times when its foreign saviours have had to hold their noses.

So do not exclude the possibility that the Russians might pressure the Ba’athists to change their leader once the fighting stops. Sending Bashar al-Assad into a safe and comfortable retirement at that point wouldn’t really change anything in Syria, but it would put Russia’s intervention in the war in a somewhat better light.

And what did Moscow get in return for its intervention? First and foremost, it prevented the emergence of an Islamist-ruled terrorist state quite close to Russia’s own southern borders. (The Russian population is around one-tenth Muslim.) But it also demonstrated that it can be a very useful ally for other regimes that run into trouble. Unlike you-know-who.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Why…doing”; and “It’s…back”)