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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Russia's Carrots and Sticks

A number of very interesting aspects to this NY Times article on how the Goergia War has impacted Azerbaijan. First, it illustrates how the argument that Russia will pay a longterm cost for its belligerence, while valid, is limited to those countries (and investors) who have a choice as to whether or not they deal with Russia, or who have little to fear from Russia's demonstrated willingness to use military force. As this article makes clear, Azerbaijan meets neither of those criteria, and so it's not surprising that "the chess board has been tilted."

Second, while many analysts have focused on the stick aspect and apparent unpredictability of Russia's invasion, they overlook the carrots Moscow has been very clearly offering over the past six months to a year. The effect is to offer vulnerable countries a reassuring rationalization for falling in line with what amounts to intimidation:

Azerbaijan will be under more pressure from Russia when undertaking energy contracts and pipeline routes that Russia opposes, said one Azeri official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. Officials from Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, on a trip here this spring, offered to buy Azerbaijan gas at European prices, rather than at the former reduced rate. That offer, if the Azeris chose to accept it, could sabotage a Western-backed gas pipeline project called Nabucco.

Rasim Musabayov, a political commentator in Baku, said that under the new conditions, many Azeris think that selling gas to Russia is not such a bad idea.

In the aftermath of the conflict, Russia has also taken the initiative to try to mediate Azerbaijan's own frozen conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenian separatists:

"One of the positive effects of the Georgian crisis is that the Kremlin will try to show that they are not crazy guys," an Azeri official said. "That they can be good neighbors, too."

In the past, I'd predicted that Russia would show this kind of reasonableness by ultimately walking back its confrontational stance on Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. But remaining unreasonable in the resolution of Georgia's territorial integrity might actually pay more dividends on being reasonable elsewhere.

Finally, this remark Musabayov jumped out at me:

"You can’t have a foreign policy that goes against your geography," he added. "We have to get along with the Russians and the Iranians."

That's something America should probably take more into account, both with regards to calculating its demands of it friends, as well as in formulating more reasonable expectations of what we can achieve in different parts of the world.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Monday, September 29, 2008

The Case for Strategic Patience

AFOE's Edward Hugh offers a solid analysis of the current financial turmoil roiling Russian markets, that among other things debunks the idea that the invasion of Georgia was an essential cause -- as opposed to a catalyzing event -- of the capital flight in the invasion's aftermath. In other words, absent other fundamental weaknesses and contributing factors, there's no way of knowing whether globalized markets would have "punished" Russia's muscle-flexing in the Caucasus.

While most of the loud arguments about the Russian invasion have framed it in terms of NATO enlargement and some sort of moral obligation to defend Georgia's young democracy, the fact is that Russia's message was more directly addressed to the Central Asian energy sources that are shaping up to be tomorrow's geopolitical brass ring. Judging by the immediate fallout, that message has gotten through. Azerbaijan, a key stop on Dick Cheney's post-invasion tour, just decided to reduce oil shipments to the EU in order to increase Russian and Iranian deliveries. The move had been a temporary reaction to the threat the Russia-Georgia conflict posed to the trans-Georgian pipeline, but has now been continued indefinitely to "spread risk." (For more on just what those risks are, see this ISN piece.)

Azerbaijan's predicament highlights the difficult balance the Central Asian energy producers need to strike between a desire to lean towards the West on the one hand, and the reality that the West's tough talk and plans for future military integration did nothing to deter Russia from showing who has the military upper hand in the region now. That leaves the West with a tough choice of its own: push forward with the integration of Georgia, Ukraine and the Central Asian countries into the U.S.-NATO military sphere of influence (with or without membership for the former two), which means confronting Russia head-on at a time when Russia enjoys the tactical upper hand; or else develop a concerted energy security policy -- whether NATO or EU -- which means finding solutions that aren't necessarily easy to come by, and for which the proposed ones (ie. Nabucco) are unraveling.

On the other hand, as Hugh's analysis above makes clear, the other fundamental weaknesses and contributing factors to Russia's economic turmoil -- as well as the difficulty Russia's military sector will have meeting the demands of its ramped up military procurement schedule -- are significant enough to seriously weaken Russia's longterm strategic position. Russia needs Western capital to upgrade its dilapidated energy infrastructure if it hopes to meet its energy contracts into the next decade. That's one of the reasons it's been so aggressive in trying to corner the market on the 'Stans.

It's also why an expert cited in the Reuters article on the difficulties facing an EU energy security policy made it clear that the EU's dependency on Russian supplies is no greater than Russian dependency on EU demand. A conflict with Russia might ultimately be unavoidable. But there's every reason to believe that Russia's need to responsibly integrate the global order will become clearer to the leadership in Moscow with time, meaning our hand will only get stronger, and Russia's steadier.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Russia   

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Gift for Putin

Jeez. I figured that the opening of the Olympic Games meant I could sneak in a week of intermittent posting, and instead war breaks out in Europe. Obviously, with resident Russia specialist Richard Weitz around, I assumed WPR readers would be well informed, and I wasn't wrong. Setting aside the actual issues at dispute in the Russian-Georgian conflict, when I saw the first reports of the fighting, I couldn't help but think that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashivili had done the Russians an enormous favor in provoking an armed conflict, and this paragraph from Richard's piece explains why:

By punishing Georgia militarily, Moscow presumably also sought to make clear to Tbilisi and its allies the extent of Russia's military revival. Although Russian defense spending has increased in recent years, analysts remained uncertain about the extent to which the Russian military had experienced genuine improvements in its operational capability given its poor performance in Chechnya, morale problems, and lack of actual combat experience. Russian leaders have now demonstrated that Moscow has both the capacity and the will to use the country's armed forces to advance Russia's security goals.†

As Richard goes on to point out, ". . .no NATO government is prepared to engage in a war with Russia on Tbilisi's behalf." That point was already driven home by last April's NATO Summit, but apparently no one in Tbilisi got the message. So the Georgian military intervention, which depended on NATO and European military solidarity in the event of a Russian riposte, amounted to Saakashivili's mouth writing checks that his ass couldn't cash. Moscow, which by all indications was paying attention to the Bucharest NATO summit, jumped on the opportunity to demonstrate that it's willing to push things to the brink.†

It's a pretty safe brink as precipices go from Moscow's point of view, but it serves to illustrate the alarming shortsightedness of using NATO to lock Russia in to its humiliating 1990's impotence. The Russians have been signalling very strongly, and for a while now, that the 90's are over and that they expect to be taken seriously again. For the most part, that's been most pronounced in their historic sphere of influence, although they've demonstrated the willingness to play a spoiler role elsewhere (ie. Iran) as a way of leveraging American interests against their own. References to a new Cold War, though, are misguided in that Moscow is not proposing an alternate global order in opposition to the West, but rather to assume what it considers its rightful place in the existing order.†

While it's true that Russia's historic sphere of influence has in the meantime turned its hopes westward, the hard facts on the ground come down to interests and power. Russia has demonstrated it's willingness and ability to back up the former with the latter in Georgia. I'm sure that we'd do the same if it were a question of Russian strategic bombers based in Cuba. But the events of the past week have demonstrated just how far away Tbilisi is compared to Havana, and that's something that should be considered in formulating a post-Ossetian Russia policy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Trade-offs, Good Deal

Apparently, House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman didn't get the memo that U.S.-Russia relations are no longer based on trade-offs. More seriously, as the Richard Weitz article I flagged yesterday points out, nuclear cooperation with the U.S. provides Russia with lucrative alternatives to its relatively modest (and at times unpaid) commerce with Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

U.S.-Russian Nuclear Agreement

Richard Weitz' roundup of the nuclear agreement signed last week between the U.S. and Russia is the most thorough I've read so far. I'd been under the impression that the agreement threatened efforts to reduce Russia's stock of weapons grade uranium. But Weitz points out all the other ways that the agreement opens up areas of cooperative counterproliferation. Among the most convincing is that by offering Russia access to both the American domestic nuclear market and, via cooperative mechanisms, various foreign markets, the agreement provides a lucrative alternative to Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran. Ironically, that's the very sticking point around which Congressional opposition seems to be gathering. Weitz offers the caveat of requiring Russia to dedicate some of the potential windfall towards nonproliferation efforts. But unlike the India 123 Agreement, where there were legitimate NPT concerns, the Russian agreement seems like a pretty good step towards improving cooperation in an increasingly strategic sector, with very little downside.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Russian Uranium

Usually when the Bush administration appeals a lower court ruling to the Supreme Court, I start feeling a little queasy. Not this time. As Miles Pomper points out in this WPR feature, there are some really good reasons to worry about relaxing restrictions on Russian uranium exports to the American nuclear industry. So much is made of the threat of fissile material falling into the wrong hands, and the program to downblend Russia's weapons grade uranium is one of the few lasting successes of the immediate post-Cold War period. Finding a way to make it attractive enough to renew it once it expires seems to me like it should be a priority as well. But for now shoring it up for the rest of its duration is a good place to start.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Monday, March 17, 2008

NATO's Bitter Pill

To get a sense of just how badly things are going for NATO in Afghanistan, consider the following. Just over two weeks from now at the alliance's summit in Budapest, about the only pieces of good news likely to be announced are that the French will deploy more boots on the ground to ease the strain on Canadian forces, and the Russians will allow logistical supplies to transit its air and ground space. You got that right: France and Russia are coming to NATO's rescue.

Of course, it's not the threat of a military defeat, but that of a political defeat that looms large. Afghanistan just has some sort of mojo that makes it the last meal of colonial empires, Socialist unions and very possibly trans-Atlantic alliances. And even if the weakened alliance should survive the shock, the medicine may prove more deadly than the disease. France is looking to leverage its NATO re-up to move European defense integration forward (and I've got a hunch that won't be as difficult as the WSJ suggests), and Russia already seems to have succeeded in attaching a heightened regional role to the supply route deal.

If it looks like these are the kinds of consolidations that eventually make America the odd man out on the European continent, that's because they are. As Europe looks ahead to the post-Bush era, about the only thing working in America's favor is that the post-Putin era has yet to begin.

Of course, the disaffection cuts both ways. If all NATO can offer is already available through coalitions of the willing outside the alliance structure, the alliance boils down to a big Article 5 security blanket that's not worth the miniscule European defense budgets it enables.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   European Union   Russia   

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Russia's European Courtship

The other day over at the World Politics Review blog, I flagged what seemed to be significant developments in Russia-EU and Russia-NATO relations. Specifically, Russia's offer of material support (six to eight desperately needed helicopters) to the EUFOR Chad mission, as well as logistical support (relaxed supply transport restrictions) for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Today, M K Bhadrakumar has an Asia Times Online article that provides some context to the NATO angle. Basically, Russia is taking advantage of the desperate situation in Afghanistan to float a comprehensive proposal that would essentially break NATO's (read: America's) monopoly on stabilization efforts in Afghanistan in particular, but in the region (ie. Pakistan) in general. The move would open the floodgates to involving both Russia and China (through the CSTO and SCO) in any strategic solution to the region's problems, including extremist violence but also the growing drug-trafficking problem in Afghanistan.

As significantly, in light of Russia's historic contribution to the EUFOR Chad mission, the effort seems aimed at driving a wedge in the trans-Atlantic alliance by luring Europhile EU countries (ie. France and Germany) into closer strategic cooperation with Russia. In his January NY Times Sunday Magazine article, Waving Goodbye to Hegemony, Parag Khanna raised the specter of Russia integrating the EU. Intuitively, the move seems to make sense for both sides: Russia gains the multi-lateral legitimacy that comes with the EU brand identity; the EU gains the clout that comes with Russia's strategic and expeditionary capacities. Their mutual dependance in terms of energy purchases only lends added incentive.

Obviously, this is nothing but strategic daydreaming for now. But if an EU-Russia marriage ever did happen, it would start with the kind of flirtation we're seeing now.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Russia   

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Russia & the 'Stans

It looks like the Nabucco gas pipeline project just took another hit. Russia just announced an agreement with the 'Stans (Khazak-, Turkmeni-, and Uzbeki-) raising its pruchase price of their gas to European market rates, thereby appropriating one of the major attractions of the U.S-EU offer. As this analysis points out, though, the deal is something of a trade-off for Russia, since it complicates their South Stream pipeline project by reducing marginal profits that pipeline would have offered its southern European partners. That, more than the dissolution of the Serbian parliament, might be what motivated remarks by Serbia's parliamentary speaker to the effect that finalization of the Serbian-Russian gas deal signed in January is essentially on hold.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fear And Trembling In The Balkans

As many foreign policy experts expected, the most feared repercussion from Kosovo's declaration of independence has in fact materialized: the breakaway Moldavian republic of Transdnestr has declared that it will seek international recognition as an independent state. No word yet on whether an emergency session of the Security Council will be called.

All kidding aside, though, the development does lend weight to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's claims that Kosovo will: a Pandora' Box of declarations of independence as de facto independent republics across the world asked themselves the question, "How are we any different?"

Meanwhile, another Russian lawmaker, cautioned against Russia using two Georgian breakaway republics as payback for Kosovo:

"We should understand that by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia we could trigger a serious crisis in the CIS," Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the International Affairs Committee at the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, said, adding that over half of all ex-Soviet states "have their own Kosovo and Abkhazia."

Unfortunately, we're living in an age that seems to be characterized by little concern for triggering serious crises.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Russia   

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Monday, February 18, 2008

No More Mr. Not-So-Nice Guy?

This Moscow News article on Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov's speech to the Munich Security Conference is a few days old but worth a glance. There's been a lot of speculation as to what's driving Russia's more conciliatory tone of late. Anna Arutunyan suggests the reason is quite simple: Russia feels increasingly secure about its resurgent role as a full-fledged global power broker. The confrontational theatrics that Putin put on display last year at the same conference, which had the desired result of getting people to sit up and take notice, are simply no longer necessary.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Russian Roulette

I've seen a couple of posts and articles around the web today flagging Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments condemning Iran's missile and uranium enrichment programs. From the BBC via Andy Grotto over at Arms Control Wonk, here's the oft-cited money quote:

We don't approve of Iran's permanent demonstration of its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue to enrich uranium.

It seems to square with a recent change in tone coming out of Moscow. But if you take a closer look at Lavrov's full comments, this time from ITAR-TASS, there's definitely some room for skepticism as to just how full circle the Russians have come in their stance on the Iranian nuclear program:

However, international law does not prohibit these actions...

...[T]here is a certain positive moment in this problem. This moment is related to Iranís cooperation to close the issues, which emerged earlier due to its nuclear activity. At present, these problems are being solved satisfactorily and weíll wait for the IAEA director-generalís report.

The ITAR-TASS translation is a bit mangled, but Lavrov was basically calling for both sides to calm down and quit engaging in provocative behavior. For the Iranians, that means avoiding missile launches and freezing its uranium enrichment until the IAEA closes its file. For the US and EU3, that means avoiding accusations that the Iranians are steps away from developing a nuclear bomb that they'll then unleash on the world. In other words, while Lavrov's remarks are definitely reasonable, they're only reassuring if you believe the Iranian program is inherently peaceful in nature.

I'm increasingly of the belief that the Iranians have nuclear weapons ambitions, even if they're willing to be extremely patient to attain them. After all, their current program is the fruit of twenty years of painstaking clandestine efforts, and is constructed in such a way as to superficially mask the military component, even while the underlying structure seems transparently revealing. So if the Russians really have come around, I'd like to see them say so in more unambiguous terms than those used by Mr. Lavrov.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Iran Endgame?

If this Asia Times Online article by MK Bhadrakumar is correct, a tectonic shift in the Iran nuclear standoff took place last week which garnered almost no media attention at all. Last Sunday, I flagged remarks made by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak that signalled what seemed like a hardening of tone towards the Iranian regime.

According to Bhadrakumar, to understand Kislyak's remarks and their significance, one need only look to the agreement signed three days before between US Commerce Secretary Carlos Guttierez and Sergei Kiriyenko, the director of Russia's state nuclear agency, Rosatom. The deal cleared the way for Russia to directly supply American nuclear power plants with reactor fuel derived from the reverse processing of its weapons-grade uranium. Previously, the deals had to be routed through an American intermediary agency that applied a 100% tariff, effectively keeping Russian fuel out of the lucrative American market. Kiriyenko estimated the deal's value at $5-6 billion over the next ten years.

Bhadrakumar adds some further dots (America's tacit approval of Russian nuclear fuel deliveries to Iran's Bushehr reactor, and its support for the Russian-sponsored uranium-enrichment bank as the foundation of a reinvigorated non-proliferation regime) before connecting them by suggesting that America has agreed to a de facto US-Russian nuclear energy cartel in return for a tougher Russian line on the Iranian nuclear program.

If so, the good news would be that, in answer to The Economist's top story this week, no, Iran has not won. The bad news being that Russia has. This would signal an enormous legitimation of Russia as a balance-tipping power that can leverage its troublemaking capacity for serious commercial and strategic concessions. And yet another validation of the idea that the long-announced multi-polar world is indeed upon us.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Russia, France & Iran

In what can only be considered very encouraging news, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak defended the sanctions against Tehran agreed upon by the "P5+1" and now being considered by the UN Security Council:

"When this document is made public, you will see that it contains serious signals for Iran and envisions a certain expansion of the earlier sanctions", Kislyak said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax...

"Iran should fully cooperate with the IAEA's Board of Governors, and, among other things, get back to the implementation of the additional protocol on control, freeze uranium enrichment and take some other measures pending the work to untangle all difficult problems", he said.

He added that the matter remained one of political will, presumably in Tehran. But China's political will is essential to any resolution of this crisis as well, so it's reassuring to see that Chinese banks have cut back their operations in Iran and with Iranian businesses, albeit reluctantly, due to pressure from America's banking sanctions.

Meanwhile, relations between Tehran and Paris continue to deteriorate. Both countries summoned each others' ambassadors, France to protest President Ahmadinejad's comments about the imminent demise of the State of Israel, and Iran in a tit-for-tat response. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman also pointedly criticized France's plans to establish a permanent military base in the UAE, explaining that Tehran was opposed to any increased foreign military presence in the region.

The French role in the Iranian crisis can't be understated. Both London and Berlin have expressed only tepid support for America's unilateral sanctions, and the likelihood of either of them signing on with their own was remote even before the NIE. Now, America's credibility has been effectively torpedoed. The Bush administration's overly aggressive posture when it was actually in a position to impact the crisis was bad enough. But the brutal aftermath of the NIE report combined with the Bush administration's lameduck status are a fatal cocktail.

France, on the other hand, has maintained a credible and consistently firm opposition to the Iranian enrichment program, and if there is a third round of UN sanctions, it will be largely due to France's very aggressive lobbying for it. Likewise for EU or EU3 sanctions. In fact, it's safe to say that France's resolve has prevented a complete unraveling of the US/EU position in the aftermath of the NIE and the anticipation of a new administration in Washington. So it's no surprise that Paris has to some extent replaced Washington as public enemy no. 1 in Tehran.

I've criticized Nicolas Sarkozy in the past for being a very opportunistic politician who carefully picks his battles. Usually what he looks for before investing any of his political capital in trying to resolve a standoff is a situation where everyone knows the solution, but for lack of a face-saving way to reach it, no one is willing to compromise. His m.o. is to then lean on the right pressure points to generate the political will necessary to get everyone to sign on the dotted line, and then take the credit for saving the day.

That hasn't been the case at all with the Iran crisis. Last summer, he very vocally implicated France in the heart of the crisis at a time when many were concerned about the militarist tone coming out of Washington. Some interpreted his comments as indicating his support for a military strike, but my own sense was that by reassuring Washington about how serious he took the threat, he was actually attempting to walk the Bush administration back towards a negotiated settlement. In the meantime, the NIE effectively left him out on a precipice, very noticeably alone. But to his credit, he has not backed away one inch (or 2.54 centimeters) from the very precarious ledge he found himself on. And if the West does manage to stand Tehran down on its uranium enrichment program, it will be in large part due to the enormous political risk he has taken.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   Russia   

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Friday, February 1, 2008


In his first official meeting as Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin presented Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer with a ceremonial, custom-made Russian tomahawk:

"He is holding the tomahawk and now we have to find a spade to bury this hatchet as deep as possible in the ground," Rogozin said.

Rogozin also said he hoped to put "an end to all conflicts between Russia and NATO." Not bad for a guy whose appointment raised eyebrows due to his ultra-nationalist leanings.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The New Black Gold

As if all the soap opera-like drama of the past couple weeks involving pipeline shutdowns and jockeying for supply routes through Eurasia and the Balkans weren't enough, now comes news that Iran and Russia are spearheading an effort to bring the long-rumored "natural gas OPEC" to fruition. A draft drawn up by Iran last year and tweaked by Russia will be presented this June to the members of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. The group's member nation's control 73% of the world's gas reserves and 42% of its production.

Needless to say, such a cartel poses a strategic problem for the US and EU. But there are plenty of faultlines that they could take advantage of to create a wedge between Iran and Russia. In particular, Iran is in desperate need of foreign investment to develop its natural gas capacity. The fatal flaw of current American policy is that by continuing to drive Iran and Russia together in a tactical arrangement, eventually we'll have helped them form the basis of a strategic alliance.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy, Redux

This little item got buried over the weekend, but it's a pretty significant development. Russia just signed a major pipeline contract with Bulgaria which, combined with the imminent deal giving Russia a controlling interest in Serbia's largest gas and oil company, tightens Russia's grip on the Balkans' energy supply. Russia will now be able to pipe gas directly to the European market, bypassing Turkey as a transit point altogether.

Meanwhile, the EU's Nabucco project, whereby gas from Azerbaijan and Iran would be transitted through Turkey to the continent, has been bogged down by disputes over financing, transit routes, and the Iran nuclear standoff. With Russia having already locked down Turkmenistan's entire annual gas production and already in possession of the major supply lines, any hope for diversified European gas sources just grew much slimmer.

How Turkey reacts to these developments will be very significant. They've been stalling on a deal to develop Iran's gas reserves in order to entertain the US' offers of becoming a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Azerbaijan gas and oil reserves. The problem is that Iraq is far from stabilized, and so far no acceptable route has been found for the Azerbaijan supplies. Should Turkey decide that one tactical energy alliance in hand is better than two in the bush, it could have a dramatic impact on the region's strategic realignment.

And history, when it gets around to the Iraq War, may very well decide that while Bush and the neocons were emptying the American treasury to conquer the last of the dwindling oil reserves, Putin and the mullahs were turning a profit off of locking down the gas supplies.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Russia   Turkey   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy

Contrary to what an article I cited yesterday claimed, The New Anatolian reports that Russia did in fact increase its gas deliveries to Turkey to make up for the shortfall resulting from the shutdown of its Iranian pipeline. It also reported that following discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahamdinejad, Iran's deliveries should be back to normal come Monday.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to think this whole episode had more to do with regional jockeying than with the weather, although as always with pipeline diplomacy, that served as an excuse. Not much mention was made in the American press of the American proposal that Turkey serve as a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Eurasian energy traffic, but I think it's a huge development, central to the way the Bush administration envisions the short-term strategic alignment in the region: using a combination of energy-poor Turkey and energy-rich Iraq and Azerbaijan to counter Russia's influence in Eurasian energy markets and Iran's expansion in the Middle East.

The sticking point had been the PKK, but the Kurds are above all else businessmen. And since Turkey is already the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, they've got a lot of incentive to let Turkey and the US take care of the PKK, so that afterwards they can all take care of business.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   Russia   Turkey   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Putin's Bark

In a move that raised some eyebrows yesterday, Vladimir Putin appointed a nationalist hardliner, Dmitry Rogozin, as Russia's permanent envoy to NATO. Rogozin wasted no time making his voice heard, warning the alliance not to increase its own security at the expense of others, and emphasizing the political dossiers he would be handling -- including the CFE treaty, Kosovo and Iran -- as opposed to his diplomatic function. On a more reassuring note, he referred to the CFE as a matter of trust, observing that "No sane person, even in his worst nightmare, can imagine us waging war against Europe."

2008 is shaping up to be a pretty significant year for American-Russian bi-lateral relations, as well as for NATO/EU-Russian relations. The crises that Rogozin mentioned will all have significant impact down the road, and the lameduck Bush administration is not in a position, either internationally or domestically, to seriously address them. And while I think there's a tendency to exagerrate Russia's strategic position -- one that I'm probably guilty of to a certain extent -- the risk isn't a direct confrontation with Russia, but rather Russia's ability to comfort our enemies.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sending It Down The Line

Just before New Year's, Turkmenistan shut down the gas pipeline supplying Iran with 5% of its domestic consumption. The reason was ostensibly technical malfunctions, but the malfunctions have oddly enough not yet been repaired. As the shutdown coincides with a fierce cold front that has gripped the region and sent temperatures plummeting, Iran in turn all but shut down the pipeline that supplies Turkey with roughly the same amount of Iranian gas that Iran imports from Turkmenistan. Russia, which has in the past made up Turkey's gas shortfalls, in this case not only refused, but suggested it would be forced to reduce its deliveries as well, due to a supply shortage.

The entire episode demonstrates either, a) the ways in which weather can impact on international relations; or b) the complex energy calculus underlying, and at times working at cross-purposes to, some of the strategic re-alignments in the region. And for a number of reasons, not least of which being that this is not a weather forecasting site, I'm going to go with "b".

For a little background, Russia recently secured a contract with Turkmenistan for its gas reserves. The deal was considered a serious blow to American and Western European hopes for securing Turkmenistan's gas supplies independently of Russia. It was also part of what some suggested was a broader cartel strategy by which Russia and Iran would carve up the gas market: Western Europe for Russia; Asia for Iran. Tehran's imminent pipeline and purchase deal with Pakistan, as well as its negotiations with China and India to develop domestic gas and oil fields can be understood in this context.

But the same deal between Russia and Turkmenistan is also the source of this week's rolling pipeline shutdown, because Russia agreed to pay twice the price that Turkmenistan gets from Iran, and the "technical malfunctions" notwithstanding, it's no secret that Turkmenistan is looking to renegotiate with Tehran.

As for Turkey, it's also no secret that both Iran and Russia were counting on taking advantage of recent tension between Ankara and Washington to forge closer relations with Turkey. Both Iran's decision to pass the gas shortage down the line and Russia's decision to sit on its hands coincide with the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, culminated by President Bush's warm reception of Turkish President Abdullah Gul two days ago at the White House. The visit was the occasion not only to reaffirm America's strategic relationship with Turkey, but also to roll out a very ambitious role for Turkey as a regional energy hub for both Iraqi and Eurasian gas and oil reserves.

As the episode demonstrates, none of these tactical alliances are stable. The entire region is in a flux, and it's not at all clear how things will settle in the long run. The uncertainty, while volatile and unfamiliar, can also be used to our advantage, should we adopt an intelligent and flexible strategic approach. Our enemies and rivals of today might turn out to be, if not our friends of tomorrow, at least useful leverage points.

One thing is certain. There's a bunch of Greeks freezing their souvlakis off who had nothing to do with this whole mess.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   Turkey   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Musical Chairs

I make it a habit, during media-dominating events like the Iowa caucuses or the Bhutto assassination, to keep an eye on some of last month's crises, like the Turkey-PKK conflict or the Iranian nuclear standoff. The idea being that some interesting things occur when the world's attention is diverted. And sure enough, today it was reported that Saeed Jalili, the man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed to head Iran's nuclear negotiating team last month, just reshuffled the rest of the team to include two Ahmadinejad loyalists. The move is sure to harden the Iranian negotiating position in future rounds of talks.

In other news out of that part of the world, a region-wide game of musical chairs has broken out, only instead of chairs, they're playing for gas supplies. Apparently Turkmenistan closed off the pipelines ensuring Iran's domestic supply, which led Iran to severely limit its exports to Turkey to cover the shortfall. Turkmenistan blamed the shutdown on technical complications, but the entire episode brings into stark focus Iran's curious status as an energy importing country, despite sitting on oceans of gas and oil reserves.

Both developments play out against the backdrop of the "pipeline wars" going on in the region. Russia just sealed a deal for a pipeline linking Turkmenistan's gas supply to Europe, while China and India are busy lobbying for the right to develop Iranian gas and oil fields. Throw in Iran's recent pipeline deal with Pakistan and you've got the guiding logic behind the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran: the European gas market for Russia, the Asian market for Iran, even if both countries are in need of renewed investment to fully exploit their reserves.

But if their energy alliance incarnates the threat posed by the emerging multi-polar world to America's interests, it also represents the opportunities presented. In the same way that the end of the bi-polar world order removes the necessity of aligning with the United States, it also removes the necessity of aligning against us. In the context of an aggressive American posture, Russia and Iran seem like natural bosom buddies. But a shift in American policy towards either could just as easily provoke their latent rivalry.

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy mistake committed by the Bush administration, besides the Iraq War, is believing that we could afford to contain both Russia and Iran at the same time. One or the other, or one then the other. But not both at once.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Kosovo Countdown

Somewhat neglected amid all the attention being given to events in Pakistan, over which we have limited influence, is the approaching endgame for the Kosovo impasse, over which we have enormous influence. As things stand, it's looking increasingly likely that come the new year, the US, the EU, and NATO are going to bypass the UN Security Council, where Russia has threatened a veto, and serve as guarantors of the breakaway Serbian province's unilateral declaration of independence. Here's how Mikhail Gorbachev described the Western approach:

"It is an unprecedented step, which will certainly result in failure, both politically and morally," Gorbachev said in an interview with the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

"For the first time in history, two organizations are trying to assume responsibility for the future of a country - Serbia - which is not a member of either of them."

Serbia has already threatened retaliatory measures in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, including suspending its membership proceedings for acceding to the EU. And as Dimitri Simes explained in this excellent IHT op-ed, the standoff has even broader implications for the West's relationship with Russia. If Kosovo serves as a precedent, it could legitimize the eventual absorption by Russia of two separatist Georgian provinces, which is why the West is trying to treat it as a one-off "policy by exception". But its heavy-handed dissection of Serbia's territorial integrity would deal Russia another humiliation at a moment when Moscow increasingly feels the need to demonstrate its resurgent influence.

I'll be writing more about this, not only because it represents a giant hornets' nest in practical terms. It also presents a lot of food for thought on theoretical levels. Addressing the potential atomization of multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian states deserves to be on the short list of our foreign policy priorities, right up there with global warming and nuclear proliferation. And whether we like it or not, how we handle Kosovo will of course determine a precedent, so exploring some its broader implications seems worthwhile. But for now I just wanted to get this up and into the mix.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Russia   

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight

In an Asia Times Online article, M K Bhadrakumar argues that Russia's tactical alliance with Iran must principally be understood in the context of the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for Eurasian energy supplies and transit points. Specifically, Europe's growing dependence on gas that either comes from or travels through Russia runs the risk of splintering the strategic interests of the Atlantic alliance. That's why Washington has been intent on encircling and containing Russia's resurgence, and Moscow on tightening its grip on gas fields and pipelines leading to Europe.

Iran represents a potential wedge, since by directing their gas supplies to the European market they weaken Russia's leverage. Russia's cooperative line with Tehran on bi-lateral energy policy is designed to divide the pie (Russian gas to Europe, Iranian gas to Asia) in such a way to maximize both countries' influence and triangulate America's strategic alliances.

But nothing about the Russian-Iranian tactical arrangement gives the impression that it's an indelible longterm alignment. So strategically, it seems intuitively obvious that Washington's got to decide on one of two options: either a broad deal with Russia, or a broad deal with Iran. But to ratchet up the pressure on both of them simultaneously will surely result in driving them even further into each other's arms.

Which leads me to wonder if American strategic thinking isn't at a natural disadvantage compared to countries where instead of a two-party system in domestic politics, there are multi-party parliamentary coalitions that make a political calculus of "You're either with us or against us" inconceivable.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin's Grand Bargain

I've been sitting with this one all day, pondering what to make of it. And the more I go over it, the more I'm of the belief that Vladimir Putin really does deserve his Time magazine cover.

Iran's Bushehr reactor, whose construction has been suspended pending a dispute over payments (or so the story goes), was supposed to go online six months after the first shipment of nuclear fuel. Russia just delivered that first batch of nuclear fuel, under IAEA seal, a few days ago. But today the head of the company constructing the reactor just announced that it wouldn't go online before the end of 2008.

Along with its veto on the UN Security Council, the Bushehr reactor is Russia's trump card in the Iran nuclear stand-off. Now that the NIE report has dramatically reduced the urgency of the crisis -- ie. extended the timeframe of a resolution -- Russia has every incentive to hold onto the leverage the reactor provides for as long as possible.

But why deliver the fuel this week, and put the reactor online in January 2009? Well, one possible explanation is that this week coincides with a deadlock in the Security Council negotiations over Kosovo, and January 2009 coincides with the remainder of the Bush administration's term in office. By this reading, Russia is sending a signal that, a) it takes the Kosovo crisis very seriously; and, b) if there's a grand bargain to be made (missile defense, CFE, Eurasian bases, Kosovo), it wants to make it with the Bush administration, and not its successor.

Of course, Putin is poised to leave office but retain power. The same, thankfully, can't be said for President Bush. Just about all of his probable successors are likely to adopt a policy of increased engagement with Iran, a policy that weakens Putin's leverage in the standoff. On the other hand, President Bush has every reason to try to push for a final year of accomplishments in order to not leave office in disgrace. And a deal with Russia that not only defused Russian-American tension but also contained Iran's nuclear ambitions would be quite an accomplishment.

It's a cagey move on Putin's part. Keep your eye on the Kosovo negotiations. Should they somehow get sent back to the Security Council for one final attempt at a breakthrough, don't be surprised to see some more advances on other sticking points in Russian-American relations follow shortly thereafter. On the other hand, should the US and EU follow through and guarantee Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, don't be surprised to see the Bushehr timetable miraculously shorten.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Outta Here Like Vladimir

I'm not sure if Vladimir Putin is really Man of the Year, as Time Magazine maintains. But if there were a MVL (Most Valuable Leader) award along the lines of the MVP in professional sports, he'd certainly be high in the running this year. Between his bellicose rhetoric on American missile defense, his high-stakes maneuvering on Iran, his suspension of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, and his reintroduction of long-range bomber sorties and Russian navy flotillas on the high seas, about the only thing Vlad didn't do this year was bang his shoe on a desk at the UN.

There's also a pretty strong argument to be made that he's about ready for a Lifetime Achievement award, too. Judging by his human rights record, the guy's a psychopath, it's true. But if you compare the bareknuckled arena of realpolitik to the Ultimate Fighting Championships, Putin's Royce Gracie. It's hard to think of another leader over the past ten years who has consolidated his or her country's position as effectively as Putin. Tony Blair comes close, but the Iraq War put a pretty big black mark on any assessment of his tenure. Meanwhile, neither Chirac, Schroeder, Berlusconi, or Aznar comes close to measuring up. He's had a bunch of help, ranging from George W. Bush's decision to run America into the ground, to the massive influx of oil and gas revenues. But like it or not, Putin's been at the helm for a pretty incredible turnaround in Russia's geopolitical fortunes.

Meanwhile, the difference between Time's gimmicky pick last year and their selection this year is sobering: viral videos on the one hand, ruthless realpolitik on the other. It's almost as if the shock of 9/11 is beginning to wear off and, in looking around, America's suddenly realizing that while we've been squandering our political capital, there are other countries out there who have been slowly but steadily building their's up.

What a difference a year makes.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Media Coverage   Russia   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Special Delivery

The news that Russia has delivered a first batch of nuclear fuel to the Iranian reactor at Bushehr is significant more for what it says about the state of play on the third round of UN sanctions than for any impact it has on Iran's potential weapons capacity. Previous announcements put the timing of the reactor going operational at six months following the fuel delivery. The fuel remains under IAEA jurisdiction, and Iran has signed agreements to return the spent fuel rods to Russia. So the only way for this to change the threat level is if the Iranians go completely berserk, kick the IAEA out of the country and start reneging on their deal with their major protector on the UN Security Council. And even then, there will be plenty of time to organize some sort of multi-lateral intervention.

On the other hand, the Russians' willingness to ship the fuel suggests that in the aftermath of the NIE report, they are significantly downgrading their willingness to consider the Iranian nuclear program a multi-lateral security threat. It also provides an element of legitimacy to the Iranian government at a time when its bargaining position with the EU has become more intransigent. The Russian foreign ministry also stated that the delivery eliminates any actual need for an Iranian domestic enrichment capacity, but that hasn't stopped the Iranians from declaring their adamance about continuing the program.

It might be true that the NIE has provided more time to resolve the issue through negotiations, as the German Foreign Minister suggested. It might also be true that the negotiations won't achieve anything. But the clock is definitely still running and so far I haven't really come across any convincing arguments to stop worrying about this.

Update: The NY Times adds some interesting details that I should have caught but didn't. First, in justifying the need to continue its domestic enrichment program, Iran made reference to a second nuclear reactor under construction. Second, they claimed that the second reactor would necessitate 50,000 enrichment centrifuges as opposed to the 3,000 currently online. Now there's already a good deal of skepticism about the efficiency of Iran's existing centrifuge cascades, and I don't even know whether Iran is capable of putting 50,000 of them online. But if they did, that would seriously shorten the timeline of when they'd be able to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. In other words, kiss all that time the NIE supposedly gave us to calmly resolve this standoff goodbye. You can bet Dick Cheney is thanking the Good Lord for Ahmadinejad in his prayers tonight.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Monday, December 10, 2007

The Angry Bear Awakening

If you've found yourself wondering lately whether Russia's a real threat, a paper tiger, or just plain old grumpy, click through to this Army War College monograph and skip to p. 35, where you'll find Dmitri Trenin's enlightening analysis of just what's driving Russian strategic thinking these days.

According to Trenin, starting in 2003 and culminating in 2005, Russia definitively decoupled its foreign policy orientation from the West. But rather than representing a return to a Cold War mentality, as many have conjectured, Trenin argues that Russia's posture more closely resembles a pre-WWI Great Powers rivalry mentality, where realpolitik is the name of the game and military power its currency. According to this "highly pessimistic worldview", the game of geopolitics is a lonely, cutthroat affair: professed alliances mean little, and everyone can be considered a potential threat.

As significantly, Russia considers that its security environment has deteriorated in the post-Soviet era, with its loss of influence and the resulting insecurity in Eurasia outweighing the threat-reduction effect of its improved Western relations. And while it considers the EU to be "incoherent", and expects NATO to be occupied for the time being in Afghanistan, it regards the US as a "dangerous nation" and its principle security concern.

From the Russian point of view, the West proved itself to be untrustworthy by taking advantage of Russia's post-Soviet moment of weakness. So the expansion of America's willingness to wage war, beginning with the 1990's humanitarian interventions and culminating in a war of choice in Iraq, combined with its increasing unwillingness to abide by the constraints of arms control treaties, has been viewed with great alarm. Russia's current military planning is based on modernizing its force structure, both conventional and strategic, in order to present a more robust deterrent, primarily to American airpower, which Russia sees as the main component of American military planning.

As the monograph's preface points out, it's easy to dismiss another country's threat perception as bizarre or ill-conceived based on our own ideas of what motivates our policy. But that's irrelevant if the country's national security strategists have become convinced of their assessment and have based strategic thinking on it. As an example, consider how bizarre America's obsession with the Iraqi threat must have seemed to the folks who made up the Iraqi policy-making establishment. That didn't keep most of them from ending up as face cards in the Iraqi Most Wanted deck.

The obvious and striking parallel to Russia's lonely posture is that of America at the time of the neocon ascendancy, where any potential rival to America's hegemony qualified as a target for neutralization, where there were no more alliances, only coalitions of the willing, and where the legitimacy of a mission was determined by its success or failure. In light of which, the Russian strategists don't seem so far offbase.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Reach Out And Touch Someone

It came as something as a shock to me when I learned a few months back that the US and China had never established a "hotline" to prevent the kinds of misunderstandings that lead to accidental nuclear armageddons. Fortunately, the news came in the context of an article reporting that the Chinese and American militaries were making progress on putting one in place. That agreement was finally sealed two weeks ago, and here's what the People's Daily Online has to say about it:

In a nutshell, it can be said that the China-US military hotline is sure to add more mutual military trust to the security cooperation of the two nations and in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and it will play a still more positive role in enhancing the high-level military exchanges and cooperation, further increasing their mutual trust, and dispelling any of their doubts or suspicions.

China is one area where the Bush administration doesn't get some credit it deserves. The amount of trust-building measures and joint exercises that have taken place is actually pretty surprising, if you think about where things started (the Hainan airmen) as well as some of the provocation China has engaged in since (the anti-satellite test).

Meanwhile, in case you thought that hotlines were all about nail-biting crisis management, think again. Take the Cold War-era hotline to the Kremlin, for instance, which continues to function to this day:

...It is tested hourly, with the Pentagon sending a message every even hour, and Moscow sending one back every odd hour. Both sides transmit in an agreed-upon code and avoid any political or controversial test messages.

Mostly, operators on either side of the hot line try to test each other's translation skills with selections from obscure texts. For example, the U.S. operators will send their Russian counterparts recipes for chili, or articles on the psychology of pets. The Russians might then respond with excerpts from their great novelists, or a treatise on the history of invention in the ancient world. But the battle of wits is cordial, and some hot line operators have even met face-to-face at government functions.

This is the sort of thing that's important to remember when considering the longterm evolution of all our strategic rivalries. Namely that a cordial battle of wits is as realistic an endgame scenario as a mushroom cloud.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Odds & Ends   Russia   

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Smoke For The Fire

I haven't seen this mentioned in any Western press coverage of the IAEA report on Iran, which I'm still trying to locate. But the Iranian press has pointed out that it includes a reference to the fuel for the Russian-built Bushehr reactor:

Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh noted that another point which is eye-catching in ElBaradei's report is the fact that the IAEA has coordinated with Russia for the transfer of the required fuel for the Bushehr nuclear plant and this will be achieved in the near future.

ITAR-TASS has also picked up the story. This is a significant angle to watch since it will signal the depth of Russia's support for the Iranian nuclear program. Should Russia oppose a third round of sanctions but also delay shipping the fuel, there's room for a deal with Moscow. On the other hand, if the Russians oppose sanctions and go ahead and ship the fuel to Bushehr, things could get bumpy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Putin And The Mullahs, Crawford Edition

This seemed worth pointing out, from NSC Advisor Stephen Hadley's press briefing on President Bush's meeting with Angela Merkel:

One of the things I guess people need to understand is that Russia has been pretty good on the issue of Iran. They understand the problem, they have been active in the diplomacy. You may remember nine months to a year ago, they had a very active engagement going on with Iran, trying to get Iran to accept the notion of suspending an enrichment program and being willing to participate with Russia in an international consortium in Russia that would ensure an adequate fuel supply for their civil nuclear power.

President Putin was recently in Tehran, and he gave a very good message, very consistent with what we've said, the Germans, and others have said, about Iran needing to recognize that it's isolating itself internationally, and needs to give up these programs, and particularly suspend the enrichment, so we can come to the negotiating table.

I think the issues with respect to Russia are tactical issues: at what point do you look at a third resolution; exactly how tough that resolution should be, so that you are both pressing Iran, but also leaving the door open for some solution? And this is, I think, a tactical issue between the two.

The Cheney Gang might very well end up manufacturing a war with Iran. But I get the impression that one of the reasons that they're increasingly looking for bones to pick in Iraq is because the uranium enrichment standoff might actually go our way. Just a few weeks ago, the tone coming out of Moscow was agressive enough to lead some folks here to suggest that Putin might actually give the Iranians nukes. But these kind of conciliatory remarks (coming from one of the vulcans, no less) seem to lend even more support to the idea that some sort of deal has been struck with the Russians. If that's the case, that leaves the China as the odd man out, a position that's much more difficult to sustain than one backed up by Russian cover.

If there's one sticking point, it's the demand for a unilateral enrichment freeze before proceeding with overarching negotiations, something the Iranians claim infringes on their sovereignty. But if the framework of the negotiations were expanded to include a "grand bargain", ie. if the rewards for an Iranian freeze were multiplied, some sort of face-saving arrangement could probably be worked out.

It would take courage and boldness, something this administration lacks when it comes to anything other than appropriating extra-Constitutional authority. It's too bad, because the pay off for America's image around the globe would be enormous, contrary to what the fearmongers would have people believe. Far from being a demonstration of weakness, it would show America's strength. The kind that allows you to distinguish a minor annoyance from a major threat.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Way Out

I'm not sure how much of a shift in rhetoric this is, but both the Iranian Foreign Minister and the Deputy Security of the National Security Council seemed to suggest this weekend that Iran would consider a third-country enrichment plan of the type recently proposed by Russia, as long as the plan secured Iran's "nuclear rights". I take that to mean that as long as any freeze of their uranium enrichment program was voluntary and not imposed, they'd consider foregoing domestic enrichment in favor of a guaranteed third-country source.

The declarations follow closely on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's surprise visit to Tehran last week, a visit that one Russian analyst interpreted as signalling a possible shift in Russia's stance on the issue following American overtures on missile defense and the CFE treaty:

Most likely the prospect of multiple concessions (on missile defense and CFE) prompted Moscow to try to persuade Teheran to announce a moratorium on all uranium enrichment. But what can Russia offer in exchange? Teheran is unlikely to be moved by the mere readiness of Washington to sit down at the negotiating table or even resume direct bilateral contacts.

The more likely explanation lies elsewhere. Teheran has long wanted to position itself as Russia's "strategic ally". So, there is no reason why Moscow should not make use of partnership relations. It could well act as a guarantor of the peaceful character of the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. renunciation of military actions. Russia, of course, has something to offer Iran. And judging from the reception accorded in the Iranian capital to Sergei Lavrov, Teheran finds these proposals interesting.

I've been extremely critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear stand-off. But this would seem to be a satisfactory resolution of it. The Russians do come out looking like the big winners, but at this point that might be a lesser of many evils.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Sunday, November 4, 2007

Gallows Humor

If history serves up one big belly laugh at George W. Bush's expense, the punchline will most certainly come via Vladimir Putin. Because what other foreign leader better exemplifies President Bush's rapid evolution from foreign policy buffoon to foreign policy bungler to foreign policy nightmare? With Russia as prickly as a Joshua Tree Cholla, this hardly strikes me as an opportune time to pull backroom deals worthy of JR Ewing:

Guided by American legal advisers, the Iraqi government has canceled a controversial development contract with the Russian company Lukoil for a vast oil field in Iraq’s southern desert, freeing it up for potential international investment in the future...

The contract, which had been signed and later canceled by the Saddam Hussein government, had been in legal limbo since the American invasion. But the Kremlin remained hopeful it could be salvaged until this September, when Mr. Shahristani traveled to Moscow to inform officials there that the decision to cancel it was final, he said.

The Russian government, newly emboldened in international affairs by its expanding oil wealth, is still backing Lukoil’s claim and protesting what it considers selective enforcement of contracts in Iraq.

As for that new round of Security Council sanctions on Iran, well, don't hold your breath.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Putting Iran In Context

Russian media recently reported that China has agreed to sell twenty-four J-10's, China's fourth generation fighter jet, to Iran. Not so fast, says Defense News; so far there's been no confirmation of any agreement. Nevertheless, the reactions to the reports of the deal are in some ways as revealing as the deal itself:

"At a minimum, this small number of J-10s could provide the escort necessary to allow one nuclear-weapon-armed Iranian F-4, F-14 or Su-24 to reach an Israeli target," said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center...

But another China-watcher said there may actually be no J-10 deal, only rumors started by Beijing to persuade Washington to deny F-16s to Taiwan.

One rumor, two spins. The first serves to reinforce the meme that Tehran is desperately seeking the means to deliver its nuclear payload to Tel Aviv. The second, more relevant, reminds us that the Iran standoff is not playing out in a vacuum.

If both China and Russia have determined that it serves their interests to counterbalance the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Iran, it's not because they're eager to see a nuclear-armed Iranian regime. It's because America under the Bush administration has decided to aggressively contest these two country's historic spheres of influence. The message behind Russian and Chinese resistance to stronger UN sanctions on Tehran is that a successful diplomatic resolution to the Iran standoff will involve American concessions on missile defense and military bases in Eastern Europe, and on arming Taiwan in Asia. You want your sanctions, you've got to play ball.

But neocons don't play ball. They'll rewrite the rulebook and replace the umpires. They'll even eminent domain the playing field. But they won't play ball. That's why the broader context for understanding the Iran nuclear standoff is the neocon vision for American national security strategy, whose goal is to prevent the rise of rival powers. Contrast that with the reality of the limits of our power and it becomes obvious that something's got to give.

So far, the pushback against the neocon vision has been limited to piecemeal proposals designed to address particular crises. And in some ways, a realist approach to foreign policy is limited to this method by the value it places on pragmatism. But at a certain point, the effort to contain the damage done by the Bush administration suffers from the lack of a broad strategic vision for reconciling American national security with the need to co-exist with rival powers in the evolving geo-political landscape.

The neocons have their strategy, and it has the advantage of being reassuringly familiar to anyone who's played "king of the hill" as a seven-year old. We've got... What? Diplomacy? Negotiations? Those are tactics, not strategies. It's something we've often accused the Bush administration of confusing in its approach to foreign policy. It's time we took our own medicine.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Russian Ingenuity

Now this is the kind of diplomatic initiative that scores points for being both practical and savvy: A Russian-built, Kazakh-supplied uranium enrichment facility operating under the auspices of the IAEA, designed to furnish reactor fuel to third party civil nuclear programs that meet their non-proliferation obligations. The idea has the added advantages of being profitable and pragmatic, as well:

Ivanov also said fuel for nuclear power plants was a market product and any country represented in the International Atomic Energy Agency that was also signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had the right to buy it.

"But this is only in theory," Ivanov said. "Due to a variety of political reasons, a country may be denied access to uranium."

It's disheartening to see that at the same time the Bush administration is pushing nuclear deals (see: India) that clearly undermine the non-proliferation regime, Russia is busy outflanking us with initiatives that have both immediate (vis a vis Iran) and longterm relevance. They're also setting themselves up to reap the benefits of the Arab world's growing interest in developing nuclear energy capacity.

Update: Russia also seems to be positioning itself to benefit from the failure of Indian PM Singh to get the US-India nuclear deal through parliament.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

EF Putin

This article from Asia Times Online's Kaveh Afrasiabi on the recent shuffling in Iran's nuclear negotiating team raised my spirits a bit:

Various commentators, especially in Europe and the United States, have been quick in interpreting Larijani's resignation as a "bad omen" reflecting a triumph for hardliners led by Ahmadinejad. But that is simplistic and ignores a more complex reality in the Iran's state affairs (sic). The quest for greater centralization of nuclear decision-making has met a contradictory response in, on the one hand, the move for more direct input by Khamenei, and, on the other hand, a parallel effort by Ahmadinejad to gain greater control of decision-making.

Afrasiabi explains that Iran's factional infighting on the nuclear dossier threatens to seriously weaken its negotiating posture by creating confusion and paralysis. It's not all good news, because derailed or frozen negotiations can lead to a lose-lose outcome on the actual conflict. It is reassuring, though, to hear that there are weaknesses in the Iranian position in light of how clumsy our own handling of the crisis has been. But that's not all:

According to veteran political analyst Davood Hermidas Bavand, the real reason for Larijani's resignation can be found in the failure of the government's "eastern approach" that naively banked on support from China and Russia in the nuclear row, despite Moscow and Beijing's role in supporting sanctions resolutions at the UN Security Council. "Larijani's resignation is his objection to the strategy laid out by the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad," Bavand insists.

If Bavand is correct, Larijani is skeptical that Iran can count on Russian and Chinese support when the chips are down, an analysis seconded by Steve Clemons in this post on The Washington Note:

There has been a lot of movement in recent days on Iran's nuclear program. Days after Defense Secretary Bob Gates met with Vladimir Putin, Putin is in Tehran meeting with Khamenei. And in the midst of these meetings, Gates states that a new course in Iran's nuclear plans that might move its nuclear reprocessing requirements into Russia would curtail the need, possibly, for the US to deploy intermediate range missiles is Europe.

There has been fragile but real deal making going on -- and it is progress on this front that Larijani wanted to have the government announce -- but Ahmadinejad refused.

Toss in Olmert's lightning visit to Moscow and it looks like there's a lot of behind the scenes maneuvering taking place. The kind of maneuvering that makes Iran seem more like a prop being used by the big kids on the block to hammer out their arrangement than a tipping point in global power alignments.

One thing the past week does demonstrate very clearly, though, is that when Vladimir Putin gets pissed, people pay attention.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Lonely American

I spent the evening going through some IAEA reports, UN Security Council resolutions and a timeline of Iran's uranium enrichment program to get a better sense of why I'm feeling so pessimistic about the direction the deepening US-Iran standoff is taking. The good news is that the reading helped me locate the source of my pessimism. The bad news is that it did nothing to alleviate it. The problem is that the actual uranium enrichment conflict, as significant as it is, is really functioning as a pretext for underlying strategic faultlines, both regional and global, that have far wider implications. Any diplomatic resolution of the crisis will depend on taking these faultlines into account, which doesn't seem like a very realistic possibility these days. And any non-diplomatic resolution of the crisis (ie. unilateral military strikes) will only exacerbate them, regardless of whether or not it successfully eliminates Iran's enrichment capacity.

To get a better sense of just what those underlying faultlines are, it helps to examine the Bush administration's two-track approach to the issue. The first track is essentially a political/legal remedy to the difficulties involved in enforcing nuclear non-proliferation, namely that there's nothing inherently illegal about developing nuclear weapons. The only response is to build a diplomatic coalition capable of defining the terms under which the Iranian program is non-compliant with existing treaties and agreements. This was accomplished through the UN Security Council resolution of July 2006 which, as a result of Iran's failure to allow IAEA inspectors more intrusive access to its nuclear facilities (the so-called Additional Protocol that Iran voluntarily signed in December 2003), demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activity. When the IAEA later reported neither inspections progress nor enrichment suspension in its reports of August 2006 and November 2006, the US and its EU allies had what they needed to secure the two UNSC resolutions that first imposed and then strengthened sanctions.

The limitations of this political/legal remedy are that, a) sanctions might not suffice to persuade Iran to renounce its nuclear program; b) the Bush administration has not demonstrated the necessary diplomatic savvy to assemble a strong coalition capable of really tightening the screws on Iran; and c) Iran has shown increasing willingness to comply with the IAEA's Additional Protocol, as demonstrated by the relatively upbeat report the Agency issued in August 2007. If the Iranians do, in fact, end up cooperating with the intrusive inspection regime, the legal foundation of the Bush administration's approach (ie. crippling UN sanctions) crumbles, while Iran's ability to eventually build nuclear weapons stays intact.

Which brings us to the second track of the Bush administration's approach, which is exemplified by the President's recent "World War Three" remarks and can best be described as an extra-legal approach to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The Bush argument essentially boils down to a subjective and unilateral determination of just who will and who will not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. And it's this argument that brings into focus the strategic faultlines that spread out beneath the surface of this conflict in just about every direction. Because it's an argument that alienates small-to-middling regional powers who, whether they entertain nuclear ambitions or not, will identify with Iran's efforts to expand its sphere of influence. And it insults the sensibilities of major powers who have an interest in establishing these middling powers as their client states.

Take the Russians, for instance, who have got plenty of reasons ($1.2 million of them in the case of Iran's Bushehr reactor, to be exact) to refuse to grant the US an effective veto power over who they can and can't do business with. By increasingly aligning himself with Iran in this standoff, Putin is sending the message that he can and will make things difficult for Washington if it refuses to take Russia's interests into consideration. Behind the Russians, and basically echoing their annoyance, are the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, some of our EU allies. For the time being, Russia's posturing is mainly symbolic. They have yet to deliver the uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor, and probably won't until Iran offers more oversight concessions to the international community. But that could change if the American position hardens into an even more obnoxious expression of the unilateralism that has already alienated so much of the world to date.

What's remarkable about the American position is that it's managed to crystallize so much international support for a prospect -- a nuclear Iran -- that otherwise doesn't play very well outside of Tehran. The reason being that given the choice between an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon and an America bingeing on unilateral military interventions, a significant portion of the globe would feel more comfortable with the former. We don't really know what the global balance of power will look like once a majority of nations identify their self-interest with opposing American interests. But we're sure to find out if we continue to strong-arm the Iran conflict towards a unilateral military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Astute Diplomatic Efforts

To get a sense of just why we urgently need to rethink our approach to dealing with Iran in general and its uranium enrichment program in particular, read Kaveh Afrasiabi 's two articles over at Asia Times Online: this one, which discusses the internal divisions within Iran on their uranium enrichment policy, and this one, which discusses this week's Caspian Sea regional summit. Here's a clip from the first article quoting Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former chief negotiator on the nuclear dossier:

Today in the international sphere we are confronted with more threats than ever before. A country's diplomacy is successful when it does not allow the enemy to bind to itself other countries against the national interests of that country ... We should not create opportunities for the expansion of enemies ... Unfortunately, our enemies are increasing. Yesterday, England was standing next to America, but today, France has heatedly joined the United States.

The problem, as Afrasiabi points out, is that Iran isn't actually doing that badly in the diplomatic arena:

...Rowhani's blistering criticisms coincided with a two-day visit by a high-ranking delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by the Deputy Director-General, Olli Heinonen, who met with the Iranian officials and fine tuned the recent Iran-IAEA agreement pertaining to nuclear transparency and the timetable to resolve "outstanding questions" regarding the chronology of Iran's centrifuges.

Pointing to this agreement as well as the UN Security Council's inability to impose further sanctions in light of opposition by Russia and China, and Putin's much-anticipated planned visit to Tehran next week irrespective of the loud American objections to such a visit, Ahmadinejad's supporters have questioned the wisdom, let alone timing, of Rowhani's criticisms.

Now members of Ahmadinejad's parliamentary majority are calling for legal action against opposition members practicing "parallel diplomacy". In other words, Iran's diplomatic successes are making it easier to target opponents of Ahmadinejad's belligerent approach. And that was before this week's Caspian Region summit meeting, whose most significant outcome was a strengthening of the Russian-Iranian strategic re-alignment:

How did this summit come about? The answer is, first and foremost, by astute diplomatic efforts on Iran's part and, equally, by a strategic evolution of Russia's foreign policy that is no longer self-handicapped by prioritizing tactical or conjunctural interests above strategic ones.

Having reached this level, Moscow is now poised to enter into a new strategic relationship with Iran that will serve the geostrategic, security, and other shared interests of both nations...

A major achievement for Iran's diplomacy and particularly for Amadinejad's embattled foreign policy team, the "good news" summit will likely serve as the hinge that opens new breathing space for Iran's diplomacy, and not just toward the Caspian, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Iran's Persian Gulf policy is also bound to benefit from the improved image of Iran in the Middle East, making more attractive Iran's role as a corridor to Central Asia which the Arab world in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in particular can take advantage of in their external trade and energy policies...

To summarize Afrasiabi's main points, there's been a pretty dramatic shift in momentum over the past few weeks on the Iranian nuclear standoff. France's adoption of the American hardline position backfired, alienating both Russia and China. Now Putin is pretty clearly throwing his weight behind Iran. He'll need to show that he can get some concessions from Tehran, ie. a reasonable bargaining position with the IAEA. But Iran has already shown signs of moving in that direction.

The big question now is whether American diplomacy can prove itself as shrewd and adaptive as Iranian diplomacy. And if you're wondering, no, I never thought I'd see the day where that question wasn't the punchline to a Monty Python sketch either. Worse still, having boxed itself into a militaristic corner, the Bush administration doesn't exactly inspire optimism on the answer.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putin & The Mullahs Redux

Matthew Yglesias is correct to argue that we ought to take Russia's relationship with Iran -- and its interest in deterring any strike on Iran's Russian-built nuclear energy program -- very seriously. But I'm not sure about his suggestion that Putin would just hand over the plans for a bomb or two in a fit of post-strike diplomatic pique. In fact, Russia's got plenty of reasons to consider the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran with something less than enthusiasm.

To begin with, while the Bush administration's claims that Iran might develop a missile capacity to reach the American mainland are preposterous, Russia could one day very conceivably find itself threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon. More immediately, an Iranian bomb would likely set off a regional nuclear arms race. Given Russia's history with Islamic insurgents in Chechnya, the idea of widespread proliferation in the Muslim world is not a particularly comforting one.

So while Russia, and a good part of the world, will very likely be majorly ticked off should we go ahead and unilaterally bomb Iran's nuclear program, I don't think that will play out as the nuclear weapons equivalent of a food drive for Tehran. On the other hand, it will make cobbling together a longterm containment and deterrent strategy significantly more difficult.

Update: Both Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan have now signed on to Yglesias' interpretation of Putin's declaration. Odd. There are plenty of sound arguments against a unilateral strike against Iran. But to suggest that the Russians will hand over a nuclear weapon to Tehran in response to such an attack doesn't seem like one of them. The reason we did not have to disarm a nuclear Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, etc. is because the Russians did not share their nuclear weapons technology with them. And those countries formed a regional strategic military alliance at the heart of Russian national defense doctrine for more than forty years. By contrast, Russia's bonds with Iran are based on short-term tactical considerations and economic interest, hardly the basis for a nuclear kiss. Putin's threat is a combination of posturing and a warning that he can make things difficult for us. That alone is plenty.

Update 2: Ezra Klein has now added some water to the Kool Aid before tossing it back. Guys, nobody just gives away nuclear weapons. Desperately isolated states (ie. North Korea) sell them, as do desperately greedy individuals (ie. AQ Khan). A uni-lateral strike against Iran will certainly make it more difficult to use diplomacy to stave off an eventual Iranian second push for nuclear capacity, thereby locking us into a cycle of military intervention. But no one's going to just hand over the atomic goody bag to Tehran just to get back at us.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putin & The Mullahs

Next time you hear about Iran belonging to a global movement intent on "collapsing" western powers and installing a worldwide Islamic caliphate, keep this in mind. Putin's Russia, remember, is not only a secular regional power. It has also brutally suppressed an Islamic insurgency in Chechnya for the past decade. Yet that hasn't stopped him from establishing a pretty solid working relationship with the "irresponsible" and "unreliable" mullahs in Tehran.

America's conflict with Iran has everything to do with regional strategic interests, and very little to do with Islamic fanaticism. It's just easier (for both sides) to use the latter to mobilize the base.

Update: Click "Publish", find related article. From The Economist:

What did Iranís leaders see when they looked into Vladimir Putinís eyes? Apparently somebody to do business with. As outsiders watched carefully for signs of Russiaís intentions regarding Iranís nuclear programme, Mr Putin arrived in Tehran, Iranís capital, and appeared to show support for the countryís nuclear efforts. ďThe Iranians are co-operating with Russian nuclear agencies and the main objectives are peaceful objectivesĒ, he said.

The article goes on to identify Russia's reasons for not wanting to see a nuclear-armed Iran. But the takeaway is that twenty years after the revolution, the Iranians are businessmen at heart. The only thing that sustains the firebrands is a bellicose rival threatening their sovereignty.

Negotiating is only a sign of weakness if you are indeed weak (ie. Chamberlain in Munich). Not only does it do no harm to talk things over when you've got the strength to stand by your bargaining position. It also undermines the position of diehards on the other side of the table, whose power depends on demonizing you to their base.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Politics   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What Comes Before Alarm?

A few weeks ago, British and Norwegian fighter jets scrambled to escort Russian bombers that had breached NATO airspace. Now, NORAD is reporting that American and Candian jets scrambled seven times this summer due to increased Russian air activity near its Alasaka region. The training exercises, which were announced ahead of time in the Russian press and involved heavy bombers, never came closer than 12 miles of American airspace and, according to a NORAD spokesman, are no cause for alarm. But they just might be cause for wondering what the hell is going on in Vladimir Putin's cranium these days.

Update: I'm beginning to think that the very act of clicking the "Publish" button on a post automatically generates a related news item somewhere else on the tubes, but I just came across this alternative take on the Russian training flights. According to the commander in charge of NORAD, the Russian bombers are a major pain in the ass and big-time waste of money because NORAD is forced to scramble jets to investigate every time an unidentified blip shows up on the radar. All of that could be reduced, if not eliminated, if the Russians would file flight plans for their training runs. But despite repeated requests to current and former Russian air commanders, they've yet to comply.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Options On The Table

With the Bush administration planning to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, and with the US military increasingly singling out Iran as the principle troublemaker in Iraq, it would be easy to mistake the US-Iran conflict for a one-on-one affair. Of course, that would be to ignore the other players involved, most immediately Israel and the Arab states of the Middle East, all of whom have vested interests in the containment of Iran's regional ambitions.

But there are wider, non-regional interests at stake, and it should come as no surprise that these hinge upon energy considerations. Take, for example, the recent deal signed between Iran and Turkey to construct a pipeline to provide natural gas to the European market. At a time when the US is desperately trying to isolate Iran, American strategic goals run headlong into those of our allies. Namely, the need for the EU to diversify its energy suppliers, thereby reducing its dependence on Russian natural gas. So at a time when we should be consolidating our alliances and trying to weaken those of Iran, our policies run the risk of doing just the opposite.

The problem with the Bush administration hawks who want to confront Iran militarily isn't whether they're right or wrong on the merits of their case against Tehran. (Iran's intentions are impossible to know for sure, and even less possible to predict into the future.) It's whether they've realistically assessed the potential for success.

Munich, 1936 has become the common refrain for those advocating an attack. But while Chamberlain need not have left those meetings with a worthless agreement, no more could he have realistically confronted Hitler's aggression militarily at that time. In other words, a military option with no realistic chance of success is not a real option.

On the other hand, the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline could easily serve as a wedge to weaken Russia's support of the Iranian nuclear energy program. In response to the deal, Russia has already announced that it won't supply any gas to Turkey beyond the amount they've contracted for, as they did just last winter. With Iranian gas production lagging far behind their reserves, that could leave Turkey -- and Europe -- feeling this winter's bite. And that's an option that might prove more effective than any military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Monday, July 16, 2007


A Belarus state security official has announced the arrest of a Polish spy ring that had been gathering classified information on Belarus and Russian air and missile defense systems. Now maybe I'm underestimating the strike capabilities of the Polish Air Force, but something tells me that Warsaw wasn't necessarily the final destination for the information the Poles were intent on gathering.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Russia   

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Russian Humor

The Russian army chief's advice to Poles in the event they go through with plans to house an American missile defense system? Buy gas masks.

On a more serious note, he explains that Russian concerns about the system have more to do with future upgrades, and the way it fits into a global deployment that the Russians see as effectively encircling them, than with the system as it is currently proposed. 

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Spears And Shields

No sooner did I click publish on that last post than I ran across this article on a proposed American-Japanese ABM system in the People's Daily Online. The system is meant to counter the N. Korean nuclear threat, but that hasn't stopped the Chinese from getting bent out of shape about it. Said Jin Linbo, a scholar with the China Institute of International Studies:

"We cannot regard it as a defensive system just because that's what it is called... Since ancient times both spears and shields have been regarded as weapons in Chinese culture - because shields can make spears useless..."

The Bush-Putin catfight isn't the story. The story is that we need to find a way to address the issue of rogue nuclear proliferation without undermining the concept that's served as the basis of nuclear deterrant for the past fifty years.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Russia   

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Friday, June 8, 2007

It's No Longer A Mad, Mad, Mad World

This past weekend, there was a medieval festival in the small village where I live in the South of France. And boys being boys, one of the demonstrations that the Lil' Feller and I spent the most time at was the catapult and cannon exhibit. Lined up side by side, the weapons really brought to life the way in which slow advances in technology expanded the range of our ability to project deadly force. (Or in this case, water balloons. But you get the idea.)

These were simple machines, at first disposable, later more sturdy, that became steadily more accurate and deadly. But it was a process -- of practical needs and technical progress driving design advances -- that lasted centuries. As a result, strategy and tactics had plenty of time to adapt to the new conditions on the battlefield.

Contrast that to the introduction of the atomic bomb in 1945, and the subsequent proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. Within a matter of years, our collective destructive capacity accelerated exponentially until it achieved exit velocity. For the first time in history, humanity could not afford to learn the uses of its new arsenal through trial and error.

In retrospect, the greatest achievement of the generation that introduced the Bomb was the strategy it developed immediately afterwards to contain the consequences of its newfound technological capabilities: Mutually Assured Destruction. The counter-intuitive genius of M.A.D. lay in the notion that the surest way to prevent a nuclear launch was to guarantee that the risks always outweighed the potential benefits.

Which explains why anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems were considered so dangerous. By introducing the possibility of surviving a nuclear launch, they undermined the logic of MAD.

As I've mentioned before, the entire dust-up between the Bush administration and Vladimir Putin over the proposed American ABM system based in Poland and Czechoslovakia is a bit mysterious. On the one hand, it's an untested system to counter a non-existent threat. On the other, the idea that ten missile interceptors could seriously inhibit a Russian launch is farfetched.

Putin's opposition may be more posturing than real concern. But in its rush to dismiss it out of hand, the Bush administration has ignored the ways in which, by its very nature, the proposed system violates the logic of MAD. If the only way for Russia to overwhelm the system is to adopt a massive launch strategy, it creates a situation that amplifies the consequences of error and misunderstandings.

By the way, the proposed American system isn't the only example of MAD's recent decline as a guiding principle of nuclear deterrance. According to a recent analysis, the Chinese have begun to deploy nuclear and conventional warheads on the same class of missiles, greatly increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear conflict.

The Cold War might be over, but the doctrine that helped us survive it still serves an important purpose. There's no question that rogue states and global terrorism have created new challenges for nuclear deterrance. But those challenges demand a strategic response that enhances our security. Not an impulsive one that diminishes it.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Russia   

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

What's All The Fuss About?

The whole dustup between Moscow and Washington about the proposed anti-missile interceptors to be based in Poland and Czechoslovakia keeps getting less and less comprehensible. On the one hand, the Bush administration is in a hurry to pour cement on a still unproven missile defense system in order to counter an even more unproven Iranian ICBM threat. On the other, the Russians have thrown a Cold War-worthy hissy fit, complete with threatened counter-measures and unilaterally abrogated treaties, over a measly ten interceptor silos, despite a nuclear stockpile comprising hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads. Luckily, the Democratic Congress is about to pull the plug on the funds needed to actually pour the damn silos, otherwise we might have had a full-blown catfight on our hands.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Idle Gossip?

For whatever it's worth, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti has a breaking story on its French language page quoting a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying, "Our conversations with American counterparts don't give any reason to expect..." an American attack on Iran tonight. Which is consistent with what official spokesmen in the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have been saying since anonymous "Russian military intelligence" sources started floating the rumors of an April 6 attack last week.

On the other hand, it isn't quite a denial.

It's 3 am my time, and the attack is supposedly going to be launched at 4. So you all will know whether it goes down before I will, cuz I'm about to hit the sack.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

There's Room On This Planet For The Two Of Us

Call it age, or maybe it's the consequences of fatherhood. But despite my fascination with and natural inclination towards apocalyptic and worst-case scenarios, I'm willing to acknowledge that this is a very good sign. The Russians have apparently decided to use the yet-to-be-delivered fuel for the nuclear reactor they've built for Tehran as a bargaining chip in the uranium enrichment dispute.

My guess is that this is the payoff for the Bush administration's recent decision to take Russia's concerns over the planned Eastern European missile defense system seriously. Which is to say, it's striking what a little bit of good old-fashioned diplomacy can accomplish.

Update: The Russian National Security Council has apparently denied the link between the fuel delivery and the uranium enrichment program, saying,

"The allegations made in The New York Times that Russia delivered an ultimatum during Russian-Iranian consultations March 12 in Moscow have no relation to reality."

I still think a deal went down, based on this article from a few weeks ago, and that a gag rule was part of the agreement.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

Putin's Dead Critics

Not too long ago, reader RGM linked to this New Yorker article in the comments. It discusses the increasing frequency with which Russian journalists who are critical of Vladimir Putin or his policies wind up dead. Thirteen since 2000, to be exact, with the circumstances ranging from suspicious to contract-style.

Add another one to the suspicious category.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Russia   

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Monday, March 5, 2007

The Squeaky Wheel

Looks like Vladimir Putin's harsh words in Munich last month got some results. Which means that in the past week, the Bush administration has:

  1. Decided to negotiate with the N. Koreans;
  2. Agreed to join Iran and Syria in a regional conference about Iraq;
  3. Begun to actually treat Russia like the global power it is.

You'd almost get the feeling they're toying with the idea of re-joining the reality-based community. Seriously, though, what goes through your head when the collective delusion wears off and you realize that you very nearly brought the whole house of cards down?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Russia   

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The End Of The Bubble

I talked yesterday about how the tactics being applied in Iraq, ie. Clear and Move On, will become America's regional strategy in the event of a war with Iran. All it takes is a look at the ways in which the geo-political landscape has been altered over the past six years to understand why it won't work.

In January 2001, the United States was an often resented, but widely admired and respected superpower wielding a historically unprecedented global influence. Rightly or wrongly, we occupied a perceived position of moral leadership among the global community, which when coupled with our economic, diplomatic and military power made our involvement decisive in every continent.

Russia was too busy shaking down the oligarchs who had made off with all of the Soviet Union's industrial infrastructure and most of the Western world's capital infusion to spend much time on projecting its power abroad. China, while a looming economic giant, seemed fatally compromised by its abysmal human rights record to ever be more than a regional power. Chavez had his hands full holding onto power in Venezuela. And Iran was constrained to the role of regional troublemaker and spoiler in the Middle East.

If America faced a potential threat to its position of global hegemon, it was the prospect of an increasingly integrated and assertive European Union trying to contest it on the international stage.

Fast forward six years to January 2007...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   Russia   

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

No More Mr. Bad Guy

You know the story about the ruthless terrorists who've gotten their hands on a rusting nuclear warhead that the Russians have lost track of? You know. They made a movie about it. Every three months. For the past fifteen years.

Well, it looks like Hollywood's going to have to update its plot templates. From a rundown of Russia's program to renovate its Army:

As for long-term prospects, the 2007-2015 State Armament Program, due to receive almost 5,000 billion rubles ($188.68 billion, or Euro 145.35 billion), stipulates for a complete re-equipment of Russia's strategic nuclear forces. The Defense Ministry plans to commission 34 silo-based missile launchers and command centers and 66 mobile Topol-M ICBM systems, as well as to increase the number of strategic bombers.

Betting pool for Hollywood's next generic villain now open. I say North Korea, with Venezuela as a darkhorse.

Posted by Judah in:  Russia   

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