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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

A. Kurkin ,Tale of the Golden Cockerel, Alexander Pushkin tale illustration, 1968. Via Soviet Postcards.

A. Kurkin, Tale of the Golden Cockerel, Alexander Pushkin tale illustration, 1968. Via Soviet Postcards.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

Bernardo Aparicio García reflects on Netflix’s new series Narcos and growing up in Colombia during the violence-racked 1980s and early 1990s.

At Americas Quarterly, Matias Spektor reviews how diplomacy and personal trust amongst national leaders helped shutter Argentina and Brazil’s nuclear weapons programs.

Economic challenges and frustrated electorates are ending an era where Latin American leaders and their anointed successors were reelected again and again, Brian Winter argues.

Miriam Berger reports from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where government-funded American students travel to learn Persian. The Tajik language is similar to Persian – “except after 60 years under Russian rule, Tajiks pepper their talk with Russian and write using Cyrillic letters instead of Arabic” – but the city offers students few opportunities to interact with Iranians. However, studying in Iran is off limits for many students: ““At some point I’m going to have to get a security clearance, so going to Iran wasn’t still too much of an option,” says one.

From a security standpoint these concerns may be justified, but are also a barrier to building deep regional expertise within US agencies. “Organizations like the Foreign Service and the Central Intelligence Agency have a deep institutional prejudice against their employees ‘going native,’ rotating officers every two or three years to avoid someone’s becoming too identified with local interests and cultures,” CIA veteran Philip Giraldi wrote in a 2013 American Conservative piece. This bias against deep regional knowledge is compounded by an institutional wariness of potential recruits “who possess the language skills and cultural awareness that would enable them to operate in areas where most CIA case officers dare not tread, which means they are mostly first- and second-generation Muslim Americans.”

Relatedly, Berger looks at the food scene among the Afghan diaspora in Dushanbe.

Hilary Matfess challenges a recent Bloomberg feature on the “ungoverned world” (via Kevin Baron). This framing, Matfess writes, “ignores the extant order–however perverse it may be–that communities under rebel control are subjected to. These spaces are not ‘ungoverned,’ they are ‘alternatively governed.'” José C. Contreras has a similar critique.

Marc Parry profiles economists Dani Rodrik and Pinar Dogan’s investigation into an aborted coup the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan alleges was planned by Turkey’s military elite. Given Turkey’s history of military coups many Turkish liberals refused to accept the possibility that the plot, and subsequent high-profile trials and convictions of leading officers, was a fraud – an allegation that Erdoğan’s increasingly blatant authoritarianism makes difficult to ignore. (Via Yelena Nana.)

Relatedly, Borzou Daragahi reports on People’s Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtaş, days before key elections in Turkey.

Lant Pritchett discusses how the UN’s Millennium Development Goals don’t, in Rachel Strohm’s words, ” match the policy priorities of people from low income countries.”

From June, Owen Hatherley visits Moscow’s industrial housing – “where homes would become mass-produced commodities like cars, fridges and TVs” – which offers a fascinating history of Soviet urban planning. Opulent construction ordered by Stalin was totally insufficient to meet the USSR’s housing crisis, and later industrial housing project ranged from a flagship “instant prefabricated community” to mass-produced “sleeping districts.”

An older Tyler Rogoway piece examines the Soviet Union’s ambitious Alfa-class fast attack submarine, and a 1993 report by Gerhardt Thamm sheds light on how American intelligence analysts investigated puzzling reports of the highly advanced, unorthodox Soviet submarine. In particular, the Alfa’s crew escape pod challenged Western assumptions that the Soviets had a low regard for human life.

Thomas F. Schaller examines the structural factors in the American political system that favor Republicans, including the overrepresentation of small states in Congress, the geographic concentration of Democratic voters, and certain procedural rules, as well as how majority of state and local elections are scheduled off the presidential election cycle (via Ed Kilgore).

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian collects Chinese citizens’ reactions to the move to end the country’s brutal one-child policy (latter via Garance Franke-Ruta).

Why Does Brazil Want a Nuclear-Powered Attack Submarine?

By Taylor Marvin

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

Dilma Rousseff speaking in 2014. Agência Brasil photo by Tânia Rêgo.

In August, the Brazilian site DefesaNet reported that despite recent budget cuts developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine remains a priority for Brazil’s navy. Amid a stumbling economy the Brazilian Navy’s budget was reduced from R$ 5.2 to R$3.9 billion, or roughly $1.3 and $1 billion in US dollars. “The first step is establishing clear priorities, which are the nuclear and submarine construction program, besides maintaining our operational squadron,” Navy commander Admiral* Eduardo Bacellar said during a senate commission event. “For the Navy commander, any threat to Brazilian sovereignty would necessarily come from the sea,” DefesaNet’s report continues, and the Navy’s stated goal of “keeping the South Atlantic free of conflicts” includes defending Brazil’s offshore petroleum resources. [My translation.]

Under current plans Brazil will build four diesel-electric attack submarines and a single much larger nuclear-powered submarine (Submarino com Propulsão Nuclear, or SN-BR); the first conventionally-powered submarine is expected to be completed in 2017. (It is important to distinguish between nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines, the latter of which are often powered by nuclear reactors. Brazil does not possess nuclear weapons.) These submarines are being developed with French assistance and are based on the French Scorpène class, though France is not sharing nuclear technology (see a comparison of the conventional and nuclear-powered submarines at Think Defense). As Defense Industry Daily reports, French technical cooperation will allow Brazilian firms to grow their own advanced manufacturing capabilities. This industrial development is a key goal of the program, as is job creation. While Brazil could have easily purchased the conventional submarines from established suppliers abroad, building the submarines in Brazil is an important aim of the project. The nuclear submarine is slated to begin construction in 2016 and to enter operational service 2025. (This date is now unlikely; see update below.)Though details are uncertain, later on Brazil hopes to build additional nuclear-powered subs.

By far the most complex aspect of the submarine project – which abbreviated as PROSUB – is Brazil’s effort to develop submarine nuclear propulsion. Many navies operate conventional attack submarines, and while building these boats is difficult enough developing the compact nuclear reactor required to power a nuclear submarine is a formidable undertaking. Brazil has operated a civil nuclear power station since the 1980s and covertly pursued nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, but the country is not a leading expert in the nuclear power sector. Combined with a relative paucity of funding, this technical inexperience has contributed to the nuclear propulsion effort’s long history: in tandem with its stumbling efforts to develop nuclear weapons Brazil first embarked on the development of a maritime nuclear reactor in 1979, while funding the nuclear submarine’s construction was first announced by President Luíz Inácio da Silva in 2007.

Developing a nuclear-powered submarine is an enormously difficult and uncertain enterprise with no assurances of success: only China, France, India, Russia, the UK, and US have done so. Given these barriers, why is the Brazilian Navy so focused on building one? As a 2009 Proceedings article by Paul D. Taylor explains (via Defense Industry Daily) “the answer is apparently more related to political and economic factors associated with grand strategy than to requirements of naval strategy.” Brazil is developing a nuclear submarine because it aspires to join – and importantly be recognized among – the ranks of the global leaders that can field a particularly formidable, expensive, and prestigious class of military technology.

Brazil aspires to be a world power, an aspiration justified in Brazilian eyes by the country’s large population, continental size, maturing democracy, cultural soft power, and regional leadership. Naval power, specifically extending Brazilian influence across the South Atlantic, is a key path towards realizing Brazil’s global aspirations. As Nathan Thompson and Robert Muggah recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Brazil has coupled soft-power initiatives with a dramatic boost in military cooperation with Africa, conducting joint naval exercises, providing military training and arms transfers, and establishing outposts in ports across the continent’s western coast.” Oliver Stuenkel also notes the importance of the South Atlantic in Brazilian strategic thought, which is expressed in the phrase Amazônia Azul or “Blue Amazon.” “Analogous to Brazil’s growing role on the [African] continent,” Stuenkel wrote in 2013, Brazil “is bound to play a larger role in the South Atlantic … and it has resisted attempts made by Europe and the United States … to create one single Atlantic Space.”

The Brazilian Navy sees the SN-BR as a vital component of the country’s overall maritime strategy. An attack submarine’s core mission is destroying enemy warships and shipping and hunting other submarines (and, to a lesser extent, launching land attack cruise missiles). While the advent of advanced air-independent propulsion schemes have eroded nuclear-powered submarines’ advantages over their conventional peers, nuclear-powered attack submarines are able sustain much higher speeds when submerged and patrol longer distances, a key advantage given Brazil’s 7,000 kilometers of coastline.

But as Taylor notes, none of the then-stated strategic rationales for a Brazilian nuclear submarine – protecting offshore oil platforms and patrolling Brazil’s Exclusive Economic Zone – seem justifiable: the SN-BR’s costs make little sense given that Brazil has no external enemies. Clearly, other aims are at work.

Brazilian officials justify PROSUB by citing the need to deter potential aggressors and protect Brazil’s offshore resources. This maritime patrimony or “Blue Amazon” is even referenced in the name of the government-owned consortium responsible for the nuclear sub project, Amazul. As Taylor notes, the “Blue Amazon” metaphor is a deliberate public relations strategy. Throughout their history Brazilians have often described the vast Amazon as the resource that makes their country exceptional, but also one that is threatened by outside forces. “The Brazilian elite, especially the military, had long worried that their country might lose the Amazon valley for want of settling it,” Thomas E. Skidmore writes in The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, discussing the military dictatorship’s ill-advised attempt to open the Amazon basin to agriculture. “Generations of Brazilian army cadets had been taught the Amazon’s geopolitical significance; now as officers they feared possible Peruvian or Venezuelan incursions into Brazil’s vasty but thinly held territory upriver. This worry deepened as the Amazon’s extraordinary mineral wealth – especially iron ore – became known.” Importantly, exactly who threatens the Amazon is unimportant: earlier generations feared America’s tentacles reaching south into the Amazon, rumors that improbably persist into the 21st century. By invoking these fears the Brazilian Navy’s use of the phrase Amazônia Azul suggests – and, importantly, advocates – both the importance of Brazil’s maritime resources and their vulnerability. While it is difficult to say who threatens Brazil’s offshore resources, the Amazônia Azul metaphor creates a narrative where someone does.

In this narrative submarines are required to defend Brazil’s maritime patrimony, and the immediate impracticality of a modern submarine force is irrelevant. As Stuenkel dryly notes “specialists are unsure how nuclear submarines are useful” in the context of defending offshore resources, but despite the rhetoric that justifies their development are in service of a larger goal. “Rather, the development of nuclear submarines can be seen as a long-term project to eventually gain the capacity to control the South Atlantic strategically.” Extended across the Atlantic, Amazônia Azul’s defensive rhetoric becomes, implicitly, an offensive sea denial strategy, at least in theory.

Beyond their role in war and deterrence value, the existence – or more importantly, development – of submarines plays a pivotal role in Brazil’s ambitions. Advanced submarines, and particularly nuclear-powered submarines, are an important source of national prestige. Brazil’s aspirations to global influence and long-standing desire for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council make it keenly aware how possessing prestige symbols can further these goals. Nuclear submarines are restricted to a select club which includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a fact President Rousseff explicitly referenced in her December 2014 inauguration of the facility where the submarine’s reactor will be installed. (Rousseff skirted around India’s ongoing development of a nuclear submarine, which is both convenient – India also seeks a permanent UNSC seat – and inconvenient for this narrative.) Additionally, and again as Taylor writes, fielding a nuclear submarine “would add an argument to the case that [Brazil] so far exceeds the strength of its regional neighbors that it is a natural choice” for an expanded Security Council, though as Stuenkel notes “Brazil has rarely used its dominant role in South America as the basis for its claim to global leadership.” Even so, this dynamic is not that different from aircraft carriers – and today Brazil is the only Latin American country to operate (in theory, given its uncertain reliability) an aircraft carrier of its own, though Brazil’s naval fighter aircraft are ancient.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

A Scorpène-class submarine. Photo by Wikimedia user Outisnn.

Brazil has also pursued nuclear technology for decades, demonstrating a deep desire to be seen belonging to the elite club of states proficient in nuclear energy. Brazil sought to develop nuclear weapons before voluntarily giving up its nuclear ambitions through a series of diplomatic accords. The country generates a small portion of its electricity from nuclear power, though not without setbacks; the country’s unreliable civil nuclear power plant was nicknamed the “firefly” in the 1980s for its flickering output. With developing nuclear weapons now both undesirable and politically unavailable, in national prestige terms militarized nuclear energy – maritime reactors – is the next best thing. “The domination of nuclear technology is seen as a national symbol of pride and proof that Brazil is no longer a developing country,” Stuenkel writes of a nuclear submarine. While a nuclear reactor could power a future aircraft carrier or amphibious assault ship (or any other large surface ship, if cost-effectiveness isn’t considered) in modern US service only submarines and supercarriers steam under nuclear power. (Brazil’s São Paulo carrier, formerly the French Foch, is conventionally powered.) If Brazil prizes nuclear status and an attack submarine is the most plausible rational for achieving this distinction then the SN-BR program is the justification for developing and fielding militarized nuclear energy, not the other way around.

Beyond its immediate military justifications and wider role as a status symbol, questions about the SN-BR’s value remain. Every real spent on the nuclear submarine is funding that cannot be spent elsewhere. Is the expensive effort to develop the SN-BR the best means of expanding Brazil power across the South Atlantic?

After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine prompted France to cancel the planned sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, Robert Farley speculated that these ships – which are capable of launching dozens of helicopters and landing marines onshore – could be purchased by Brazil to supplement the country’s aging aircraft carrier. While this sale was never likely and the Mistrals were recently bought by a Gulf-backed Egypt, the Mistrals arguably fit far better into Brazil’s South Atlantic-spanning strategy aspirations than an expensive homegrown nuclear-powered submarine.

While Brazil’s global aspirations have stalled under the inward-facing and distracted Rousseff administration, the South Atlantic and Africa is likely to remain an important focus of Brazil’s long-term strategic vision. Amphibious assault ships are relevant to this vision – which, importantly, given Brazil’s lack of peer rivals is more a peaceful one of security assistance rather than outright sea denial – in a way submarines are not. Versatile flattops can project airpower, contribute to disaster relief and amphibious operations, and provide a highly visible symbol of Brazilian power. While not directly referencing Brazil’s South Atlantic priorities, Farley emphasizes this point: unlike the aging São Paulo carrier, amphibious assault ships “can increase Brazil’s regional influence not merely by existing, but also by doing things on a daily basis.” They have the same advantage over submarines.

In some ways the submarine project, and especially Brazil’s efforts to develop nuclear propulsion, is a holdover from a more hopeful era: it is difficult to imagine the beleaguered Rousseff administration embarking the program today. Similarly, the decision to tie Brazil’s prestige and global ambitions to advanced submarines rather acquiring amphibious assault ships or other markers of national power rests on decisions taken decades ago, when the Brazil first embarked on its nuclear weapons and energy programs. And of course, the chance to purchase the Mistrals was an unpredictable one-off opportunity that would have been difficult to manage even if Brazil was interested.

Actually building the nuclear-powered submarine will be difficult and is likely to face technical problems and funding shortages, particularly given Brazil’s current economic slump. But despite these strategic questions and practical challenges Brazil has committed itself to realizing PROSUB’s ambitions. Whether the program will bring Brazil the influence and prestige it seeks remains to be seen.

*Naval ranks translated into US equivalents with the help of Wikipedia.

Update (11/30/2015): As O Globo reported on November 11th (via Poder Naval), budget cuts have now delayed the expected nuclear submarine schedule by three to four years. I have not updated the 2025 service entry date included in the original text, both as a reference and since in Brazil’s economic climate this new target remains uncertain.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Illustration from Stanley Lane-Poole's "Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt," 1883. Based on work by Harry Fenn. Via Wikimedia.

Illustration from Stanley Lane-Poole’s “Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt,” 1883. Based on work by Harry Fenn. Via Wikimedia.

Stories I enjoyed this week:

Karla Zabludovsky reports from a small town in the Mexican state of Michoacán where self-defense militias, many dressed in camouflage uniforms bearing the flag of their indigenous community, disarmed police and chased away illegal loggers. But the town’s new governance isn’t universally popular, and barred voting in statewide elections in the town.

Jason Margolis on Bogotá’s stop-gap transit solution – buses in dedicated lanes, all while awaiting a hoped-for but expensive subway.

Charlie Jane Anders profiles the history of the international, and luckily fading, movement doubting the link between HIV and AIDS. Tragically, when scientists discovered the link between the virus and disease the LGBTQ community’s justifiable distrust of abusive state and institutional figures had lethal consequences. “We weren’t denialists,” Anders quotes one activist, speaking about the 1980s. “We just didn’t fucking trust anybody.”

On Twitter, Kelsey D. Atherton praised an April piece by Gregory D. Johnsen on CIA Director John Brennan’s close relationship with Barack Obama and the path towards “endless drone war.”

In Germany, activists opposed to the arms trade are attempting to draw a link between weapons exports and Europe’s refugee crisis. While of course directly attributing Middle Eastern conflicts to Germany’s arms business is wrong, the message may catch on among the public: “Germany delivered nearly 13 million euros in weapons to Syria between 2002 and 2013 – mainly tanks, chemical agents and small arms.”

Timothy Hoyt attempts to explain Obama’s Middle East strategy while rejecting accusations that Obama is unable to take sensible advice to abandon the region. Instead, Obama’s apparent mix of attention and neglect can instead be seen as a prudent response to the real limitations of both US interests and leverage. “The objective of strategy, after all, is to calibrate available resources to achieve political aims; and if those aims are overly ambitious, like fixing a broken Syria or ending Sunni–Shi’a conflict, or are ill-suited to our available means or public support, we may find ourselves bankrupt when threats to more significant interests arise.”

At Reuters, Ned Parker investigates the Iraqi state’s waning power compared to overtly sectarian paramilitaries. “Most young Shi’ite Iraqi men now prefer to join the paramilitary groups, which are seen as braver and less corrupt” than the regular military, Parker writes.

Also at Reuters, Maria Tsvetkova, Christian Lowe, and Olga Dzyubenko speak with veterans of the USSR’s shadowy history in the Middle East.

The Iranian government’s intelligence thugs harass and imprison the American-Iranian journalists who attempt to explain Iran to the world because, writes Azadeh Moaveni from experience, they “have an ideological vision of Iran’s future that requires continued isolation” (via Scott Peterson and Azadeh Moaveni).

Ryan McMahon on Justin Trudeau’s victory and Indigenous rights in Canada (via Mannfred Nyttingnes).

I’ve been working my way through the archives at Roads & Kingdomsand Nick Ashdown’s 2014 story on Istanbul’s last, dying Greek paper is very affecting.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Arturo Michelena, "Miranda en La Carraca," 1896. Via Wikimedia.

Arturo Michelena, “Miranda en La Carraca,” 1896. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Police violence against Black Americans is a human rights crisis, and one I believe would get more attention and sympathy from US elites if it was happening abroad (via Shaun King). Relatedly, a thought-provoking exchange on crime, racism, and the drug war: “Racism gave us a feeling of carte blanche to live outside the laws of society, or so we thought” (via Jamil Smith).

What happens if you’re mugged in Mexico City and go to the police (via Boz).

On the wave of violence in East Jerusalem: Vice has an worthwhile series of video reports (which casually claim that it is a third intifada). Academic commenters at Political Violence @ a Glance examine the causes of the recent upswing in violence. Sheera Frenkel reports on the pervasive fear within Israeli and Palestinian communities.

Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer and Olivier Schmitt look at France’s renewed enthusiasm for military interventions. They suggest that after the end of the Cold War France’s desire to preserve its global status and influence vis à vis emerging economic powers like Japan prompted it to turn to the “competitive advantage” of military prowess, “which it thus needed to demonstrate.”

Branko Milanovic comments on why elites in the developed world care more about poverty abroad than within their own countries (via Patrick Iber).

How history vanishes from the internet (via Alexandra Garcia and Anup Kaphle).

Russia’s Carrier Is Unlikely to Make a Difference in the Syrian War

By Taylor Marvin

The Admiral Kuznetsov in 1966. US DoD photo, via Wikimedia.

The Admiral Kuznetsov in 1996. US DoD photo, via Wikimedia.

Today rumors surfaced that the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia’s only aircraft carrier, would be sent to Syria to support the Russian forces assisting Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered regime (via Mark Mackinnon). A spokesperson for Russia’s Northern Fleet appeared to quickly deny the rumor, according to a report in the admittedly unreliable Russian Sputnik propaganda outlet. Though the Kuznetsov is probably not heading to Syria, it is possible that one day it will. Vladimir Putin seems to see Russia’s intervention in Syria as not only an operation prevent the fall of the Assad regime but also as an opportunity to flaunt Russia’s ability to conduct military operations beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. Deploying the Kuznetsov to Syria could be a highly visible status symbol, and potentially a tempting one. Imagine the howls from American journalists and politicians!

Even if the Kuznetsov is ever deployed to Syria, the ship is unlikely to significantly impact the war. First, the Admiral Kuznetsov faces significant reliability concerns that would complicate a combat mission off Syria. As David Axe reported in 2013, throughout its life the Kuznetsov has suffered from a string of accidents and mishaps. As of 2013, the Kuznetsov’s reliability was so poor that ocean-going tugboats accompanied the carrier on each of its short, sporadic deployments. An intended major refit scheduled from 2012 to 2017 never happened. If a mission to Syria is partially motivated by a desire to showcase Russian military capabilities, the Kuznetsov’s well-known reliability problems would be a particularly convincing reason to keep the ship home – especially after Western commentators gleefully mocked the recent failure of Russian Syria-bound cruise missiles.

Secondly, the Admiral Kuznetsov has never conducted combat operations. Carrier operations, particularly high-tempo strike missions, are an extremely complex logistical and operational dance, with lethal consequences for mistakes. Since the USSR and Russia has had little opportunity to build these skills, and none to test them in combat, any strike missions from the Kuznetsov would be limited and mostly for show.

Finally, the Kuznetsov itself was not designed for Syria-style power projection. Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union did not enthusiastically embrace aircraft carriers and their mission of projecting airpower from the sea. Since a major confrontation between NATO and Warsaw Pact would most likely take place in Europe, during the later Cold War Soviet planners focused on protecting the heavily defended “bastions” shielding their ballistic missile submarines* and not seaborne power projection. Accordingly, the Soviet Navy prioritized fielding formidable submarines, not multi-role surface ships and aircraft carriers. While the USSR became more interested in the ability to project naval power in the 1970s, Soviet surface ships remained optimized for destroying their NATO counterparts rather sea control.

Unsurprisingly, despite this logic Soviet admirals dreamed of fielding their own aircraft carriers to rival America’s, but the funding was never quite there. As Robin J. Lee documents, the USSR’s path towards fixed-wing carrier-borne naval aviation was a halting one with many half steps. Over decades the Soviet Union built a series of aircraft-carrying ships more and more dedicated to the naval aviation mission, culminating with the Admiral Kuznetsov and its uncompleted sister ship (which became China’s first aircraft carrier). More ambitious supercarriers to rival the US fleet were never built.

The Kuznetsov was deemed an “heavy aircraft-carrying cruiser” rather than an aircraft carrier, both to sidestep a treaty that forbids carriers from transiting from the Black Sea to Mediterranean and because its intended mission differed from that of American carriers. “According to Soviet doctrine,” Lee writes, “aviation cruisers were intended not to serve as the centerpiece of naval strike capability (as the USN regards its own carriers), but as a supporting element for other naval operations.” (Notably and unlike US carriers, the earlier Kiev and Admiral Kuznetsov classes sported a number of large anti-ship missiles, offensive armament that rivaled their air wings.) Also unlike American carriers, the Kuznetsov was not equipped with a powerful steam catapult; instead, aircraft take off with the aid of an inclined “ski-jump” ramp, which severely limits their takeoff weight. As Axe notes, the ship’s Sukhoi Su-33 fighters can only takeoff with a minimal weapons (mostly light air-to-air missiles) and fuel loads.

These constraints make the Kuznetsov much less versatile than an American supercarrier. It is difficult to see any prospective deployment to Syria as anything more than a risky stunt, as Dan Trombly noted on Twitter:

All this doesn’t mean that Putin won’t order the Kuznetsov to Syria; after all, there appears to have been no pressing need for Russia’s recent cruise missile strikes launched from the Caspian. It is possible that the Russian leadership will judge the prestige and experience upside from a successful deployment to be worth the cost and risk of embarrassing failure. But given the ship’s limitations, if the Kuznetsov goes to war it is unlikely to make a major difference in the course of the Syrian conflict.

*Update (11/18/2015): I altered this sentence to more accurately show that later Soviet naval strategy focused on defending ballistic missile submarine bastions rather than interdicting convoys and the US Navy in the Atlantic, which Robert Farley recently highlighted.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

James Rattray, 19th-century lithograph depicting royal Afghan soldiers, 1846. The British Library - Online Gallery via Wikimedia.

James Rattray, 19th-century lithograph depicting royal Afghan soldiers, 1846. The British Library – Online Gallery via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Andrew Lebovich has a fascinating post on the challenges of conducting historical research in Algeria.

Kate Bubacz collects photos from a violent week in Israel and Palestine.

Anna Edgerton Raymond Colitt read a shakeup of President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet as a sign of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s growing influence. Also in Brazil, justice and memory in the wake of the military dictatorship’s torturous war on leftist guerrillas (via Claire Rigby).

Elsewhere in Latin America, Nathaniel Parish Flannery talks to the Atlantic Council’s Peter Schechter about Chinese investment in the region.

James Traub on the crisis of UN peacekeeping: peacekeepers are increasingly placed in dangerous combat zones while “the European forces that once formed the backbone of many tough peacekeeping missions have vanished,” and in the words of a recent report “there is a clear sense of a widening gap between what is being asked of [U.N.] peace operations today and what they are able to deliver.” On a similar note, Séverine Autesserre catalogues how UN peacekeeping can go wrong (via FP Interrupted); the lack of local knowledge, expatriate staff turnover, and disconnect between peacebuilders and local communities Autesserre identifies is reminiscent of Rory Stewart’s chapter in the book Can Intervention Work?

Perhaps relatedly, Sarah Bush examines why Washington often supports American NGOs working abroad rather than local organizations, despite the risk of a perception of “foreign interference” and local knowledge deficits.

Ana Palacio has a fairly negative take on the emerging economies BRICS bloc’s political and economic influence (again via FP Interrupted). Oliver Stuenkel, who has based his career on both studying and predicting emerging economies’ rise, argued last month that the emerging world is likely to continue growing.

Joshua Foust on being gay in the national security community.

Civil asset forfeiture may be only one example of police abuses primarily directed at people of color – and a comparatively minor one, since it doesn’t kill – but it is egregious.

I enjoyed the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel Aurora – in particular the novel’s “big idea,” which can’t be discussed without spoilers – and enjoyed this spoiler-filled question and answer with the author at io9.

NATO Expansion and Faking Credibility

By Taylor Marvin

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Photo by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

Latvian soldiers train in Poland. US Army Europe image, by Polish army Master Sgt. Artur Zakrzewski. Via Wikimedia.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded to deter Soviet aggression, which Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Ukraine have again made its central task. Today two questions dominate NATO’s ability to perform this mission: what should the scope of NATO’s collective defense be – that is, should the alliance grow to include other European states threatened by Russia – and how credible is the mutual defense pact?

A recent column at the Washington Free Beacon by Matthew Continetti summarizes, admittedly in an extreme way, common fears about the alliance’s future (via Daniel Larison). “By the time President Obama leaves office in 2017,” Continetti predicts, “the NATO pledge of mutual defense in response to aggression will have been exposed as worthless. Objectively the alliance will have ceased to exist.” Barack Obama’s reluctance to aggressively counter Russian moves in Ukraine and Syria have made him Putin’s “ultimate patsy” and NATO’s reluctance to extend its security guarantee to Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade made both countries “open prey.” Continetti fears that Russia’s doctrine of coercing adversaries through misinformation and quickly establishing apparent facts on the ground – “reflexive control,” as Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan (citied by Continetti) and Maria Snegovaya write – coupled with Obama’s “weakness” would lead a dithering NATO to tacitly accept future Russian aggression in the Baltic states.

These are not unjustified concerns. However, they stem from structural weaknesses within the NATO alliance, weaknesses that the expansion Continetti endorses have and will worsen. This isn’t to say, as UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has implied, that the self-determination of Poles and Czechs is a just price to avoid provoking Russia – decades of Soviet oppression has consequences, and European and post-Soviet states are justified in seeking NATO’s security assurances. But despite this justification NATO expansion is not costless. “It’s all very well to say that Russia shouldn’t have a veto over” further NATO expansion, Larison wrote in March 2014, “but it is quite obvious that they can and do have one if they choose to exercise it.” While “veto” is a strong word – NATO could throw enough combat forces into Ukraine to defeat Russia’s military proxies – policymakers should avoid committing themselves to conflicts where they are obviously unwilling to bear the costs of winning.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty establishes that “an armed attack against one or more [member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that NATO members will coordinate a response, possibly with military force. The NATO alliance itself is an uncertain mechanism built to address a difficult problem: it is extraordinarily difficult to bind states today to pursue costly action tomorrow, which makes it hard to convince others that a defense commitment is believable. Within the NATO alliance this is particularly true for the United States, which would bear much of the costs of a war while not being directly threatened by Soviet and later Russian aggression in Europe. As Branislav L. Slantchev writes, NATO attempted to bridge this problem by formally committing the US to defend Western Europe, build the tools to do so, and in turn convince the Western Europeans that resisting a Soviet invasion was worthwhile, because US military assistance was vital to winning a European war.

NATO expansion poses a credibility problem – as does today’s more peaceful world – because its leading military powers cannot threaten to defend the NATO’s new members with the same credibility as Cold War-era Western Germany. The formal structure of NATO may have strengthened Atlantic military cooperation and interoperability as well as assuring Europe of US commitment, but this commitment was always credible anyway. A Soviet invasion of West Germany — which as Tom Nichols notes Western strategists judged a serious confrontation between the USSR and the West would likely escalate towards, given the numerical advantage of Soviet conventional forces in Western Europe – posed an existential threat to Western Europe, a global economic center and one with long-standing ties to the US. In spite of the possibly apocalyptical costs of a conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces in Europe, America’s commitment to defend Europe from Soviet aggression was widely judged to be a credible one.

NATO’s credibility is weaker today because the stakes are so much lower. Given the costs and risks of a direct military conflict with Russia, it is not assured that NATO would forcefully respond to Russian aggression targeting a minor frontline NATO state. This is particularly true of creeping “hybrid warfare” deniable by both Russia and NATO leaders eager to escape their commitments. “In the post-Cold War period the United States and other allies are much less comfortable responding to actions that are in the gray areas of political subversion – areas at which Russia excels,” Nadia Schadlow writes.

Of course, NATO insists that it would forcefully counter Russian aggression in a member state; how can it not? Indeed, there are means of increasing NATO’s collective credibility. Stationing NATO forces in frontline states can serve as a deterrence, both through these forces’ direct combat capabilities and the grim fact that their deaths at Russian hands would commit otherwise reluctant policymakers to war – the so-called “tripwire” or “plate glass” mechanism. Low risk hybrid warfare can be met with similarly subtle “hybrid defense,” as Mark Galeotti suggests. More broadly, wider fear of a non-response permanently discrediting NATO could prompt leaders to act when they otherwise would not.

But despite these tools it is very difficult to create a truly credible commitment to collective self-defense, which rests far more on cultural ties and strategic concerns than treaty obligations. Today Russia’s most worrying threats, like the possibility of Russian interference in the Baltic states, are far less threatening to NATO’s core members than Cold War fears. Simply put, it does not make any rational sense for the United States to go to war with Russia over the fate of Lithuania or Albania. Everyone knows this.

It is this obvious cost-benefit logic, not Obama’s weakness, that weakens NATO’s commitments to its newer Eastern European members. Continetti himself unknowingly recognizes this fact when he worries that hypothetical Russian aggression in the Baltics is ignored by a “distracted” West. Unlike Soviet armor pouring across the West German border, NATO members might ignore Russian hybrid warfare in the Baltic states precisely because other concerns – financial crises, domestic politics, and other global flash points, in Continetti’s examples – are legitimately more immediately consequential to their electorates and policymakers.

Extending NATO membership to states far less economically important and socially tied to the alliance’s major powers assumes that NATO is a perfect mechanism for forcing policymakers to make the costly decision to respond to Russian aggression. It is not. While violent and worrying, Russia’s destabilization of eastern Ukraine and 2008 invasion of Georgia are not threats to world peace and core US interests. Despite NATO’s commitments and fears of encouraging wider Russian aggression, no amount of “strength” or “resolve” can paper over Americans’ obvious and rational unwillingness to risk war over small Eastern European countries. Are these commitments strong enough to make NATO’s defense of Poland or the Baltics credible? Perhaps. But if NATO’s credibility as a whole rests on commitments to defend Georgia and Ukraine, states even more peripheral to US and European interests, then it is not a strong alliance at all.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," an example of the "world landscape" genre. Via Wikimedia

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (maybe), “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” an example of the “world landscape” genre. Via Wikimedia

After Russian strikes in Syria, Syria Deeply spoke with Syrians angered by civilian deaths believed at Russian hands. Russia is trying “to weaken the militant opposition on the ground, so that when negotiations start, Assad will be in a stronger position,” says one.

Outside Syria Putin’s abrupt policy shift has, of course, spurred concerns both about the murderous conflict itself and wider themes of US retreat and Obama’s handling of the crisis. Julia Ioffe pithily summarizes this criticism: “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Putin is not a strategist, he’s a tactician. But, boy, is he good at it, and, boy, is he running laps around Washington right now.” In an assessment that perhaps does not conflict with Ioffe’s Daniel Nexon (via Ben Denison) and Jeremy Shapiro (talking to Amanda Taub; via Josh Busby) see the work of a weakened Russia with uncertain prospects for success.

The military balance suggests Russian intervention will not suddenly win the war for Assad. Russia has only deployed relatively small numbers of combat aircraft to Syria, and Dave Majumdar examines the limitations of this force (via Aaron Stein); last week Michael Kofman looked at the logistical challenges a potential Russian ground mission would face (though Kofman’s judgement that “Russian forces are unlikely to launch a major air campaign on Assad’s behalf and put its assets at risk” appears to have been mistaken). As Jonathan Marcus writes Russian weapons targeting systems are more primitive than their Western counterparts, though a key Russian advantage is the ability to collaborate closely with the Assad regime’s forces on the ground. Additionally, if the Assad regime’s manpower shortage motivated the Russian’s late-hour intervention, in Dan Trombly’s words “air support and increased ground contingents won’t fix [Syrian Arab Army] force generation problems.”

Regardless of combat prowess, what is Russia’s endgame? Tyler Rogoway suggests that Putin could leverage increased Russian influence in Damascus to force Assad out of power in favor of a more internationally-palatable – though equally charitable to Russian interests – successor (Kofman notes this possibility as well, citing Hafizullah Amin in Afghanistan), though Antoun Issa reports that some observers question whether the risk of a post-Assad regime splintering makes a coup unlikely (via Joshua Landis).

Paul Quinn-Judge notes that while Russia’s Syria policy dominates the news, its actions in Ukraine are not going particularly well. Should Russia disengage from the conflict in eastern Ukraine “it will discover, if it has not done so already, that separatist leaders have developed their own, usually corrupt, interests, and may not go quietly, and that fighters, abandoned to their own resources, may turn to crime.”

Turning to US policy, Philip Gordon questions the mismatch between US goals in Syria – Assad’s immediate ouster, but only at the hands of moderates – and the effort with which America is willing to pursue these goals. Since the US is unwilling to step up its efforts in Syria, the only option is diplomacy that, at least initially, compromises on Assad’s fate. (Also via Josh Busby.)

Elsewhere, continuing on a theme he discussed last year Peter Dörrie highlights at a number of African states’ combat aircraft purchases. What’s driving this trend, especially when the aircraft in question are expensive fast jets? In part, coup-proofing: “Keeping the military loyal is a means of regime survival — and one way to do that is giving those elites new expensive toys to play with.”

Opening with a look at post-war Mozambique, recent research by Jennifer Raymond Dresden finds that “whether an incumbent party wins repeated elections following armed conflict is determined in part by the capabilities gained by rebels while the fighting is ongoing” since many wartime organizational skills – in particular, institutionalized “political interactions with civilians” – are also relevant to politics.

Michael J. Koplow takes a long look at the US-Turkish relationship

Marking the one year anniversary of the apparent Iguala massacre, Christy Thornton highlights Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto’s misguided focus on highlighting Mexico’s potential for foreign investors while mismanaging the country’s devastating security crisis (via FP Interrupted).

After the Colombian state and FARC reached a historic accord in Havana, Oliver Kaplan (via Roxanne Krystalli) and Boz reflect on the prospect of peace.

In remarks to the UN General Assembly earlier this week, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff repeated the longtime call for UN Security Council reform and discussed her country’s clean energy goals.