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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.

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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.

The Future of the British Nuclear Force

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo by Flickr user See Li, via Wikimedia.

By Taylor Marvin

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the United Kingdom’s opposition Labour Party has drawn renewed attention to the future of Britain’s nuclear force. Corbyn has often spoken out against replacing the UK’s four Vanguard-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, which together with their Trident II nuclear missiles are commonly referred to simply as “Trident.” Since nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines are difficult to detect when submerged, if at least one submarine is always at sea a surprise attack on Britain could be answered by a retaliatory nuclear strike. This “second-strike capability,” in the parlance of nuclear strategy, is a powerful deterrent.

TheVanguard class is expected to leave service in the next decade; if they are not replaced and other upgrades not made, the UK’s nuclear force will most likely be retired. Corbyn’s recent “Defense Diversification” platform calls for “transitioning away from nuclear weapons” while protecting defense workers’ employment and “freeing resources for investment in other socially-useful forms of public spending” (via the Guardian). Proponents of Trident counter that, in addition to protecting high-paying defense industry jobs, despite its tight-knit alliances with the nuclear-armed US and France British security can only be guaranteed by an independent nuclear deterrent force under British control.

Corbyn may never become Prime Minister, his anti-Trident views are not universal within the Labour Party (Corbyn recently stated he would not resign if a party policy review favors retaining nuclear weapon; a hostile Dan Hodges notes the difficulty of ‘squaring the circle’ of a party which supports nuclear weapons and a presumptive PM who appears unwilling to ever using them), and the UK’s governing Conservatives are likely to see a Trident replacement passed in 2016, as Corbyn’s platform acknowledges.

But this does not mean that the long process to replace Trident will proceed as planned, as there are many arguments against maintaining Britain’s nuclear force. Most obviously, despite renewed tensions between NATO and Russia the extent to which the UK’s expensive nuclear deterrent actually contributes to British security is unclear, especially given the UK’s close relationship with the nuclear-armed US. The Scottish National Party is also wary of the nuclear force, which is based in Scotland.

Arguably, the threat of Russian aggression paradoxically strengthens the argument for retiring the UK’s nuclear weapons. The British defense budget is finite, and every pound that the UK spends on nuclear weapons is a pound that cannot be spent on the conventional forces relevant to countering Russia’s inching “hybrid warfare” aggression. Prompted by reports that US policymakers have encouraged the UK retire its nuclear force in favor of capabilities that can actually fight and practically support US forces, in 2013 Jarrod Hayes questioned whether costs, not moral objections, might herald the end of nuclear weapons. “The crux of the issue is the assessment by the US that the UK cannot afford to have conventional capabilities sufficient to allow the UK to be a full military partner and submarine-deployed nuclear weapons,” Hayes wrote. Given that the looming need to replace the Trident system is expected to amount to a decade-long 9-10% cut in the UK’s annual defense budget (if it is funded through the Ministry of Defense rather than the Treasury) this question is especially pressing.

The UK would not be the first state to give up its own nuclear weapons: the apartheid South African regime successfully developed a number of nuclear devices, only to voluntarily dismantle them on the eve of democratization.* But retiring Britain’s nuclear force would be unprecedented. In contrast to a half dozen crude nuclear bombs developed by an increasingly-isolated South Africa, the UK is a recognized nuclear-armed state under the nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, has fielded nuclear weapons for decades, and has heavily invested in survivable, second strike-capable nuclear missile submarines. Perhaps no less importantly, the UK is a major diplomatic, economic, and military power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. All other permanent UNSC members – China, France, Russia, and the United States – are nuclear weapons states.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald - Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Vanguard-class submarine. Photo by CPOA(Phot) Tam McDonald – Defence Imagery, via Wikimedia.

Other states have turned away from developing nuclear weapons when they arguably had the option of doing so. Japan is widely thought to refrain from fielding nuclear weapons for political reasons, with the ability to assemble weapons should this policy change. Among others, states like Australia, Argentina, and Brazil all abandoned nascent nuclear weapons programs when their financial and diplomatic costs were judged to outweigh any eventual benefits. But there is a clear difference – perhaps expressed through loss aversion – between deciding not to develop nuclear weapons and giving up a formidable nuclear force. In particular, even if the British public and defense and political establishments accept the argument that the UK nuclear force’s contributions to British security is outweighed by its costs, retiring nuclear weapons would mean giving up an iconic status symbol. In Chris Walsh’s words, detonating Britain’s first nuclear bomb “marked its return to the club of great powers.” Is today’s UK prepared to risk losing any prestige nuclear status brings?

Hayes offered one answer, suggesting that “the rising cost and sophistication of modern weapons systems implies that nuclear weapons are no longer the hallmark of a great power, but instead the ability to field very expensive major conventional weapons systems that can be used in combat.” The point of these status symbols is that they are proxies for military power and, more remotely, other measures of national strength. Despite the nuclear status of all permanent UNSC members, John Mueller has argued in Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to al-Qaeda that some states and their populations do not seem to view nuclear weapons as desirable status symbols. Today it’s arguable that aircraft carriers, not nuclear weapons, better reflect the ability to project power and win the wars that actually happen. Notably, the UK’s two highly-capable (though not comparable to US nuclear-powered supercarriers) Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are currently under construction.

It may seem ridiculous to think that a state with a leading global role like the UK would ever give up nuclear weapons. But it is important to remember that other military status symbols have fallen out of fashion in ways that would have seemed doubtful at the time. Battleships were once a preeminent symbol of national power that aspirant states went to great lengths to field. Today, they are relics of history.

Of course, these two cases are not directly comparable. Nuclear weapons remain the ultimate means of deterrence, while airpower rendered battleships obsolete. Despite these differences, the point is that the value of military status symbols – what is and is not the hallmark of a respected state – can change in unexpected ways. If arguments in favor of retaining the UK’s nuclear force are motivated in part by their prestige — Tony Blair once wrote that retiring Trident would be “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation,” Richard Norton-Taylor relays — then the calculus of prestige and deterrence versus cost could similarly change.

*Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all chose to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR.

Demonstrating Resolve, the Roundabout Way

By Taylor Marvin

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

Russian paratroopers in Kazakhstan. USAF photo, via Wikimedia.

How can the United States and its European allies show Vladimir Putin that their warnings against further Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine are serious? New America Foundation president, Princeton professor, and former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that President Obama must “demonstrate that he can order the offensive use of force in circumstances other than secret drone attacks or covert operations” by striking the regime of murderous Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “The result will change the strategic calculus not only in Damascus, but also in Moscow,” Slaughter writes, by demonstrating American resolve and causing Putin to reconsider the credibility of American threats. Limited strikes in Syria — she specifically suggests destroying the Syrian government’s fixed-wing aircraft — “might not end the civil war there, but it could prevent the eruption of a new one in Ukraine.”

Daniel Larison rejects Slaughter’s logic, writing that “it makes absolutely no sense to argue that bombing a Russian client in one place will change Russian behavior in another place for the better.” In fact, Larison and the National Interest’s Robert Golan-Vilella note, Slaughter’s argument has already been tested: the Obama administration already used forced to punish an authoritarian ruler massacring his own people, in Libya. Admittedly Syria is a Russian client in a way that Gaddafi’s Libya was not, but the point stands: if using force in Libya did not send a strong message about US resolve, would additional military intervention in Syria marginally strengthen the cumulative evidence of the Obama administration’s willingness to use force to the point that Putin would have never annexed Crimea, or — if the strikes were carried out now, as Slaughter proposes — suddenly stand down?

Of course not. The lesson the world drew from the war in Libya is not that the United States and its allies would use force in all circumstances, but instead that the United States and its allies would use force in very specific ones. In Libya organized rebel forces were ready to be the ground army airpower would support, Libya did not have an Iranian ally that could match intervention with asymmetric retaliation, and there was little risk of downed aircraft and dead pilots. In Syria, none of these conditions hold, and similar benchmarks certainly don’t hold in Ukraine.

Larison further writes that “nothing would be more useful for Moscow as a matter of propaganda than to have the U.S. illegally attacking another country.” This is also true. Arguments that failing to punish Russia will usher in a future of frequent great power aggression are often met with the counterargument of, well, this future is just the recent past, and Americans only notice and object to sovereignty violations when it’s not them doing the violating. While sovereignty and non-interference concerns are not in and of themselves a reason to dismiss hitting the Assad regime, advocates of intervention in Syria should acknowledge that it would strength Putin’s diplomatic position as well as weaken it. While global opinion has been generally against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, this opposition has not been as strident as the US and Europeans would have hoped. If strikes in Syria allowed a ‘well, both sides do it’ thought to take root, many leaders would find themselves with a convenient excuse to avoid the diplomatic and political risk of meaningfully punishing Russian aggression.

But ultimately the entire discussion is silly. Strikes in Syria can only be expected to influence Moscow’s calculus if they prompt a reassessment of the punishment Russia could face for further action. American resolve has no bearing on Russia’s actions in Ukraine, because everyone — Obama, the EU, Putin, the Ukrainians, everybody — knows that the United States is not going to go to war or even meaningfully threaten war with a major nuclear power. Striking Syria as a proxy demonstration of American resolve just makes this more obvious. If America is so committed to facing down Putin in eastern Ukraine, why is it striking Syria then? Because the United States cannot credibly threaten to use military force against Russia. The only coercion that is on the table is diplomatic efforts, which striking the Assad regime has at best a negative relation to. It’s akin to punching the skinny guy next to the hulking bar-fighter you’re trying to intimidate, just to show you’re serious.

I don’t think it is, as Danny Hirschel-Burns said on Twitter, surprising that a former “senior US policymaker would have such a simplistic view of credibility” because this really isn’t an argument about Ukraine at all. Anne-Marie Slaughter has favored military intervention in Syria for years, endorsing in January 2012 intervention under the responsibility to protect doctrine should conditions be favorable and calling for unilateral limited military efforts to establish safe-zones in February 2012. Maybe, given the enormous human suffering in Syria over the last two years, the world should have followed Slaughter’s advice — reading 2012 Syria op-eds in 2014 is deeply sorrowful — but in any case it is obvious now that this military intervention is not coming. Citing strikes in Syria as a useful part of the Western toolkit in Ukraine is just, in my mind, a way of keeping the possibility of intervention in the public eye. The crisis in Ukraine is simply an excuse to keep that conversation going.

How Real Is BRICS Solidarity on Crimea?

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via .

Photo by Roberto Stuckert Filho and Presidência da República, via Agência Brasil.

Last week a resolution calling on the international community not to recognize the Russian Federation’s annexation of Crimea easily passed through the United Nations General Assembly. The non-binding agreement, which urged restraint and a peaceful resolution to the conflict, received a hundred votes in favor, 11 against, and 58 abstentions, in addition to a number of UN member states not present for the vote.

While the resolution was adopted, commentators immediately drew attention to the comparatively low number of “Yes” votes. It is difficult to think of a more blatant violation of international norms than Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and later annexation of the peninsula after a singularly-unconvincing referendum. While the only states to vote against the resolution were Russia and ten of its close allies such as Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, and Armenia, the high number of abstentions is a puzzle. Why would so many states remain on the sidelines, so to speak, of such a clear-cut issue?

More importantly, why did Russia’s BRICS peers — a loose bloc of large developing economies composed of, besides Russia, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa — all abstain from the vote? The BRICS bloc, a grouping that was first proposed (minus South Africa) by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, has always been an association stronger on paper than the real world, but this show of solidarity is striking. While China is a Russian ally that also hopes to regain territory it once lost — in China’s case, Taiwan — its government has also long presented itself as committed to ideals of territorial sovereignty and states’ freedom from foreign interference, a stance its abstention undercuts. Brazil, India, and South Africa are all democracies that presumably should strongly oppose Vladimir Putin’s ‘might makes right’ annexation of Crimea.

Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s stance is especially puzzling because their abstention on the UN resolution reaffirming Ukraine’s territorial integrity is, for all practical purposes, a vote in favor of Russia. With its invasion and annexation already successful, Russia now seeks to defend the status quo, a reality that a refusal to condemn Russia supports. One potential answer to this puzzle is that, as Daniel Larison has written, these countries simply don’t see the Crimea issue as vital enough to their interests to take on the diplomatic risks of a firm position. Another is that Russia put great effort into urging its fellow BRICS countries to support it, though this alone is an unsatisfying explanation — it’s difficult to see Russia as having the leverage to coerce a bloc of countries that together are far more populous and economically powerful than itself.

Via Milena Rodban, in The Diplomat Zachary Keck suggests another explanation. Noting a statement by BRICS foreign ministers denouncing the push to impose costs on Russia’s Crimea annexation, Keck sees the the BRICS countries’ abstentions at the UN General Assembly as a deliberate repudiation of Western norms and the pressures by which the United States and its allies seek to enforce them. This repudiation is part of a strategy designed to united the otherwise disparate BRICS countries. “BRICS has often tried to overcome these internal challenges by unifying behind an anti-Western or at least post-Western position,” Keck writes. “In that sense, it’s no surprise that the group opposed Western attempts to isolate one of its own members.”

This is a provocative explanation for BRICS solidarity at the UN. However, there is also a simpler one. As Keck lists, the BRICS bloc has incentives to both preserve its own unity and demonstrate its relevance, but the UN vote is less a demonstration of the strength of this “post-Western” solidarity than that the costs of doing so are very small.

Yes, an abstention is an implicit voice of support for Russia, but it is far less forceful than the “No” votes on the Assembly resolution. The most obvious takeaway from the vote isn’t that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa abstained from the vote along with with 54 other countries, but that Russia was only able to draw “No” votes from a small number of its obvious allies and, more embarrassingly, clients. Moreover, while 100 “Yes” votes is hardly a ringing endorsement of the norms against territorial annexation, the vote itself was never in doubt. The non-Russian members of the BRICS bloc could afford a mild show of solidarity with Russia because there was no chance that their measured statements in opposing sanctions and abstentions would actually lead to the rejection of the Assembly resolution.

Similarly, the governments of Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are unlikely to pay any costs for their positions at home. In Brazil, in particular, a recent Christian Science Monitor piece noted that while Russia’s annexation is unpopular in the Brazilian press, the conflict is overshadowed by domestic issues, like the fast-approaching World Cup, and in the international realm events in Brazil’s immediate neighborhood. Recent pieces published in Brazilian media have, for example, argued that a referendum cannot legitimize annexation, warned of future conflict, and echoed the argument that Russia will lose influence in the rest of Ukraine. But it seems unlikely that the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who is widely favored to win reelection this fall, will suffer any serious domestic pushback from abstention, along with those of its democratic BRICS counterparts in India and South Africa.

Another explanation for the vote’s cost — and thus its importance as a post-Western moment — born by the BRICS is that several of the bloc’s members face secessionist movements of their own. China has real fears of Tibetan and Uyghur separatism — in addition to the possibility of a formal Taiwanese independence declaration — and India a number of separatist movements, most notably in Jammu and Kashmir. Supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea must be costly to states facing secessionist movements, the theory goes, because it will encourage separatists elsewhere. However, this seems not to be the case in practice. Political scientist Steve Saideman has extensively argued countries support or oppose secessionist movements “based on the context of each one, rather than to any over-arching principle.” Canada recognized Kosovo because such a move fit into the country’s wider foreign policy goals, despite its own secessionist movement in Quebec; a notably counterargument to this theory is Spain’s non-recognition of Kosovo. All this suggests that Brazil, India, China, and South Africa’s support for Russia will not bring future costs by encouraging domestic secessionists. This is particularly true for Brazil, where to the best of my knowledge a breakaway southern state has no chance of success or even much real support. (One of the movement’s website appears to now be a Japanese porn site.)

So it’s possible that Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all abstained from the Assembly resolution on Crimea to stand against — so the narrative goes — a hypocritical West. But even if this is true, this is less a bold stance than an empty one. Bland statements and abstentions do aid Russia, but do little in any practical way. It is worth remembering that a single “No” vote from a large, democratic country like Brazil, India, or South Africa would have been an immensely powerful public relations tool for Putin. The fact that Russia couldn’t manage to get even one from its BRICS counterparts substantially weakens the argument that the vote represents some new post-Western moment. The BRICS group may, in Oliver Stuenkel’s words, be driven by a narrative “that emerging powers are successful and that the rise of the Global South is set to fundamentally change the distribution of power in global affairs.” But that does not mean that the Brazil, India, China, and South Africa are willing to bear serious costs in support of Russian military adventurism.

Instead, it is more likely that BRICS leaders are only willing to offer token — and more importantly, largely costless — support for an increasingly unpopular and isolated Russia.

Would a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent Have Prevented the Crisis?, Continued

By Taylor Marvin

Returning to the question of whether Ukraine should have kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, John Mueller raises an interesting point in his book Atomic ObsessionAlong with Belarus and Kazakhstan, following the breakup of the USSR the new state of Ukraine found itself in possession of a formidable tactical and strategic nuclear arsenal. Under international pressure, all three of these new countries returned their weapons to Russia. Mueller highlights an interesting influence on this decision:

From the beginning, the leaders the new countries seemed to grasp that the weapons would be of little value to them. In considerable part, their patterns of thinking traced those of the many other technically capable states that have been content to follow a nonnuclear path … In Ukraine, and particularly Belarus, the experience with enhanced radiation levels that followed the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in 1986 generated a special hostility toward—or wariness about—the weapons, something like a “nuclear allergy.”* [p. 123]

The costs and difficulties associated with the weak, newly-formed Ukrainian state retaining Soviet nuclear weapons has been highlighted in recent discussions sparked by the Russian invasion of Crimea, as has the challenges of safeguarding the nuclear weapons of up to four Soviet successor states rather than only one. However, I have not heard the influence of the Chernobyl disaster — which, remember, occurred less than half a decade before the disintegration of the USSR — mentioned in these discussions. I suppose this is odd, because Japan’s experience as the only target of nuclear weapons use is frequently highlighted as a reason why the country has not elected to actually acquire its own nuclear deterrent, though it has the technical capabilities to quickly do so. If Ukraine’s experience with Chernobyl, which was located on Ukrainian soil though much of the fallout from the disaster fell on the then Byelorussian SSR, informed its decision to give up nuclear weapons, it is a powerful reminder of the impact of emotions and memories on foreign policy decision-making.

*Mueller cites Mitchell Reiss’ Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities here, which I have not read.

Would a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent Have Prevented the Crisis?

By Taylor Marvin

A Ukrainian Tu-22M is scrapped in 2002. DTRA photo, via Wikimedia.

A Ukrainian Tu-22M is scrapped in 2002. DTRA photo, via Wikimedia.

Could Ukraine have forestalled the Russian Federation’s invasion of Crimea if it had kept the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union? Writing in the National InterestTed Galen Carpenter returns to this argument. Noting the “undercurrent of worry that the Crimea intervention may be just the first move in a campaign by Vladimir Putin either to detach much of eastern Ukraine from Kiev’s control or to oust the new Ukrainian government and bring all of the country firmly into Moscow’s orbit,” Carpenter places blame for Moscow’s action on the early-1990s push to ensure that Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up the nuclear weapons the breakup of the USSR orphaned in their territory and returned them to Russia, the designated Soviet inheritor. Again citing John Mearsheimer’s 1993 Foreign Affairs piece that argued in favor Ukraine retaining nuclear weapons, the argument follows that given the power imbalance between Ukraine and its eastern neighbor, nuclear weapons would have been the Eastern European country’s best hope of resisting Russian revanchism.

As I wrote last week, even if Russia had allowed a former SSR to retain Soviet nuclear weapons (and handwaving away two decades of divergent Ukrainian-Russian relations) it is unclear if a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent would have prevented the Russian seizure of Crimea, the immediate site of the current confrontation. After all, the same strategies Russia employed to forestall a conventional Ukrainian military and international diplomatic response to the invasion would have made a nuclear response unlikely, as well. Russia initially infiltrated deniable troops to seize key strategic points in Crimea, and then brought a large number of soldiers to the peninsula. Before the wider world realized that Russia had indeed invaded and started discussing how to respond Russian Federation forces had already dug in, and would be extremely difficult for the Ukrainian military to dislodge. In addition, while the upcoming referendum will not be a free and fair reflection of the will of the Crimean people, annexation by Russia appears to enjoy some genuine support in the ethnic-Russian-majority autonomous republic, complicating both Ukrainian and international condemnation of the invasion.

By the time a nuclear-armed Ukraine had realized that Russia had indeed violated its territorial integrity, a nuclear threat would have lost what little teeth it ever had. Compelling Russia to leave Crimea would be even more difficult that deterring it from entering. Given the bloodless Russian invasion, Russia’s historic ties to the peninsula, and the pro-Russian outlook of the Crimean people, even an enraged government in Kiev could not credible threaten to use nuclear weapons against military targets in Russia in an attempt to compel Russia to leave. Importantly, by exposing itself to a Ukrainian strike Russia would place the heavy burden of actually making the decision to escalate to nuclear warfare on the Ukrainians, and thus likely ensure that they would not actually play their nuclear card. Even handwaving away Russia’s far superior conventional and nuclear forces, a Ukraine that actually used nuclear weapons against Russia, avoided a response in kind, and successfully forced its withdrawal from Crimea would be far worse off — a pariah politically, diplomatically, and economically — than one that lost Crimea.

Moscow’s calculus would be far riskier in a world where Ukraine possessed nuclear weapons. But again, it is unclear in my mind if this risk would have deterred seizing Crimea, especially given the status Putin has invested in Ukraine, status that necessitated some form of face-saving. What is true is that a crisis would be far, far more dangerous in a world where both Ukraine and Russia field nuclear weapons but Ukraine cannot credibly threaten to respond to the permanent loss of Crimea with a nuclear attack on Russian targets, a point Carpenter acknowledges.

Sure, Ukraine’s ability to deter Russian aggression is important, as is upholding the general “no annexation” norm of the post-war international order. A Ukrainian nuclear force would also largely put to rest fears that Russia intends to peel off Ukrainian territory beyond Crimea. But by writing that Ukraine and the United States are paying the price for the “myopia” of encouraging Ukrainian nuclear disarmament, advocates of a nuclear-armed Ukraine are placing greater value on these considerations than avoiding the — admittedly unlikely — prospect of a Russia-Ukraine nuclear war that would likely kill millions of people.

Would this risk be worthwhile?

Why Does RT Host Conspiracy Theories?

Screen Shot 2014-03-07 at 8.39.10 AMBy Taylor Marvin

The ongoing crisis in Crimea hasn’t brought only Russian foreign policy into the news. It has also thrust RT, a network funded by the Russian government and formerly called “Russia Today,” into prominence. Despite RT’s slick image and array of young, fluent English-speaking hosts, many international observers have noted that RT’s coverage of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, um, differs from other news organizations.”Though the station is frequently cartoonish,” Dan Murphy wrote earlier this week, its positive coverage of the Russian military intervention in Ukrainian territory “is nonetheless a reflection of how the Kremlin sees the world and/or wishes it to be.”

But leaving aside RT’s value as a window into the worldview the Russian government seeks to advance, I’d like to focus on the ineptitude Murphy highlights. Early this week RT host Abby Martin closed her show by apparently going off-script and denouncing the Russian invasion.

Martin’s message attracted wide attention on social media, with Glenn Greenwald acidly commenting that the Kremlin-owned RT hosts more dissent than private US news media did during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, RT segments where Martin denounced water fluoridation and questioned whether the 9/11 attacks were what they seemed — in other words, classic conspiracy theories — quickly surfaced. Martin has also claimed that there is no difference between RT and US corporate media, a view which is somewhat defensible but marginalizes the highly-relevant fact that RT directly answers to the autocratic Russian state in a way US private media does not.

Martin’s statement was followed by the Wednesday on-air resignation of another American RT host, Liz Wahl. Despite Wahl’s public recognition of the “many ethical and moral challenges” of working at RT, her and Martin’s actions strengthen, rather than weaken, RT’s mission as a propaganda arm of the Russian government. After all, a real propaganda network wouldn’t allow such dissent, right? Disconcertingly, this view is already being repeated by some Western commentators.

But why does RT host conspiracy theories, anyway? After all, RT’s mission is propagating a sympathetic view of Russian political aims internationally. Unlike Martin and Wahl’s denouements of Russian foreign policy, hosting stilly conspiracies sabotages this mission, because it illustrates that RT is not a trustworthy news source. Instead, we would expect that RT do everything it can to conceal what it really is by mostly broadcasting unbiased analysis, so only dedicated viewers are aware of its biases. RT’s Iranian analogs, Fars News and Press TV, broadcast their bias through cartoonish ineptitude, but this seems to be due to incompetence; a general incompetence RT’s polish seems to contradict. Notably, even if taking the most cynical possible view of US government-funded broadcasters, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty do not host conspiracy theories.

So why the conspiracy theories? A few, um, theories of my own:

  • RT doesn’t care. Perhaps RT feels that broadcasting conspiracy theories doesn’t sabotage its mission of disseminating pro-Russian viewpoints. After all, RT doesn’t demonstrate any real commitment to subtlety anyway, so maybe it makes no effort to conceal its true type at all.
  • All bad press is good press. Maybe RT producers green-light broadcasting 9/11 conspiracy theories because they judge that all coverage critical of the United States, even discredited conspiracy theories, furthers its mission.
  • Lack of oversight. It’s also possible that RT’s overseers don’t exercise particularly close oversight over its segments. As long as stories dealing with Russia and US foreign policy stick to the script, perhaps producers and hosts are otherwise allowed creative freedom. It’s also possible that RT itself attracts unconventional thinkers — cough, cough — who are susceptible to conspiracy theories and otherwise unable to find a job in mainstream media, though I would suspect that given the difficulty of succeeding in the broadcast news industry RT’s staff are no different than their more successful mainstream peers.
  • Know your (receptive) audience*: It has been suggested that online confidence tricks like “Nigerian prince” scam emails contain many spelling errors or other implausibilities as a means of filtering out all but the most gullible early on, before the more labor-intensive stages of the scam. Perhaps RT follows a similar logic, deciding that an audience who values and shares stories on conspiracy theories are more likely to accept the narrative RT is actually interested in promoting, while driving away less credible viewers.

My familiarity with RT is basically limited to occasionally watching Robert Farley’s appearances on Alyona Minkovski’s show (Minkovski has since left the network, and is now at HuffPost Live). Does anyone more familiar with RT broadcasting have a theory?

Finally, it is worth noting that the groupthink tendencies and access-driven nature of US media is a real concern, and recognizing RT’s nature should not be seen as an endorsement of the dominant US broadcast news culture.

*I added this fourth possibility as an update.

Crimea, the Falklands War, and Alternative History

By Taylor Marvin

The Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula has prompted an interesting round of parlor speculation — if Ukraine had nuclear weapons, would it have been able to deter Russia’s so-called intervention? After all, the question is not entirely academic. After the dissolution of the USSR, the newly independent Ukrainian state inherited the third largest nuclear stockpile in the world. Under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Ukraine returned these weapons to Russia and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, all in exchange for a security guarantee initially signed by Russia, the US, and UK.

After the last week’s very high-profile violation of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty, many have suggested that Ukraine’s choice was a grave mistake. In particular, many have highlighted a 1993 Foreign Affairs article by John Mearsheimer suggesting that, under threat from Russia, Ukraine should keep its inherited nuclear deterrent.

Along with its recent return to prominence Mearsheimer’s argument has fallen under new criticism. Duck of Minerva contributor PM asks whether a nuclear-armed Ukraine would be more stable and less threatened by Russian domination, and concludes that the answer is probably no. In an interesting post Anton Strezhnev also questions Mearsheimer’s logic, writing that faced with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Ukraine whose power could be counted on to increase in the future Russia would not have permitted its neighbor to keep nuclear weapons anyway. “The deterrence argument is moot,” Strezhnev concludes. “If nuclear weapons had any meaningful deterrent effect on Russia, then Russia would likely have acted militarily in the 90s to prevent a nuclear Ukraine rather than let Ukraine wield its leverage in the future.”

I suppose that in the interest of following an alternative history through we can also question whether the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan movement, and Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster would have been allowed to proceed in a counterfactual nuclear-armed Ukraine as they did in our world, though the example of Pakistan and others suggests that outside powers are not guaranteed to forcefully impose political stability even when nuclear weapons raise the stakes.

But, like Strezhnev and Phil Arena, I think the entire question of whether a Ukrainian nuclear arsenal would have prevented the Russian invasion of Crimea is misguided. The current crisis may be, in Sarah Kendzior’s words, the “progenitor of bullshit analogies,” but in our nuclear-armed Ukraine hypothetical I think one is particularly apt: the Falklands War.

In spring 1982 Argentina invaded and occupied the Falklands Islands, or Islas Malvinas, a British possession laying roughly 300 miles off the Argentine coast. The military junta then ruling Argentina was under pressure, and believe that seizing the islands — long a grievance among ordinary Argentines — would boost its domestic popularity through a ‘rally around the flag’ effect. Through a complex signaling failure and incompetence not limited to the Argentines (see Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins’ The Battle for the Falklands for more) the junta also calculated that its anti-communist ally the United States would not challenge, or would at least acquiesce, to its seizure of the islands, and that the United Kingdom would not pursue a difficult and risky military operation to retake them.

Of course, at the time the United Kingdom was a nuclear power with the capability of conducting a nuclear ballistic missile strike on the Argentine mainland. However, this did not stop the junta from ordering the operation, because it judged that even if the United Kingdom was committed to regaining the Falklands the prospect of a British nuclear first strike against a non-nuclear state — even an aggressor — would be so unpopular that the threat was not credible (though Argentina was not party to the NPT at the time). It would be, and was, up to the British to retake the islands militarily. Placing the heavy burden of escalating to nuclear force on the British, even if it was a burden Argentina didn’t have the capability to bear, would be their limited-warfare shield.

Crimea has many parallels to the Falklands. While not an island, the Crimean Peninsula is largely non-contiguous with Ukraine proper, and can be culturally constructed as to not “really” belonging to Ukraine. Much like Argentines have long claimed that las Malvinas by rights should belong to Argentina, Crimea’s ethnic Russian majority and historical association with the Russian imperial project have, in Moscow’s narrative, allowed it to be detached from wider notions of Ukrainian sovereignty. Importantly, the physical and military geography of both Crimea and the Falklands allowed them to be quickly seized by invading forces, allowing the aggressor to create the “facts on the ground” before their opponents could react.

Obviously, there are substantial differences between the two examples. Both via geographic proximity and culture, Crimea is arguably more important to both Russia and Ukraine than the Falklands were to Argentina and the United Kingdom, and is home to two million people. The long land border between Russia and Ukraine presents the distressing possibility that the current crisis could spiral into a general land war, something impossible in the South Atlantic. A conflict over Crimea between a nuclear-armed Ukraine and Russia would also include two nuclear actors, not just one — an extremely consequential difference.

But the Falklands War is still the best analog for a hypothetical crisis between a Ukraine that retained its nuclear weapons and Russia. Following the counterfactual, and hand-waving away two decades of divergent history before the current crisis, if the British nuclear arsenal was not sufficient to deter the Argentine invasion of the Falklands it wrong to assert that a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent would simply have prevented the current crisis. Like the Kargil crisis Strezhnev highlights, limited wars between nuclear powers are possible. The Falklands example further suggests that nuclear weapons are not an iron-clad guarantee against territorial predation, especially if the territory in question is constructed as to lie outside of the defender’s heartland.

Ukraine and the European Union

By Taylor Marvin

Mocking Chris Hayes’ admission that he is confused by the rapidly-developing events in Ukraine, Alex Berezow writes that the West has a “smack-you-in-the-face obvious” policy choice regarding the Eastern European country. To avoid Ukraine again threatening to fall into Russia’s orbit, the European Union should offer Ukraine an achievable pathway to entry into the EU. “Feckless though it may be,” Berezow writes, “the EU offers Ukraine a safer future than its current status of dependence on Russia’s ultimately self-serving largesse.”

Daniel Larison makes the reasonable point that this option is only obvious “if you assume that the US and EU are willing to bear the costs that will come from bringing Ukraine closer to the EU, and if you assume that they are ready and willing to counter whatever actions Russia takes in response to the attempt.” This, of course, is true. The prospective Association Agreement which — after its rejection — precipitated the protests against Yanukovych’s government and current aid offers are very different from the EU entry Berezow suggests and Ukrainian politicians have positively mentioned. As Larison notes, a Ukrainian pathway to full EU membership is a long-term prospect that may never come to full fruition. Ukraine is in the midst of a violent and chaotic political upheaval, which is unlikely to be the country’s last. The country is poor and beset by corruption and weak public institutions. From the EU’s perspective, it is not clear if the long-term cost and difficulties associated with the hard work of actually incorporating Ukraine are preferable to the status quo. For many Ukrainians, Russia’s “self-serving largesse” may be more dependable than a distracted and disinterested European Union’s, at least in the shorter-term.

The prospect of further EU expansion to include weak or politically unstable states is costly, and this is a cost that commentators or EU leaders themselves can’t simply wave away. There’s no reason to think that the European Union has strong practical interest in tying its own success to Ukraine’s more tightly than it already is by virtue of geography alone, or that a path to the EU entry that both Berezow and western-leaning Ukrainians support necessarily leads to so-desired institution-building and political stability.

Building institutions and liberal political environments is a difficult task, and one Europe has already demonstrated it has only so much interest in doing. Turkey’s efforts to join the EU have famously stalled — a stall the Erdogan government’s highly-public turn towards authoritarianism suggests could last decades. Obviously, there are major differences between Turkey and Ukraine. The Cyprus issue is a major barrier. Turkey’s 77 million strong population would make it the second largest country in the EU, and soon to the be largest; this size makes the Anatolian country’s bid far more politically, culturally, and economically consequential than smaller countries’. Europe’s engagement with Turkey has also been bedeviled by — not unreasonable — accusations of bias against the Muslim country.

But Turkey is both far wealthier and arguably more politically stable than Ukraine. If Ukraine is offered a rapid — read: believable — pathway to EU entry, then the message sent is that the only reason Turkey’s bid has stalled is because it isn’t lucky enough to enjoy the strategic attentions of a major European rival. Aside from all the practical difficulties of Ukrainian membership, and assuming that Ukrainians even see a path to EU entry as a credible offer, is that really a message the EU wants to send?