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Posts tagged ‘Russia’

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.

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.

Why Do So Few Military Video Games Have Indian Bad Guys?

By Taylor Marvin

Before diving into the question I’d like to stress that I am not a gamer, and my knowledge of the medium comes from cultural osmosis as much as anything else. So, feel free to correct me.

The writers behind contemporary military first-person shooters, one of the most popular video game genres, face an interesting challenge: finding an enemy. Islamic terrorists are a natural choice. However, this route has its problems. As the 2010 controversy over Medal of Honor — which originally would have let gamers play as the Taliban — illustrated, games pitting players against Islamic militants may stray uncomfortably close to reality. But more importantly, terrorist antagonists can’t credible provide the sense of scale many game writers desire. Games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and the Battlefield series require balanced combat between equally-capable military forces rather than simply small-scale firefights, and many of their single-player campaigns feature invasions of the United States. Even given gaming’s suspension of disbelief there’s simply no way that Islamic terrorism can believably provide conflict on this scale.

This need for grand scale is problematic, because writers in both the games and film industries have trouble selecting antagonists capable of plausibly challenging the United States’ global military hegemony. Many writers simply skip the problem by calling in alien antagonists, implicitly arguing that an extraterrestrial invasion is more likely in the foreseeable future than a major, non-nuclear war between human combatants. Aliens also have the advantage of being entirely inoffensive. Casting human enemies, on the other hand, carries a substantial risk of bad publicity. While China is perhaps the most logical future US competitor, the prospect of alienating Chinese consumers and government censorship makes Chinese antagonists a rare choice (thought the upcoming Battlefield 4 appears to feature combat between US and PLA forces). Russian audiences, however, seem not to mind being cast as enemies in Western games — indeed, there’s something almost flattering about the implication that Russia’s one bad day away from invading, well, everywhere. Russia invades the continental United States and Europe throughout the Modern Warfare franchise, though Modern Warfare’s Russians are notably manipulated into war, and Alaska and Canada in Battlefield: Bad Company 2.


Another option is North Korea. The 2011 game Homefront and the 2012 remake of Reagan-era action film Red Dawn chronicle completely-implausible North Korean military occupations of the United States (though it is important to note that Red Dawn was originally written with Chinese antagonists whose nationality was hurriedly switched in post-production to avoid losing access to the increasingly important Chinese market; for its part the Japanese edition of Homefront removed references to North Korea). The near-future setting of the 2007 game Crysis postulated that a decade of economic development and military modernization would allow North Korea to mount amphibious operations into the South China Sea, though later entries in the series abandoned the People’s Liberation Army for alien and evil mega-corporation antagonists.

The recently-released trailer for the upcoming mega-hit Call of Duty: Ghosts appears to depict an invasion of the US by Spanish-speakers “from south of the Equator,” implying an invasion force of Peruvians or Argentines (or possibly Venezuelans depending on how geographically-challenged Ghosts’ writers are). Finally, many games like the above-mentioned Crysis series simply avoid the prospect of controversy altogether by calling in the classic anonymous-but-evil private militaries.

However, there’s one notable omission from the list of games’ nation-state antagonists: I can’t think of a single major contemporary military shooter with Indian enemies. With soon-to-be the world’s largest population, increasing military spending, and the expectation that it will grow into a global power this century, India is certainly a more plausible future military competitor for the United States than Latin America or especially North Korea. So why do no games pit Indian bad guys against Americans?

The most obvious answer to this puzzle is that India is a democracy and an increasingly close US ally. However, in my mind it’s unclear if this is a substantial barrier to military shooter writers looking for a new adversary — after all, despite the frosty US-Russian diplomatic relationship, no one thinks a war between the two is remotely likely. Another possibility is that, like with China, developers are afraid of losing access to the Indian market. But while the Indian government has a record of political censorship, it is unclear if the small Indian video game market is important enough to make this a pressing concern.

I think that a plausible explanation for the lack of Indian antagonists in contemporary military shooters is American culture’s racial narratives. In this narrative Middle Easterners are constructed as terrorists, but not competent enough to truly threaten the United States. (In reality Islamic nations are just as capable of invading the US as Russia; that is, not at all.) Games that feature the Russian military obviously benefit from a half-century of American culture that held the USSR as the ultimate threat, and from the Cold War nostalgia so evident in the Red Dawn remake. East Asian antagonists exist within the “yellow peril” narrative that depicts Asian men as alternatively martially threatening or asexual and submissive. But in my understand the popular Western conception of India leaves little room for threatening narratives — though it is important to note that American racists frequently fail to distinguish between India and southern and western Asia overall (whose inhabitants are constructed as terrorists), as the distressing reaction to the first Indian-America Miss America illustrates. Instead, in this racial narrative Indian men are viewed as uncivilized, impotent — outside of the Kama Sutra — and subservient, a narrative likely derived from deceptions of the British colonial period. Within this narrative it is difficult to construct to Indians as a threat, in video games or otherwise. Of course, this is enormously racist.

Again, this isn’t to say that I think a future war between the US and India is at all likely, or that deceptions of foreigners as FPS cannon fodder is particularly constructive. But it is an interesting question. Thoughts?

Armageddon Averted

By Taylor Marvin

I’m currently reading Stephen Kotkin’s Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, which is short, highly-readable, and recommended. Kotkin has a flair for drily understating the farcical:

“Glasnost remained mostly a slogan right through 1986. Even geographical locations that could be indicated on Soviet maps were still being shown inaccurately, to foil foreign spies, as if satellite imaging had not been invented, while many cities were entirely missing… Widespread fictitious economic accounting was foiling planners to the point where the KGB employed its own satellites to ascertain the size of Uzbek cotton harvest.”

Kotkin also relays this gem from the Gorbachev-Yeltsin transition:

“On 27 December, four days prior to the date Gorbachev was supposed to vacate his Kremlin office, the receptionist called him at home to report that Yeltsin and two associates were already squatting in the coveted space, where they had downed a celebratory bottle of whisky. It was 8:30 am.”

Macho Posturing in Politics

By Taylor Marvin

Writing for Radio Free Europe, Claire Bigg highlights the unfortunate side effects of Vladimir Putin’s propensity for macho posturing (via Brendan I. Koerner):

“Vladimir Putin’s stunt with Siberian cranes this week was intended to display both his tough-guy image and his commitment toward saving endangered species.

But what it perhaps best highlighted was his curious knack for causing harm to rare animals.”

Welfare of endangered animals aside, by all accounts Putin is an expert at managing his perception as a vigorous adventurer among Russian domestic audiences; a narrative that is unquestionably electorally valuable. Numerous authoritarian and democratic leaders have played up their masculinity, especially in “macho” dominated cultures that respect this sort of posturing (there’s an argument to be made that Pussy Riot secured such a following in the Western public consciousness because its feminist archetype so obviously contrasts the masculinity of the Russian state, which is apparent both in Putin’s security apparatus and the Church). What’s particularly interesting is that Dmitry Medvedev appears to have deliberately strayed from this aggressive masculinity during his tenure as President and Prime Minister, instead projecting the well-dressed air of a sophisticated technocrat. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to separate him from Putin’s persona — the more conspiratorially-minded would suggest the verb diminish rather than separate — or a reflection of his personality I don’t know.

Of course, macho posturing for political gain isn’t limited to Russia — George W. Bush’s carrier landing is probably the apex of the genre.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Nuclear Theory

By Taylor Marvin

[This post contains spoilers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol]

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a very entertaining movie. Particularly interesting is the film’s depiction of nuclear conflict, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The film’s villain — renegade Russian nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks —  is motivated by the idea that stagnent world civilization can be revitalized by the disaster of a nuclear conflict, as long as the damage is distributed “evenly”. To trick the US and Russia into nuclear war, Hendricks clandestinely destroys the Kremlin with conventional explosives, and then uses stolen Russian nuclear launch codes to order a Russian ballistic missile submarine to launch a single nuclear missile at San Francisco in hopes of provoking a US retaliatory nuclear attack on Russia.

For this plan to work, senior American officials have to believe that the initial Russian missile launch was ordered by the Russian government. On the surface, this is credible; the missile is delivered by a submarine-launched ICBM after all, which are only possessed by a handful of nuclear states. However, Hendricks’ actions don’t make sense in the framework of nuclear theory.

Hendricks intends American officials to view the initial Russian missile launch a retaliatory strike by Moscow, under the assumption that the Russian government mistakenly believes that the destruction of the Kremlin was ordered by Washington. Limited retaliatory punishment strikes are an accepted part of nuclear war. For example, one state could, purposefully or accidentally, launch a limited nuclear attack on another. To prevent their opponent from retaliating with a civilization-destroying unlimited response, the original aggressor could consent to “sacrificing” assets of comparable value to their opponent’s losses. This limited retaliation would inflict enough destruction to satiate the original victim, while avoiding a wider nuclear exchange.

Hendricks’ plot’s efficacy rests on two deceptions: that the American leadership believes the strike on San Francisco to be an authorized Russian attack — rather than a loss of Russian control over their weapons — and responds with a multiple nuclear strikes of their own (of course, Ethan Hunt could have attempted to warn the US government that the immanent nuclear strike was not authorized by Moscow; the film never suggests this possibility). However, the missile launch isn’t a credible Russian response because its target — a nuclear strike on an American city — is not comparable to the conventional destruction of the Kremlin in a terrorist attack.

Is their any reason to believe that Russia would respond to a perceived American conventional attack on a symbolic target with a nuclear strike on an American civilian target? In short: probably not; the escalation risks of such a hugely unproporitonal retaliatory strike are clearly not worth the signaling value of such a strike. There is the faint possibility that Moscow would authorize a nuclear response if it felt that a ICBM strike was the only retaliatory action available to a unprecedented American aggression. However, land-attack cruise missiles launched from air or submarine platforms likely do give Russian forces the ability to hit continental US targets on short notice — most likely a 3M-14E missile launched from a submarine offshore. This conventional strike capability gives Moscow the ability to responde in kind to an American attack on a high-profile symbolic target; Moscow would have nearly zero incentive to escalate to a nuclear response.

Of course, this disproportion is the entire point; Hendricks wants the American president to not accept the Russian strike as a valid retaliatory action, and respond with a unlimited strike against Russian targets. However, the problem with Hendricks scheme is that it’s so unproportional as to be an unbelievable Russian action. Rather than launch a retaliatory strike, it’s entirely possible that US leaders would judge the strike on San Francisco as evidence that Russia had lost control of at least a portion of it’s nuclear forces, especially considering that the Kremlin had been destroyed by an unknown actor the day before. If this judgement was made US leaders would not initiate their own launch. Whether in the heat of the moment American leaders are this discerning is an open question, but it is a major flaw in Hendricks’ plan.

The success of Hendricks’ plot depends on giving the Russians believable reason to launch a retaliatory limited nuclear attack on the US, but simultaneously prompt the US government to respond with a broad nuclear attack on Russia. But the film fails of both counts: the (perceived) terror attack on the Kremlin is not severe enough to suggest that the Russian strike on San Francisco was ordered by a rational actor in Moscow, and the Americans are unlikely to respond to a single missile launched on a US city with broad retaliation. If Hendricks was actually interested in starting a nuclear war, it would make more sense to dupe the Russian submarine commander into launching general strike on the US rather than one intended to be construed as a retaliatory strike, which is inherently deescalatory. 

However, it is possible to argue that Hendricks wants a nuclear war, but not a countervalue exchange that would decimate civilization; after all, he talks about humanity emerging from the rubble stronger. In this case, framing the manufactured conflict as an escalating series of retaliatory strikes makes sense. A series of counterforce strikes on Russian and American nuclear infrastructure and military targets would kill huge numbers of people — both through the exchange itself and the ensuing environmental damage — but might not be fatal to human civilization. But again, the film’s nuclear logic fails: if Hendricks is seeking a counterforce exchange, the Russian retaliatory strike shouldn’t hit a US civilian target.

Of course, none of this makes sense. The film dwells on the fact that Hendricks wants a nuclear exchange whose damage is distributed “evenly” across the globe; but an American-Russian nuclear exchange would inherently focus its damage on the northern hemisphere. A counterforce exchange would be even more discriminating in its devastation. Ultimately, these flaws don’t matter: if your plan rests on defeating the Impossible Missions Force, you’re already out of luck.