February 12th, 2009
The Washington Times reports that Mike McFaul and Undersecretary William Burns are off to Moscow to talk Kyrgyz basing with the Russians. Via Spencer Ackerman, an earlier version of the Times piece had the following paragraph:
U.S. officials said they still hoped to persuade both Kyrgyzstan and Russia that, even though there are alternatives to the Manas base, its continued use would be most beneficial to Afghanistan’s stability. They also said they were open to Russian ideas about how cooperation in Central Asia can contribute to a better U.S.-Russia relationship.
Spencer quips, “expect horsetrading”. Yeah, maybe. If the Russians don’t blow it.
There’s no doubt that the Obamans have extended an olive branch to Russia. Biden went pretty far in his recent speech in Munich to broker good will. “The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance,” said Biden. “It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.”
I’d expect this trip to be more about sounding out just how pragmatic the Russians can be—sort of a trial balloon that Obama feels like he needs to put out as part of his global charm offensive. If the balloon is quickly pricked by Russian intransigence, however, I don’t think this administration will be too keen on continuing down the path of compromise. One shouldn’t forget, after all, that Mike McFaul is no softie on Putin and Medvedev, and has long advocated taking a tough line with the Russians. If the Russians aren’t smart, this will likely be the last time they’re approached in quite so nice a way.
January 27th, 2009
“Russia to relocate fleet to Abkhazia” sez the FT. From Sevastopol in Ukraine, that is. So much for all the speculation people (like me) were doing about Russia’s next steps in the Ukraine viz. this valuable asset.
Then again, as my colleague just suggested, it’s probably best not to infer too much from official Russian announcements, especially when dealing with the Caucasus. Best to keep an open, skeptical mind.
UPDATE: For more broad regional context of Russia’s machinations and what they might mean for us, check out Alan Dowd’s analysis of the predicament NATO finds itself in in Afghanistan over on the main page.
October 9th, 2008
Ever listen to the Russians justify their incursion into Georgia on the grounds of human rights? Being somewhat familiar with Russians and their prejudices, it’s rung a bit hollow to me.
Over at Doublethink Online, Doug Robertson’s taken two Russian works, Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time, and the Soviet-era film Kidnapping Caucasian Style, and in his inimitable style has shown the complicated yet ultimately dismissive attitude Russians have for the roguish people that live to their south.
A snippet from the section on Lermontov to whet your appetite:
To their immediate credit, the Ossetes are always presented as eager to be taken into service: the traveler seemingly can hardly mark two versts in succession without a crowd of them descending upon him like so many would-be window-squeegee-ers upon a twenty-first century inner-city motorist. But no sooner have they been hired than they transform themselves into veritable living engines of inertia, apportioning the work at hand as diffusively as possible and retarding its progress by means of what one cannot help terming a strategy of deliberate counterproductivity: “There was nothing else for it,” writes the narrator, “so I hired six bullocks and a few Ossetes. One of them heaved my portmanteau on to his shoulders and the others helped the bullocks along, doing little more than just shouting.”
Immediately thereafter he catches sight of a Russian army officer (the aforementioned Maxim Maximych) who, to his astonishment, is making equally speedy progress with heavier luggage, fewer bullocks, and no Ossetian help whatsoever. The officer’s explanation for the discrepancy, for all of its telegraphic syntax, is as transparent to interpretation as it is unsparing: “Fearful rogues, these Asiatics [!] are. Do you really think they’re doing any good with all that shouting? God alone knows what it’s all about! But the oxen understand them. You hitch up twenty bullocks if you like, but they won’t budge an inch when they shout at them in that language of theirs. Dreadful scoundrels they are! But what can you do to them? They like to fleece travelers…”.
Read the whole thing. It’s worth your time.
September 27th, 2008
It was a draw, which is good for Obama at the perception level: McCain never successfully put it away against a competitor who’s widely considered to be a foreign policy neophyte.
Overall, McCain’s foreign policy vision was disquieting. His linking of Iran solely to Israel’s existence was pure demagoguery, his Iraq “victory” talk was nothing more than a drawn out soundbyte which betrayed serious delusions about Iraq’s future, and his defense of our pro-Musharraf Pakistan policy was at best unconvincing in the face of Obama’s cheap and disingenuous criticisms.
What surprised me most, however, was McCain’s incoherence on Georgia, an argument in which I thought he had the tactical (if not wholly practical) advantage over Obama. Obama’s reaction to the Georgia crisis as it was unfolding came off as McCain-lite—a muddled and uncertain saber-rattle. All McCain had to do last night was be forceful and single-minded to have Obama look out of his depth. Yet McCain bungled it:
I don’t believe we’re going to go back to the Cold War. I am sure that that will not happen. But I do believe that we need to bolster our friends and allies. And that wasn’t just about a problem between Georgia and Russia. It had everything to do with energy.
There’s a pipeline that runs from the Caspian through Georgia through Turkey. And, of course, we know that the Russians control other sources of energy into Europe, which they have used from time to time.
It’s not accidental that the presidents of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine flew to Georgia, flew to Tbilisi, where I have spent significant amount of time with a great young president, Misha Saakashvili.
And they showed solidarity with them, but, also, they are very concerned about the Russian threats to regain their status of the old Russian to regain their status of the old Russian empire.
Now, I think the Russians ought to understand that we will support — we, the United States — will support the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in the natural process, inclusion into NATO.
At pains to show how much he knew, McCain was scattershot and unconvincing. Which is it, Senator? Is it that we must stand by fledgling democracies no matter what, as the neoconservatives demand? Is it a wholly energy-centered (and quite frankly insane) gambit which demands we try to snake a pipeline from the Caspian between a hostile Iran and an increasingly hostile Russia at the expense of both powers? Or is it that Russia is acting on old Imperial impulses and must be stopped for some reason?
It’s a shame that McCain didn’t turn to friends like Chuck Hagel and Tony Cordesman, and went to unqualified ideologues like Randy Scheunemann instead. He certainly had the opportunity to be the foreign policy “adult” this election.
September 21st, 2008
After boisterously abusing UK foreign secretary David Miliband using colorful undiplomatic language the other day, it looks like Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov may be getting kicked up to vice premier. Medvedev apparently wants Lavrov out as the face of Russian diplomacy as he is the “living symbol of Russian-Western confrontation”, and steps are being taken to find his replacement:
Nezavisimaya Gazeta daily said that the informal working group on ‘moderate detente’ in relations with the West is headed by Deputy Chief of the Kremlin Staff Alexei Gromov.
He has been entrusted with damage control after the Caucasus war, which include steps easing access for foreign investors, releasing persons, considered by the West as “political detainees”.
Medvedev set up this group after the reaction of the US and EU on Moscow’s unilateral recognition of Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the daily claims.
Several candidates are under consideration to fill Lavrov’s job, including Gromov himself, who is a career diplomat deputed to the Kremlin in 1996, according to the daily.
Detente! What a short Cold War it’s been.
September 17th, 2008
Over in (non-Soviet) Russia, trading was suspended yesterday after markets tumbled 17%. Some Russian reportedly said:
“It is a situation of total mistrust. The liquidity crisis is being caused by a crisis of confidence in which people are frightened to borrow and frightened to lend.”
I suspect this is the kind of stuff Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke are trying to avoid with their interventions.
I understand the desire among many of my peers to complain about the taxpayer being forced to foot the bill for these sorts of things. I just suggest that, with a little imagination, one can easily conceive of a whole set of even worse outcomes if this situation is not carefully tended to.
September 13th, 2008
Russia’s stock market has lost 46% of its value since May, with most of the loss coming on the heels of its war in Georgia, sez the New York Times. Russian officials are forecasting an anemic growth rate of 1.8% for next year, down from 13.8% forecast for this year.
In the midst of this, the Russian government is contemplating some heretofore unnecessary interventions in their domestic economy:
The finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, who had opposed investing any of Russia’s $573 billion in hard currency reserves in the domestic market during a milder correction a year ago, this week approved of the idea. Mr. Kudrin added Thursday that the government might also tap money in the state pension fund to invest in equities.
Now it could be that the Russian finance minister thinks equities are currently undervalued due to geopolitical shocks and hence a good buy for the state pension fund. Or it could be that powerful business interests are leaning on their buddies inside government to bail them out using the public’s money.
If it’s the latter and the Russian people wake up one morning to find themselves de-pantsed yet again, it might mean the end of the Putin era. One hopes it is not replaced by something worse.
September 12th, 2008
The Telegraph reports on conversations between David Miliband and Sergei Lavrov:
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, reacted with fury when Mr Miliband and he spoke on the telephone. Mr Lavrov objected to being lectured by the British.
Such was the repeated use of the “F-word” according to one insider who has seen the transcript, it was difficult to draft a readable note of the conversation.
One unconfirmed report suggested that Mr Lavrov said: “Who are you to f——— lecture me?”
He also asked Mr Miliband in equally blunt terms whether he knew anything of Russia’s history.
One Whitehall insider said: “It was effing this and effing that. It was not what you would call diplomatic language. It was rather shocking.”
It’s always important to remember what caliber of official is running Russia these days. These people aren’t statesmen, they’re schoolyard bullies. With nuclear weapons.
September 9th, 2008
A badly fractured (far right, pro-Russian) Radical Party in Serbia.
Yes, the Bush Administration approached Kosovo’s recognition reflexively and without much forethought. But in this case, their decision seems to be paying dividends.
(Why it matters: here and here.)
May 27th, 2008
If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like seconds before you’re destroyed by an air-to-air missile, check out today’s New York Times. The article summarizes a recent UN report which authoritatively declares that the plane photographed above firing at a Georgian spy drone was Russian, thus calling into questions Russia’s self-asserted neutrality in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict. The UN report goes on to chastise the Russians for shooting down the drone while at the same time upbraiding the Georgians for stoking tensions by flying drones over Abkhazia in the first place.
This throws into sharp relief the near-absurd role the UN creates for itself in these kinds of conflicts. There are many UN staffers who think that an important part of the UN’s mandate is war-prevention, and who view a report such as the one described as the proper stance for the UN to take. “Both of you warring factions are culpable,” the thinking goes, “so please separate and let us guarantee the peace between you until you regain your senses and come to a peaceful settlement.” Unfortunately, such a position does anything but guarantee peace. One only need to consider the Georgian perspective in order to see why that is the case.
Georgians, like the much-aggrieved Serbs viz-a-vis Kosovo, don’t see Abkhazia’s independence as at all legitimate, and absent Russian military presence in the region would re-conquer the territory and put down the rebel leadership with traditionally excessive Caucasian violence. There is little reason to think Saakashvili would seek compromise with the rebels if Russia was not backing them to the hilt—indeed, one can easily see Georgia acting swiftly to retake what it feels is rightly its own territory as soon as the Russian military is removed from the region.
This is not to say that Russia’s role in the conflict has been at all honorable or praiseworthy, or that it is acting on anything more than selfish geo-strategic impulses. But it is important for UN types to recognize that the negotiated settlement they envision themselves able to broker can only come about if Abkhazia’s current territorial integrity is guaranteed by force of arms. Since the UN is not going to want to field a force which could very well get in a shooting war with the Georgian army, they ought to be working on ways to resolve the conflict with Russia constructively engaged on behalf of the Abkhaz. Any other strategy is folly and is more likely to lead to war rather than peace.