Streetwise Professor

September 15, 2014

Russia to OPEC: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before. OPEC: Believe Me, We Have

Filed under: Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 3:00 pm

This is so amusing, because it is so typical:

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak will meet OPEC officials on Tuesday in Vienna, his spokeswoman said, as oil’s price fall piled pressure on Moscow’s budget.

The annual meeting had been planned long before oil fell below the $100 per barrel level critical for Russia’s oil sales which account for 40 percent of state budget revenues.

Russia suffered from a decline of oil production and prices this year and has cut its outlook for oil output as core western Siberian fields become more depleted.

The spokeswoman said that Novak and the officials from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries had not planned to discuss the prices of oil, which hit 26-month low for Brent crude on Monday.

However, a government source said the measures to prop up the prices have long been discussed at the ministry.

“The talk of closer cooperation with OPEC on prices have long been there,” he said.

So far, Russia, the world’s top producer of conventional oil, has ruled out coordinated action with OPEC to halt the price decline.

Yeah. Novak is scurrying to Vienna, but he’s not going to talk prices. Sure. Tell me another one, but not so funny as I just busted a gut reading that and can’t take too much more.

Putin, Inc. is no doubt in a mild-to-moderate panic at present because Brent has breached $100, and Urals is below that, in the low $90s. Russia needs Urals in the $104 range to meet budget targets, and that’s not counting Crimea or especially a war that doesn’t officially exist but which costs real money to fight.

So off Novak runs to Vienna, in an attempt to get OPEC to prop up the price. Not that Russia will do anything to help, mind you. It’s MO has long been to demand, beg, cajole OPEC to cut output to support prices, while Russia produces to capacity. That’s what Russia did in 2009 when prices cratered into the $30s. OPEC was not amused then, and they won’t be amused now.

If anything, geopolitical considerations, namely Russia’s support of Assad and cooperation with Iran, will make the Saudis in particular even less generously inclined towards Russia.

Meaning that Novak’s mission to Vienna will accomplish nothing, except to provide an entertaining example of Russian all take, no give negotiating style.

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Even Jacksonians Pick Their Battles

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:07 am

I am, if you haven’t noticed, an instinctual Jacksonian (in the sense of Walter Russell Mead’s quadripartite characterization of American foreign policy types). My first reaction is to hit hard at those who confront the US or threaten American interests. ISIS is therefore a natural candidate for a good drubbing.

But more sober reflection (figuratively and literally!) leads me to conclude that a full-blooded response to ISIS is unwise, especially in Syria. For many reasons, the commitment that would be required to fully extirpate the organization is not worth the cost, and it’s better not to fight at all than to fight a half-assed or quarter-assed battle.

Our options now are extremely limited due to past choices, by  Bush yes but primarily by Obama. ISIS was contained in Iraq before Obama declared victory and withdrew prematurely from any presence in Iraq. An early intervention in Syria might have achieved some result before Islamists came to dominate the opposition, which occurred in part as the result of Assad’s decision to unleash Islamists, including ISIS, to create an N-way war in Syria: it is not really correct to call most of the Islamists oppositionists, because they effectively served as Assad’s allies in the battle against the FSA and other opposition groups. (I suspect that Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, which basically left the place an Iranian satellite, and his demurring from attacking Assad, already an Iranian satellite, were driven in part by his pipe dream of a grand bargain with the ayatollahs.) Since 2011 we have suffered years of the locust, and last time I checked God isn’t promising to repay.

Now ISIS and other Islamist forces are well entrenched in Syria in Iraq. Rooting them out would require a robust ground campaign. We have no reliable allies in the region, and those who would have an interest in fighting ISIS-namely, the Iranians and Assad (who is in effect Iran’s main Arab ally/proxy) and Hezbollah-are really our foes in virtually every other way. Empowering them does not advance American interests,  and would actually inflame the already fraught Sunni-Shia conflict. Obama’s statement that healing the Sunni-Shia rift is part of his strategy is utterly delusional. By comparison, perfecting cold fusion and inventing a practical warp drive are child’s play.

All this means that, with some local exceptions, we cannot depend on local proxies to provide the necessary ground forces.  An American commitment would be expensive, extensive, and logistically challenging, especially given the unwillingness of Turkey to throw in. We would also face a tremendous challenge of knowing exactly who to fight, and we would no doubt be fighting not just ISIS and other Islamist groups, but Iran and Iranian proxies who would find this a great opportunity to take a few whacks at the Great Satan (just as happened in Iraq) and tie him down in a grueling war of attrition.

Which all means that perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a reversal of ISIS’s gains in 2014 in Iraq. This is probably achievable using a combination of American airpower and special forces in combination with Kurdish forces and Iraqi regulars, although rooting them out of Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi and maybe Mosul is probably beyond the capability of the Iraqis. Air power can offset myriad weaknesses, but it can’t work miracles.

Once that is accomplished, a reduced but persistent presence can contain ISIS in Iraq, while Syria remains embroiled in an N-way standoff. (I say N-way because the non-Assad forces are fissiparous, to say the least. There are literally hundreds of groups.) A defeat of Assad would lead to something like Libya, most likely. Syria, in other words, is beyond human help: it’s fate is a choice among horrors.

From a purely geopolitical perspective, this would serve American interests. Iraq would not fall under the thrall of Sunni head choppers. Iran would not be further empowered. The Gulf states would be less threatened, though they will continue their duplicitous, perfidious ways (Qatar especially). The ISIS terror threat to the US and the West more broadly can be addressed through the same means we have used to combat Al Qaeda for the past 13 years.

Not a they lived happily ever after outcome, by any means, but better than some of the choices on the menu.

I also shudder at the prospect of the Anti-Jackson commander in chief leading a campaign. An extended military action of the type the Pentagon would consider necessary is antithetical to every fiber in his being. It is obvious that he has no appetite for the fight, and has a predilection for limited measures (drone strikes aimed at killing terrorist leaders, the odd special forces raid) that have no strategic purpose or effect. War under such unwilling and uncertain leadership would be a pointless expenditure of American lives and treasure.

Partial rollback and containment of ISIS is good enough, and does not tie down the US in a costly and divisive struggle that is peripheral to its core interests. Russia and China are far more pressing long-term problems, and another war of attrition in the Arabian snake pit is a distraction from dealing with those problems.

Alas, Obama is disinterested in those issues as well. He basically threw the Ukrainians to the Russian wolves  last week:

Expressing confidence that the United States was on “the right side of history” in this battle, Mr. Obama said the nation would also resist Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, even though he noted that the United States has very little trade with Ukraine and “geopolitically, what happens in Ukraine doesn’t pose a great threat to us.”

Again with the hands-off reliance on some impersonal historical force to make things right. Mentioning trade first is rather bizarre, and the cluelessness of the last statement is mind boggling. You’d think that a challenge to both the entire post-Cold War settlement in Europe and to the principles of the post-WWII settlement (not to mention the entire post-Westphalian principles) like that which Putin is posing in Ukraine would be a matter of some geopolitical importance. It has implications far beyond Donbas-the Chinese are watching with great interest, for example. But the return of the 1930s doesn’t bother our Barry.

The Poles and Balts and Nordics are probably losing their water right now after having read Obama’s “what, me worry” approach to Ukraine and Putin, especially given the jarring contrast with Obama’s remarks in Tallinn before the Nato summit in Wales: Obama’s credibility is already shot, and the contrast between his indifference to the broader implications of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and his pledge to defend all Nato countries will only pump in another couple of bullets. Putin will no doubt take this as an invitation to push things even more.

Obama has company in selling out Ukraine. Explicitly deferring to Putin’s anger about its effects on the Russian economy,  EU put the Association Agreement with Ukraine on hold. Don’t want to provoke the old boy, you know.

But as is always the case, immediately after the capitulation, fighting swelled in Donetsk in spite of the cease-fire. Putin pockets every concession, then escalates. He doesn’t need external provocations. He is self-provoking, especially when he sees that his actions will meet no serious resistance.

The anti-Jacksonian approach of Obama and the Europeans, which eschews force and bleats about “no military solutions” and the need to rely on diplomacy alone is responsible for the myriad messes that now confront us. But bullheaded Jacksonian pugnacity isn’t warranted either. A prudent choice of battles, and the means to fight those battles, is needed. Use enough force to beat back and contain ISIS in Iraq. Turn attention to the true strategic challenges in eastern Europe and Asia, starting with arming Ukraine and supporting it economically and politically, deploying more robust Nato forces east of the Elbe, and committing to long-term undermining of Russian military capabilities through sanctions and other economic measures (e.g., releases from the SPR) that weaken the economic props for its ambitious rearmament program. And for God’s sake don’t advertise weakness and appeasement to people like Putin.

Is that too much to ask? Alas, the answer is probably yes. So things will likely get worse  before they get better, and even when they get better they won’t be as good as they were in 2013.

Update: The Kagans bravely try to craft a strategy to deal with ISIS, in Syria as well as Iraq. It seems like a poker strategy based on repeatedly drawing inside straights. Not impossible, but not bloody likely. I think the diagnosis of the current situation is pretty on target, and aligns with my years of the locust take. But getting Sunnis who don’t trust us to bear the brunt of fighting other Sunnis which necessitates simultaneously sidelining Shias (which is required to get the Sunnis to work with us) seems beyond the ability of any American administration, especially this one, due to its demonstrated lack of competence, the fact that Sunnis in Iraq believe it betrayed them after their previous efforts in the Anbar Awakening by abandoning them to a Shia government in Baghdad, and the fact that it is widely suspected, with considerable justice, of harboring an intense desire of doing a deal with Iran.

The Underwear Gnome business strategy has a better chance of working than this.

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September 9, 2014

The Euros Get Tough on Google, But Run and Hide From Gazprom

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:09 pm

The European Commission’s competition commissioner has scuppered a proposed settlement with Google. The Commission has already taken many pounds of flesh from Microsoft and Intel over the past year, so now it is looking to add some Google cuts to the meat locker.

What about the EU’s case against Gazprom, you ask? <Crickets.>

I’m not a big Google or Microsoft fan, but the accusations leveled against them (and Intel) are highly speculative. Gazprom’s exercise of market power, and its protection of that market power, is almost textbook. The egregious price discrimination, and its use of contractual terms (no re-sale) to support that discrimination, is a blatant example. So on the merits, the Gazprom case should proceed and the Google case should be settled, and on anything but onerous terms.

But the craven Euros quake before Gazprom. Indeed, they seem to be even less willing to confront the company now that Putin is on the war path.

They have a better case against Gazprom, and that case could be a political lever in what is an existential battle over European security: Putin and the Russians have ranted and raved about the case when the Euros did press it some, which indicates that it hits the company, and hence Russia, where it hurts.  But rather than hitting this pressure point, the Euros bury the case and go kick Google instead.

Don’t think that Putin doesn’t notice. And know that it is exactly this kind of cowardice that emboldens him.

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Igor Might Cash In, But Only Because the Future Is Bleak

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:44 pm

It looks like Igor may get his money:

Allocation of over $40 billion from Russia’s National Welfare Foundation for Rosneft oil giantcould be reasonable, as the investment will be repaid, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview to the Vedomosti newspaper, released Monday.

“This number only seems so impressive, but this is not [supposed to be repaid] within a year,” Medvedev said, answering a reporter’s question on whether Rosneft’s request for $40 billion is feasible.

“The company needs to keep up production, since Rosneft is a major contributor to the budget. In this regard, we have to help them by maintaining the investment level,” Medvedev explained, adding that the government is considering specific ways of aiding Rosneft.

Now, this is Medvedev speaking, so take it for what it’s worth. But it’s my impression that lately Dmitri’s designated role is ventriloquist’s dummy, and if you looked closely you can probably see Putin’s lips moving. This is at least a trial balloon, and perhaps it is laying the groundwork for an official announcement. It is sufficiently controversial within the Russian government that Putin probably does not want to act precipitously and is putting Medvedev out there to see if the proposal attracts too much fire.

This statement likely reflects a couple of realities. First, Sechin’s influence with Putin. The second is the effect of sanctions. Although the EU and US sanctions have not been as draconian as they might be, the FUD factor has worked. Western capital markets and banks are largely shut to Russian companies, especially those subject to sanctions (like Rosneft). Rosneft has maturing debt to refinance, and as Medvedev says, it needs to invest to maintain production.

Output dropped 1.3 percent in August, as the productivity of western Siberian fields continues to drop as they age.

In another indication of the stress that it is facing, Rosneft (and thus Putin/Russia) actually agreed to let China invest in Russian oil fields on terms never extended to a western firm. The Chinese can bring capital, but not the expertise and technology that Rosneft needs to develop the challenging resources on which has staked its future. And the Chinese usually drive a hard bargain. So even with state money, Rosneft will struggle to achieve anything like the lofty ambitions that Sechin has laid out.

The state money will buy some time for Rosneft. Presumably Putin and Sechin are hoping that the state money will get them through the sanctions, which they likely anticipate will fade away in the near-to-medium term. But the FUD factor will continue to limit Rosneft’s access to western capital and western technology. Yes, energy firms and banks will come back if and when sanctions go away, but on terms that will be far less favorable than had been available pre-Ukraine. Putin’s unpredictability has dramatically raised the political risks of investing in Russia, especially in the energy sector.  Future capital will come with strings, and will be reluctant to invest in long term projects that could fall victim to Putin’s next adventure.

In other words, if Putin indeed permits Rosneft to dip deeply into the National Welfare Fund, it will be an acknowledgement that Russia has burned its bridges with western finance and technology.

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September 5, 2014

Obama The Chess Playing Pigeon Struts Around the Board & Claims Victory Over Putin

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:28 pm

Obama’s cultists often compare him to a chess master, playing the long game. There is another chess metaphor that is far more apt, however. Specifically, there is a story that has gained wide currency in which Vladimir Putin compares Obama to a chess playing pigeon. Putin supposedly said: ”Negotiating with Obama is like playing chess with a pigeon. The pigeon knocks over all the pieces, shits on the board and then struts around like it won the game.”

This story is almost certainly false. The chess playing pigeon meme dates to far before Obama’s time. But there is no person that the story fits better. The story has resonated precisely because it is so right. If Putin didn’t say it, he should have, and he would have been dead on.

For proof, one need go no further than Obama’s claim that he, and he alone, is responsible for the cease fire agreement (such as it is) in Ukraine:

“I want to point out, the only reason that we’re seeing the ceasefire at this moment is because of both the sanctions that have already been applied and the threat of further sanctions,” Obama saidfrom Wales where a NATO summit is taking place. [Emphasis added.]

The Reason article linked above points out several of the problems with Obama’s statement, but it misses the biggest one. The colossal one.

Obama effectively asserts that the ceasefire is a setback for Putin that he was forced to accept due to the pain of sanctions and the prospect of worse sanctions to come.

This is a total inversion of  reality. The reality is that this is a major victory for Putin. For crissakes, Putin and Lavrov have been demanding a ceasefire for weeks. Months even. Demanding. It’s what they’ve wanted all along, and has led their list of demands. It saves the Russian rebel puppets from defeat, and allows them to cement their position in Donbas. It forces Poroshenko to acknowledge the Russian puppet states as legitimate interlocutors. It creates a frozen conflict that makes Ukraine toxic for Europe and Nato. It creates a bleeding ulcer inside Ukraine that will sap the poor country of its vitality, and keep it on the precipice of becoming a failed state.

From Putin’s perspective, what’s not to like? To love, even, given his obsessive hatred for an independent Ukraine.

The timing is also telling. When did the ceasefire happen? In the immediate aftermath of a dramatic Russian escalation that inflicted a bloody, devastating defeat on Ukraine and turned the tide of battle. This forced Poroshenko to negotiate from a position of weakness, and allowed Putin to negotiate from a position of strength. This is exactly contrary to the impression that Obama attempts to convey, which is that Putin was forced into concessions.

There are two, and only two, possibilities here. It is hard to decide which one is more frightening.

The first one is that Obama is so clueless that he does not know that Putin has been demanding a ceasefire, and that a ceasefire achieves his main strategic objectives. So clueless that he does not know that this is exactly what Putin wants. Hell, he’s not even B’rer Rabbit, who had to use reverse psychology to get thrown into the b’rer patch where he was born and bred. Putin said that’s exactly where he wanted to go, and Obama doesn’t even understand.

The second is that Obama knows, but is so intent on shunting the Ukrainian crisis to the bottom of the pile that he shamelessly goes all Orwell, and declares down to be up, war to be peace, and defeat to be victory. That Obama wants to put the “Problem Managed” stamp on Ukraine, and walk away, perhaps to sneak a peek at his Nobel Peace Prize, and say “I’ve  earned it!-or at least I can pretend I did!”

Clueless or mendacious. Pick one. There is no third choice.

Ukraine: you’re on your own. Which, methinks, is precisely why you entered into such a humiliating deal.

But don’t think Putin will rest on his laurels. To the contrary, he smells weakness. How else to explain that a mere two days after Obama stood in Tallinn, Estonia and delivered in stentorian tones a solemn promise to defend Estonia and other allies to the last, that the FSB launched an operation inside Estonia, and kidnapped a member of the country’s counterintelligence service?

This isn’t over, people. Not by a long shot. The fecklessness on display daily, including notably at today’s Nato summit in Wales, acts on Putin like an aphrodisiac. The escalations have just begun, and either President Pigeon doesn’t understand, or understands but doesn’t care enough to do anything about it.

 

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September 4, 2014

Three Dubious Pieces on Russia

Filed under: Economics,History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:36 pm

The Ukraine situation continues to churn away. The situation on the ground is difficult to follow, but there is a consensus coalescing about Putin’s strategy. In a nutshell, the view is that he is aiming at a frozen conflict. He is telling Ukraine: “If I can’t have you, no one will.” He is pressuring Ukraine in the hope of forcing it to forego any connections, especially defense/security connections, with the West, and to give Russia de facto control over Ukraine’s foreign policy. And since this involves trade and energy policies, it also gives Russia de facto control over a considerable portion of Ukraine’s economy.

I’ve been of the view for some time that this is Putin’s goal.

Even though a consensus is coalescing, there is a raft of bad commentary out there. Among the worst is this piece by Simon Shuster. He argues that it is unwise for the West to provide weapons to Ukraine, because this would embolden Poroshenko to continue his attack on the separatists, rather than enter into negotiations.

Where to begin? The first major problem is the implicit assumption that it is appropriate for Ukraine to negotiate with rebels who are puppets of a foreign power over the control and governance of sovereign Ukrainian territory, especially given the precedent this would set for Putin. If this works in Donets, why not Kharkiv? Why not Odessa? And beyond Ukraine too: the Baltics most notably.

The “we need to get Ukraine to negotiate the terms of its surrender” is basically the Putin position.

The second major problem is Shuster’s claim that the weapons that the West would provide would be used to complete an offensive operation against the rebel puppets. But the arms that have been discussed include almost exclusively defensive weapons, notably anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, along with training that could be focused on executing defensive operations. Such weapons would dramatically raise the cost the Russians would incur to invade more deeply into Ukraine. This could deter Putin from continuing and expanding his offensive.

Expanding Ukraine’s offensive capabilities would require supplying them with tanks, artillery, helicopters, and combat aircraft. Even if they had more such equipment, it is doubtful that Ukraine has adequate manpower to increase substantially its offensive capability. Defense requires less manpower and less training than offense.

From both Ukraine’s and the West’s perspective, permitting Ukraine to defend its sovereignty unconditionally, rather than negotiate it away, is paramount. Providing defensive weaponry would advance this goal.

Another dubious piece of commentary, this one from a normally reliable writer, relates to France’s decision finally to do the right thing, and suspend (though not cancel) the sales of the Mistral class helo carriers to Russia. Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky opposes the suspension, because Kremlin hawks (and hawkish buffoons, like Rogzin) have opposed the purchase of foreign vessels from the get go.

This argument is based on the premise that the purpose of canceling the sale is to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. But that’s not the real reason to oppose the sale. The real reason is that the Mistrals would dramatically increase Russia’s power projection capabilities, and pose a severe threat to Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics.

Although one role of sanctions is to punish, another is to diminish capabilities. This second reason is the real reason why it is imperative to stop the sale. Russia with Mistrals is more dangerous than it is without them.

And don’t think that the Russian military doesn’t realize this. This gives me serious reason to doubt Bershidsky’s reasoning.

A third example doesn’t relate to Ukraine, but to the hack on JP Morgan computers. The hack has been traced back to Russia, but there is no definitive evidence of Russian government involvement. This Bloomberg piece notes the hesitancy to pin the hack on the Russian government:

JPMorgan’s security team continues to investigate the possibility that the hackers may have been aided or at least condoned by the Russian government, possibly as retaliation for U.S.-imposed sanctions, said a second person involved in the probe.

Others trying to piece together what happened, including outside specialists hired by the bank, say they have seen nothing to suggest the Russian government directed or aided the JPMorgan attack. Instead, they said that the hackers may have been opportunistic, expecting to be shielded because of the tensions between Russia and the U.S.

Some investigators speculated the cybercriminals were hired by the Russian government in the past and may have used malware and other tactics also shared with Russian government agents.

We live in the era of Little Green Men with no identifiable connection with the Russian government carrying out operations that advance the Russian government’s interests. The entire Russian operation in Ukraine, starting with Crimea, has been based on maskirovka and plausible deniability and using cutouts and proxies, or Russian personnel disguised as cutouts and proxies. Why should things be any different in the JPM hack? It’s not like the Russian government is going to advertise its involvement in such an activity. But the parallels are so close that the prudent inference is that this s a Russian government operation.

The exact purpose of this operation cannot be discerned. Warning? Reconnaissance? An attack discovered before it could be fully executed? But especially in the current environment, it would be foolish in the extreme to conclude that it is anything but a hostile act directed by the Russian security forces, even if it was carried out through by shadowy figures not operating in an official capacity. That’s what the Russians do.

 

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September 1, 2014

Merkel: No Military Solution in Ukraine. Putin: Really? It’s Working for Me!

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:57 am

As surely as day follows night, Putin followed the most recent EU meeting with an escalation in Donbas. As is their wont, the Euros expressed outrage at Russian actions in Ukraine and threatened increased sanctions, but their body English/German/French/Dutch, etc., screamed  a desire to avoid a confrontation at all costs. The delay of seven days in announcing sanctions was only the most visible manifestation of Europussilanimity. So Putin took his cue, and ratcheted up both the military tempo and his rhetoric.

Per usual, Merkel was the leader of the poodle pack. Even though Germany has agreed to send weapons to the pesh merga fighting ISIS (though Germany is unwilling to, and probably incapable of, assisting in military action in Iraq), Merkel stubbornly doubled down in her refusal to do the same for Ukraine (h/t Ivan):

Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, speaking early Sunday after the meeting broke up, said that Germany “will certainly not deliver weapons, as this would give the impression that this is a conflict that can be solved militarily.” But she said further sanctions were needed, as “the situation has deteriorated considerably in the last few days,” and would be imposed “if this situation continues.”

Apparently Putin didn’t understand Merkel’s pronouncement, despite his fluency in German, because he is clearly under the impression that the conflict in Donbas can be solved militarily.

Compare and contrast her stony refusal to arm the Ukrainians to her plaint on the need to arm the Kurds. With respect to the Kurds she said, ”the immense suffering of many people cries out and our own security interests are threatened.” First: there is immense suffering in Ukraine, even if it hasn’t devolved to head chopping quite yet. Second: Germany’s own security interests are far more threatened by Putin’s actions in Ukraine than ISIS’s actions in Iraq, as ominous as the latter are. I would say that Merkel is willing to arm the Kurds precisely because ISIS’s threat to Germany is far more distant than Putin’s is.

Merkel’s idiocy is beyond measure. The point of supplying weapons to Ukraine is to deter Russian aggression. The prospect of facing Ukrainian forces amply armed with anti-tank weapons could be just the ticket to get Putin to un-deteriorate the situation in Ukraine. Given Russia’s weak manpower situation, he cannot mount an even slightly extended campaign. His army is still highly dependent on conscripts, and with the one-year conscription cycle, units are deployable for only 4 to 6 months. Moreover, although some losses can be hidden from the Russian public for a period of time, large losses over an extended period cannot. Nations with very small cohorts of young men are especially sensitive to losing them.

Hence, it would not take much of a leap in Ukrainian military capacity to give Putin grave reservations about escalating the military confrontation even further. A liberal supply of selected weapons (as well as intelligence and communications and logistics support) would provide that capacity. But Germany-and the US administration-steadfastly withhold it. It borders on the criminal.

And here’s a puzzler. Germany now ranks as the second largest arms exporter in the world. Since heaven forfend Germany would sell weapons to countries that would use them for aggressive purposes, it must be that the German weapons are being sold to countries that want to be able to defend themselves against aggressors, and by purchasing arms they can deter such aggression. So by making large weapons sales, Germany must be relying on the argument that the deterrence effect of these arms reduces the likelihood that countries will try to solve disputes militarily. But it is unwilling to apply that argument to Ukraine.

Or maybe it’s just that Ukraine can’t pay, so screw ‘em.

Back in 2008-2009, I asked whether the situation was more like the 70s (the optimistic view, such as it was) or the 30s (the pessimistic one). I think the answer is now clear. We are in 30s mode, with a craven West cringing before emboldened autocrats in both Europe and Asia.

This provides a demonstration of why history cycles. The politicians who are elected in a time of (relative) peace and prosperity are usually the least fit to keep the peace and stability. They are focused on domestic issues, and take international tranquility for granted. They point to the absence of an imminent threat, and argue that militaries can be slashed. They are masters of projection, assuming that everyone is as pacific as they, and share their desire to focus on economic issues and domestic programs and spending.

But they fail to realize that threats are endogenous. When everyone is a lamb, there is an opportunity for wolves. Predators like Putin can succeed only because stronger nations and groups of nations become soft, let slip their vigilance, drop their guard. They are full of rationales for doing so, but in the end these  are just manifestations of their denial of the reality that not all people, politicians, and leaders think the same way and pursue the same ends.

So after a period of conflict, strife-weary countries turn to softer leaders who sing siren songs, who are temperamentally and constitutionally averse to conflict, who despise martial matters (and who are hence ignorant of them), and who are strategic naifs who think that every dispute can be negotiated. Appeasement is their first instinct, and their second, and their third. They believe in win-win, in give-and-take.

This creates a main chance for aggressive opportunists, especially those of a zero sum mindset. Opportunists who interpret every concession made to them as an invitation to demand more. These wolves upset the peaceful (apparent) equilibrium, ushering in a period of conflict and disorder that the lambs are utterly incapable of addressing. Populations are interrupted from their reveries, and turn to more steely leaders, and the cycle begins again.

In the meantime, however, there is much trouble, suffering, and too often, bloodshed. Ukraine is the first to suffer from this phase of the cycle. It is almost certainly not the last.

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August 29, 2014

Obama Channels My Great-Grandfather

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:47 pm

My grandfather told a story about his step-father, Bill Wilcox. Wilcox “shot” oil wells (the fracking of its day) in West Virginia and southeastern Ohio. He lived in very rough coal mining country, and newspapers were something of a rarity.

My grandfather related how one day in what would have been around 1910-1915, Wilcox brought a newspaper from the general store in Glouster, OH to his home in Burr Oak (now submerged under Burr Oak Lake). The headline was about a massive flood in China which killed many and threatened millions with starvation. Wilcox put down the paper, and said: “There’s too much damn information in the world. Now I have to worry about 5o million starving Chinese.”

Fast forward a century or more. At a fundraiser in New York, Obama blamed his current travails on too much information:

The world has always been messy. . . . We’re  just noticing now in part due to social media.” ”Second reason people are feeling anxious is that if you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.”

No, actually. Obama is apparently trying to rebut claims that he bears some responsibility for the fraught state of the world, and to resist pressures that he needs to act more decisively against Putin, and ISIS, and Assad, and . . . by claiming that the current world isn’t really that much different than it’s ever been. It’s just that we notice it more because of Twitter and the nightly news. (Aside: who under age 70 watches the nightly news?)

Hardly. At least for the last century, and perhaps more, people even in remote rural areas have had access to world news, and could understand what was going on. Even though if-it-bleeds-it-leads has always been the motto of the media, people could distinguish between the normal mayhem, and truly exceptional times.

Obama is under attack because current circumstances are far more dire than in recent memory-including during the Twitter era; because Obama bears considerable responsibility for some of the chaos (especially ISIS); and because he seems totally overmatched in dealing with the situation (and indeed seems rather disinterested). It is not a matter of perceptions distorted because people are aware of things they wouldn’t have known about before because of new information technology. The perceptions are well-grounded.

Would that Obama deal forthrightly with the reality, rather than suggest that people are overreacting due to information overload. But this is a man who can’t even tolerate criticism of his choice in suits.

One other note about the fundraiser. Obama threw red meat about Republicans to the partisan-and very, very .1 percent-crowd. As described by Mark Knoller of CBS: “Pres again slammed GOP as ‘captured by an ideological, rigid, uncompromising core that won’t compromise & always wants its own way.’” His attacks on Republicans are far more pointed, and far more strident, than his criticism of Putin. He delivers his domestic partisan attacks with zeal and real intensity. His disparaging remarks about Putin are perfunctory and delivered without any passion whatsoever. Attacking Republicans, he speaks from his core: criticizing Putin, he reads from the Teleprompter. In contrast, Putin vents about the US with an intensity similar to Obama’s when he goes after Republicans.

It’s clear what rouses Obama’s passion. And it ain’t world affairs, even when the world is careening towards disaster. This isn’t a Twitter-driven perception. It’s a reality.

 

 

 

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August 28, 2014

Obama Wore a Tan Suit Because He Much Prefers You Obsess Over Its Color, and Ignore the Fact That It’s Empty

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:53 pm

Today Obama shared with the world his deep insights on ISIS and Ukraine.

The gobsmacking revelation: “We don’t have a strategy yet” on ISIS. (Precisely because he calls it ISIL, I will refer to it by ISIS.)

This brings to mind the old Lone Ranger joke, with the punchline: “What do you mean we, paleface?” (Don’t go there.)

I am sure that the Pentagon presented Obama with multiple strategies, and that he found none of them to his liking.

No doubt none of the options were all that palatable. Primarily because his previous decisions have left the United States with a set of choices that range between bad and terrible. But there are certainly several that would be better than nothing, which is what he is choosing to do. I would surmise that part of the reason that Obama is refusing to choose any of them, which would involve getting more deeply involved in Iraq and bombing Syria, is that by choosing them, he would be drawing attention to his own blunders.

So it’s not that “we” don’t have a strategy: it’s that Obama doesn’t. I am sure that people in the DoD are simply beside themselves.

Obama did indicate that whatever his strategy ends up being, it will start with John Kerry going to the Middle East to build a coalition. You know, the John Kerry that is a laughingstock in the region. The John Kerry who is pretty much despised by everyone that matters: I am sure that even the nations he has sucked up to, namely Qatar and Turkey, have zero respect for him. The John Kerry that hasn’t negotiated anything lasting and serious. The John Kerry who routinely travels to Geneva to be humiliated by Lavrov and the Iranians.

Kerry’s one-one-claim to accomplishment as Secretary of State is negotiating a deal among the Afghan presidential candidates for an audit of the country’s disputed election. No sooner did he get on the plane than the principals to the agreement started arguing. The audit has not taken place, and is not likely to take place anytime soon.

But Kerry will put that robust coalition together, have no fear.

On Ukraine, Obama couldn’t utter the “I” word–invasion. He said, in effect, move along, there’s nothing new to see here:

“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Obama said, noting Russian President Vladimir Putin has ignored opportunities to find a diplomatic end to the dispute.

This is true. Russia has been invading for months, so its reinforcement of the invasion is just a continuation. Obama’s bloodless indifference and inaction are also just a continuation. He is just waving Putin on, and Putin will just step on the accelerator.

For his part, Putin delivered a truculent statement that can be viewed as a victory speech, and as a signal of his intention to expand the conflict. He praised the rebels in Donbas for “intercepting Kiev’s military operation,” and called on them to mercifully let surrounded Ukrainian forces to retreat to avoid a “needless loss of life.” He demanded Ukraine cease military actions, declare a cease fire, and negotiate with the rebels.

The title of the talk was ominous: “An address to the militia of Novorossiya.” You know, of course, that Novorossiya encompasses far more than the Donbas.

Facing no real resistance from Merkel and Obama, Putin is going to push forward.

Back to Obama. Other than the “I don’t need no steenkin’ strategy” line, what drew the most comment was his tan suit.

His sartorial choice is easily explained. He would much rather have people obsessing about the color of his suit, than noticing the fact that it is empty.

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August 27, 2014

Merkel Channels Ricky Ricardo. Somehow Putin Doesn’t Strike Me as the Lucy Type.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:36 pm

This would be hilarious, if it weren’t so sick.

Today there were numerous detailed reports of Russian troops invading southeastern Ukraine, with the attacks focusing on the town of Novoazovsk, on the road to Mariupul. This strikes Ukraine to the rear of its main effort to the north in Donetsk, and threatens to uncover Crimea, providing Russian troops with another axis of advance into Ukraine.

Note that this has occurred after Merkel pressured Poroshenko to give Putin a face-saving out, and the very day after Putin and Poroshenko met. A meeting during which Putin said that the conflict was purely an internal Ukrainian matter to be worked out between the Kiev government and the rebels.

So what did Merkel do in response to this very serious escalation? She channeled Ricky Ricardo, and called Putin to tell him he had some ‘splainin’ to do:

Angela Merkel told President Vladimir Putin by phone on Wednesday that reports of a new Russian military incursion into Ukrainian territory had to be cleared up, a spokesman for the chancellor said in a statement.

“The latest reports of the presence of Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory must be explained,” said Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert. “She emphasised Russia’s major responsibility for de-escalation and watching over its own frontiers.”

Yeah. Tell Putin to de-escalate right after he’s escalated. That’s telling him.

Explain the reports? Clear things up? The level of unseriousness here is off the charts.

So what is this, the 35th Merkel to Putin call? These calls have accomplished what, exactly?

The most plausible hypothesis is that what they’ve accomplished is to convince Putin that he can do as he wills, without fearing any German response worth mentioning. (As for Obama, start printing the milk cartons with his picture. He’s been missing on this for weeks. The US response has been limited to unleashing the #hashtagteam of Psaki and Harf. Gawd. Speaking of the fearsome hashtags, has Nigeria gotten its girls back yet? No? So how come nobody’s hash tagging it any more?)

But this call to “explain” is a new low. Is Merkel a slow learner? Has she considered the possibility that the explanation for “reports” of Russian tanks in Novoazovsk is that there are Russian tanks in Novoazovsk?  Does she expect Putin will all of a sudden cop to this after denying Russian involvement for  six months (going back to Crimea)?

I see that the Germans do not say what Putin’s explanation was. Presumably because it was impossible to hear through the guffaws.

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