Streetwise Professor

November 30, 2007

A Glimmer of Hope

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:44 am

Many of Russia’s many tragedies are traceable to the suffocating statism that has characterized most of its history, and the absence of any private powers to check the state. Moreover, Russian national identity has been intimately tied to the idea of an awful (in the archaic sense of the word), omnipresent, omnipowerful, and imperial state. To many, Russian national pride depends on the power and assertiveness of the state. To such people, to be Russian is to serve the state, and to do anything but serve it tantamount to treason–and perhaps more than tantamount. Self-styled Russian patriots often drip with disdain for–or rage with anger at–those who value individual freedom, and a state that serves the people. In other words, at liberals, in the classical/European sense of the word.

Sadly, this vision of Russian identity is ascendant. Indeed, as the Duma “election” “campaign” reaches its anticlimatic climax, President Putin’s increasingly strident harangues– “speeches” doesn’t seem to be an apt word–make it clear that to take an opposing view is to be an enemy of Russia.

Fortunately, there are other visions, and other voices. One is Gaidar, whom I mentioned in an earlier post, and whom I will discuss in more detail in a future one. But there are others, too.

The invaluable Paul Goble summarizes an essay by Aleksei Shiropayev that dares to claim that soi dissant Russian patriots who worship at the altar of the state are the real enemies of the Russian nation. As summarized by Goble:

Because they focus on the people rather than the state, Shiropayev says, Russian nationalists – or at least the part of the Russian nationalist spectrum his “national democrats” represent – are “non-imperial” in principle. “Not through the restoration of the Empire lies the path to the Russian future, but across the corpse of the empire.”

“Thanks to the Empire, the Russian people has not become a nation,” he insists, and to change that, Shiropayev continues, it is vitally important to “open the sluice gates of regional development,” to promote “a bourgeois state,” and to integrate with Europe, must as the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic already have.
The first task ahead of Russians, he argues, is “overcoming the fetishization of the state” by advancing the claims of the people over which the state has ruled. And the most effective way to do that is to promote the creation of regional governments that are closer to the people.

“Fetishization of the state.” Just so. And it is just so that the hypertrophy of the state that this fetishization encourages is the main obstacle to the interests of the Russian people. How many millions–tens of millions–of Russians have died, and how much agony have those that lived suffered, all to advance feed the insatiable appetite of a messianic state.

Russians have many things of which they can rightfully be proud. Their accomplishments in literature, the arts, science, and engineering are legion; their steadfastness in the face of incredible trials is inspiring. It is unspeakably sad that time and again the interests of such a great people are subordinated to the needs of Leviathan.

As Goble notes, Shiropayev’s program has no place in Putin’s Russia: “but in terms of Russian politics under Vladimir Putin, Karpets and those who continue to deify the state at the cost of keeping the Russians from a nation like any other would seem to have the greater influence.” Indeed, Shiropayev’s vision is an anathema. But it is encouraging to know that there live stalwart souls who are keeping the liberal flame alive. And when the new hyperstate inevitably collapses, just as its predecessors did, perhaps this time Russians will look to Shiropayev and others like him, and choose a new Russian future that breaks from the state-fetishism of its too often tragic past.

November 28, 2007

Post-Soviet Inflation

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:34 am

This article on Grigory Yavlinsky contains the following bit of conventional wisdom:

But Russians might be afraid of more change, and many people consider the word “democracy” to be a negative one. The “democracy” of the 1990s was difficult for most Russians. Privatization resulted in hyperinflation, unpaid wages and the disappearance of social security. Incomes and savings disappeared while, at the same time, a new class of wealthy Russians arose and profited from the sale of national companies. Expectations for democratic development were suffocated. “People do not think in terms of the future. They think in terms of yesterday’s fears,” Yavlinsky said to Novye Izvestia.

The statement that “privatization resulted in hyperinflation” is just plain wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This plays into the Putin-era revisionism about post-Soviet Russia.

As Yegor Gaidar’s new book shows in detail, post-Soviet hyperinflation was a direct consequence of the myriad failures of late-Soviet economic policy. Facing dire economic circumstances, the Soviet government used the printing press to finance the government, and at the same time it maintained strict price controls. The result was acute shortages of everything. Unable to buy things at the official prices, people hoarded their rubles, and built up huge bank accounts. When prices were freed after the collapse of the USSR, the “ruble overhang” resulted in a huge spike in prices.

The inflation already existed in the USSR–it was just suppressed. There were massive quantities of rubles chasing few goods, but sellers couldn’t raise nominal prices accordingly due to draconian price controls. The shadow price of bread, soap, and everything else was far higher than the official price. The freeing of prices just caused the nominal prices to catch up with the shadow prices. People’s bank accounts weren’t wiped out–what good is money in the bank if there is nothing to buy? The real purchasing power of rubles in the dying days of the USSR was far smaller than the purchasing power measured at the official prices of goods–which no one could actually purchase, which sort of contradicts the whole idea of purchasing power. The rise in nominal prices post-USSR was a reflection of Soviet economic failure, not the failure of liberalization. It painfully disabused people of Ruble Illusion–the misguided belief that the rubles in their bank accounts were actually worth something. Unfortunately, the people actually responsible for debasing the ruble have largely escaped blame, while the liberalizers who forced people to face reality have been tarred instead.

So the privatization gets blamed for what was really the abject failure of Soviet economic policy. And privatization’s alleged failure, in turn, rationalizes current anti-market government policies. What a tragedy. Careless recycling of tired conventional wisdom about post-Soviet economic catastrophe, like the paragraph quoted above, is deeply pernicious. Journalists should be much more careful. Like Mark Twain said, it’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know that just ain’t true.

By the way, I plan to write a brief review of Gaidar’s book in a future post. Basic verdict: good read, very informative, but a little repetitive.

And a hat-tip to SWP reader, commentator, and SWP Technorati “fan” (my OAO, in fact)–Dmitri–who, made me aware of Gaidar’s book. Thanks!

Putinkin’s Military, Again

Filed under: Military,Russia — The Professor @ 11:11 am

From Dmitri Trenin’s FT Q&A:

A resurgent Russian economy has precipitated a vast increase in state spending. Has there been a corresponding increase in military spending? And, generally, how does the leadership of the armed forces view Putin and Russia’s future?
Louis Godena, Providence, Rhode Island USA

Dmitri Trenin: Yes, indeed, Moscow has embarked, for the first time since 1991, on a major program to modernize and rearm its Armed Forces. The budget allocates something around US$200 bn (actually, more, with the dollar’s value falling) toward that goal through 2015. The appointment earlier this year of Anatoly Serrdyukov, a former head of the Tax Police, as Russia’s defense minister, shows that the Kremlin is concerned about the actual spending of the allocated funds. So far, however, the rate of rearmament has been moderate to slow. The Russian military still mostly has to rely on Soviet-era hardware.

As for the military leadership’s response to Putin’s policies, they see him as the first leader in nearly 20 years who is serious about Russia’s national interests, national security and national defence. His leadership was also key, in their view, to succeeding in Chechnya where others had failed. The military leadership sees Russia as a great power with strong armed forces. In the strategic sphere, they want to be equals (which does not have to be equal numbers) with America; and they want to be able to assure Russia’s security vis-à-vis China, a friend today, but a mighty and growing power, nonetheless.

Three key things: (1) another confirmation that the rumble bought per ruble spent on military hardware is low, (2) corruption is a big part of this problem, and (3) Putin’s appointment of a tax policeman to head the Defense Ministry is an acknowledgment of (2). I chuckled at reading the oblique reference to corruption in procurement: “the Kremlin is concerned about the actual spending of the allocated funds.” You don’t say.

From Strategy Page, further information regarding the Potemkinesque nature of the “rebuilding” of the Russian armed forces:

The Rot Continues
November 27, 2007: Although Russia has announced ambitious military construction and rebuilding programs, when you do the math, you realize that the Russian military is still in decline. For example, Russia’s aging ICBM force, which has gotten little money in the last decade, is still wasting away. This despite some new missile construction. Over the next decade, Russia’s ICBM forces will decline from nearly 700, to under 200. Similar declines are underway for ground, naval and air forces. Aiding this collapse is the continuing corruption, particularly when it comes to procurement. All the stealing means that the military pays more than it should, for less than it is supposed to get. This is one reason for increasingly hostile diplomacy in response to NATO forces on Russia’s borders. After three ruinous invasions in the past two centuries, such paranoia (“of course NATO is planning to invade us”) has become acceptable in Russia. The decline in Russian ICBM forces is one reason Russia is so opposed to the anti-missile system the U.S. is building in Eastern Europe (to protect Europe from Iranian ballistic missiles.)

This indeed puts the Russian conniptions over the missile defense in Poland and the Czech Republic in a somewhat different perspective. Note again the emphasis on the stealing in the procurement process. I have read recently of another failure of a Bula va SLBM test (and predictable attempt to cover up the same.) Hey, if this continues, one won’t be able to say any more that Russia is like Upper Volta with missiles. One will be able to economize on words and say that Russia is like Upper Volta. Period.

All of this further highlights–as if additional confirmation were needed–the yawning disconnect between Putin’s strutting and reality. It does raise questions, all of them disturbing. Does he know the true situation, and is just running a huge bluff thinking that the US is distracted by Iraq, and that the Europeans are weenies? [Note to VP: the tide is turning in Iraq, old buddy, and tomorrow our distraction, loss of moral authority, imperial overstretch, yadda, yadda, yadda is going to be so yesterday that anybody making bets on these conditions continuing for long is in for a big, nasty surprise. Sell at the top, dude, ‘cuz you’re not going to like the crash.] [Betting on the Euros to be weenies, on the other hand, is a consistent winner.] Or is he living in some fantasy world, thinking that Russia is a serious military power? Beats me–the evidence is consistent with either alternative. And either alternative is fraught with serious potential for miscalculation, which will not be good for anybody, but will be worst for Russia.

Update. Here’s a link detailing the most recent Bulava test failure. [Spelling corrected in original post.] It’s interesting to see that the early tests were successful (although they appear to be preliminary tests), whereas none of the recent tests are undisputed successes.

November 26, 2007

The Clampdown

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:58 am

It is hard to say which is more pathetic; the small bands of Putin opponents demonstrating in Russia, or the brutal, disproportionate response by the Putin government. We now know–as if further demonstration were necessary–that in Russia, “democracy” is “managed” with nightsticks and police batons.

What explains the ferocious response of the OMON (the Interior Ministry’s security force) to the minuscule and clearly impotent protests? It could demonstrate just how paranoid the Russian regime is, how fearful it is that any spark, no matter how small, could set off a conflagration. Or maybe Putin et al aren’t really that fearful, but see no reason to take chances.

And they will evidently pay no price whatsoever for these actions. That reveals what is truly the most pathetic thing of all: the utterly pusillanimous response of the US government, the EU, and the governments of individual European countries. Why shouldn’t Putin act this way? He has paid no price in the past, and likely will pay no price now or in the future. Now, to be sure, a more vocal–or more muscular–response to Putin’s actions would feed his paranoia, and provide more grist for his rhetorical mill (which has been working overtime as the Duma campaign reaches its climax, with a recent speech indulging in lurid fantasies about the nefarious designs of foreigners on Russia’s resources). And such a response will not derail Russia’s rush to an authoritarian future that is looking more and more like its past. But calling a spade a spade would have the virtue of honesty, and the softly-softly approach will only feed Putin’s disdain and will do nothing to moderate his behavior. Indeed, it will encourage only more adventurism.

Governments, no doubt, are more than a little influenced by the pleadings of business interests looking to get in on a Russian boom. These businesses are incredibly short sighted, for any government that beats peaceful protesters will not think twice about taking whatever foreign property that suits them. Or have they not been paying attention for the past 3 plus years?

Harry Reid Hits Bottom, Breaks Out New Drill

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 10:29 am

I yield to no man (or woman) in my utter contempt and disdain for Sen. Harry Reid. To find historical precedent for his disgraceful conduct regarding Iraq as Senate Majority Leader you would have to go back to the extremes of the Peace Democrat (not to say Copperhead) faction during the Civil War.

If you had asked me Thursday (Turkey Day, appropriately) whether it was possible for me to hold a lower opinion of Reid, I would have answered with a resounding “NO!” On Friday, I would have had to admit that my Thursday answer was wrong, for after reading a Wall Street Journal editorial describing why Reid is pulling petty stunts to prevent recess appointments, my already subterranean opinion of Reid tested record depths:

Incredibly, the negotiations broke down over two nominees for the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Mr. Reid put his foot down over Dennis W. Carlton, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and Donald B. Marron, formerly of the Congressional Budget Office. They were named to these positions over the summer, and ought to be shoo-ins.

I have known Dennis Carlton for over 25 years. He was on my thesis committee at Chicago, and I worked for him at Lexecon. Dennis is a brilliant economist, and a first rate gentleman. He is a formidable intellect, and incredibly open minded. He bases his conclusions on rigorous logic and theory, and on the empirical evidence. He goes where economic logic and empirical evidence lead him. He is no slave to ideology. He is genuinely curious about a wide variety of economic issues, and is willing to entertain and engage diverse perspectives on these issues. He is has a knack for explaining complicated concepts to lay audiences. I know attorneys who have been opposite him during cases who have nothing but the deepest respect for his intelligence and integrity.

Moreover, unlike many people of his stature, accomplishment, and caliber, Dennis is not arrogant or condescending. He is friendly, helpful, affable, respectful. In debate he is relentless, but never mean or belittling. The economics profession could use a lot more Dennis Carltons.

In short, Dennis Carlton is exactly the kind of person you would want advising the President and engaging with policy makers throughout the government. But of course Harry Reid can’t have that, can he? So he pulls petty stunts to prevent Dennis (and some other folks) from serving in the position to which he has been appointed.

I could hazard a guess as to why Reid opposes Dennis. I presume it has something to do with Dennis’s UC connection, and the belief that Chicago is an iniquitous den of free market ideologues. This was never true before–even in the Friedman-Stigler days–and certainly isn’t true now. And even if it were, people should be judged as individuals–and although Dennis is certainly a believer in markets, he is not a Panglossian knee jerk free market sock puppet. He knows that markets can fail–but he also knows that government can fail too.

Reid’s behavior is exactly the kind of thing that deters good, public spirited people from serving in government. It feeds cynicism and deepens partisan rancor. It is a petty, pointless, and poisonous exercise of power by a very small man.

Intellectually, there is a yawning gap between Harry Reid and Dennis Carlton. As men, the divide is even more vast.

November 16, 2007

Crude Propaganda

Filed under: Commodities,Economics,Energy — The Professor @ 12:02 pm

OPEC is trying to lay blame for high oil prices anywhere but on its own doorstep:

Mr El-Badri said, however, that the the “US should help to resolve the problem” and enumerated several factors, among them bottleneck in refining, geopolitical concerns and the weakness of the US dollar, that were affecting the oil price.

“The US has not invested in refining capacity in 30 years. The refineries are operating at 80 per cent. That is not adequate,” Mr El-Badri said. “We have also the problem of the dollar,” the secretary general added.

Mr. El-Badri is either laying on the bullshit with a big trowel, or he needs a lesson in basic economics. (My money is on the former alternative.) “Bottlenecks in refining” cannot explain current high oil prices. Indeed, refining bottlenecks cause the price of crude to decline relative to the price of refined products. An outright decline in refining capacity should cause the price of crude to fall. Consider the extreme case where there is no refining capacity at all. In this case, the price of crude would be zero because there would be no use for it as it could not be refined into anything useful. Crude would be as it was before Drake–a nuisance, a pollutant.

In fact, refining margins have declined substantially as crude prices have risen. An increase in demand for refined products would cause an increase in the price of crude–but the price of refined products would rise even more. Indeed, if refiners were operating at absolute capacity (infinite marginal cost of refining an additional barrel–the extreme bottleneck), an increase in demand for refined products would cause the price of gasoline and heating oil to rise, but the price of crude would not budge as due to the putative bottleneck in refining the increase in demand for refined products would NOT translate into a rise for the derived demand of crude. Moreover, US refineries have been operating at 80 or better for years. Sure, no refineries have been built from scratch, but refining capacity has continued to grow as refiners expand existing facilities. And memo to Mr. Al-Badri, with the exception of the 2005-2006 time period, refining has hardly been a wildly lucrative business. If it were the major bottleneck, refining would be a lot more profitable.

Thus, the simultaneous rise in the price of crude and a decline in refining margins is flatly inconsistent with El-Badri’s “explanation.” It is instead consistent with an adverse crude supply shock. Such a shock causes the price of crude to rise and refining margins to decline. Therefore, contrary to El-Badri’s babbling, price relations in the petroleum markets point directly to crude supplies–and crude suppliers–as the culprit.

The dollar story is also so much eyewash. Econbrowser does a very good job at debunking this chestnut. The price of crude is rising in terms of other currencies, and variations in the value of the dollar are not significantly correlated with changes in the price of oil.

So, let’s give El-Badri’s explanations the respect they deserve–none–and move on to the interesting issue. OPEC says it won’t raise output. There could be two reasons for this: they don’t want to, or they can’t. There are clearly some countries (notably Iran and Venezuela) that don’t want OPEC to increase output. But there are a lot of folks out there–notably Matt Simmons–that have been trumpeting the view that Saudi Arabia in particular is facing an inexorable decline in production, and is incapable of enhancing output even if it wanted to. Simmons and the peak oil crowd are the most outspoken on this issue, but there is reason to doubt whether the Saudis actually have the capacity to increase output. There is an intense debate over whether the recent decline in Saudi output was volitional, or instead resulted from the peaking of its megafields. That debate won’t be resolved any time soon, but OPEC’s (and KSA’s) refusal even to consider increasing output, and their lame rationalizations of the causes of the recent runup in oil prices, lend some credence to the view that Saudi Arabia has less available productive capacity than it claims.

More on That Report on the Russian Military

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:34 am

More coverage of the report on the Russian military I discussed yesterday; I haven’t been able to find an English translation of the report online, so I have to rely on news accounts. From Gazeta (via JRL):

The report argues that the Russian media and most of the Western media are mistaken in their evaluation of the Russian Armed Forces. [Not if you read SWP!] Remilitarization is not happening. The widespread opinion that the Armed Forces have almost regained their Soviet-era strength in the course of the Putin era is not true, and problems like corruption, dedovshchina (abuse of new conscripts by older soldiers), and social insecurity are not just background issues. In reality, the Armed Forces are in deep systemic crisis, manifested in all aspects – from arms procurement to officer employment (75% of officers are moonlighting as security guards or drivers). . . .

Equally unjust, according to Remizov, is the fact that an ordinary soldier serving under contract in a permanent combat readiness unit earns as much as an officer in a regular unit. In fact, the report condemns the whole idea of a contract-based military system, arguing that it attracts unstable elements and people who are unable to earn a living in the civilian workforce.
The report says: “There is reason to believe that in the near future the core of the Armed Forces will consist of infantry mercenaries whose main task will be fighting their own people rather than external threats.”

From WindowOnEurasia:

despite Russia being “awash in oil money,” the Russian government under Putin has increased spending on the military only 15 percent as of 2006 from the low average of the 1990s. As a result, the report’s authors say, the Russian military is increasingly far beyond in the deployment of new strategic and conventional weaponry.

Since Putin came to power, they note, the Russian military has put into service only 27 new rockets, one-third fewer than his predecessor Boris Yeltsin did, and the armed forces have suffered if anything even more in the conventional area because the government has not replaced equipment lost in the fighting in the North Caucasus.

And third, the Russian military faces a crisis in personnel. In the past, the report suggests, Russian officers and men have often behaved heroically even when they have not had equipment equivalent to what their opponents did. But now, the likelihood they would do so in the future is reduced because of their sad conditions.

Some of the problems in the officer corps they call attention to – the aging of Russian pilots and the departure of top officers for civilian life — have been widely reported in the past. But others, which may have an even greater impact, have not been the object of as much attention, at least when presented together as in this report.

Draft resistance is increasing, they report, because of the low status and bad conditions soldiers in the ranks face. And
consequently, the report notes, the military has been forced to induct people whose health, mental state, or criminal background would have kept them out before. . . .

Indeed, they say, the condition to which Putin has reduced the military likely means that the only enemy the Russian armed services will be able to take on is the people of the Russian Federation. But that, they imply, may be the most dangerous opponent the current Russian president now faces.

I have read some other things that Khramchikhin has written. He strikes me as being fond of making very strong, and almost outlandish, statements, some of which seem to be quite sensible, but others of which seem to be very wrong. The report’s authors’ apparent animus to a “contract” (i.e., volunteer) force, and its strong support for universal conscription is something of a puzzler. Some of the coverage I have read states that the report is very critical of Russian military doctrine for being too wedded to the past, but at the same time it embraces maintaining a very traditional approach to manning the RF’s armed forces. If the report is right, the implementation of the contract soldier program in Russia leaves much to be desired (go figure), but this does not mean that the idea of a volunteer military is inherently flawed–especially given the serious problems Russia is facing with obtaining qualified soldiers through the draft. The poor implementation of the contract program may well reflect the fact that the Russian military establishment doesn’t think much of the idea of a volunteer force; the report’s authors may share that view.

The most provocative conclusion that appears in the press coverage is that the Russian military is incapable of fighting any external enemy, and that it only provides a credible threat to opponents of the government. So, remind me again as to why any foreign government–outside, perhaps, Georgia and the Baltics–responds to Putin’s bluster with anything but disdain? (And even with respect to Georgia and the Baltics, why don’t they get more support from the West?)

November 15, 2007

Even the AP Gets It

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:24 am

What’s up with the AP these days? Are they just the proverbial blind hog luckily rooting a few acorns, or have they taken off their blinders?–at least on some things. Here’s an AP story on Putin’s Potemkin Military:

President Vladimir Putin’s government has failed to reverse a steady post-Soviet decline of the armed forces despite repeated pledges to strengthen military might, a group of independent experts said in a report released Tuesday.

The military continues to suffer from rampant corruption, inefficiency and poor morale, the report said. The Kremlin has also failed to deliver on its promises to modernize arsenals, it said.

Putin owes his broad popularity to an oil-fueled economic boom that has helped increase wages and pensions, as well as efforts to revive Russia’s clout. But critics say that the Russian military is only a shadow of the Soviet Army and that bellicose statements from the Kremlin mask a steady decline of its potential.

“The revival of Russia’s military might under Putin is merely a myth,” Stanislav Belkovsky, who head the Institute for National Strategy, said at a presentation of the report. “The Russian armed forces have degraded completely under Putin.”

If the current trends continue, the report warns, Russia’s nuclear arsenals would shrink from about 680 intercontinental ballistic missiles now to between 100 and 200 missiles over the next 10 years.

“It’s impossible to reverse these trends under the current policy,” it added, pointing at a steady decline of the Russian military-industrial complex that would make it impossible to increase weapons production without huge investments.

Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert with the Institute for Military and Political Analysis, said the continuing decline of nuclear forces meant that they would shrink to a level far below that of the United States and would be comparable to China’s.

“Russia’s strategic nuclear forces have seen sharp cuts under Putin,” Khramchikhin said.

He added that the sea-based component of Russia’s nuclear forces had undergone particularly drastic reductions.

Blaming corruption as the root of the problem, Khramchikhin and others said increasing military budgets under Putin actually bought fewer weapons than in the era of President Boris Yeltsin.

“Because of corruption, the military gets a lesser number of weapons at a higher cost,” Khramchikhin said.

Amid the increasing cold spell in relations with the West, officials cast the United States and NATO as the main potential enemy, neglecting a rising threat from China, experts said.

Moscow and Beijing have developed increasingly close ties since the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991, building what they described a “strategic partnership” based on their shared opposition to perceived U.S. global domination.

China has also become the top customer for Russia’s military-industrial complex, buying billions of dollars’ worth of jets, submarines and destroyers. “Thanks to Russia, China has practically overcome the lag in military technologies which was pretty big in the late 1980s,” Khramchikhin said.

A growing population and limited resources in China, he added, will make it a potentially difficult neighbor in the future. Some people in Russia have voiced similar fears, pointing at increasing numbers of Chinese migrants in scarcely populated Russia’s Far East and Siberia. Officials have dismissed such concerns.

Several comments. First, the article is in accord with several earlier SWP posts; most interesting is Khramchikhin’s statement that much of the supposed largesse showered on the Russian military is actually being siphoned off via corruption. Second, it raises the question of why nobody calls Putin’s bluff. There is nothing more dangerous to a dictator–or a would-be one–than losing face, or backing down in a confrontation. Third, the last paragraph is very interesting. Lenin said that capitalists would sell the rope by which they were hung. Perhaps Russia has sold China the proverbial rope–or at least the means by which China wrests control of Siberia from Russia. For all of the paranoid talk about the US seizing Russia’s mineral wealth (talk spurred by a fabricated quote from Madeline Albright), the real threat lies not across the Bering Strait, but across the Amur River. For all of the current chumminess between Russia and China (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, etc.), the longer run interactions between the two are unlikely to be all that collegial. Right now, they have a common interest: epater les Americains. Over the longer run, haggling over the terms of energy trade under the shadow of increasing Chinese military and political clout, and Russia’s existential demographic crisis, are likely to make the relationship much testier–or something way beyond testy. In the event, Russia may well rue its role in arming China. But perhaps this is just another manifestation of the very short time horizon that seems implicit in virtually every recent Russian geopolitical decision.

The Drawdown

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 10:48 am

There are news reports that the US will soon draw down its combat forces in Iraq, withdrawing one of the six “Surge” brigades (from the First Cav Division), with more to follow in due course.

I have mixed reactions to this news. It is indisputable (to the sentient, and those not blinded by partisanship–so in other words I’m not talking about Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi–but hell, even the AP has figured this out) that the Surge has had remarkable results. As I predicted back in May in “Ridgeway, Abrams, Petraeus” and in February in “Hit Hard, Hit Fast, and Hit Often” seizing the initiative, taking the offensive, and implementing the basic blocking and tackling of counterinsurgency warfare have had dramatic effects on the ground in Iraq. It’s amazing what happens when one wields the most formidable military force ever seen in the world according to basic military precepts.

But . . . I have this nagging worry, and a nagging doubt. The nagging doubt is that we may be letting up too soon, condemning ourselves to the Sisyphusian task of rolling the same rock up the hill in the near future. I would rather err on the side of overkill than underkill. I realize that there are important considerations in terms of force readiness and “breaking the Army” (and the USMC), but the best way to address that problem is to win decisively soon. The Army and Corps would be best served by finishing the effort decisively even if that requires additional months of heightened operational intensity, rather than engaging in an indecisive slog over a period of years.

Here’s one analogy. One can take antibiotics for awhile, and feel a lot better, but it is important to take the entire regimen rather than stopping taking the pills as soon as the symptoms go away. The underlying cause of the symptoms remains, and must be destroyed by continuing to take the antibiotic. Stopping the pills to early can result in a worse–and much more difficult to treat–infection later.

And my worry–that this move is not Petraeus’s, based on the military situation in Iraq, but it is political, perhaps intended to undercut the upcoming Pelosi-Reid call to withhold funding until a troop withdrawal begins. Or that it is Army Chief of Staff Casey’s decision–the same General Casey who made the fundamental operational decisions that dramatically worsened things in 2005-2006 when he was the commander in Iraq. (I am still puzzled about rewarding failure with promotion.) Petraeus’s strategy was essentially to do the exact opposite of everything Casey did, and some press reports suggest that Casey has been working from the Pentagon (and receiving a sympathetic hearing from SecDef Gates) to go back to his old ways.

If this is a political calculation, it is a bad one. I think that even someone as inarticulate as Bush could make a convincing case to continue the effort given the clear signs of progress, and the distaste that many Americans have for defeat, especially when victory appears possible. Given that the battle is being won on the ground in Baghdad and Baquba and Samara and Ramadi, it is more than possible to win the battle in Washington; the disconnect between the “Peace” Democrats’ rhetoric and Iraqi reality is becoming more apparent by the day, and this disconnect is political poison. Make them eat it, or force them to concede defeat–not America’s in the military theater of Iraq, but their’s in the political theater of Washington.

In any event, first things first. If the military campaign is waged correctly, the benefits–most importantly, to the interests of the United States, and only secondarily to the political actors–will flow accordingly. If the military campaign is aborted prematurely, allowing Iraq to spiral back into blood, chaos, and despair, any political benefits from withdrawing now will be fleeting indeed. So the right thing is to begin the drawdown only if it is militarily advisable. It just so happens that the right thing is the politically expedient thing too.

As If

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:15 am

Via JRL, an article from RIA Novosti:

MOSCOW, November 13 (RIA Novosti) – Yury Baluyevsky, the chief of Russia’s general staff, said in an interview with the Russia Today TV channel on Tuesday that the Russian Armed Forces were under no obligation to protect the world from the U.S.

Answering a question as to whether or not the world could count on Russia to defend it from “insidious American plans,” Baluyevsky replied, “Today, there is no need to be afraid of the Russian Armed Forces. However, I do not believe that the Russian military is obliged to defend the world from the evil Americans”.

Here is a translation of what Yury really meant: “I do not believe that the Russian military is remotely capable of defending the world from the evil Americans.” (I presume his use of the phrase “evil Americans” was tongue-in-cheek; if he said it in all seriousness, his statement would be the epitome of self-parody.)

Ignoring for a moment the paranoia underlying the question, it is a simple fact that the Russian military has virtually no capability to project power beyond the near abroad, and even a large military effort in any region contiguous to the Russian Federation would be problematic given the decrepit state of the Russian military. It has virtually no strategic mobility. Its Navy has some capabilities, most notably its submarines, but even these are much atrophied. Saber rattling Bear flights don’t demonstrate the might of the Russian’s strategic air power; quite to the contrary, they reveal its pathetic weakness. In a nutshell, Russia could undertake no militarily meaningful response to a (hypothetical) American military attack on Iran, or Pakistan, or N. Korea, or wherever.

And I think that may be the real message here. Specifically, Baluyevsky is telling Iran or Syria or North Korea or whoever else is sweating about the possibility of waking to the sweet music of exploding JDAMs: “You’re on your own, dudes. Don’t look to us for help.” Which, in the scheme of things is a very constructive message that makes a peaceful resolution of the stalemates with Iran or North Korea much more likely.

Next Page »

Powered by WordPress