Streetwise Professor

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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  1. Here’s #4 for your list:

    Comment by Phil Rothman — September 4, 2014 @ 8:57 pm

  2. @Phil-Thanks. Seeing it’s by Mearsheimer makes it an almost certain qualifier for any worst-of list.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 4, 2014 @ 9:31 pm

  3. Few years ago I thought your predictions were crazy, professor. But unfortunately, the reality turned out to be even grimmer. I am originally from Ukraine, but now live in the same H-town.

    This coal mining region was pretty heavily subsidized under Yanukovich. So with any Putin’s peace plans Ukraine gets to continue paying for the region, while not controlling it. The region was also pretty destructive for Ukrainian politics. Actually, if Crimea was given up in 1991, Ukraine would have been stronger for it since Yanukovich’ support would have been less.

    Even now giving up Donbas fully would be somewhat a good deal for Ukraine. But I am sure that’s not in Putin’s plans either.

    It’s full scale value destruction for Ukraine, any way one looks. Very sad. The West is non-existent. Where is EU’s common energy policy to reduce the ability of Gazprom to push EU countries around?

    Comment by cast off — September 4, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

  4. Jake Barnes answers cast off’s question:

    In reality, the EU leaders are a bunch of shyster politicians who give a shit about one thing: their political position, and by extension the powers they wield and the personal fortune they amass. Like all politicians, they are a bunch of backstabbing, duplicitous, untrustworthy cunts who you wouldn’t trust to look after a wet breeze block, let alone guarantee the safety and security of a nation of people they don’t know and give less of a shit about. The Ukrainians have probably worked this out by now, only it’s too late. The Baltic States should also be waking up to reality and realising that they are on their own and always were. There were times when this fecklessness wouldn’t matter so much as the US could be relied upon to step in when required (as they eventually did in the Balkans), but the current occupant of the White House is so out of his depth and so wrapped up in preserving his image that he makes the EU leadership look Napoleonic by comparison. The collective language of this gaggle of incompetents over the Ukraine crisis screams “Oh why did this have to happen on my watch? Why won’t the problem just go away?”

    Comment by Tim Newman — September 4, 2014 @ 11:28 pm

  5. Hi,

    Could You insert Facebook like buttons etc under your articles? This will help share your insightful articles on the Internet and make your important opinions be heard.
    Thank you

    Comment by iryna H — September 5, 2014 @ 2:08 am

  6. While Jake Barnes is bit foul-mouthed, the sentiment is in the right place. Not only should Baltic citizens start arming and fortifying their homes, but all EU citizens. Without a credible US military threat, borders, trade and the peaceful world order will crumble worldwide. Militias, black-flags, and little green men will start appearing in every community and street corner- not just in the Ukrainem Syria and Gaza. Forget QE from the ECB and avoiding a financial meltdown… a side-show- we are experiencing a geopolitical collapse from the lack of leadership in Washington. Putin may be capable of expanding his borders far wider than the soviet empire.

    Comment by scott — September 5, 2014 @ 4:11 am

  7. @Craig: The main surprise for me from the Mearsheimer piece was that he didn’t find a way to blame AIPAC for all those nasty shenanigans.

    Comment by Phil Rothman — September 5, 2014 @ 6:41 am

  8. Ukraine is Croatia in 92. Sold out by the West, helpless against mindless zombies fed Pan-Slavic bullshit by a bloodthirsty dictator whose only goal is to maintain power eve as he presides over the floundering economy. Unfortunately, the Croats were only outnumbered by 20% instead of the number superiority fascist Russia enjoys but the lesson for Ukraine is the same, move forward with rapid reforms, your very survival depends on it. If they do and Ukraine follows Croatia’s program then Putin has just done a favor to the vast majority of Ukrainians who dont fantasize about living in a Pan Slavic Neo Soviet Union and the trash that do will be in dead in 20 years as the toll of living in a shitty version of Russia wears them all down.

    Comment by d — September 5, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

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