Three Reads On Russia’s Threats

We continue not to know what Vladimir Putin intends nor wants with his massive military buildup around Ukraine, accompanied by diplomatic demands, primarily on the United States, that will not be satisfied.

Michael Kofman is one of the best military analysts around, and well able to extrapolate from the military to Putin’s objectives. His latest summary suggests that Putin will take major military action against Ukraine, perhaps to install a Russia-friendly regime in Kiev.

Given the stakes, and likely costs, any Russian military operation would have to attain political gains that give Moscow the ability to enforce implementation. In short, just hurting Ukraine is not enough to achieve anything that Russia wants. While some believe that Russia intends to compel Ukraine into a new Minsk-like agreement, the reality is that nobody in Moscow thinks that a Ukrainian government can be made to implement any document they sign. Such a settlement would be political suicide for the Zelensky administration, or any other. Russia has no way to enforce compliance with its preferences once the operation is over. This is, at least, the lesson that Moscow seems to have taken from Minsk I and Minsk II. Why would Minsk III prove any different? Russia has not struggled in getting Ukraine to sign deals at gunpoint, but all of these have resulted in Ukraine’s continued westward march and a decline of Russian influence in the country. It’s not clear how Moscow achieves its goals without conducting regime change, or a partitioning of the state, and committing to some form of occupation to retain leverage.

Fiona Hill has been looking at Russia for the United States government for more than two decades. She offers what may be Putin’s motivation.

In the 1990s, the United States and NATO forced Russia to withdraw the remnants of the Soviet military from their bases in Eastern Europe, Germany and the Baltic States. Mr. Putin wants the United States to suffer in a similar way. From Russia’s perspective, America’s domestic travails after four years of President Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, as well as the rifts he created with U.S. allies and then America’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, signal weakness. If Russia presses hard enough, Mr. Putin hopes he can strike a new security deal with NATO and Europe to avoid an open-ended conflict, and then it will be America’s turn to leave, taking its troops and missiles with it.

For a broader perspective on how to think about the crisis, Paul Musgrave considers how different parties with different priors look at it. (Image stolen from Paul)

What’s most striking about this isn’t that there are different opinions or interpretations. It’s that these narratives begin from such incompatible assumptions about everything from the responsibility for the crisis to the factors that matter for its resolution.

These are three good reads for understanding the crisis.

Cross-posted to Lawyers, Guns & Money

An Invitation To Ivanka

The January 6 Committee sent a letter to Ivanka Trump asking her to testify. It’s eight pages, with snippets from documents and testimony they have. But there’s more than that to it.

There are any number of juicy quotes, although most of them have shown up in one way or another in the Committee’s other communications.

The January 6 Committee has a number of jobs to do: Protect the operation of Congress and the government more generally; understand what happened that culminated in January 6; and make the public aware of that history and its dangers.

The committee has tens of thousands of pages of documents and hundreds of hours of testimony. They are now putting that evidence together to pinpoint the further evidence they need. The Department of Justice and the news media are also investigating the events leading up to January 6. Each has a different mission and approach, although there are overlaps. I’m discussing only the January 6 committee here.

The letter details the subjects on which the committee wants to hear from Ivanka. To that end, they quote other testimony, which itself reveals some of the information in the committee’s possession, but the letter has broader meanings, which Ivanka or her legal counsel should be able to read.

Read More

What Will The Neighbors Think?

As Russia threatens Ukraine and intervenes in Kazakhstan, its other neighbors are looking on. Russia’s words toward NATO have been accompanied by warnings to Sweden and Finland not to join NATO.

Russia is presented with a conundrum of its own making. It would like to have friendly or neutral neighbors, but, when they don’t toe that line, as particularly in the case of Ukraine, Russia argues it has no choice but to attack them. This does not encourage a friendly attitude in the neighbors.

Russia’s grab of Crimea and its attack on the Donbas alerted other neighbors to prepare for the worst, now amplified by the Russian military buildup around Ukraine and Russia’s demands on NATO and the United States. The neighbors must respond to Russia’s renewed demand for an explicit sphere of influence.

Read More

Will Putin Start A War?

Nobody knows. End of blogpost.

Or I could go on.

I follow a great many Russia experts on Twitter, and they don’t know. Some tilt one way or the other, but all emphasize that there are great uncertainties. That is how Vladimir Putin likes to play his hand – keep people guessing.

In mid-December, Putin presented two agreements, between Russia and NATO and between Russia and the United States. Basically, the agreements would make it safe for Russia to do what it wants in Europe and, particularly, Ukraine. To develop leverage for those proposals, he has massed something like 100,000 troops around eastern Ukraine with equipment in a way that looks like readying for war.

Read More

Placing Blame

I made a sorta New Year’s resolution to post about stuff other than covid, but covid takes up a lot of everyone’s mental space, and I am particularly angry about this latest surge. Maybe the next post will be about Russia.

This morning, one of my go-to virologists, Dr. Angie Rasmussen, tweeted a rage-thread. She gave a nice definition of endemicity, which I plan to use going forward because it works with my emphasis on prevalence.

In the rest of the thread, she enumerates policy mistakes. She doesn’t explicitly blame Joe Biden, but she mentions the White House, and others do explicitly blame Biden and “the Democrats.” It’s easy to blame the party in power and easy to believe the President can do anything with a snap of his fingers or by signing a piece of paper, but it’s not true. I agree that I would have preferred some of her policies, but let’s focus on what we actually have to change, not just yell at the easy targets.

Read More

Living With Covid: Continuing the Conversation

Kevin Drum offers some suggestions as a conversation starter on “living with covid.”

Far too many people using that phrase actually mean “Shut up and sit down because I’m tired of dealing with this and want things back to where they were before the pandemic so I will act that way.” That’s not going to happen, and Kevin recognizes it in his post, but I need to say it again.

At the moment, with something like 600,000+ new infections a day, we must get prevalence down before we can start to think about a more stable situation. The good news is we may see a decline in infections fairly quickly, say by the end of January, as more people become immune via infection or vaccination. At that point, we need to look hard at what we need to do to keep it that way, because immunity via infection seems to wane fairly quickly. Vaccination, obviously, needs to continue and expand.

Read More

Demonstrations in Kazakhstan

Demonstrations in western Kazakhstan, the oil-producing region, against a sharp increase in the price of automotive fuel, have spread across the country to the former capital, Almaty, and the current capital, Nur-Sultan. There has long been dissatisfaction with a dictatorial-kleptocratic government.

President Tokaev has sacked the former (and first – he served since the breakup of the Soviet Union) president, Nur-Sultan Nazarbayev, from his post as Security Council chairman and is expected to dissolve Parliament. It’s not clear that this will stop the demonstrations.

What is happening in Kazakhstan is exactly what Vladimir Putin fears for Russia. He has seen such demonstrations in several former Soviet republics, most recently in Belarus and in Ukraine in 2014. He is trying to force NATO and Ukraine into reconsiderations of their positions by threatening military action against Ukraine. He will likely see events in Kazakhstan as a CIA/NATO provocation in response to demands he has issued to NATO and the US.

Read More