How To Respond To The Russian Buildup?

Over the weekend, Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, published his thoughts on the situation in Ukraine. Russia has been building up troops along the Ukraine border and making threatening noises. Dan Nexon outlined the situation.

Part of Charap’s argument is that the United States should pressure Ukraine to fulfill its commitments to the Minsk Accord, which slowed down military action in the eastern part of Ukraine but is unfavorable to Ukraine. That provoked heated argument from analysts of Russia.

I’ll post some of the better arguments here and leave my analysis for a later post. They are mostly Twitter threads, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see them expanded into articles. Sadly, some of the discussion has degenerated to “You’re being paid by Putin” and similar accusations. I won’t include that.

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Wars and Rumors of Wars

Now that we are out of Afghanistan and have declared the Forever Wars over, a number of people are eagerly pushing their favorites for the next war.

Alexander Lukashenka, who lost Belarus’s election for president but doesn’t want to go, is causing trouble on his borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia by forcing refugees from the Middle East across those borders. Belarus has restricted the flow of oil to Poland.

Lukashenka’s neighbor to the east, Vladimir Putin, backs him warily because Belarus is one of Russia’s few allies. On the other hand, Lukashenka has defied Putin in the past. His latest move to restrict the flow of oil to Poland may or may not be backed by the Kremlin. Putin has been increasing troop strength near the eastern part of Ukraine, where he has kept a shooting war going since 2014. It’s unlikely that he is preparing for a broader invasion – that would require holding additional territory and thus more military resources. But it’s not clear what he’s about.

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The Biggest Bomb

Popular movements in the late 1950s pressed toward the Limited Test-Ban Treaty (LTBT), signed in 1963, which prohibited atmospheric testing. It was preceded by a voluntary test moratorium by the United States and the Soviet Union from 1958 through 1961. At the time, the development of nuclear weapons – and other things like a nuclear-powered airplane – was wild and woolly.

One of the points of competition was the size of explosion that a nuclear weapon could produce. This was a somewhat silly competition, because the amount of damage a bomb could wreak increases with the cube root of its energy. So ten 10-megaton (MT; that’s millions of tons of TNT equivalent) weapons would be much more damaging than one 100-MT weapon. But for some, size does matter.

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Boondoggle!

Vladimir Putin has proudly announced that Russia is developing superweapons that will get around the American missile defenses he sees as destabilizing the nuclear standoff.

Poseidon, also known as Kanyon and Status-6, is an uncrewed underwater vehicle that can carry nuclear weapons. Putin has threatened that it could cause a radioactive tidal wave that would destroy the east coast of the United States. It is said to be nuclear-powered, so that it can loiter around the seas and be brought into action rapidly.

The 9M730 Burevestnik, also known as SSC-X-9 Skyfall, is a nuclear-powered cruise missile. Like Poseidon, it is said to be able to loiter in the sky to be ready for its mission. Now it looks like Burevestnik has undergone, or is about to undergo, another test. Jeffrey Lewis kindly posted a Twitter thread explaining how they found the evidence.

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If NATO Hadn’t Expanded

A Swedish fighter-bomber that might have been. Source

There’s an ongoing argument about NATO expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union. Within the western political science community, there have been a number of sub-arguments, including whether Russia was promised that NATO would not expand. That has more or less been settled: Although some statements were made to that effect, they were not official commitments.

More broadly, arguments about NATO expansion tend to assume that if NATO hadn’t expanded, Europe would look about the same as it does now, but Russia would be less aggressive, and more accommodations would be possible.

Having co-chaired a NATO Advanced Research Workshop in Estonia and spent some time working with Estonians on a major environmental cleanup, I’ve recognized that there were many paths that could have been taken by the many actors involved, which could lead to quite different outcomes.

Would the newly independent countries trust Mother Russia? Could Mother Russia keep her hands off them? It would not be a single big decision, but a series of small ones.

At the Duck of Minerva, I’ve written a counterfactual in which NATO doesn’t expand. I’ve based it on events that have actually happened, although in different historical order. The outcome is different than has been assumed. It was fun to write and I think will be enjoyable to read.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice

The Biden-Putin Summit

What can we expect from the summit meeting between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin?

Nothing.

That is the expectation that Biden is setting. There will be no grand pronouncements, no reset, maybe not even a perfunctory statement of agreement on a minor point. That is part of the reason that Biden plans to hold a press conference by himself. The other part, of course, is in contrast with Donald Trump’s disastrous showing at Helsinki.

But the meeting is necessary and important. Russia is a major country, with a nuclear arsenal equivalent to America’s. Russia is adjacent to our allies in Europe and supplies energy to many of them. It has a long land border across which untoward things can happen. Those are reason enough for the leaders to meet.

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Russia’s Vaccine Missteps

Russia and China have been exporting their SARS-CoV-2 vaccine to build goodwill. At the same time, however, they have been taking steps that undermine that goodwill. Russia has built up its military forces as if to attack Ukraine and is now building them down; additionally, information has come out about earlier attacks on Czech and Bulgarian arms depots. China has been imprisoning Uyghurs in concentration (“reeducation”) camps and has been militarily active in the South China Sea.

Both vaccines, like the AstraZeneca vaccine, use an adenovirus to carry in parts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to provoke an immune response. The method has been used successfully for an Ebola vaccine.

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Pwned!

Alexei Navalny is a Russian critic of the Putin government. He was nearly killed by a Novichok nerve agent in August. Yesterday, he talked to the FSB agent who poisoned his underwear and got a full confession.

Bellingcat is an investigative organization that developed out of Eliot Higgins’s investigations of Syrian munitions, particularly nerve agent munitions, when he blogged as Brown Moses. They worked with CNN and Navalny in this operation.

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Where We Are – 36 Days Out

The New York Times now has Donald Trump’s income tax returns “extending over two decades”. They say that the returns come from a person who had legal access to them. The Times’s first article provides eighteen takeaways. They promise more to come. Each takeaway is a string that other news organizations can pull.

Trump runs through money and then manages to find yet another source to bankroll him. At this point, he owes $421 million to unknown parties. There are hints and guesses about connections to a hotel deal in Azerbaijan that appears to have laundered money for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and to Deutsche Bank through Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s son.

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The Poison That Took Navalny Down

The German hospital treating Alexei Navalny says that he was poisoned by a cholinesterase inhibitor. That’s a poison in the same family as nerve agents, but not necessarily a nerve agent. Some insecticides have the same characteristic, and there are other compounds as well. Identifying exactly which it is may be difficult after the time that has elapsed since he was poisoned.

The good news is that they say he is in a medically-induced coma and likely to survive. But cholinesterase inhibitors can damage the body in multiple ways, and nobody knows what damage he will sustain.

So it’s likely another poisoning by the Russian government. Their use of poison seems bizarre, but it’s a reminder to people that the government can reach down very personally to people it doesn’t like.

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