Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Are we headed for WWIII?

Max Fisher (http://www.vox.com/2015/6/29/8845913/russia-war#warnings) says it is highly possible but with low probability.  Cheryl Rofer (http://nucleardiner.com/2015/07/06/world-war-iii-coming-think-again/) has written a rebuttal and says it is highly unlikely with an even lower probability and that Fisher is just trying to scare us.  Being a natural cynic and pessimist, I say all wars have low probability but they also have very high costs, consequently the danger needs to be taken seriously.

Fisher notes how closely the current situation resembles Europe before the Great War.  When I read Margaret MacMillan’s “The War that Ended Peace”, I was hard pressed to know which century it referred to. The parallels between the quarter century leading up to 1914 and today were frightening to say the least. Rofer doesn’t necessarily disagree but says that we have far better intelligence today in terms of troop movements etc. and more worryingly we also have nuclear weapons.

People who start wars are not rational.  Like all criminals, they believe they are smarter than the average bear and that the laws of probability, like all other laws, do not apply to them. Rofer is betting Putin is not irrational enough to start a nuclear war. She reminds us of Nixon’s “Crazy Leader” theory that if you act crazy enough people begin to fear you because you just might BE crazy enough. Fisher is betting the other way.

The one thing that tips the odds in Fisher’s favour is the Russian rulers’ inherent unconcern for its citizens, going back centuries and manifest for example in the 27 million deaths of Soviet citizens (of which 10 million may have been Russian) in the Second World War.  For a Western city of any size to be destroyed by a nuclear bomb would be a tragedy beyond description.  For Putin, anything less than the total destruction of Moscow is just part of the cost of doing business.

Both Fisher and Rofer agree that Russia’s nuclear doctrine which sees an ever lowering threshold for use of nuclear weapons and a great deal of sabre rattling is a response to their military weakness. It is currently based on “non-escalating” use of nuclear weapons.  This means if they get in a jackpot they drop a small nuc on a small western capital (Warsaw, Riga. . .) or a large group of NATO troops as a warning shot.  NATO either escalates to full scale nuclear war and destroys the earth or surrenders rather than go that route.

Whole careers have been built around and digital forests destroyed, trying to understand “What Putin wants”.  Rofer and Fisher offer the usual suspects and as Rofer points out, none of them are mutually exclusive. The problem being how to weight and therefore respond to the individual “wants”. Rofer correctly describes Kremlin emissions as a great deal of noise while Fisher seems to take them all seriously.

Putin wants respect and great power status for Russia.  Respect and great power status are funny in that you either earn it or you don’t have it.  Whining and demanding don’t get you far.  Ask Kaiser Wilhelm II.  It is hard to respect an inveterate liar and regional bully.  As a Canadian, I have no comprehension of the need to be a great power.  All it gets you (unless you are in the 0.01%) is high taxes to pay for military adventures and opportunity to send your children to be killed.  Great power status and $5 will get you coffee at Starbucks.

Putin and therefore Russia are terrified of NATO and an American invasion.  Why anyone would want to invade Russia is a mystery.  The world, probably including China, just wishes Russia would get its act together, become a functional modern state, provide for its people and engage with the rest of the world in a civilized manner. One of the things Putin apparently wants is to destroy both NATO and the EU, returning Europe to nation states and great power politics, where the big guys divide up the world and the little guys can go whistle (Congress of Vienna 1815, Paris 1919, Yalta 1945).

The trick to accomplishing the destruction of NATO is to do something to which NATO must respond militarily but is small enough or insignificant enough or confusing enough that they do not.  Such as annex Narva or even invade the Balkans.

Then there is Ukraine. Russia fully believes it owns Ukraine, the same way England believed it owned Ireland. According to Russian insiders as quoted by Fisher, Putin will not-no-never give up Ukraine.  Rofer wonders if this isn’t more noise from the Kremlin, necessary to bargaining positioning.

Putin and his DNR/LNR proxies have stopped referring to Novorossiya. It was a nonstarter anyway and may well have been part of the distracting noise emanating from the Kremlin.  Putin wants Donbas to stay in Ukraine, with power to wreck anything pro-west Ukraine may want to undertake and to eat every nickel Ukraine has to rebuild it.  The “Separatist-backed Russian military”, as one writer referred to them, continue to batter away at the Ukrainian army, shelling them every night with heavy artillery and making small forays with sabotage and reconnaissance groups which are always driven off.  Ukraine is playing strictly defense, letting the enemy come to them and one hopes, suffering fewer losses.  What the purpose of all this is, I have no idea but expect someone does. For the latest in who shot who, UNIAN provides good coverage. http://www.unian.info/war/.

It seems to be a given that if provoked by a determined Ukrainian offensive to retake the Donbas, that Russia will overtly intervene and take everything to the Dnipro River, including Kyiv.  If they pulled it off as a surprise attack, they could likely do it in a week, the renewed Ukrainian army notwithstanding.  The problem then becomes to occupy it.  My question is why occupy it?  In and out and leave the smoldering ruins behind with a list of demands that are either met or there will be more of the same.  And dare the West to do anything about it.

People talk about a repeat of “the little green men” in the Baltics.  As Fisher points out, they will not look like “little green men”, they will look like local thugs in t-shirts and ball caps.  Whether or not there is any local support for them in any of the Baltic countries is neither here nor there.  Using the hybrid warfare approach they can have the place in flames.  Will NATO turn its guns on “civilians” before it is too late?  That was the problem in Donbas – who were the Russians and who were the locals and who do you shoot?

Fisher despairs that the West does not take the Russian threat seriously enough.  Rofer says in her rebuttal and others agree (http://euromaidanpress.com/2015/07/08/realism-takes-hold-in-the-west) that indeed they do but they are ignoring it in public while quietly working on containing it as much as they can without triggering an escalation unnecessarily.  Overtly providing arms to Ukraine would be one such action.  Which is why, as much as I and everyone else would like to see Ukraine fully armed with modern weapons, it is not happening.  Cooler and wiser heads are prevailing – so far.

This is likely why America is not releasing satellite photos showing the degree of Russian intervention in Ukraine.  To call Russia’s bluff would back Putin further into a corner and invite overt intervention on a larger scale.  At the same time, it would put pressure on the West, now that they “know for sure” to actually provide military aid to Ukraine.  More escalation.

In the meantime Ukraine has its own internal battles to fight (http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2015/07/07/ukraines-citizens-have-defeated-putins-new-russia-now-poroshenko-must-defeat-ukraines-oligarchs) .  Corruption permeates everything.  Cleaning it up means starting at the top (and in the middle and at the bottom).  The Rada seem happy to clean up corruption as long as it is not THEIR corruption.  One of the bigger roadblocks to reform is rumored to be Prime Minister Yatseniuk.  It is hard to find people whose hands are not dirty and so many of the current power brokers have links to the Party of Regions in their past.

Timothy Snyder is one of the best experts on this part of the world that I have found.  this presentation is worth an hour of your time to really understand what is behind all the commotion.


I am a cynic and a pessimist.  Also a fatalist.  So I will sit tight and see what happens.  Interesting times.

25 comments:

  1. "May you live in interesting times." --an old expression of uncertain origin. Sort of like, "Be careful what you wish for." Both apply in this Russia versus the Rest of World scenario

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    1. I'm not front row but at least first balcony. Fun times were had by all.

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  2. Wow! Great lecture by Snyder! I'll have more to say tomorrow (which is today in Ukraine).

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  3. You really are trying to scare us, aren't you! As if we weren't already almost scared out of our wits. Sigh!

    I would say, "Cheer up; things cold be worse." Except I know that if I said that, things would get worse. If getting worse is possible. Chinese stock market crashing. Canadian dollar getting close to 70¢ American. Stephen Harper still electable. Forest fires all over western Canada. New York Stock exchanged shut down for a few hours (perhaps by the famous group "Anonymous"). Everything is so delightful.

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    1. You know how to scare a guy. Just looked - CAD:USD is $0.79, not $0.70 or I am in trouble.
      I have seen reports of the other stuff. You missed the possible Grexit which may or may not be a good thing. Stephen Harper still electable? Worse disaster than the forest fires!

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  4. I think you've pretty much read my post correctly. Thanks.

    I would disagree slightly with your comment that people who start wars are not rational. Snyder's lecture argues that they are indeed rational, within their point of view. Snyder has analyzed Putin down to a very fine level. We can only wonder if Putin has figured things out as clearly and neatly.

    My guess is that he hasn't, but old strategies lead in the same direction. Once again, we have the question of whether Putin has a grand strategy or whether he is more opportunistic.

    Snyder's last comments caught me up because I tend to emphasize what we don't know about Putin's thinking. That happens when I respond to people like Fisher, who claim they know. Snyder makes a very good point: that uncertainty is what Putin is trying to provoke in order to prevent others' action. Both exaggerating Russian strength and exaggerating the uncertainties can help Putin.

    I think there's a middle way. We can look at Putin's actions and the predominant themes of Russian rhetoric, along with factual measures of Russia's capabilities, and come up with a hypothesis that because of its military and economic weaknesses, Russia wants to project an image that allows it to punch above its class. Nuclear weapons become important because they are the one claim Russia has to the place it wants in the world. But its leaders are prudent enough not to do massively stupid things, like challenge NATO directly. At the moment, they are in a situation that they read badly and are overextended into Ukraine, with unreliable allies.

    If we keep in mind that this is the best picture we can draw, and not "what Putin is thinking," we can be flexible enough to respond to any surprises Putin may come up with. But, as I said in my post, I think he's overdone the surprise angle, and the rest of the world is more prepared for what he might offer.

    I think it's significant that we no longer hear about Novorossiya. I agree that Ukraine has to get its own house in order; what's happening with Greece may shock the Ukraine government into more effective action.

    I didn't realize until I watched this video that Snyder was a student of Tony Judt, another historian I admire greatly. It would be hard for Snyder to give that lecture in the United States. As he pointed out, the US view of World War II still needs to be updated. (I'm being nicer than he was.) Snyder always makes me think about that history, and this video was no exception. I grew up with that US view, and, although some of it was destroyed when I started going to Estonia, it's hard to get out of. Snyder is doing some very hard work in rethinking all that.

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    1. Thanks so much, Cheryl, for your comments. Yes, those who start wars are rational in the same way everyone is rational from their own point of view.
      Mark Galeotti (http://www.bne.eu/content/story/stolypin-apocalypse-not) misses one thing in his article when he condemns those who see similarities between today and "1913-1914". No one thought The Great War was possible. There were too many good arguments against it and too many ways to negotiate peaceful settlements.
      No, we don't know what Putin is thinking, you are correct and I like your middle way and hope that the powers that be are taking it seriously. But never underestimate the power of surprise. We are always prepared for the last war.
      Canadians also pretty much share(d) the US view of WWII. Everything I knew about the Eastern Front I learned from Hogan's Heroes. The last 25 years have required a great deal of rethinking and relearning. What I will do with all this knowledge, I have no idea but it has been fun learning.
      Ukraine is in a much worse position than Greece. Greece can and should tell the Troika to GFT. As should Spain, Portugal and Italy. Unless Ukraine wants to return to slavery under Muscovy, they MUST get their act together.

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    2. A great post. Thanks for the education. One more scary additive in the mix is the 'End Timers' that permeate the U.S. Congress - of course their focus is more on the Middle East as their apocalypse in intertwined with Israel.
      the Ol'Buzzard

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  5. here thanks to Ol'Buzzard...and this is some scary shit to me...I think most American's think ole Putin is a horsesass but no threat..rethinking that.

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    1. Ol'B, if those sorts of people get real power the nuclear apocalypse we fear will not come from Putin but from them, "cleansing the earth of all unrighteousness". They scare me worse than Putin.
      Jackiesue, thanks for following me home. Putin is scary because he is unpredictable and has nucs.

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  6. I think the U.S. lost its' boogieman when the Soviet Union fell. So they (war hawks) must have loved it when Putin came to power. Would Putin push the button? I seriously doubt it for to do so would be like setting the chess board on fire in the middle of the game. No I think this is more about economics. Who can saddle the Ukraine with debt the East or the West? Putin sends his plane clothes troops thereby adding to the costs of defense. The West sends advisers and supposed defensive weapons and we land up with yet another puppet war. All the while the banks and arms dealers sit back and reap the profits. Haven't we been down this road before?

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  7. Fantastic article. But why aren't you yourself afraid of a nuclear war or WWIII? Aren't you afraid to die or suffer in a post-apocalyptic world? I mean, I would rather die than live in a world where something like that happens.

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    1. We could get into a long discussion here but I'll just say that I am not worrying about something I cannot control but I do want to be aware of it. I worry about living in a police state or growing old and dying alone.

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    2. Fisher's article is certainly a worst case scenario. But the pessimist is never disappointed

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    3. Don't delete your questions, Christopher. They are good ones. No point being scared but be informed. Read. Find publications you are comfortable with. I like on line and get them through my Facebook news feed. Read and question and read some more. Timothy Snyder is a good guy to start with.

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  8. Yeah, I want to apologize for deleting my comments. The reason I did that because I was thinking I didn't want to annoy you with any more questions.

    It's interesting, you know, finding publications that I can be comfortable with are hard to find these days, because so many news agencies are so biased. That's when I wish there was more people like you and Cheryl around to post better articles/blogs.

    And ad a young guy living in the United States I am a concerned about the threat of a war between Russia and the U.S. Of course, the likelihood of such even is very low, but (as you said) the cost of such a war is catastrophic. And I feel if the U.S. and Russia don't work to de-escalate the situation things will only get worse. I mean, is there even a way to stop Russia without war or de-escalate the situation without angering Russia?! And it's also like you said, with WWI, there are many paths to peace, yet it only takes one or a few small incidents to start a catastrophe.

    Oh yeah, I'm curious, do you have a link to your news feed on Facebook?

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    1. If you have a Facebook page, go to the pages of media you want to follow and LIKE them. Read several of their articles posted and LIKE the ones that interest you. They will feed stories into your news feed and eventually you will get a fair set of stories. There are likely better ways to get stories but I don't know them.
      I get stories from Kyiv Post, and Euromaidan, which often link to other sources such as New York Times and Washington Post. I also get stories from the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent as well as The Economist. If you look down the side of my blog there is a list of blogs I follow. Paul Goble is good.
      Avoid RT and Sputnik as they are Russian propaganda and many if not most of their stories are fake.

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  9. And what also concerns me is the unpredictable nature of Putin and the Kremlin. I mean, what ARE they going to do next?!

    And is NATO doing the right thing by continuing to expand into Russia's sphere of influence (like the Baltic states, Romania, etc.)? Because the U.S. and NATO keep doing this and Russia only seems to be getting angrier. What are they thinking?!

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    1. There are better brains than ours trying to figure out what Putin will do next. Not sure even Putin knows. Russia fears NATO but they live in the 19th century. The small countries on the edge of Russia, who want into NATO, fear Russia and with GOOD reason, having much sad experience. Trying to appease Russia is viewed as weakness.

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  10. Hey, thanks for the references to those news magazines.

    Although with everything taken into consideration, is it still safe to say that an actual war between U.S/NATO and Russia is still very low (with high costs as you've said)?

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    1. Take Cheryl Rofer's word for it, it is highly unlikely

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    2. That's actually a bit of relief.

      Although that makes it more interesting because I heard earlier on CNN that a few Russian war planes flew by and over our shores like in Alaska and California. What's a little worrying about that is that those planes could be carrying nuclear weapons. Or is this just Russia strutting its stuff as usual?

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  11. Oh yeah, is there a way I can contact you wish questions so that I don't have to keep saying it in the comments section (if that's alright with you)?

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