Sunday, February 11, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin rattled the diplomatic set with a pugnacious and critical speech about American foreign policy that was a clever mixture of blunt realpolitik, obvious gestures for domestic consumption, a play for the sympathy of the anti-American Left in Europe and the anti-Bush Left in America. It was also a not so subtle form of pressure on the Bush administration to treat Russia as a great power partner in world affairs, especially the Middle East.

Russia of course, while not an enemy of the United States, would like all of the goodies that come with being an American strategic partner without having to ante up anything of substantive import in return. While not much praise can be given to the unimaginative, backburner, American policy toward Russia since the Soviet collapse in 1991, the Bush administration has at least been smart enough to not reward empty talk from the Kremlin until Putin puts something concrete on the table. Something the Russian leader has steadfastly refused to do on Iraq, Iran or much of anything else.

Addressing Putin's specific remarks:

"The United States has overstepped its national borders in every way," he said in an address at an annual international security conference here. "Nobody feels secure anymore, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law."

I have also read this statement more literally translated as " hide behind international law", which to my reading of Putin, is more in tune with his ex-KGB cynical realism and "Great Russia" nationalism. The statement above reads more like the Foreign Ministry approved text.

On one level, Putin speaks for many foreign leaders who are unhappy with American intervention in Iraq and other places overseas even as American power hems in their own regional ambitions. The Bush administration has failed to use diplomacy, particularly public diplomacy, well or offer realistic carrots to win over the mercurial fence-sitters who do not give a fig for Iraq of Islamist terrorism but care deeply about other subjects. Using hard power successfully requires making the connections beforehand that minimize counterbalancing "blowback" and this chore the Bush administration has been unwilling or unable to do.

On another, deeper, level this is a very illuminating and an honest realpolitik assessment, while being cleverly worded to appeal to Bush critics and International Law professor types who believe that the world actually turns on the moral implications of their abstruse interpretations of treaty conventions. What Putin is really acknowledging is that the previous, Cold War era, ability to carry out policies that were serious threats to the vital interests of other states, especially America, because of " plausible deniability" created by fig leaf nods to international law, is now much riskier.

The plausible deniability for which Putin longs, served a critical purpose -to avoid escalating a minor regional conflict into a superpower confrontation, so the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were forced to look the other way on many instances of terrorism, subversion, espionage and nuclear proliferation involving each other's clients. We had to grin and bear it or strike back at the Soviet bloc with equal indirection, sometimes in a wholly unrelated sphere. This dynamic suited the Soviets well which is why they also fiercely resisted Nixon-Kissinger "linkage" at the bargaining table. Lacking the nuclear tripwire, the need for Washington to pretend hostile actions are anything but hostile was going to fade regardless of who was president, but 9/11 and Bush administration ideological convictions vastly accelerated the process.

"we don't want Iran to feel cornered."

Translation: "We need Iranian cash. We can't afford to be seen backing down to Washington and continue to be regarded as a viable alternative arms supllier to the United States. We are against you attacking Iran, even though, frankly, we Russians don't like Iranians or Ahmadinejad very much but find Iran useful as a counterweight to American power in the region, and this overrides longer term concerns."

"It is a world of one master, one sovereign … it has nothing to do with democracy,” he said. “This is nourishing the wish of countries to get nuclear weapons.”

This is laughable to anyone with rudimentary knowledge of the history of nuclear weapons but it is good propaganda for justifying Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear weapons program. Nor does possession of a small nuclear arsenal help much against the United States, if Pervez Musharraf is to be believed. It will help you against your neighbors in your own nation-state weight class though.

How serious is Putin ? Recall that politically, Putin takes the wind out of extremist parties, Right or Left, by preventing them from waving the flags of Nationalism and Neo-Sovietism by doing so himself " responsibly". His governing class, the Siloviki, were entirely insincire Communists in Soviet times, KGB pragmatists who saw the world from the prism of power, carrots, sticks and dirty tricks. The Siloviki hold all the power in Russia and political opposition is effectively neutered and could, if they had chosen to do so, enact far more aggressive anti-Western policies. They and Putin have not because it isn't in their personal interest or Russia's to get into serious conflicts with the U.S. or the E.U.


First, thank you to Real Clear Politics for linking to this post. Much appreciated!

A few Putin links:

Thomas P.M. Barnett


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Sometimes I really have to question on what basis you comment.

Let's take one item:
we don't want Iran to feel cornered."

Translation: "We need Iranian cash.

Is profoundly stupid and clueless.

Russia is sitting on excellent cash flow presently, and the data say they have a nice cash reserve for any south movement on gas or oil prices.

Your provincialism really sometimes is sad, although rather typical I would venture, leading to disturbing miseadings.

What you can profitably read Putin as saying is "we don't want any more collossal fuck ups on our sensitive southern flank, and we shall be demonstrating to the Iranians that we value their views, so as to gain leverage with them on Azeri and Central Asian issues, and as well to give the Americans a warning about their ignorant, clumsy militarism that could threaten our direct interests."

Need Iranian cash....

I'd add by the way that it isn't merely the Left that Putin was appealing to, but a rather broad swath of international opinion. Pity you seem to want to box that as "Left" when the US is managing to lose even conservative British opinion.
Ah, the usual flattery from Collounsbury. ;o)

Provincial ? Perhaps. No doubt I could have expressed myself better than writing " Iranian cash". I didn't think that was a huge part of my post.

Nevertheless, as impressive as the oil and gas sectors are for Russia, arms export brings in a not inconsiderable figure -something within shouting distance of $ 30 billion annually. That ain't hay, Col. It's about equal to 10% of their cash reserve, roughly speaking.

Moreover, it is the export sector that represents a high-value added product rather than raw materials. Thirdly, Russian hardware is best positioned to sell to those countries from whom it would be politically unwise to buy Western and in particular, American armaments. The natural market but one to which Russia must appear to be a reliable supplier.

While I'm sure that oil and gas revenues are fungible once they get in Russian state coffers, my understanding is that the Russians have tried very hard to make their military heavy industry internationally competitive and aggressively profit seeking. Putting narrow industry economic concerns at least on par with state interest.

A powerful Iran has *never* been in Russian state interests, long term. Your point on Azeri and Central Asian issues and fearing a Bush-created calamity on their southern flank, is however, quite sound.
Putin spoke for an overwhelming majority of the world for whom American credibility is at an all-time low, for whom trust in America is a dubious proposition and for whom support of "America" & American "ideals" is politically unwise and at worst political suicide (like all those democratic reformers in the MENA who don't want anything to do with America).

That doesn't make him right, but Bush and co. have so overwhelmingly succeeded in shaping the narrative of America the aggressor, America the incompetent bully, America the hypocrite, etc. that they hardly need help from the Int'l Left and domestic nationalists.

For example, on just one critical issue at the heart of current debate, how could we possibly support and ally ourselves with that wily despot on a nuclear powderkeg, Pakistan, while denying the right to nukes to Iran, a nation that is much, much further along the "democracy" golden road than Pakistan is?

Besides, in this era of preemption, God knows what kind of preemptive misadventure the Israelis could talk the Americans into next in the MENA? The loose talk of tactical nukes from Tel Aviv earlier this year certainly did not make Iran look less deserving. But hey, the Israelis are after all, the MENA experts, having done such a bang up job in Lebanon and the territories. We should just admit to the world that in GW's administration we've outsourced our MENA policy to the Israeli hawks.
Mark, it looks like you are getting spammed (post #3 is a spam that tracks back to a series of splogs.)
Much thanks Patrick !

Hi Eddie,

I must, perforcem quote myself:

"On one level, Putin speaks for many foreign leaders who are unhappy with American intervention in Iraq and other places overseas even as American power hems in their own regional ambitions. The Bush administration has failed to use diplomacy, particularly public diplomacy, well or offer realistic carrots to win over the mercurial fence-sitters who do not give a fig for Iraq of Islamist terrorism but care deeply about other subjects. Using hard power successfully requires making the connections beforehand that minimize counterbalancing "blowback" and this chore the Bush administration has been unwilling or unable to do."

Yes, the Bush crowd has made a mess of things but the Iranian nuke program stretches back to the Shah; I personally recall a declassified CIA (or maybe an NIE, not sure which) report warning about the nuke program just before Clinton was elected in 1992. Russian assistance to Iran predates Bush II.

I understand the unhappiness about the Bush administration but that was leverage for Putin here to pursue other state interests more effectively. A " good offense", as it were.
I'd be happy to check the translations of Putin's statements for you, Mark. Do you have a link to his speech in Russian?

Putin isn't a tremendous spokesman for the value of restraint. Check the before and after pictures of Grozny. Or the casualty count for the Chechen War.

Nor for stability: the Russian Army's conduct in Chechnya has rather obviously de-stabilized the entire Caucasus to some extent. And, as you note, unless one believes that Russian aid to Iran in their nuclear development program has enhanced the stability of the Middle East I'd say that Russia has done at least as much to de-stabilize the region as we have.

Look, I resemble the nasty foreign policy realists more than I do the Wilsonians but I found Mr. Putin's remarks rather amusing.

Apologies for wasting your time with a seemingly redundant comment. The "street" in nearly every country in the world is against America right now, either outright or in favoring a less US-centric or US-supportive foreign policy. That's detrimental to us in every way because it ties the hands of our friends and emboldens those who don't like us or who want us as a political punching bag. Thus your point about the leaders, but the even larger point about populations and politics.

If we're politically anthema to most in the world, how are we supposed to move forward with relationships in India, Brazil, South Africa, etc, let alone adequately advance our interests? Bush has left us with little more than the military to pursue them, and the military is increasingly inadequate for the job due to repulsive public image, lack of resources or outright inability because of the particular demands of the situation.
An example for my stupidity; Even now the far left that holds significant power in India's ruling coalition has been aiming to sabotage the relationship and has nearly been successful numerous times. There's only so much our friends can do, only so far the limits of a one-way relationship contained within the limits of popular appeal (yay they gave us nuclear energy and secrets, now screw em, we don't need em anymore!). It apparently will only get worse, not any better. And how much of a change can we expect after the administration is gone? How long to make up for lost time and lost openings?
Putin hardly needs to go on offense, we have few defenses left and our fixation on Iraq prevents us from seeing, let alone seizing many opportunities these days. Obviously we're just one aspect of his scheme but there used to be a pleasant day when talk like this could be brushed aside and refuted quite capably by the USG. Not any longer.

Again with the Iranian nukes. And this is going to be stopped by us how? We can nuke them or invade them, and either way, we lose. We can't stop them from getting nukes, why are we wasting our time? This is where hysteria or even worry about them is pointless. Its not something we can dictate or control for very long. Even with a democracy in charge, Iran would want nuclear energy and weapons for nationalist purposes and outright energy needs once Iran runs out of oil in the next few decades.
Hi Dave,

I'm looking for that tonight !

Hi Eddie,

You are always welcome to comment here, redundantly or no. :o)

Yes, I realize the box we are in right now but that is a much larger post than I have time to address.

To answer your question on Iran, aside from the Israeli issue (which has risen to a near existential question in IDF leadership circles due to Ahmadinejad - he's really playing with fire here. No joke) we're also on the verge of a Sunni-Shiite nuclear arms race if Iran isn't complying with an IAEA structure that alleviates regional concerns.

Perhaps a nuclear Iran cannot be averted indefinitely but maybe a replication of India-Pakistan can.
Who is rounding up the Sunni autocrats and whipping up fearful scenarios to get them in line with opposing Iran? This is a tempest we are largely brewing ourselves.

Re: India & Pakistan. Considering the ever precarious state of the wily Musharraf, I don't think this is a long-term model for us to follow.
This would be three monotheist nuclear-armed powers (Israel, Iran and Egypt or Saudi Arabia perhaps?). All with potentially unstable leadership and seriously demented fringes who have wormed their way into the highest corridors of power? Not a recipe for stability with the IAEA as another stale 20th century solution/mechanism for the unstable world (posit good reasons for that elsewhere perhaps but it is what it is.).

The arms race is likely to happen regardless if we continue to march towards the worst case scenario with Iraq.

Anyway, an Israel nuclear attack on Iranian facilities would do what other than accelerate Israel's downward slide to pariah state? Besides its far easier to walk a nuke through the Egyptian-Gaza border and detonate it than to shoot a nuclear tipped missile. Or perhaps we can just wait for the eventual Islamist government in Pakistan with its nuclear-missile armed submarines?

I recognize and learn from your point about Putin though. I wonder if this is the first shot in a coordinated offensive drive or just a one-shot for him.
Hi Eddie,

It is not my impression that the Israelis, psychologically speaking, approach nuclear deterrence the same way that the American arms control priesthood once embraced MAD. Israelis, despite their excellent English and modern, westernized, popular culture and state, are not Americans and do not think the way we do. If the leadership truly believes - regardless of whether we think they are convincing themselves - that the Israeli population is facing a nuclear holocaust, then Israel will strike first, no matter what the costs. This why Ahmadinejad's idiotic rantings are particularly dangerous - it isn't being viewed like Khrushchev's shoe-pounding bluster by Israel.

My personal belief is that Ahmadinejad would like to provoke a military strike on Iran by the U.S. or Israel, which he gambles the regime can survive and allow him to increase his power in the process. Well, if Israel strikes Iran, popular views to the contrary, it may be *over* the strong objections of the Bush administration ( who won't sign off on anything they cannot totally control) and without any of our restraint. They will go for broke.

I meant that the Pakistan-India scenario was something that can still be avoided, if possible.

Putin is deflecting Euro anger about Russian gas policy, the near abroad and several other subjects. He kept Russian behavior from being a topic of discussion, which I'm sure, was one objective.
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