US prepositioning in the Baltics: heavy metal politics and hostages to fortune

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

US tanks headed for the Baltic? Consider them armoured diplomats

There is much about the present Russo-Western confrontation that is symbolic, even when it comes to the tanks rumbling around the Baltic plans or the Russian aircraft screaming past and sometimes into NATO airspace. Essentially, it is a combination of the macho posture of alpha male animals, trying to overawe their rival by any means short of the murderous, and the stately diplomatic dance of hint, demarche and denunciation, in heavy metal form.

Consider, for example, the likely deployment of heavy equipment in the Baltic states, a pre-deployment of enough kit for a full brigade. More than anything else, this is a piece of theatre intended to reassure the Balts that they would not be left high and dry if the big, bad Russians ever invaded, and warn Moscow that Washington is indeed serious about its obligations to its NATO allies.

In military terms, after all, it is harder to see this as serious. Why? All this hardware is pretty pointless without (a) the 5,000 or soldiers to go with it and (b) without the time to take the tanks and other pieces of kit out of storage and get them ready for action — even at the most basic level, they need fuel, ammunition and other consumables. Presumably if — and I don’t believe this would ever happen — the Russians ever were to invade the Baltic states, they would do so through a surprise blitzkrieg, as one of their massive military “exercises” on the borders suddenly reveals itself to be an intervention force. I can’t see Moscow feeling the need to give NATO fair warning and notice!

The sad truth is that the Baltic states are pretty much impossible to defend in purely military terms. The borders are open, the terrain is pretty flat, the settlements small. That in no way minimizes the determination of the Balts, and the Russians would have to expect subsequent bitter guerrilla warfare as patriots fight back from the woods or in the cities, but Moscow’s ability to take the region in the first instant is hard to question.

The corollary? It is that, in purely military terms, Washington is prepositioning a cache of modern weapons for the Russians to capture.

Of course, the point is that this is not what anyone expects to happen: if — again, let’s stress that if — Russia chose to step up its aggression against the Baltic states, it is almost certain to be through indirect, covert or deniable means, not a storm of armour and airpower. The calculation in Washington is that at least by pretending to make a serious military commitment to the Baltic states (and one which makes it certain and obvious that any Russian offensive will bring it into face-to-face contact with US soldiers), it deters Moscow from any such moves. And so we have another demonstration of the many ways in which if not war but military force can be the instrument for politics by other means.

A Ukraine-Russia peace deal: Crimea must have a cost

March-06-14-Russia-Ukraine-and-Obama2Efforts to secure some kind of peace deal between Moscow and Kiev—and not just a temporary ceasefire that preserves a frozen conflict—continue. The latest suggestions are that Washington is coming up with proposals to this effect, as explored in this story from Bloomberg by Josh Rogin. While not officially confirmed, its details chime with what I have been hearing from people in and close to the policy circles. The essence is that in return “for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions” Russia would have to adhere to September’s Minsk agreement and cease direct military support for the rebels, while the “issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.”

In other words, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would be considered a done deal and taken out of the equation, in return for only minor and personal (ie, not systemic) sanctions, while Russia and Ukraine would in effect be considered to have positions of equal moral weight in the negotiations over eastern Ukraine. Although it is essential to end this war—and both Moscow and Kiev want and would gain from a resolution—this basis is, in my option, immoral, muddle-headed and downright dangerous.

1. Yes, alas for the moment it is not worth trying to get Moscow to surrender Crimea. It may not be right, but this is the only viable position. For Putin to abandon the peninsula would not be totally against his own instincts, it would also be politically lethal, critically undermining his credibility and legitimacy. He simply will not do this. (more…)

Is Kolokoltsev in or out? Either way, the rumours surrounding the Russian interior minister’s fate signify something

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over Kolokoltsev?

Is there a Sword of Damocles hanging over Kolokoltsev?

As I write this, rumours abound that Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev has resigned, is going to resign or is going to “be resigned.” I have no idea which, if any, are true, although it is striking that not only did the rumours, first aired on Dozhd (the last independent TV station, clinging on by its fingertips) get their real boost when Presidential press-spokesman and all-round Mouth of Sauron Dmitry Peskov publicly acknowledged them when he said that he did not know about them. Besides which, Peskov failed to follow up with any tribute to Kolokoltsev, any statement that of course he had the president’s unstinting support. When added to the possibly-but-hardly-probably coincidental claim that Kolokoltsev plagiarised his graduate thesis (hardly unusual in Russia–much the same has been said about Putin–but still another wound), the implication is that either the Kremlin is preparing the ground for his removal or else that he has powerful enemies trying to claw him down. It is also striking that his rumoured replacement is a close Putin client and a man associated with security rather than law enforcement.

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On Russia, Ukraine, sanctions and war

Just a quick heads-up. There is now a report on my talk in parliament in London on ‘The Military Dimension of Russia’s Policy toward Ukraine: Should the West Be Worried?‘ under the auspices of the Henry Jackson Society here and also a full transcript of my opening remarks. Although the US government and NATO commander seems still to be suggesting Russian military action is imminent, my view is that the danger of that is receding; I hope I will be proved right. The next day, I spoke at the European Council on Foreign Relations about the political impact on Russia of sanctions, and you can hear a podcast of my comments here. I still suspect that future historians may conclude that when Putin took Crimea he lost not only Ukraine but, ultimately, the Kremlin.

Prague, Moscow, and the value of speaking firmly, clearly and with one voice

A cliché, yes, but a cool one

A cliché, yes, but a cool one

It is, of course, a hackneyed cliché to talk about the “Russian bear.” Nonetheless, it is fair to say that prodding either with a stick is equally ill-advised. However, the usual advice on encountering a bear is to give it its space, be submissive, be quiet. That doesn’t work so well with Moscow. By the same token it is a dangerous caricature to suggest (as some sadly still do) that force or assertiveness is “all Russia understands.” However, what is certainly true is that meekness and the appearance of division tend to encourage Moscow to become more confrontational. Consider, for example, the marked failure of the US government’s “re-set” policy, which has failed to deter Russia from buttressing Syrian tyranny, spying on and perhaps murdering its critics abroad, publicly outing US agents, hounding Ambassador McFaul and doing everything but kicking sand in Obama’s face.

In this context—and given that I’m in Prague for the summer, I’m especially interested in Czech-Russian relations—I was perturbed by the details of the extradition to Moscow of Russian businessman Alexei Torubarov in May, especially in the context of what seems a growing assertiveness by Russia in Central and Southern Europe.

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Russian prisons getting more lethal

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'entrate?

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’entrate?

To use the mildest of understatement, Russian prisons are not pleasant places. They are over-crowded, often antiquated, rife with violence, petty abuses and disease (including strains of drug-resistant TB). That said, the prison population has begun to fall, which is an encouraging sign, and there have been some limited efforts made to reform the system overall. So is the news good?

Not really. Let’s briefly unpick the depressing news that 4,121 prisoners died in prison or pre-trial detention in 2012. The combined prison and pre-trial detention (SIZO) population as of June 2012 was 731,000, suggesting a mortality figure of 564 prisoners per 100,000 inmates. If we look at US death rates as of 2008-9 (the last compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics), then the total death tally was 4,755 (admittedly from a substantially larger prison population), with a death rate ranging from 257/100k in state prisons, through 229/100k in federal prisons, to 127/100k in jails).

Given that the death toll back in 2010 was 4,150, then this might look like a slight improvement. But while the death toll has fallen just 0.7%, in that time the prison population in 746 corrective colonies, 230 SIZO, 7 prisons and 46 juvenile colonies shrunk by 17.5%. In other words, despite a falling prison population, some reform and more money, Russia’s prisons are getting even more lethal…

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