Year In Review 2014: And The Winner Is?

More than most years, 2014 will be retrospectively consequential. The US post-1945 order finally enters its transition era. Most obviously, Putin launched an ill-conceived war to challenge its foundations. Other developments promise significant portent. Modi’s rise in India is but one example. Domestically, Americans’ facade of a post-racial society collapsed. And Neocons re-emerged.

American Luck Holds

Americans remain lucky internationally for now. Russia’s war began with clumsy improvisation and lurched to a strategic dead end. Ukrainian grit surprised Moscow – just one of many Russian strategic intelligence failures. China, India and others support Moscow symbolically in part yet preserve their own options and interests in the present order. They follow their own timetable for systemic change, not Putin’s.

America avoided directly engaging Russia, denying Moscow the co-equal status it craves. That US stance encouraged Merkel and the EU to confront Russian aggression themselves. Russian hawks (like Sergei Markov, etc.) concede their hopes to split the alliance (to date) are unrealistic. One would like to think a coherent US strategy helped shape these events. Equally plausible is American tactical improvisation simply was more fortunate.

Putin? We’d rate him 2014’s net loser. Had he stopped at Crimea, he faced no sanctions and enjoyed stratospheric domestic approval. Russia is far weaker, more isolated, and domestically more fragile than during the Sochi boondoggle. From canceling Russia’s pet Southstream pipeline into Europe, ruble woes – Russian Central Bank Chief Elvira Nabuillina may have the toughest job in Russia today – to a bad gas deal with China and Putin’s isolation at the G20, Russian horizons shrunk a great deal.

Ukraine, conversely, is far more unified and committed to a European liberal path than ever. Two successful elections and a newly vibrant society show potential. Russia’s war in the Donbass forged a new nationalism and but sidelined a region (along with Crimea) that would’ve sent significant votes for Communists and pro-Moscow parties in Kiev.

Ukraine’s struggles are still beginning. IMF-driven reforms will pack a dislocating wallop. Kiev’s economy will remain on edge for some time. And vital domestic initiatives such as lustration and anti-corruption are still embryonic.

Merkel’s clear stance against Russian revisionism surprised Moscow. Many predicted she would follow German SPD party’s equivocation and German industrialists’ demands for “understanding”. Her marathon 6 hour November conversation with Putin in Australia may mark a watershed. Merkel now directly confronts Russian subversion in the Balkans. It’s a new German EU foreign policy leadership role. Will it work? Does she have the vision to sustain it? Can she maintain German domestic support?

2015 may be another story. EU sanctions expire soon if not renewed. Some US European experts are certain sanctions will be lifted. Moscow re-packages itself as a peace maker yet again to empower EU apologists. Putin hedges bets by advising Moscow technocrats to prepare for ten years of confrontation.

Wine In A Brand New Jar?

Neocons took 2014 by storm. 2015 can only offer more blue sky.

2014 marked the year Democrats en masse scrambled to join. Yet Democrats can’t articulate an alternative to Obama’s foreign policy that differs. The Right and Rand Paul’s conversion to internationalist Realism (while Paul remains instinctually an isolationist) remain the exception. Interestingly, Fred Kagan and others openly declare their true home is in the Democratic Party (again).

The Neocons’ greatest 2014 success is framing ISIS as an existential threat. A tentative and reactive Obama Administration jumped on to ill-advised, ill-considered spastic kinetic force without a clear strategy.

The New Republic‘s demise is a different story. The larger and more important indictment? TNR long ago ceased to be an authentic, liberal, progressive voice.

Should TNR be a new Gawker or Buzzfeed for a certain social set, perhaps it’s a fitting epitaph. The staff’s reaction to young owner Chris Hughes’ decisions reveals a mindset accustomed to benefactor patronage. To discover they’re employees like much of America is a harsh lesson.

Home Alone

America’s long vacation from social realities crashed on a global stage. Ferguson, Eric Garner in NY, Tamir Rice (the 12 year old boy shot by police because he had a bee bee gun) and so many others highlight the cost in lives and potential lost. American social dysfunction can’t be obscured. And it’s more than de-legitimized, excessively militarized local law enforcement.

The US for the first time nationally experienced how social technologies fueled protests from Tehran to Tunisia, Hong Kong to Maidan. Many Americans didn’t like uncensored voices. Protestors (from varied backgrounds) self organize, distribute video and photos, and use Livestream for alternative broadcasts to cable “news” coverage. (That America in 2014 lacks an actual cable news channel at all is merely symptomatic).

Racial inequality is the most prominent aspect of American disinterest in forging a healthy, inclusive society. Socio-economic stratification continues to widen. Congress’ roll back of its own weak 2008 Wall Street reforms — at the request of Wall Street — underscores the fault lines only grow. Dysfunctional government that responds only to the few doesn’t happen by accident. Nor is it sustainable.

Richard Haas observed that Foreign Policy Begins At Home. Our effectiveness abroad is directly linked to good governance at home. The link above deliberately is to the Daily Show. American youth (or young at heart), unfettered by old wedge issues on race, gender and class, can make a powerful difference – if they choose to engage politically.

These are the year’s highlights (or low points) to us. What did we miss? Who or what do you think made 2014?

Putin’s Shambolic Improvisation In Ukraine

Being Prepared Is Hard Work

Great artists know an essential truth about the road. Doing a one-off show is often harder than preparing a lengthy tour. True whether musically, theatrically or even politically. One date demands the same rehearsal time and clarity as a tour. A lot to ask for one gig. Far easier to wing things, hoping that charisma’s momentum and spontaneity will carry the day. History’s detritus shows a vast landscape of resulting tattered reputations – from humbled musical legends to self-immolating political candidates.

War, unsurprisingly, isn’t much different. Consider Tommy Franks’ war plan (albeit with OSD and OVP intrusions) 2002-2003. Jettisoning carefully prepared pre-existing plans, not only did he comparatively wing it, Franks did a two-for. He abruptly bugged out and retired in 2003 before mistakes became devastatingly obvious. Adding Wolfowitz’ last minute failure with Turkey for a northern front and one gets the point. Conversely, much of the American success in the Pacific 1942-45 famously grew from significant planning and thinking about amphibious warfare campaigns from the 1920s.

Germany 1935-45 also is a popular topic. Germany lost the improvised war on September 1, 1939. Yet German conceptual and economic preparations for an eventual intercontinental war with the US are often ignored by the still British-dominated historiography and certain cable channels. In the European context, Germany’s 1936-37 economic crisis spurred radicalization and thinking about a general war by 1943-45. Still, the Four Year Plan and industrial base began alignment in 1938 for the later ‘inevitable’ world war with the US. The Corporal’s improvisations within this vague overall strategic concept jump started events and doomed both.

Not everyone shirks planning and rehearsals. Even for a single gig. Led Zeppelin notoriously devoted an entire month in 2007 to rehearse a solitary 2 hour London show. Embarrassed after decades of calamitously unrehearsed ‘re-unions’, vanity demanded it.

So what of Putin’s War on Ukraine? We say it’s a one-off. And Vladimir Putin is no Led Zeppelin.

Putin, Russia, Rock, Empty Cabs, Russian Rock

We know Putin launched his attack on or about the night of February 22nd relying only on his closest advisors, meaning almost no one. Assurances from MFA/MID and other senior government officials at the time otherwise meant nothing. He invaded Crimea based on a war plan dating back to the late 1990s to secure the Black Seas Fleet. We completely disagree with non-specialists who argue that a 2013 speech on the characteristics of emerging war by the General Staff is a modern “Hossbach Memorandum”, proving Putin long planned a carefully considered war of aggression on Ukraine. Such allegations by casual observers and social media hype usually misunderstand the culture, nature and purpose of General Staff discussions, planning and Putin’s 2014 context.

[Read more…]

Play Russian Apologist Bingo!

We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Apologists for Russian aggression, lies and even lunatic screeds are everywhere. They’ll do about anything to defend Kremlin propaganda. From the infamous “Whataboutism” to “change the subject” or claiming that Ukraine tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 (never mind Putin was in South America) — all their greatest hits are here. Play, won’t you?

Russia, Bingo, Propaganda

Can you spot all the Kremlin apologists’ tricks?

Putin’s New Style Of War Careens Off Course In Ukraine

Ukraine is dealing a strong setback to Putin’s allegedly novel model and doctrine of 21st century irregular war. Not because Ukrainian forces rout Russians and their allies in Ukraine and now control 2/3 of the Donbass.

Putin, Ukraine, ATO, Donetsk, Luhansk, MH17, War

Russia’s ‘new’ model of war escaped Moscow’s control. Putin understands it conceivably could evolve into a political threat inside Russia and even the faintest whispers of revolution. The regime could ignite war in Ukraine but not control its perceived domestic political impact on Putin’s authority.

We finally see the limits of Putin’s escalation. He will not risk even the perception of challenge to his authority. Of course, he still plays to win in Ukraine at some level. Ukraine will bear the brunt of his malice for years. And his global revanchism is unchanged.

Meanwhile, he refuses frantic demands in Moscow and from Russians fighting in Ukraine to commit formal Russian troops. Lavrov now calls for “a quick resolution” of the crisis. And Russian state controlled media is banishing Ukraine from the front pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda and changing tone, depicting Putin as face-saving “humanitarian” rather than war lord.

His personal, emotional obsession with revanchism remains. He still yearns to tear down the international order and gain his psychological revenge on Americans for the Soviet Union’s demise and his modest height (5′ 6″).

Putin is taking a walk because he no longer could control the nationalism and overt fascism he courted and stoked in through April 2014. Various ideologues surrounding Putin and their movements have always had more independence than most in the West understood.

[Read more…]

Russia Loses Again in Ukraine, Keeps Raising The Ante

Putin keeps gambling. His first, impulsive attack on Ukraine in February 2014 netted him Crimea and 80% approval ratings. He’s stumbled since.

Russia failed to replicate the unopposed Crimean takeover in Ukraine’s Southeast from March-April. Moscow then threatened formal army invasion. That only solidified an improbable Ukrainian nationalism, creating a prohibitive cost. Ukrainians’ vote for Europeanist President Porochenko is another blow. Yet Putin keeps doubling down on escalation, even if formal invasion isn’t on the table for now.

Putin and Russia Go Backwards
Nihilist Nostalgia

Putin’s goals lie beyond Ukraine. He seeks to alter fundamentally the global balance of power and pull down the liberal democratic order. It’s ambitious for a $2 trillion economy confronting a combined West of $32 trillion. Russia’s 2020 defense re-armament program tops $90 billion a year, against $1 trillion combined in the West.

Invading Ukraine in 2014 revealed Putin’s plans and techniques 5-7 years early. That’s the good news. Putin so far keeps testing his improvisation against a disorganized Western alliance. Why not keep doubling down?

[Read more…]

Ukraine At War Spring 2014

Putin‘s war of aggression in Eastern Ukraine failed its original purpose: to replicate Crimea’s easy capture and herald the so-called “Russian Spring.” Putun must now play for time and bank on his ability to improvise better than Western passivity and derail the May national elections.

Ukraine, Putin, Russia, Sloviansk

The initial operation featured 100 Spetsnaz GRU special forces officers leading pre-identified networks of pro-Moscow forces in Eastern Ukraine. Joined by Russian citizens (“tourists”) flooding into Ukraine, the FSB and GRU operatives used the social smart phone app Zello, Twitter and other means to direct and rally ‘spontaneous’ pro-Moscow support. GRU intercepted calls reveal they were taking direction from Moscow-based PR agencies.

Stage one was to seize key Eastern cities such as Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk like in Crimea. Once secured, the Russians planned to spread west and south, backed by the threat of Russian military forces across the border. The plan didn’t work.

Ukrainians surprised Moscow by their resistance or passivity. Despite Moscow offering up to $100 a day to join a pro-Russian protest, no crowd ever topped 4,000 anywhere – in cities with a million or more population. Most crowds were pitifully small. More disappointing to Russia, Yanukovich’s old Party of the Regions, the main political force in Eastern Ukraine, largely supported a unified Ukraine with conditions. Some oligarchs also played a double or triple game with their patronage networks and private militias. Local police frequently were bought off, but local populations still remained inert.

Moscow used the Geneva negotiations to buy time. The Crimea model failed. But Moscow lacked reliable local cadres to pretend to be the face of an ‘authentic’ Ukrainian protest against Kiev.

In the new strategy, the GRU no longer hid its hand. Russians operated openly after taking over government buildings in Sloviansk and Donetsk, etc. Moscow discarded its hoped for partner in the Party of Regions. Russia is recruiting and activating more radical elements in the East, Ukrainians (and transplanted Russians) who despise not only Kiev, but the entire kleptocracy of oligarchs, Party of Regions, local government, etc. Organized crime in the East is also a natural partner, preferring lawlessness and disorder to a successful Kiev stabilization.

This new approach is a revolutionary step. Moscow not only is rejecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but its existing institutional base – from political parties to local governance. Even pro-Moscow figures such as Kharkov’s mayor Kernes are abused as traitors and enemies. Eventually Kernes was shot and denounced in pro-Russia social media. Moscow is trying to build a new mass, radical political movement on the fly.

[Read more…]

Putin’s Revanchist Crimean Gamble After Sochi

Putin Attacks Ukraine

Revanchist
1. an advocate or supporter of a political policy of revanche, especially in order to seek vengeance for a previous military defeat.
adjective
2. of or pertaining to a political policy of revanche;
3. of or pertaining to revanchists or revanchism.

Sometime between February 21st and February 22nd, Vladimir Putin decided to violate the settled international order. By all evidence, like Andropov and Ustinov over Afghanistan in Dec. 1979, his rump war cabinet was insular: FSB Chairman Bortnikov, Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and very few others.

He started a war of aggression on Ukraine and against the Western international system. He chose war for both internal and external reasons. He gambles that he can improvise more skillfully than Western coalitions. Any Western pressure he judges will not be much or last long. He can also use pressure for internal consolidation ala his speech denouncing internal opposition as a “5th column”. So far his assumptions aren’t markedly off.

[Read more…]

Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Ukraine, much in the news, is essentially a failed (failing?) state. Yet everyone wants to have a dance with her. Who will be on the card?

The EU still seeks an association agreement after Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s last minute rejection at the altar. He faced severe Russian coercion and is inherently pre-disposed to Moscow and Putin’s neo-Soviet “Customs Union”. After pro-EU riots broke out in Kiev, the Russians declared it all pre-planned foreign manipulation.

Ukraine’s economy is a wreck. Its contraction during the 2008-09 global economic crisis the highest percent in the world. Its leading export is commodity steel. Yanukovich’s government has no love for economic reforms as demanded by the IMF as a precondition to financial support. Ukraine’s government is almost as dysfunctional as Washington. Yanukovich’s political position in parliament hangs by a thread. Demographically, Ukraine is also a quasi-basket case.

[Read more…]

NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

One of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s cruelest feats? Forcing some of his fiercest critics (us) again to defend American self-interest and the role and purpose of intelligence. Despite NSA’s (and the Community’s) wanton, flagrant contempt for both. If Neocons were America’s malignant Id at her moment of apogee, then as Nemesis follows Hubris, they ushered in her over soon decline. NSA and the Community, engorged on national security self-entitlement, scuttled behind as ever-present shadow.

We get no pleasure writing that. Nor seeing so much needless and perhaps irretrievable ruin in Snowden’s aftermath. Much of it gleefully celebrated by those who care nothing for American interests, privacy or otherwise. It takes a big man to bring down an epoch in American and global history, they say. So why are Alexander and Snowden perfectly, coevally so small?

Crushed Like A Spent Can Of Diet Coke

The seemingly ancient preceding post here about Obama’s first NSA-focused press conference reads quaintly now. We see in stark relief the cost of this Administration’s (typical) passivity. That’s not to excuse or diminish NSA’s stunning, profoundly stupid (and so totally unnecessary) transgressive acts. But we all should be clear about one distinction – intolerance for NSA’s transgressions is not embracing others’ attempt to exploit political fallout to see America diminished.

[Read more…]

Infographic – Pussy Riot Around The World

Because we do not always get the infographics we need, but what we deserve. Or something like that.

We tried to put Pussy Riot, Putin and the West in the juxtapose most familiar to a meme addled society. We think it captures the moment in Russia and the West. Clicking on the image below will produce the full size graphic. Feel free to make suggestions or comments for improvements. We can, as they say, ‘iterate this’ to reflect our consensus.

Putin, Pussy Riot, Trial, Twitter