Ivan Timofeev: War Between Russia and Ukraine: A Basic Scenario?

By Ivan Timofeev, Valdai Discussion Club, 11/25/21

Note: This analysis by Ivan Timofeev of the Valdai Discussion Club provides a cost-benefit analysis of a Russian invasion of Ukraine from a Russian perspective. – NB

Concern is growing in the Western media over Russian military activity in the southwestern theatre. There are opinions that Russia is preparing a military campaign against Ukraine. The supposed goal is to break the deadlock of the Minsk Agreements, to impose further coexistence conditions on Kiev and its Western partners, to prevent the US and NATO from “developing” the territory of Ukraine for military purposes, and also to reformat the country’s political system and its state structure. Such rumours are spreading quickly, causing alarm among the political leaders of foreign countries as well as latent, albeit tangible fears in the business community. However, it is still premature to consider such a development as a baseline scenario.

Several circumstances speak in favour of the military scenario outlined by foreign commentators. The first is the recent experience of the Russian armed forces and the political consequences of their use. Moscow intervened in Georgia’s conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, quickly changing the situation and recognising the two autonomies as independent states. In 2014, Russia carried out a lightning-fast operation in Crimea, creating conditions for the subsequent referendum on reunification. Later, the Ukrainian army was defeated in Donbass, and the political consequence was the formation of the LPR and DPR. In 2015, Moscow radically changed the military situation in Syria by deploying a compact but highly effective air group. The political result has been the preservation of power in the hands of the Assad government and the defeat of a number of terrorist groups. All these events indicate that Russia is ready to use force suddenly, in a concentrated manner and at the same time to seek concrete political changes.

The second circumstance is that the international political consequences for Russia which resulted from the military campaigns were relatively insufficient. No foreign state has intervened openly in these conflicts. Foreign military aid does not radically alter the balance of power. Economic sanctions in their current form harm the Russian economy, but they are still not the main factor contributing to existing problems. The economy itself is stable. In short, there are no major checks and balances on a new military campaign.

The third circumstance is that Russia is not ready to bear with the existing status quo in relations with Ukraine. Kiev is almost openly talking about sabotaging the Minsk agreements, and is not ready to implement them. The US and the EU cannot or do not want to change this; while at the same time they are verbally calling on Russia to abide by the agreements. Ukraine itself, after 2014, for obvious reasons, has been pursuing an anti-Russian line. The events of 2014 significantly strengthened the position of the nationalists. Any attempt to pursue a political dialogue with Russia is deemed unacceptable. A “mopping-up” of politicians who are in any way loyal to Russia is under way. Militarily weak and fearful of further complications with Moscow, Ukraine is seeking to deepen its defence ties with the United States and its allies, as well as trying to expand military aid and supplies. In Moscow, this is perceived as the “utilisation” of the territory of Ukraine by Western countries and is accompanied with subsequent threats to the strategic interests of Russia. Moscow considers the emergence of Western military infrastructure in Ukraine only a matter of time.

Taking into account these circumstances, a scenario where Russia takes action can be hypothetically considered in the West and in Ukraine in the following vein. With a sudden and decisive blow in several directions at once, Russian troops dismember the armed forces of Ukraine in the East of the country, surround separate groups, or press them against the Dnieper river. The actions of tank and motorised units are accompanied by powerful air, missile and artillery strikes. The Russian Aerospace Forces seize air supremacy. The apotheosis of the operation should be the encirclement and the subsequent capture of Kiev, and the stabilisation of the front line along the Dnieper. The creation of a new Ukrainian state with the capital in Kiev would be announced and recognised by Russia. It would include the previously-independent DPR and LPR. Russia thereby resolves several historical problems at once. The immediate threat to the southwestern borders is removed. Full control over the Sea of Azov and a land corridor to the Republic of Crimea are ensured. Two Ukrainian states appear on the map, one of which should be “friendly and fraternal”.

Even if one fails to write off this scenario as a reflection of existing phobias and nationalist complexes, it still seems unlikely for a number of reasons.

First, such a military conflict is unlikely to culminate in any intelligible agreement. A victory over the armed forces of Ukraine will not by itself lead to a fast peace. The war could develop into a long and sluggish confrontation, especially if part of the territory (for example, Western Ukraine) remains under the control of the Ukrainian armed forces. Capturing the whole of Ukraine is technically possible. However, it will be more costly, and subsequent control would be much more difficult. The option of “two Ukrainian states” would allow Russia to squeeze nationalists out by sending them West. Under a “one Ukraine” scenario, this would be impossible, given all the ensuing consequences.

Second, the conflict would inevitably lead to a sharp change in the Western approach toward providing Ukraine with modern weapons and military equipment. In the United States and in the West as a whole, the new situation would be considered as an emergency and they would not limit funds to support the armed forces of Ukraine. Moreover, in this case, all possible types of conventional weapons will be supplied. Large-scale military aid from the West would prolong the conflict. Russia would not be able to block such supplies. The United States and its allies will not enter open military confrontation with Moscow. However, the level of support for the Ukrainian army will grow significantly.

Third, regarding the Ukrainian issue, Russia would find itself in diplomatic isolation. It is unlikely that any country would voice support for Moscow’s actions. Unlike Crimea and Donbass, we’re talking about a large-scale and open clash between the armed forces, that is, about a full-fledged war. Russia would certainly be on the offensive. This would allow its actions to be classified as aggression without any problems. While the situation in Crimea and Donbass arose against the backdrop of revolutionary events in Ukraine and could be construed as part of a civil conflict, then in this scenario, such conditions are not visible. At the moment, there is no obvious conflict between the East and West of Ukraine. The legitimacy of Moscow’s actions in this case would be extremely weak, if not entirely impossible. In addition, Russia would have to bear responsibility for the civilian casualties, which would be inevitable in a large-scale conflict.

Fourth, all key Western players would introduce qualitatively new sanctions and restrictions against Russia. These would harm a number of Western countries and cause temporary shocks in world markets. But in an emergency situation, the West would take such measures, despite their economic cost. Possible measures include blocking sanctions against all Russian banks, including the Bank of Russia. This would largely cut Russia off from the global financial system. Another possible measure is a ban on the purchase of Russian oil, and then gas. Such bans can be increased gradually in order to avoid crisis situations with fuel supplies in the West itself. But in the event of a war in Ukraine, the West would take these measures. Other, more focused restrictions would be applied to imports and exports of oil and gas. The cumulative damage to the Russian economy would be colossal in scale.

Fifth, controlling Ukraine, even its eastern part, could be problematic. Taking into account the Western sanctions blockade, any transactions with the territories of Ukraine under Russian control would be impossible. Russia would have to take on a huge territory. The big question is whether the Russian market, in the grip of new sanctions, would be able to compensate for the damage to the Ukrainian territories under Russian control. The seizure of territories wouldn’t solve any of the problems facing the Russian economy today.

Sixth, the loyalty of the population of Eastern Ukraine to Russia is not obvious. Despite all the internal disagreements, over the past 30 years Ukraine has developed its own civic identity. The population of the eastern regions may have a negative attitude towards excessive nationalism. However, this does not guarantee their loyalty to Russia. Moreover, the war could finally undermine sympathy for Russia, which has already dwindled over the past six years.

Finally, seventh, the war is fraught with destabilisation of the situation inside Russia itself. There is no demand in society for a war with a neighbour, even despite the odiousness of the anti-Russia discourse in Ukraine. It is quite possible that Russian troops would be able to inflict resounding defeats on the armed forces of Ukraine and push them to the West. The losses, however, would still amount to hundreds, and possibly thousands of fighters. In the event of a possible prolongation of the conflict, human losses would become a permanent factor. Combined with a possible economic crisis, these are not the best conditions for generating public support. While reunification with Crimea was accepted with enthusiasm in Russian society for many reasons, a big war is unlikely to find such support.
In other words, the costs of a possible war far outweigh the benefits. The war is fraught with significant risks to the economy, political stability and Russian foreign policy. It fails to solve key security problems, while it creates many new ones.

The question arises — to whom and under what conditions is this scenario beneficial? First of all, it is attractive precisely as a hypothetical rather than a real situation. In this form, it makes it possible to consolidate Ukraine on an anti-Russian basis, to seek the expansion of Western military aid, and to justify such aid to the West. The threat of war and an exercise of power can also be used by the Russian side. Moscow shows that it is technically ready for a radical scenario and will not allow its “red lines” to be crossed. These “red lines” include a military solution to the Donbass problem. In other words, the scenario has a practical meaning as a tool for information warfare and political signals.

From the point of view of the balance of benefits and losses, neither side is interested in a real war. Therefore, it is hardly worth considering the war scenario as a likely one. However, history knows many examples when rational calculations have failed to put an end to escalation. There is only the hope that this isn’t the case here.

Ivan Timofeev is Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club; Director of Programmes of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC); Associate Professor at MGIMO University.https://valdaiclub.com/a/highlights/war-between-russia-and-ukraine-a-basic-scenario/

Fred Weir: Why Russia’s Troop Surge Near Ukraine May Really be a Message to the West

Map of Eurasia

By Fred Weir, Christian Science Monitor, 11/23/21

War clouds are gathering on the Russia-Ukraine border, as Moscow assembles a major force within striking distance of Kyiv for the second time this year.

The buildup of 100,000 troops and heavy equipment in Russia’s western military sector, near Ukraine, has raised the fears of some in Kyiv and Washington that an invasion is imminent.

Analysts say the threat is real and seems unlikely to be drawn down, as happened following what looks like a full dress rehearsal last spring, after the Biden administration agreed to a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin and scaled back planned naval exercises in the Black Sea.

But war is not Russia’s goal, they add. Such a conflict would be prohibitively costly and intensely unpopular in Russia, which is home to the world’s biggest Ukrainian diaspora and where many millions have family and close friends in Ukraine.

Rather, the buildup is meant to back up clear demands that Mr. Putin has delivered to Ukraine and the West. Analysts say that what Russia wants are permanent guarantees that countries like Ukraine and other former Soviet states will not join NATO and will remain neutral – as Finland was during the Cold War – as a new basis for regional stability. The aim of the troop deployments is to concentrate minds in Kyiv and the West about Moscow’s concerns, they say.

“Putin said that ‘tension is good,’ meaning that our Western counterparts should be kept alarmed, only then will they take Russia’s interests into account,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “It looks like Putin wants to open a new chapter, to finally get the perception on the Western side that NATO enlargement is dead.”

Russian security

In a speech to the Russian foreign ministry last week, Mr. Putin slammed the West for dismissing Russia’s “red lines” concerning Ukraine, and said that NATO’s arming and military integration with Ukraine must end. He complained that two decades of NATO expansion into the region has brought a major threat to Russia’s doorstep, and that Moscow will not tolerate Ukraine’s potential membership in what it sees as a hostile military alliance.

“It is imperative to push for serious long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security in this area, because Russia cannot constantly be thinking about what could happen there tomorrow,” Mr. Putin said.

Though Ukraine’s NATO application has been temporarily shelved, the alliance has consistently maintained that Ukraine will eventually join. For the Kremlin, which has seen all the Soviet Union’s former Warsaw Pact allies and the three ex-Soviet Baltic States already integrated into the alliance, the prospect of NATO forces only a three-day march from Moscow was never going to be acceptable, says Mr. Lukyanov.

“Western leaders have believed for decades that every country has the right to join NATO, and NATO should accept them without taking into account the strategic implications,” he says. “That’s something new in history, it’s totally opposed to classical strategic thinking, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western leaders embraced this idea that NATO should just expand, that it was somehow the right thing to do, and that no one should oppose that. It’s an ideological belief, not one based on serious strategic or military calculations.

“When NATO enlargement began, back in the ’90s, no one expected Russia to recover as quickly as it has. But Russia is back, it is deeply concerned about its strategic neighborhood, and it needs to make clear that Ukraine must not join NATO. Putin’s point is that we need Western leaders to take that seriously, and not just in words.”

Putin gives his annual state of the nation address in Moscow, April 21, 2021, amid a Russian troop buildup near the border with Ukraine. Although that surge was drawn down after the White House agreed to a summit with Mr. Putin, a similar drawdown does not seem forthcoming for the current Russian troop deployment.

Loggerheads between Moscow and Kyiv

Part of Mr. Putin’s frustration may be that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected largely on promises to bring peace to war-weary Ukraine, has made no headway in that area. Instead, Mr. Zelenskyy has appealed to the West to rapidly admit Ukraine into NATO and cancel Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, demanded that the Minsk 2 peace accords be revised, and taken other positions that infuriate Moscow.

“Russia is disillusioned with Zelenskyy, and sees no hope any longer that he might start a dialogue about ending the conflict,” says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the foreign ministry. “The mood in Moscow is that there is no point in talking with Kyiv, and we need to sort this out with Washington.”

Read full article here.

Marc Bennetts: Pentagon Risks Putin’s Wrath with Arms for Ukraine

By Marc Bennetts, The Times (UK), 11/23/21

The White House is said to be considering the deployment of military advisers and new weaponry to Ukraine in a move that would probably cross President Putin’s “red lines”.

Air defence systems, such as stinger missiles, as well as Mi-17 helicopters, Javelin anti-tank missiles and mortars are among the military equipment being discussed, CNN reported, citing sources close to the Biden administration.

The Mi-17 is a Russian-made helicopter that the US initially purchased to give to the Afghan army before the Taliban’s takeover in August. The Pentagon is now considering handing them to Ukraine instead.

The United States has provided Kiev with $60 million in military aid since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, including Javelin anti-tank missiles.

There are believed to be serious concerns within the administration, however, that Russia would view a new supply of lethal aid to Ukraine as a serious escalation.

The discussions come after Brigadier Genera Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s defence intelligence agency, warned that Moscow could launch an invasion as early as January.

“We need more [military assistance]. No countries except Ukraine have an open war with Russia,” Budanov told The Military Times website this week. “That’s why we’re sure the US should give us everything we didn’t get before. And right now. It’s the right time for this. Because after, it could be very late.”

Budanov also confirmed for the first time that Ukraine had fired Javelin missiles at Russian-backed forces in the Donbas region, where the Ukrainian army is trying to claw back control of two self-proclaimed republics. Ukraine was barred from bringing the weapons to the front line until last year when Washington gave it permission to use them defensively in the Donbas.

Read full article here.

Why Have Russians Rejected the West’s ‘Values?’

Why have Russians rejected the West's ‘values?’
FILE PHOTO: McDonald’s in Moscow. © Bernard Bisson / Sygma via Getty Images

By Natylie Baldwin, RT, 11/21/21

When the Berlin Wall came down, many triumphantly declared that the West had won the Cold War and that its values would soon become universally accepted, pushing out the old systems that had dominated Eastern Europe for decades.

However, more than thirty years on and it is clear that Russians are in no hurry to emulate the liberal systems of countries like the US. One poll, released last month, revealed that nearly half of Russians say they don’t hold democratic values. Many Western pundits would quickly blame this on President Vladimir Putin, who they accuse of crushing their hopes for the country after the fall of communism, transforming it into a hybrid capitalist state. But why are so many Russians skeptical of the West’s promises in the first place?

There was indeed a honeymoon period immediately following the end of the Cold War when a huge majority of Russians viewed the US and its institutions favorably, and were open to the kind of democracy being touted from abroad. It’s not well understood how Russians ended up becoming disillusioned to the point where many of them now refer to democracy as “sh*tocracy.”  The answer to the question requires one to take an unflinching look at the Russian experience of the 1990’s.

Jack Matlock, the US ambassador to Russia during the Bush administration, explained that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the country was wracked by “runaway inflation that destroyed all savings, even worse shortages of essential goods than existed under communism, a sudden rise in crime and a government that, for several years was unable to pay even [its] miserable pensions on time.  Conditions resembled anarchy much more than life in a modern democracy.”

This characterization is supported by many Russians as well as Americans who had on the ground experience in the country during the Yeltsin era, undercutting the sepia-tinged narrative put forward by many current western media commentators of a Russia that was a scrappy little democracy enjoying the miracles of the free market during the Yeltsin years, only to be destroyed by Putin.

Sharon Tennison, founder of Center for Citizen Initiatives who has been conducting citizen diplomacy between the US and Russia, as well as supporting community and business projects in the country since 1983, recalled in a series of interviews with me what she saw occurring on her regular trips to Russia during the Yeltsin era. According to Tennison, it was anything but democratic:

“[I remember] a frigid night I came up from the metro to see a line of three or four tiny grannies, wrinkled faces, worn coats and scarves, each holding up a packet of cigarettes for sale….Ordinary people planted food on the sides of roads and lots … young oligarchs drove $100,000 vintage cars in the two capital cities, where elderly people were living in parks, and millions had died from hunger due to loss of their rubles in state banks.”

Read full article here.

Finian Cunningham: U.S. Blacklists Strategic Culture Foundation in Attack on Independent Journalism and Political Dissent

By Finian Cunningham, Strategic Culture Foundation, 11/18/21

In an audacious attack on free speech, journalists and writers based in the United States have now been banned by the U.S. federal authorities from publishing articles with Strategic Culture Foundation. We interview one of those authors affected by the ban, New York City-based journalist Daniel Lazare who shares his thoughts on the profound implications for free speech, independent journalism and political dissent.

Lazare is one of several U.S.-based writers who formerly published regular columns with Strategic Culture Foundation. Our online journal greatly appreciated their intelligent insights and analysis of U.S. and international politics. Sadly, we will no longer be able to publish their columns because of the threat levied on them by the U.S. federal authorities who accuse SCF of being an influence operation directed by the Kremlin. The allegations and threats are baseless and draconian.

If U.S.-based writers defy the ban, they have been threatened with astronomical financial penalties of over $300,000. The prohibition has only emerged in recent weeks. It follows earlier moves by the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department accusing SCF of being an agent of Russian foreign intelligence. No evidence has been presented by the U.S. authorities to support their provocative claims. The Editorial Board of SCF categorically dismisses the allegations. In a statement, the editors said: “We reject all such claims by the U.S. authorities that the journal is an alleged Russian intelligence operation. We have no connection with the Russian government. We provide an independent forum for international writers to debate and freely critique major topical issues of world importance.”

Strategic Culture Foundation’s editorial production is based in Russia and the journal has been publishing articles by international authors for over a decade. The online journal has gained respect and readership primarily in North America for its critical and diverse coverage of geopolitics. It seems that the official move to ban SCF by the U.S. government is really aimed at shutting down independent journalism and critical thinking under the cynical guise of combating a “foreign enemy”. This has baleful echoes with the Red Scare Cold War years in the U.S.

By banning American voices from the journal, Washington is attempting to bolster its smear against SCF as being a sinister intelligence agency. But the real objective is to criminalize critical journalism and indeed any form of critical dissent. Arguably, the draconian attack by the U.S. authorities has to be seen in the wider context of persecuting Julian Assange and other whistleblowers who have exposed Washington’s crimes and corruption.

Daniel Lazare is a veteran newspaper journalist who specializes in U.S. constitutional law and rights. He formerly worked for Consortium News and Strategic Culture Foundation among other outlets. The New York City-based writer now publishes a regular column for The Weekly Worker, the paper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Read the full article that includes interview with Lazare here.

Enough is Enough: Russia Cuts Ties with NATO

Russia-NATO permanent mission logo.
NATO-Russia

By Natylie Baldwin, OpEd News, 11/16/21

On October 18th, Russia announced it would formally suspend its mission with the NATO alliance, including ending official communication. This is a significant event but not totally shocking to anyone who has been paying attention to post-Soviet Russian relations with NATO.  It’s important to look at what led up to Russia deciding it had enough and that it was no longer worth having an official relationship with the western military alliance as there is a lengthy historical context to the breakdown.

NATO had just expelled eight Russian diplomats for espionage activities but provided no public evidence or details on these serious allegations.  But this was just the immediate event that provided the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Post-Cold War Triumphalism

The problem started with the triumphalist attitude that eventually prevailed in Washington after the end of the Cold War.  President Ronald Reagan intentionally took the approach during negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War that doing so would be in the interests of both countries.  It was characterized at the time as a negotiated settlement that benefited all parties involved and not a defeat.  Reagan’s successor George H.W. Bush adopted the same attitude until it was time to campaign for his reelection, during which he bragged that the U.S. had won the Cold War. 

In the 1990’s, the Clinton administration, encouraged by foreign policy hawks,  greedy defense contractors and domestic reelection politics, expanded NATO to former Warsaw Pact countries Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.  This was a violation of verbal assurances given by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, along with other western government officials, during 1991 negotiations with Gorbachev that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward.”  This assurance was made in order to get Gorbachev to accept a unified Germany in NATO given the deep historical memory of the Germans having invaded Russia twice in the 20th century, the second time resulting in 27 million deaths and destruction of a third of the Soviet Union.  But NATO didn’t stop there and expanded by seven more countries, right up to Russia’s border, by 2004.   

It’s also worth mentioning that the NATO-Russia relationship as it was formulated in 2002 in the form of the NATO-Russia Council was never intended to be a vehicle that would allow Russia to be treated as a respected peer.  Instead it was largely a pretense as admitted by those who came up with the idea, which included then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. As one of Blair’s aides later stated, “even if they [Russia] weren’t really a superpower anymore, you had to pretend they were.”  Russia had a permanent ambassador to NATO and could theoretically participate in NATO discussions, but Moscow complained for years that they were often excluded from informal discussions prior to official meetings and would consequently face a coordinated bloc.

That same year, under George W. Bush, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty – a move Russia viewed as a threat to strategic nuclear stability and a desire by the U.S. to pursue a first strike advantage.  Likewise, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2018, a decision made by president Donald Trump whom we were supposed to believe was a Russian puppet.  Problems with the INF Treaty had, however, been building for some time and it wasn’t just accusations of Moscow violating the treaty with a certain type of cruise missile.  Starting in 2009, the Obama administration approved the installation of a missile defense system in Romania and then Poland that was a violation of the INF Treaty and was a serious concern to Russia.

In 2014, Washington played a key role in the Ukraine coup when then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland was caught on a phone call with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine discussing how to facilitate the removal of the corrupt but democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich and install their favored candidate as Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk.  It’s very interesting that their desired turn of events actually came to pass.  This was clearly either a provocation or represented profound ignorance of the region by the U.S. State Department.  The latter is a very generous interpretation given the fact that Nuland – a Neoconservative ideologue – was taking the lead on Ukraine.

Washington and NATO Double Down

In the aftermath of Russia’s severing of ties, the U.S. and NATO have doubled down on provocative activities rather than used the rupture as an opportunity for self-examination or an attempt to come up with fresh ideas to slow the spiraling relationship between major nuclear powers. Within the same week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told audiences on his whirlwind trip to Georgia, Ukraine and Romania that the Black Sea was a U.S./NATO military interest.  The U.S. subsequently sent two warships into the Black Sea early this month and members of Congress are now urging the Biden administration to ramp up military support to the area.  Austin also stated that Russia should have nothing to say about whether Ukraine joins NATO or not.  Within days of Austin’s trip, a conference of NATO defense ministers in Brussels revealed a new “master plan to contain Russia.”

As I have argued before, it would not be in Russia’s interests to attack the Baltic countries and it would not pass any remotely rational cost-benefit analysis.  Moreover, military action by Russia in the post-Soviet era has been reactive in nature rather than aggressive.  Its action in Georgia in 2008 was a response to a military attack by Tbilisi on Russian troops in South Ossetia according to the 2009 EU Fact Finding Mission report, and the annexation of Crimea was a unique situation that resulted from Moscow’s genuine perception of a serious national security threat.  NATO officials even admit that they do not think any attack is planned by Moscow on its neighbors.  As Reuters has reported:  “Officials stress that they do not believe any Russian attack is imminent.”

But this didn’t stop the German defense minister from pouring fuel on the fire by stating in an interview around the same time that NATO should make clear that it is willing to use military force, including nuclear weapons, to deter Russia from attacking not just members of the alliance but partners.  Needless to say, this was viewed as very disturbing by Moscow.

It would appear that from Russia’s perspective there has been little to no benefit from the arrangement it had been working under with NATO for the past two decades.  The U.S., which effectively controls NATO, still seems to be suffering from its bout of post- Cold War triumphalism and continues to think that it can treat Russia as a bugaboo to justify bloated military budgets and as a whipping boy diversion from its domestic political problems.  At the same time, U.S./NATO not only expects Russia to act as though it has no national security interests of its own to protect but is also obligated to provide diplomatic cooperation with the west when convenient, such as with Afghanistan and negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal.  It’s no surprise that Russia finally felt it was time to put its foot down.

Anatol Lieven: Ukraine: The Most Dangerous Problem in the World

By Anatol Lieven, The Nation, 11/13/21

…Between independence in 1991 and the revolution in 2014, Ukraine was evenly balanced between supporters of an ethnic version of Ukrainian identity in the country’s western and central regions, and supporters of a civic version (with a strong guaranteed role for the Russian language and culture) in the east and south. The events of 2014, and the conflict with Russia that followed, have led to a situation in which ethnic nationalists (with Western backing) dominate national politics in Kiev. However, their program remains highly unpopular in the Russian-speaking areas and is overwhelmingly rejected in the Donbas.

To bring about a peace settlement, it is necessary to eliminate or discount the factors that brought about a failure of the Minsk II agreement. Chief among these is Ukraine’s refusal to guarantee permanent full autonomy for the Donbas. The main reason for this refusal, apart from a general commitment to retain centralized power in Kiev, has been the belief that permanent autonomy for the Donbas would prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the European Union, as the region could use its constitutional position within Ukraine to block membership. The official US commitment to eventual Ukrainian NATO membership—however empty in real terms—has in turn inhibited the United States from playing a positive role in resolving the conflict.

These Ukrainian and American arguments are, however, a classic case of circular reasoning: So long as Ukraine is involved in a territorial conflict, it will never be invited to join NATO and the EU. Nor should it be. Even if a US administration were prepared to take such a risk, Germany and France would certainly veto it. And there is no way to solve this conflict on Ukrainian terms without victory in a war against Russia, which is impossible. Realistically speaking, Minsk II’s basic terms—an end to the war and autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine—are the best deal that Ukraine is ever going to get.

If the United States drops the hopeless goal of NATO membership for Ukraine, it will be in a position to pressure the Ukrainian government and parliament to agree to a “Minsk III” by the credible threat of a withdrawal of US aid and political support. And if Moscow were to reject or sabotage this agreement, or permit the Donbas separatists to do so, then all existing Western sanctions against Russia related to the Donbas and Crimean disputes should not only remain in place but be greatly intensified.

The United States ought to promote the following main terms for a settlement:

§ A Ukrainian constitutional amendment establishing the Donbas region as an autonomous republic within Ukraine (including those parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces currently controlled by Ukraine); and

§ A constitution for the Donbas Autonomous Republic (including its constitutional relationship with Ukrainian national institutions in Kiev) to be submitted to the people of Donetsk and Luhansk in a referendum supervised and monitored by the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

If a majority of voters in the Donbas oppose the constitutional amendment, then they will have chosen to remain within Ukraine under its present unitary constitution. But in the likely event of approval in the referendum, the amendment would then be submitted to the Ukrainian parliament. If the parliament rejected it, a new internationally supervised referendum would be held giving the people of the region a straight choice between rejoining a unitary Ukraine and becoming independent, with a future option to join the Russian Federation.

It should be noted, however, that annexation is not Russia’s preferred option for the future of the region. Moscow could have annexed the Donbas (as it did Crimea) at any time during the past seven years but has refrained from doing so. Moscow is determined to defend the Donbas against any attempt at Ukrainian reconquest; but for good political and strategic reasons, it would much prefer that the Donbas remain a pro-Russian autonomous part of Ukraine. However, if Ukraine launches a new war, annexation will certainly follow, leading to a new crisis in Russia’s relations with the West.

In order to secure the establishment and maintenance of autonomy, the referendum on autonomy and the establishment of a regional government under the Ukrainian constitution must come before Ukraine takes control of the border with Russia. The police and courts in the Donbas Autonomous Republic would come under the regional government. Military security would be provided by a UN peacekeeping force drawn from neutral countries outside Europe and established as part of a Security Council resolution in support of the peace settlement. US and NATO forces would not be included, nor would Russian forces or those of countries allied to Russia. This peacekeeping force would also supervise and certify the disarmament of the existing separatist armed forces, the withdrawal of all Russian forces, and the withdrawal of the Ukrainian armed forces from their present positions in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The United States, of course, has a federal system, as do Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, India, and South Africa. There can thus be no objection from democratic principle to a federal system for Ukraine, or to special autonomy for the Donbas. Given the vast differences in language and culture between different parts of Ukraine, a federal constitution would seem the best political system for the country as a whole. Failing that, “asymmetric federations,” in which certain regions enjoy special status or one autonomous region exists in an otherwise unitary state, are also an accepted part of certain democracies…

Read full article here.

The Conversation: An autonomous robot may have already killed people – here’s how the weapons could be more destabilizing than nukes

By James Dawes, The Conversation

Autonomous weapon systems – commonly known as killer robots – may have killed human beings for the first time ever last year, according to a recent United Nations Security Council report on the Libyan civil war. History could well identify this as the starting point of the next major arms race, one that has the potential to be humanity’s final one.

Autonomous weapon systems are robots with lethal weapons that can operate independently, selecting and attacking targets without a human weighing in on those decisions. Militaries around the world are investing heavily in autonomous weapons research and development. The U.S. alone budgeted US$18 billion for autonomous weapons between 2016 and 2020.

Meanwhile, human rights and humanitarian organizations are racing to establish regulations and prohibitions on such weapons development. Without such checks, foreign policy experts warn that disruptive autonomous weapons technologies will dangerously destabilize current nuclear strategies, both because they could radically change perceptions of strategic dominance, increasing the risk of preemptive attacks, and because they could become combined with chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons themselves.

As a specialist in human rights with a focus on the weaponization of artificial intelligence, I find that autonomous weapons make the unsteady balances and fragmented safeguards of the nuclear world – for example, the U.S. president’s minimally constrained authority to launch a strike – more unsteady and more fragmented.

I see four primary dangers with autonomous weapons. The first is the problem of misidentification. When selecting a target, will autonomous weapons be able to distinguish between hostile soldiers and 12-year-olds playing with toy guns? Between civilians fleeing a conflict site and insurgents making a tactical retreat?

The problem here is not that machines will make such errors and humans won’t. It’s that the difference between human error and algorithmic error is like the difference between mailing a letter and tweeting. The scale, scope and speed of killer robot systems – ruled by one targeting algorithm, deployed across an entire continent – could make misidentifications by individual humans like a recent U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan seem like mere rounding errors by comparison.

Autonomous weapons expert Paul Scharre uses the metaphor of the runaway gun to explain the difference. A runaway gun is a defective machine gun that continues to fire after a trigger is released. The gun continues to fire until ammunition is depleted because, so to speak, the gun does not know it is making an error. Runaway guns are extremely dangerous, but fortunately they have human operators who can break the ammunition link or try to point the weapon in a safe direction. Autonomous weapons, by definition, have no such safeguard.

Importantly, weaponized AI need not even be defective to produce the runaway gun effect. As multiple studies on algorithmic errors across industries have shown, the very best algorithms – operating as designed – can generate internally correct outcomes that nonetheless spread terrible errors rapidly across populations.

Read full article here.

The Current State of U.S. Liberalism & Putin’s Comments at Valdai Conference

Vladimir Putin

As an American who follows the political and cultural scene here and as someone who writes on Russia, I read Putin’s recent comments on western culture at the Valdai Conference with particular interest. My thoughts are that, overall, I think Putin made some interesting observations about the changes in culture that are going on in the west. However, I would argue that his understanding of the dynamics of what is going on culturally – particularly in the U.S. – is actually somewhat superficial and decontextualized. I found it interesting that he did not make a connection between these cultural phenomena and the elite interests and inequality that he mentioned earlier in his speech.

The US is in decline, not only on the world stage but in terms of the standard of living and stability that it offers its own citizens.  The elites who have benefited from decades of neoliberal economic policies, consequently gobbling up even more wealth at the expense of the majority, obviously don’t have any interest in that majority successfully organizing for policy changes that would improve their material well-being.  It is in the elites’ interest therefore to keep the majority divided and distracted by using elite institutions to encourage a preoccupation with sex (including deviance and pornography) and immersion in gadgets as well as infighting over cultural wedge issues that have become more extreme over time.  A number of these controversial policies represent the views of academics ensconced in their ivory towers with little connection to regular people in the real world.  Interestingly, their bright ideas of progress don’t always align with the views of the groups on whose behalf they claim to be advocating.  For example, the term “Latinx” was coined and is used primarily by the academic community and mainstream media in the U.S., but is very unpopular among Americans of Latin or Spanish descent. 

The mainstream media and social media platforms in the U.S. do their part to keep the pot stirred by giving disproportionate attention to sensationalist issues and not allowing a balanced and nuanced debate on controversial policies.. A small but vocal group of people – usually consisting of obscure academics, media personalities and self-appointed activists – will put pressure on those who express opinions that don’t conform to their dictums about what is correct.  Some of those who have been targeted in such a way have lost their jobs, been doxxed or stigmatized out of the public conversation. This is antithetical to the traditionally liberal values of free speech and confidence that one’s ideas are valid enough to withstand debate.

People who want to see a balanced and reasoned exchange of ideas increasingly have to go out of their way to find independent left or conservative media who give voices to people who have been tarred as deviating from the politically correct “liberal” position on a given topic.  As someone who generally considers myself an independent leftist, I want to see a range of views presented and debated. I have sometimes gained a richer insight on topics from hearing views I don’t necessarily agree with and I can at least walk away with a better understanding of why someone I disagree with sees the world the way they do, which is valuable and contributes to empathy. This is the same reason I have found value in friendships with people over the years that I had political and religious differences with. How stunted would my growth as a person have been if I had only ever associated with people I agree with on everything?

But in today’s cultural environment, I often find that when one is actually allowed to hear what these supposed heretics of “liberal” orthodoxy have to say, it turns out to simply be a more nuanced view or an acknowledgment that there may still be many aspects of an issue that are as yet unknown.  Putin uses the topic of gender as an example of the troubling trends in US/western culture. A good example on this topic recently involved Dr. Lisa Littman, a scientist who specializes in research on this subject  She received major backlash for reporting on her findings regarding the sudden change in the age and sex of gender dysphoric people in recent years and the long-term complicated effects of gender transition among teenagers. 

(We’ve seen similar censorship and shaming of qualified doctors and scientists who report findings that don’t totally agree with the rigid establishment view surrounding the Covid pandemic response.) 

With respect to transgender issues, which took off in terms of cultural prominence around 2015 after the US Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, a couple of points are worth noting. First, most minority groups have to build momentum for their cause for years or even decades before they get any traction and realize their political and/or legal goals. Second transgender people have historically composed a very small percentage of the population even counting for underestimation due to taboos. It does make me wonder why this particular group is seeing such vocal prominence given to their struggle so quickly.

Meanwhile, increasing poverty, worsening health and the collapse of small business continues on – affecting far more people than transgender issues – with politicians talking big to get voter support but caving to their elite donors at the moment of truth.  President Joe Biden chose not to fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage within weeks of taking office (a figure which now represents a poverty wage in most American cities with astronomically  unaffordable housing prices).  Free community college, paid family leave and lower drug prices won’t be in the much ballyhooed legislative bill after all.  But, hey, you can still get your daily 15 minutes of hate against your neighbor by watching FOX or MSNBC before you go back to online porn or shouting intolerant outrage on Twitter.  I would argue that the elites are perfectly content with this arrangement as it keeps the masses pacified while their shenanigans remain out of focus.

I think a lot of people grasp that this seems to be a look-over-there-while-I-pick-your-pocket-over-here stunt. Political and cultural liberalism in the US today is not only being used as a form of distraction, it is a very different animal from that of the New Deal era through the 1970’s. It has become more authoritarian, supporting illiberal means for supposed liberal ends.  It is also eating its own as transgender activists butt heads with feminists and gay rights advocates, people of color don’t embrace the latest terms cooked up for them by out-of-touch elite academics, and the working class is ignored and looked down upon.  The liberal label seems to have become less attractive, especially to younger people in the U.S. who are increasingly identifying themselves as independent or democratic socialist.  

I find it interesting that many opinions and analyses I’ve read of Putin’s speech – even by people I consider to be reasonable commentators on the subject of Russia – accept the idea that the policies and trends that Putin is critiquing actually represent genuine liberalism or progress.  The implication often seems to be that Putin and the Russian government may not be able to hold this back, that these attitudes and policies are an inevitability for an advanced and successful nation.  I’m not sure that is at all clear and I’m wondering if they are missing the larger point – that some of these trends, the way they are currently being handled as discussed above, do not represent true liberalism.  Moreover, change is not necessarily a good in and of itself but discernment should be used when determining whether change is constructive and should be embraced and/or to what degree a balance should be struck in the interests of pluralism.