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Russia, the EU, and Sanctions as Subsidy

Yglesias has a new post up on the package of sanctions the EU is preparing for Russia, and one in particular seems interesting, an EU embargo on Russian arms:

While the EU exports €300 million a year in weapons to Russia, EU countries import about €3.2 billion in Russian-made equipment. Those imports mostly go to former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, whose militaries have a legacy of using Russian arms. This is an appealing target because Eastern and Central European countries are also, in general, the countries most eager to see the EU take a more anti-Russian tilt.

Yglesias mentions one reason this is practical, that the brunt of this would be borne by the most militantly anti-Russian countries.  France and Italy don’t operate MiGs – Poland and Latvia do, and this embargo would cut them off from replacement parts.  If they’re interested in taking this step, there’s no visible main impediment. And it might actually make an impression. While 3.2 billion Euro comprises a whopping 0.2% of the Russian economy (by my back of the envelope estimate), it’s a fairly significant sector of the economy dominated by interests close to the state.

One thing Yglesias doesn’t mention: on this issue, the political economy lines up beautifully.    The 3.2 billion Euros won’t be lost, especially since the bulk of those imports are to Eastern European countries that are currently getting quaky and plowing money into their military.  Poland will keep buying fighter jets, but it won’t be buying MiGs – they’ll be buying Eurofighters, Saabs, and F-16s.  This embargo could function as a de facto subsidy to the big European military contractors that are mostly located in Western Europe.  I imagine that Airbus and BAE are leaning hard on their friends in the EU as we speak.

I can’t speak for the rest of the package, but this seems likely to happen.

The Consequences of MH17 for Ukraine (and Russia)

In the latest escalation in Ukraine, today a civilian airliner was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over Donetsk, killing all 295 people aboard.  It’s not clear yet what happened, but the explanation seems obvious – Russia gave jumpy, poorly-trained separatists heavy anti-aircraft systems (along with, probably, some trained operators, because you can’t exactly pick those things up and figure it out).  These separatists see a blip on the radar and fire enthusiastically without realizing it’s a civilian plane.  As the narrative is pieced together, I would be very surprised if we discover otherwise.

The crisis in Ukraine has officially spiraled completely out of control.  Over the past few weeks or so, Russian involvement has become more and more overt – yesterday evidence emerged of a Russian jet shooting down a Ukrainian plane, and Russian artillery shelling the Ukrainian army.  The two countries are very close to a de facto state of war, and a de jure state of war might not be far off.  I agree with Julia Ioffe – this incident is clearly a game changer, but it’s not immediately clear how.  However, the crisis has obviously entered a more volatile and less predictable phase that should worry everyone.

Americans should reevaluate the reputation of Vladimir Putin as an evil genius; for the last six months his behavior has been reactive and panicky. First, he lost his client state in Ukraine by pushing too hard against EU association.  He successfully claimed Crimea, but seems to have cemented the dominance of the pro-Western faction in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.  Vladimir Putin might have thought his backing of separatist rebels was a clever low-cost way to encourage the new Ukrainian government to fall into line, but as fighting escalated he has lost any control he might have had over the situation.  This incident was a shocking blow to his position; meaningful EU sanctions are much more likely than yesterday.  This is all a bad thing – the combination of reactive, panicky, and backed into a corner is terrifyingly unpredictable.

In my view, this incident substantially increases the chance of an overt Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.  Putin has completely lost control of the irregulars he has armed, and crucially has now done so very publicly.  He must be considering whether it is possible to disarm the rebels before they do something else that will so drastically compromise Russia’s international position, the economy, and potentially even his grip on power.  Unfortunately for him, a “peacekeeping operation” will now be even more vilified internationally than if he had launched one yesterday.  He’s in a very tight spot, which should frighten everyone involved.

Also, incidentally, try and extrapolate from this incident to policy for the US.  Putin was transferring arms to well-known actors immediately on the other side of his border, with defined objectives, trained fighters, and Russian intelligence handlers heavily involved.  Do you think we will have substantially more control or influence over Syrian rebels?

The Intention Heuristic Lurking in Iraq

Terrible, worrying news out of Iraq today as the jihadist rebels who have previously been confined to Eastern Syria have spilled over the border and are advancing south through Iraq with lightning speed.  Rather than stand and fight, the poorly organized Iraqi forces are fleeing without firing a shot.  Naturally, there is some concern about this in the halls of American foreign policy, and the usual actors are taking the opportunity to cast blame – the right on Obama’s weakness and his withdrawal from Iraq, and the left on Bush’s invasion in the first place, as well as the tinpot dictator he left in charge.  Beyond casting doubt, people are looking for some way that America can stop this – mostly not through re-invading, but perhaps some judicious application of airstrikes to hinder the insurgents.  After all, we created this paralyzed government and feckless army, surely this is at least partly our responsibility.

This is perhaps the perfect example of what libertarians call the “intention heuristic” – that the best thing to do is that which most makes you feel you are doing something to help.  The intention heuristic critique is central to the more sophisticated conservative critiques of the welfare state – that voters don’t actually care about what is best for the poor, but want to “do something”.  This is a natural human impulse, and what makes the phrase “you broke it, you bought it” seem initially so compelling when applied to situations like Iraq.  It should be consciously acknowledged, and resisted when possible.

The unfortunate truth is that the consequences of American intervention in the Muslim world have proven extremely difficult to predict, and it’s not at all clear that they are positive.  Afghanistan remains in an endless war, the security situation in Iraq has been deteriorating for at least a year, and Libya is hardly well-off.  There’s little reason to believe that American intervention in the looming Iraqi civil war would go smoothly or have unambiguously positive effects.  It’s probably wiser to leave this fight to others.  Iran, for one – their forces are already on the ground.  They are much more motivated to defend their client in Baghdad than we are.

Although I do wonder whether it would benefit nuclear talks to have American drones providing close air support to the Revolutionary Guard…these are strange times.

Separatismagical Thinking

Catalonia flag in Llivia

Catalonia flag in Llivia (Photo credit: Xamonich)

The Catalan independence movement has taken off in recent months.  The elections are coming up on Sunday, and over the last year support for independence has risen dramatically.  The Times briefly touches on the pragmatic reasons not to – namely the advantages of EU membership and the greater clout that Catalonia derives from being part of Spain. It leaves out the likely crippling consequences of an immediate withdrawal or “Catalexit” – their equivalent of the Grexit.  This would have all the same consequences from suddenly leaving the Euro – bank runs, financial crisis, capital flight, and so on.  This is a very real potential consequence of independence – Catalonia wouldn’t be a Euro or EU member upon its separation from Spain.  These are not secrets.

The Catalan case, happening in the here and now, does a good job demonstrating the clear problems with a rationalist approach to politics.  People frequently act in rational ways – for example, as consumers deciding between competing products or as managers attempting to cut costs.  But when it comes to judging whether issues of principles such as “democracy” or independence, people frequently cease their ability to conduct cost-benefit analysis.  This isn’t a new notion – it is one the classical historians knew instinctively.  But sometimes whenever we get too caught up in sociology or political science or economics, it is good to remember that there are more important things to most people than dollars and cents.

Foreign Misadventures

Mitt Romney is in Israel, and I frankly just don’t really get the point of his whole trip abroad.  However, it does provide a bit of an amusing media spectacle.  While I don’t think they will actually damage him substantively in the upcoming election, I find Mr. Romney’s* general lack of tact to be perennially amusing.  I found the following items of note:
·         Mr. Romney insulting his British hosts. Come on, bro.
·         Mr. Romney denying he would watch his wife’s dressage horse, Rafalca, compete in the Olympics.  Yes, it is ridiculous that his wife’s dressage horse is competing in the Olympics.  But is he seriously so craven about his enormous fortune he will throw his wife’s passion under the bus?
·         Mr. Romney holding fundraisers with the mega-rich abroad, in London and Jerusalem.  I don’t know if Obama did or does the same, but there’s something about it I find vaguely disquieting. I sincerely hope Obama will not do the same – it just smacks of the Second Estate deciding how we shall be ruled.
·         Mr. Romney issuing threats of war with Iran from the Western Wall on Tisha B’Av. As a Jew: ugh. 
·         Mr. Romney’s inability to name a real problem with President Obama’s Israel policy.
·         Prime Minister Netanyahu coming awfully close to actively campaigning for a candidate in an American election.  I wonder if he knows that Mr. Romney is not the favorite to win, and if so I am curious about what his game is.  Bibi doesn’t do anything without a reason, and presumably hopes to derive material advantage from his pro-Romney stance.  What is it?
·         Mr. Romney’s arguably racist comment that Israel is massively richer than the West Bank because of “culture”.  He didn’t have to say that, and he knew what he was saying.  It was just a gratuitous more-right-wing-than-you line that serves no purpose other than provocation.  This habit of his, when combined with the rigorous avoidance of any actual opinion that might provoke, is kind of disgusting.
All in all, I believe exactly zero votes will be moved by this trip.  But I still found it interesting.  I wonder if next he will pledge to defend Poland from the Soviets?
*: The way that politicians hang on to their old titles forever bugs me.  Presidents, fine.  But Mr. Romney is very clearly a private citizen – if I were him, I’d preferto go by Mr. Romney to soften the image a little bit.

The Inevitable Death of the Syrian Army

I tend to agree with CJ Chivers on most matters of politico-military analysis, and particularly his recent verdict on the role of IEDs in the Syrian insurgency.  Namely, “…the Syrian army is fucked.  And the troops must know it.”.  In brief, his argument is that IEDs are an extreme threat to a conventional army in hostile territory – with eleven years and unparalleled resources, the US Armed Forces have made only erratic progress against their threat.  The Syrian Army has neither the time, expertise, equipment or money to defeat these tools.  They can continue to kill many people, but their operational effectiveness is only going to decline and the Syrian Army is doomed as a conventional military force.

He does not dwell on the fact that breaking the Syrian Army is only part of winning the war.  As conventional forces are whittled down, the dividing line between them and the insurgents dwindles.  The FSA will have the benefit of a more hospitable popular environment, but there will be plenty of Alawites, Christians, and just-plain-loyalists who might potentially support a rump Syrian Army.  As the conventional advantage of the Army diminishes, many of the troops will flee but a potentially-still-large contingent will fight.  They will not have their supply lines and helicopters, but will still be well-trained, well-equipped, and well-organized.  There is no reason to think they won’t take up unconventional warfare as well.

So Chivers’ insight is correct but incomplete – the Syrian Army is fucked as a conventional modern military.  Unfortunately, that in and of itself tells us little about the prospects for a peace through victory in Syria.

Turkey, Syria, and Provocations

Two closely connected stories in today’s Times that suggest that a certain someone is trying their best to foment a regional conflict in Syria.  The first is about the use of Turkey’s sovereign territory by the Syrian resistance as a refuge and resupply channel. The obvious implication of the story is that the Turkish government is at the very least aware of this and passively consenting to it.  More likely is that this aid is happening with full Turkish approval.  After all, it is public knowledge that the Saudis are sending cash and probably arms to the Syrian rebels – the Times mentions the cash packets but elides the obvious question of where these large amounts of cash are coming from.  Given that the smuggling operations have at least the tacit approval of the Turkish government, it doesn’t seem insane to wonder if the Turks are funding the opposition.

The second story is closely connected, and ostensibly keyed to Syria’s shooting down a Turkish fighter jet last week.  Turkey, as NATO expresses support in the jet incident, has warned Syria to keep its military forces away from the border, and says that any military unit approaching the border that could even reasonably be construed as threatening will face immediate Turkish military response.  I say that it is “ostensibly” keyed to the jet incident because it actually matches up much better with the story I describe in the first paragraph.  Turkey has been using the border to funnel material aid to the rebels, and has today told Syria that any attempt to shut down this conduit will face a Turkish military response, even if Turkey’s territory is not violated.

I wish I knew what Prime Minister Erdogan is thinking, because if I were him and attempting to internationalize the Syrian Civil War I’d be acting more or less as he has over the past few weeks.  Perhaps that is his intent, or perhaps he is merely concerned about the spillover effects and wants to maintain a cordon of security around the Turkish border.  But the prospect that it even looks possible for a NATO member to be laying the groundwork to intervene in Syria is pretty concerning.