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The Risks of a Russian “Gamble for Resurrection”

Dan Drezner nails it – Putin is backed into a corner, and that should frighten us.  Putin is actually paying massive costs for his strategy in Ukraine, for no discernible gain.  Sanctions are increasingly biting, and with the MH17 incident mobilizing Europe this will only get worse in the near-term future.  And so far, his gains from this strategy amount to: Crimea.  At tremendous economic and financial cost, and for the loss of his client state in Kiev. Even worse, the sanctions are beginning to splinter his domestic base.

One classic IR idea is the “gamble for resurrection“.  This is the idea that leaders, especially in authoritarian states, cannot afford to lose in major crises or conflicts – the regime’s support is shallow, and they might lose control if they show weakness.  So rather than back down, often leaders will escalate conflicts because it serves their best interests rather than those of the state.  The more sanctions undermine Putin’s elite coalition, and the less he has to show for it, the greater the risk that he will decide he cannot afford to lose and will start being riskier and more aggressive.

I’d add one more point to Drezner’s – that sanctions aimed at splitting Putin’s domestic base might well be read by Putin as an attempt to force regime change.  Putin surely understands the above logic, but might well put a different spin on things – that the point of these sanctions are to undermine his base of power and hope for a new government.  If so, the incentive for him is clear – each new round of sanctions must be met with more escalation, because if he backs down the personal costs could be immense.

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.

Non-Topical Question of the Day

Cyberwarfare – how should it be considered part of the coercive spectrum theoretically, and how should it fit into a strategic doctrine practically?  While the term is often conflated with electronic intelligence-gathering, I’m specifically using it here to refer to the use of malicious code to cause harm to a target, either physically or virtually.  Stuxnet, by overloading Iranian centrifuges, worked physically – the 2007 Russian shutdown of Estonian electronic infrastructure leaned towards the virtual end of the spectrum.

Popular discussion of cyberwarfare tends to treat it primarily as an arm of covert operations.  US military doctrine, to the extent that I have gleaned from Richard Clarke’s book, talks about it primarily in a similar context to interdictory air power – that is, a weapon to be directed against the logistical infrastructure supporting enemy armed forces.  One can also conceive of it as a strategic weapon – perhaps analogously to strategic air power, or perhaps nuclear weaponry (if one judges the threat to be especially severe).  However, one does not hear popular discussion of American capabilities to devastate an enemy’s strategic infrastructure…just fearmongering about Russian or Chinese capabilities.

My guess is that its strategic value is overblown, for the same reason strategic air power has tended to be overblown.  In the medium term, people tend to be ingenious and supply chains tend to be resilient.  The effectiveness of cyber attacks on enemy infrastructure is highly likely to have a very steep decay curve as enemies rapidly unplug their networks from the Internet.

Does the logic of mutually assured destruction govern use of strategic digital weaponry?