Little Ducks

There's trouble in Russia

“Little ducks, there’s trouble in Russia.” Thus began the commanding officer’s speech in classic fictional submarine movie Crimson Tide, which despite some suspenseful moments, ended in peace being preserved.  Today the trouble in Russia is real not fictional.   In the Baltics Putin is deploying “the Iskander-M … a ballistic rocket system designed to destroy strategic targets … arguably in breach of the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty.”  This was not the only ominous sign of rising international tensions. “On Monday Russia cancelled its weapon-grade plutonium disposal agreement with the US.”  Jeffrey Lewis describes in Foreign Policy why this is such a big deal:


The other day, a little present arrived in the mail. It was book, or rather a pair of doorstops. Titled Doomed to Cooperate, the massive two-volume set is about 1,000 pages of essays, interviews, and vignettes from more than 100 participants in the remarkable period of cooperation between the nuclear weapons complexes of the United States and Russia in the immediate post-Cold War period. … Putin’s decree ends one of the last remaining forms of cooperation from that remarkable era. …

And we’re talking about a lot of plutonium here. … One hundred and twenty-eight metric tons is enough for 32,000 nuclear weapons. Want to get your arms race on? … what are we other than doomed.”

It’s quite a comedown for a president who mocked Mitt Romney for thinking Putin could be a problem.  Yet despite its attempts to conciliate the Kremlin the Obama administration has not been able to stem the Kremlin’s tide.   John Kerry expressed frustration at the weak hand he has been forced to play.  He regretted that he could not protect Western backed rebels in Aleppo because the president armed him only with blanks.

Much of the city of Aleppo lies in ruins after days of airstrikes by Russian and Assad regime forces, and buried in the wreckage is whatever is left of the Obama Administration’s Syria policy. If it’s any consolation to the 275,000 souls trapped in the city, John Kerry has regrets.

That much is clear from a leaked recording of a conversation the Secretary of State had with a group of Syrian civilians engaged in humanitarian work during last month’s U.N. General Assembly … Above all, he lamented that his diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s war were never backed by a credible threat of American military strikes. “I think you’re looking at three people, four people in the Administration who have all argued for use of force, and I lost the argument,” Mr. Kerry said.


The disillusioned Kerry went so far as to call for war crimes investigations of Russian officials.  But that did not stop him from going back to the Russians a mere 48 hours after announcing he was cutting off ties with them, probably as Putin knew he would. The failure of the administration’s policy became hard to deny.  Even Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Russia expert has raised doubts about the efficacy of his presidents’ foreign policy. “Russia clearly has no interest in counter-terrorism cooperation, humanitarian relief, or political progress in Syria.  Through its words and deeds, it appears Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a partner for peace.”

Yet the ship of state is locked on course, with bipartisan support.  Nothing will be allowed to stop Barack Obama’s third term via Hillary Clinton, therefore it is steady as she goes.  Nobody really believes that accusations of election law violations, the revelation that two bankers boxes full of printed emails promised the FBI were missing or anything else will derail her inevitable shuffle to the White House.  Not after newly disclosed emails show how Hillary was coached to avoid trouble with the FBI by the White House itself.  Not after it was announced that “House Speaker Paul Ryan will not campaign with Donald Trump Saturday as he had previously planned.”

The party of Washington, indeed the entire political establishment, is clinging to Hillary for dear life.  Ross Douthat in a series of perceptive Tweets captures the essence of the problem as many perceive it. “Your plane gets hijacked. Would you rather land in Communist Cuba or the middle of the Congolese Civil War? … There’s a ‘lawful evil’ versus ‘lawless chaos’ issue here that definitely needs some more unpacking, though.”


Nobody has asked: who hijacked the airplane?  But in that example Hillary most naturally stands for the Gulag while Trump represents General Butt Naked.  Which would you rather? Caught in that cruel vise the practical result may be the same: Putin will get to do what he wants. The big question is: what does Putin want?

If one were to attempt a defense of Obama’s policy of masterful inactivity it would be to argue he is deliberately allowing Putin enough rope to hang himself.  In that scenario Obama knows the Kremlin is running out of air because the Russian economy based on oil prices is inexorably shrinking .  By letting Putin dive deeper into the Baltics, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Med he will inevitably pass the point beyond which he can no longer regain the surface. Then Obama can walk away triumphant, dusting his hands, the smartest man in history.

It sounds good on paper, but leaving aside the real danger of actual nuclear war it recalls the nearly fatal overconfidence of the French general staff before the Great War.  “If they come as far as Lille,” said De Castelnau studying the map, “so much the better for us. We’ll cut them in half!”  In the event the Germans got way beyond Lille.  In fact they almost reached Paris.  Similarly the Kremlin may be aiming for something other than Obama thinks.  The danger usually lies in assuming one can read the mind of his opponent.  Obama may think he knows what Putin thinks, but there is no guarantee he really does.

Whatever Putin is playing at, Russia must be close to all in. There cannot be much of a margin left.  With an shrinking economy smaller than Italy or South Korea’s the Kremlin is taking outsize chance by challenging the West across such a broad front.  The payoff must logically be worth the risk and either the Russian knows what he’s doing or he does not.  Putin appears to be relying almost entirely on his ability to out-think Hillary, Kerry, Obama and perhaps Trump though he may have something hidden up his sleeve: perhaps a deal with China; maybe some powerful blackmail card.


Either way there’s trouble in Russia, little ducks. But unlike the super-submarine USS Alabama in the movie, the USS District of Columbia can’t dive and can’t change course.  No evasive action.  All it can do is proceed on a fixed heading on the surface, rudder jammed, dead slow, condition XRAY.

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