Belmont Club

The Bear Awakes

The United Nations says there are now more refugees than at any time in recorded history. They are at levels greater than World War 2.  This reflects growing warfare in the world. “In the past five years, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and this year in Burundi); three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); one in Europe (Ukraine) and three in Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan).

What’ worrisome is that the list is growing longer. Things are not getting better but worse. The 15 new wars are giving rise to instability on their margins and are likely to multiply. Now refugees are beating at the doors of Western Europe, which was heretofore directly untouched. But perhaps the most dangerous recent development are increasing tensions with Russia.  To paraphrase president Obama’s jibe at Mitt Romney, which is ironically recoiling on himself, not only are the 80s asking for their foreign policy back, it looks like the 50s are chiming in too.

Julia Ioffe in Foreign Policy says that for the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon is preparing for war with Russia: “Exclusive: The Pentagon Is Preparing New War Plans for a Baltic Battle Against Russia.  But the really troubling thing is that in the war games being played, the United States keeps losing.”

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Defense is reviewing and updating its contingency plans for armed conflict with Russia. …

“Everyone’s judgment at the time was that Russia is pursuing objectives aligned with ours,” says David Ochmanek, who, as deputy assistant secretary of defense for force development, ran that office at the time. “Russia’s future looked to be increasingly integrated with the West.” Smith, who worked on European and NATO policy at the Pentagon at the time, told me, “If you asked the military five years ago, ‘Give us a flavor of what you’re thinking about,’ they would’ve said, ‘Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism — and China.’” …

Then came the Obama administration’s reset of relations with Russia, and with it increased cooperation with Moscow on everything from space flights to nuclear disarmament. … It was there that, in February 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught Ochmanek and pretty much every Western official off guard by sending little green men into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. “We didn’t plan for it because we didn’t think Russia would change the borders in Europe,” he says. Crimea, he says, was a “surprise.” …

“We just don’t have those forces in Europe,” Ochmanek explains. Then there’s the fact that the Russians have the world’s best surface-to-air missiles and are not afraid to use heavy artillery.

After eight hours of gaming out various scenarios, the blue team went home depressed. “The conclusion,” Ochmanek says, “was that we are unable to defend the Baltics.”

The Bear is making a comeback in the Middle East too. As Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times explain, the Obama administration may also have trouble defending Coalition air assets over Syria. ” Russia’s military buildup in Syria now includes surface-to-air missiles as well as combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, deployments that raise “serious questions” about Moscow’s role in the region, Secretary of State John Kerry said Saturday.”  Russian air defenses mean that the drones, upon which Obama depends, have suddenly become vulnerable.

It has also added to the Pentagon’s worries about the risk of an inadvertent confrontation between Russia’s military and the American-led coalition that is carrying out airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State. …

While Mr. Kerry did not provide details, an American official, who requested anonymity because he was discussing intelligence reports, said that a Russian SA-22 air defense system was already in place at Latakia. The United States had observed elements of the system at the base in the last week, but now the launcher and the missiles it fires are there, too, the official said.

The American official added that the four Su-27 aircraft Russia had flown to the air base were armed with air-to-air missiles.

“What’s the air-to-air threat there for them?” asked the official, who called the development “troubling.”

“What’s the air-to-air threat for the coalition” is probably the more germane question.  Russia is effectively challenging Obama over Syrian airspace, probably correctly assuming that the president’s next move will be to ask the Russian controllers for permission to operate before any operation.

Putin is throwing combination moves now.  The Associated Press reports Russia is establishing an air base in Belarus whether Minsk likes it or not. The Russian president is working over the president alternating moves to Eastern Europe with moves in the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday signaled his intention to establish a Russian military air base in neighboring Belarus — a move sure to unnerve Poland and the Baltic nations.

Belarus has made clear it would not welcome a Russian base, but the former Soviet republic remains dependent on Moscow for credit and energy.

Putin ordered the Russian Defense Ministry, with the participation of the Russian Foreign Ministry, to hold talks with their Belarusian counterparts and sign the agreement that is reached. …

“Against the background of the Ukrainian crisis, the stationing of a permanent Russian military contingent in Belarus will upset the balance of forces and facilitate an increase in tension in the whole region,” said analyst Valery Karbalevich.

As part of an effort to improve Belarus’ relations with the West, Lukashenko has stayed neutral on the conflict in Ukraine between the Western-aligned government in Kiev and the Russia-backed separatists in the east.

“It is obvious that the Kremlin really twisted Lukashenko’s arm,” Karbalevich said. “Belarus is totally dependent on Russia and has to pay somehow for the cheap Russian oil, gas and credits.”

A forward Russian position in Belarus would open the both eastern flank of Poland and the southern borders of the Baltic states to pressure.  Worse it is an open challenge to NATO and the Western alliance, something most inconvenient to president who can’t  admit the possibility of challenges to his authority.  He likes to project the impression of effortless superiority, with both his character and power completely beyond question.  

Belarus

To acknowledge that 15 wars have broken out in the last 5 years would be to admit failure.  That may be why the president wants to avoid situations where he can be humiliated. As Stephen Sestanovich in the Wall Street Journal argues, president Obama is reluctant to talk to Putin in case it makes him look weak because  such meeting will reveal that Obama has no policy.  He’s just covering up the punches now, pretending they don’t hurt.

But suppose you don’t have much of a policy. In that case, isn’t sitting down with your tormentor another way of advertising your confusion? And won’t it show others—your critics, your partners, your clients—that they shouldn’t count on you?

Sadly, if you don’t know what you’re doing, talking to your adversary may not help much. In dealing with Russia, especially regarding Syria, this administration has sometimes seemed to hope that talk could substitute for policy—that Mr. Putin might want to do Mr. Obama a favor. Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Moscow in May 2013 and to Sochi this past spring showed that that’s not how Mr. Putin operates.

The cherished image of effortless superiority burnished by what Mark Steyn calls the media “palace guard” is in danger of cracking under the strain.  Like a person famous for being famous, the president’s majestic progress is dependent on the fact of it.  Once the music stops the whole show falls over.

This curious condition was highglighted by Donald Trump who recently responded to critics that excoriated him for not rising to defend the president’s honor against charges he was a Muslim.  Trump asked: “am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don’t think so!”. However Vladimir Putin doesn’t have to play by Beltway media rules.  And unlike Trump, Putin’s got nukes.

The world is probably in one of its most dangerous conditions since World War 2. Yet the president is unwilling to even face the gravity of the situation for fear of besmirching his reputation. No reputation was ever worth that much.


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