Putin’s man in Washington

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If the last few disastrous days of American diplomacy prove anything it’s this: Vladimir Putin’s investment in Donald Trump has paid off far beyond the Russian dictator’s wildest dreams.

As I said on the radio this morning, it’s like Putin dropped five bucks on a scratch-off lottery ticket at the corner gas station and found the million-dollar jackpot underneath.

From President Trump’s attempted demolition of the NATO alliance at its summit in Brussels, to his undermining of British Prime Minister Theresa May that further destabilized her already tenuous hold over her own government, to describing the European Union as a foe of the United States, to his final lickspittle, groveling performance at the feet of Vladimir Putin before the eyes of the world’s media in Helsinki, this was a week unlike any we have ever seen in modern American foreign policy.

As Putin’s top diplomat, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, put it, from their perspective the Trump-Putin meeting in Finland wasn’t just “better than super,” it was “fabulous.”

And why shouldn’t the Russians assess it that way? In their joint press conference, Trump openly rejected the consensus of his own government and embraced Putin’s “powerful denial” that Russia had in any way interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Trump said it was the United States that was responsible for tense relations between the two countries, both his predecessor in the Oval Office and the ongoing special counsel investigation into Russian meddling.

Certainly nothing he was willing to point the finger at Putin for, like waging covert war in eastern Ukraine, or using military force to redraw international borders by forcibly annexing Crimea, or shooting down a civilian air liner over Ukrainian territory in 2014, or the use of a deadly chemical weapon on British soil in an attempt to assassinate a Putin critic earlier this year.

In fact, Trump didn’t mention even one of those.

And why would he? When you’re someone else’s puppet, they’re the one pulling strings. Trump just acts, and speaks, accordingly.

Trump at NATO: Making anarchy great again

(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)
(Fraser Nelson for The Spectator)

 

For years now I’ve had students in my international conflict class read an old article by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War.” In it Mearsheimer, a noted international relations realist, predicts Europe will return to the bad old days of unstable multi-polar balance of power dynamics which historically led to wars among the continental great powers.

Mearsheimer was writing in 1990, just as the Cold War was ending, and where others saw a bright, cooperative, and peaceful future, he saw something much darker:

We may, however, wake up one day lamenting the loss of order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. For untamed anarchy is what Europe knew in the forty-five years of this century before the Cold War, and untamed anarchy – Hobbes’s war of all against all – is a prime cause of armed conflict. Those who think that armed conflicts among the European states are now out of the question, that the two world wars burned all the war out of Europe, are projecting unwarranted optimism onto the future …

Peace in Europe during the Cold War was, in Mearsheimer’s analysis, a product of the order imposed by two roughly equally matched, nuclear-armed, superpowers. With the Cold War over, that bipolar order went with it, paving the way for a return to the old, destructive patterns of history.

With the order of the Cold War gone, the states of Europe would once again be forced to put their own security first. Neither the prosperity that comes with membership in a common economic market, nor joint adherence to democratic norms and values, would be sufficient to guarantee the safety of European states in system characterized by anarchy and the requirements of self-help. Nuclear proliferation, at the very least to Germany, was assumed. War was not out of the question.

But the old patterns never actually came back, despite Mearsheimer’s prediction. Thirty years on from the end of the Cold War, Europe remains peaceful, prosperous, and democratic. And neither the Germans, nor any other European state, has developed nuclear weapons.

The key question I ask my students is why. Why was Mearsheimer wrong?

The answer is simple: Mearsheimer assumed that with the Cold War over and the threat posed by the Soviet Union gone, the United States would abandon Europe and the NATO alliance would dissolve. That, of course, didn’t happen.

Perhaps until now.

President Trump is now in Brussels for the NATO summit, and has spent his time, both in tweet before and in person while there, berating America’s allies, demanding they increase defense spending (they already have), and claiming the alliance is a raw deal for the US that disproportionately benefits Europe while we’re left holding the bag.

Every public statement from the president further undermines confidence in America’s commitments. Every new statement, every new set of plaudits thrown by Trump at Vladimir Putin’s feet, creates a little more doubt about whether we will stand in common defense of our allies. With all this, our allies must think, perhaps they should look to their own security once again.

And so, Mearsheimer might say, begins the return to form.

When it comes to understanding international politics, realists like Mearsheimer suggest that it all comes down to the long game. Given time, the standard patterns of interaction that characterize international relations will reassert themselves, sure as one season follows another. Wait long enough and history, or some close variant of it at least, really does repeat itself.

I hate to think that Trump is making Mearsheimer right after all.

NATO trolls Russia … with history!

Anti-Soviet partisans, Latvia, 1949.
Anti-Soviet partisans, Latvia, 1949.

 

While the American president’s¹ ceaseless fawning over Vladimir Putin leaves many NATO members wondering just how committed to the defense of the West we really are, the alliance is finding its own clever way to troll the Russian bear.

Monday NATO released a slickly produced eight-minute historical docudrama called Forest Brothers: Fight for the Baltics, telling the story of the anti-Soviet partisans² who fought a guerrilla war against the Russian occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the years after World War II.

Here’s the description posted at NATO’s YouTube channel:

After the Second World War, soldiers from across the Baltics who had fought on both sides of the war disappeared into the forests to wage Europe’s bloodiest guerrilla war against the occupying Soviet forces.

This short docu drama includes interviews with former partisan fighters and those who supported them and dramatic battle scene recreations and interviews with modern-day Special Forces of Lithuania, the direct descendants of the Forest Brothers.

Watch the video here:

Needless to say, the film elicited what Latvian state media characterized as “predicable criticism.” For example, this from Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister:

And this, from the official Russian mission to NATO:

And this, from the Russian mission to the EU:

Looks like NATO hit a soft spot. That’s quality trolling.

¹I just need to take a break from saying or writing his name. I think you understand.

² It’s summer and we’ve all got better things to do than engage in deep historical research, so for a quick and dirty way to learn a little more about guerrilla war in the Baltics after the war, check out the Wiki entry. 

Red Devils over the Baltics

107th_Fighter_Squadron_emblem-300x308While it may be an overstatement to call the current tension between NATO and Russia a new Cold War, whatever it is, Michigan is out on the front lines.

A-10 “Warthogs,” ground-attack warplanes from the 107th Fighter Squadron Michigan Air National Guard, the Red Devils, based out of Selfridge Air Force Base, were participating in NATO’s Saber Strike exercises in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Those exercises, involving approximately 4,500 troops from 13 countries, wrapped up this week, and came on the heels of the much larger Polish-led Anakonda 16 exercises in which 14,000 American troops participated earlier in the month.

Four of those Michigan A-10s landed on a highway near Jägala Estonia, about 100 miles from the Russian border, as part of Saber Strike. You can see a video below. This recreates a feat last done in 1984 when some 400 US warplanes landed on the West German Autobahn over several days as part of a Cold War demonstration of American tactical flexibility.

For real analysis of what all this might mean, let me direct you to my friend, Steve Saideman’s, blog where he regularly writes about NATO, though given that he now lives and teaches north of the border you have to wade through more discussion of Canada’s role in the alliance than most actual Americans could ever care to read.

For my part, I was more intrigued to come across the reference to a military unit based so close to home. I’ve had many students over the last several years associated with Selfridge, both as active-duty military and reservists, and the fate of the base and its squadron of A-10s has recently been in question as the Air Force has sought to retire its aged fleet of ground-attack warplanes.

Back in February the Pentagon announced that retiring the Warthogs, which entered production in 1976, will now wait until 2022 when they are due to be replaced by the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This came as good news for Selfridge and its squadron of 21 A-10s, which in 2015 did a six-month forward deployment to Iraq flying combat missions against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

Unfortunately, given the state the world, this is unlikely to be the last time Michigan’s Red Devils will see action in the skies over some trouble spot.