My Diplomat Essay for May: ‘No, Crimea is Not a Model for Aggression in Asia’


The essay below is a local reprint of my essay for the Diplomat magazine this month.

The motivation was a lot of the panicky response in Asia after the Crimea annexation that something like that might happen in East Asia. I don’t really see that at all, to be honest. Sure Asia is dangerous – that China-Vietnam spat right now  is pretty hairy – but remember that East Asian conflicts are mostly over open, unpopulated sea-spaces whose economic value is minor or unproven. China taking the Paracels or Spratlys is not exactly an Anschluss. Is it bad? Of course. Should China be resisted? Absolutely. But China is not nearly as paranoid and thuggish – at least internationally – as Putin. So yes, if we have to contain China we can. I’ve argued that myself – so please don’t tell me I’m some panda-loving hippy. But we don’t need to rush to cast Crimea as some big lesson for Asia. Rising, prestige-accruing China is not declining, angry Russia, and the local circumstances – most obviously the lack of any Chinese irredentist claims – are pretty different.

Here’s that essay:

“Since the invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk that the annexation is re-defining international relations, violating established international law, throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos, and so on. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from US conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, lacks resolve, and so on.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the ‘Munich analogy’ is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The US and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second cold war against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obviously hypocrisy of US officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan noted how NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the ‘Long Peace’ and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on Obama’s ‘capitulation’ in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like US neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this ‘what Crimea means for Asia’ piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the ‘coin of realm in foreign policy’ and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would prefer to belong to Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. ‘National identity matters’ in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a ‘cold peace’ but has proven surprisingly durable. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-US competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including to the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a ‘model’ of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not irredentism which underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of ‘liberating’ ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in east Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the US should re-double the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite – that the US might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull US resources into eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the US is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as US hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. Particularly, we must be careful not cast China too quickly into the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the USSR 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on east Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s ‘demonstration effect’ in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation with this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a ‘win’, but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Senkaku and the South China Sea dispute are not strong counter-evidence either. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed capacious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold-peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages US allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a ‘Crimea model.’ Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that US hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to US hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…”

My December Newsweek Japan Essay: Japan as a Unique Bulwark to Chinese Hegemony in Asia


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I recently joined Newsweek Japan in a more official capacity as a regular contributor. I am pleased to do so, as I increasingly think that Japan is the primary bulwark to Chinese hegemony in Asia. So more and more, my research interest is drifting toward the Sino-Japanese competition as weightier than the inter-Korean competition.

In that vein, I wrote the following story for the current volume of Newsweek Japan. In brief, I argue that only Japan has the strength to really block China’s rise to hegemony in east Asia. Russia is too weak, especially out here. India just can’t seem to get its act together (I used to push India really hard as an obstacle, but it just doesn’t seem up to it.) I am a skeptic of the US pivot, and sheer distance alone means the US need not confront China unless it wants to. The US will never be under a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ as Asia might be in the future. That leaves Japan as a unique bulwark – a front-line state with the wealth and state/bureaucratic capacity to give China a real run for its money. Indeed, one way to see the current tension is as another round of Sino-Japanese competition for Asian leadership going back to the mid-19th century. (As always, I’d love to hear from the Japan mil-tech guys on all this.)

Elsewhere I have argued that China’s rise to hegemony is unlikely, in part because I think Japan will vigorously balance China. (Indeed, it probably is already.) So this essay is an expansion of that previous argument. The essay follows the jump.

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Thickening Russia-Korea Ties is a Good Move for South Korea


b00cacd510614f87ea3a79ff18f43d62f9ea1dd2I wrote a quick piece for Newsweek Korea this week on Vladimir Putin’s trip to South Korea. Find the Korean web version here. Below is the translation.

In brief, I argue that a relationship with Russia is good for South Korea. Because SK is both relatively small and encircled, its foreign policy is dominated by just a few states. The problem is that SK can’t/won’t reach out to NK or Japan, so it is basically stuck between the US and China. So pulling in the Russians is a nice way to get SK some room to maneuver in its tight neighborhood. That is sure to annoy the Americans, but if you’re a S Korean, it’s a wise choice. That is the real value of the trip for SK, while for Russia, it bolsters its fading Asian relevance. Also, while I think President Park has really blown it over Japan, this was a smart choice against the Chinese and the Americans – maybe the best thing she’s done on foreign policy yet.

If it seems like I’m emphasizing geopolitics over economics, that’s because I don’t buy this ‘New Silk Road’ bit – where SK and Russian traffic would move through a guaranteed rail/road corridor in NK – for one minute. Does anyone really believe NK will respect transit rights, giving up lucrative shake-down opportunities on the movement of fuel, goods, tourists, and so on? No way. Look at how Pyongyang uses Kaesong for whatever blackmail/hostage-taking purposes it has in mind. NK is a such a black hole for international norms, that SK and Russia might as well connect by a ‘chunnel’ before relying on NK respect for transit rights.

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My November Diplomat Essay: China & Russia are Not Displacing the US bc of the Syria Deal


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This is a re-up of my monthly column for The Diplomat for November. Here is the original. I must say I don’t find the comments to be particularly helpful over there, so please give me your thoughts.

My primary argument is that the media is far too shallow in judging “US decline” on passing issues of minor relevance to the lineaments of American power. Remember two months ago, when Obama ‘had’ to act in Syria, even against Congress? That his very presidency was in peril, that American would be perceived as weak and lacking credibility? And now, no one is talking about that. Or then there was the idea that Obama missing APEC amounted to handing Asia to a bullying one-party state with a bad human rights record and no allies ‘rising China’? Good grief. Enough alarmism. Only the vanity of elites who think the very fate of the world hangs on their choices would lead one to believe that some missed meetings and airstrikes will change the balance of power. It won’t.

Always remember that Asian states need the US a lot more than the US needs them. US regional allies need us to hold back China, and even China needs us to buy all their exports and provide a savings safe haven. Sure, we benefit from cheap Asian exports and lending, but that’s a lot less important. The relationship is very asymmetric, and those who tell you otherwise are trying to cover the weakness of many Asian states and their desperation for US attention with bravado that America ‘needs’ Asia. That’s bunk. As I have been trying to argue on this blog for awhile, if they don’t want us in Asia, it’s no big deal for US security, and it’s an economic blow far worse for them than it is for us. And this is getting even more asymmetric as the US becomes energy independent because of fracking – so have fun fixing the Middle East, China! The US Founders identified the luxury of US distance from Eurasia long ago, so forgot all these hyperventilating Asian columnists (Kishore Mahbubani being the most obvious) who resent that America can be a lot more insouciant about Asia than vice versa. *natch Smile

Here’s that essay:

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USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US Power


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Here are part one and part two of this post. I spoke last Tuesday at a USC-CSIS conference on Korean unification. I learned a lot, and it was very good. If you’re interested in unification, start here with the primary report on which the conference was based. The principal investigators said a final wrap-up report will come at some point, and I’ll put up that link when it arrives.

My comments below are on the papers presented on Tuesday about neighboring states’ reactions to Korean unification. These papers aren’t publicly posted yet, so all the comments might not make sense. But in the interest of completism, I’m putting this up to round out my thinking on this excellent unification project. (For my earlier thoughts on dealing with NK, try this; for my travelogue of my trip to the DPRK, try this.)

My big beef with these sorts of conferences on NK – I go to a lot – is that inevitably outsiders, especially Chinese scholars, start laying down all sorts of guidelines, restrictions, parameters, etc. for unification, as if it’s our right to muck around in this thing. I can understand the national interest in doing so. But we shouldn’t have the temerity to try to legitimate our muddying of the waters in what is really an internal family affair. It would also help a lot if the Chinese would stop talking (not so much at this conference, but definitely at others I’ve gone to) about how Korea needs to respect its wishes, because China is big and important now, post-2008 Olympics. I heard one guy once even say that China is now the ‘veto-player’ on unification. That’s true of course in realist sense, but that sorta cockiness infuriates Koreans who’ve really soured on China in the last decade. I see the same kind of emergent Chinese bullying on unification that Southeast Asian littoral states see on the South China Sea. So I try to call that out whenever it seems necessary.

Anyway, here on my thoughts on Japan, Russia, and China’s role in this thing.

It’s Time to De-Russianize the BRICS — UPDATED (twice): Response to My Critics


UPDATED, March 22, 24: This post got a lot of traffic, due to Andrew Sullivan’s citation of it. Thank you to all those readers coming for the first time; please come again. The criticisms levelled here have been similar to those made at the Duck of Minerva, where I also blog. It seems there are three main critiques, although you may wish to scroll further down to the original post first: 1. I exaggerated; Russia is still a great power. 2. I didn’t provide enough data and links. 3. I don’t really ‘get’ Russia, or I’m just recycling western propaganda.

(In passing, I find it both curious/frustrating as an author that what I think is my more creative and fresh work in the last few months [this or this series] didn’t get nearly so much attention, whereas lamenting Russia’s postimperial decline, which so many have done before me [see all the links below], got an explosion of interest. Not quite sure what to make out of that…)

1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore.

Ok, but not by much. I’ll agree that it was probably gratuitous to call Russia a ‘joke’ as a great power. But then again, be honest with yourself and tell me you didn’t laugh: when Putin rode around shirtless on horseback, when Putin stage-managed a discovery of ‘antiquities’ while scuba diving, when Putin claimed the State Department and Secretary Clinton were fomenting the Moscow protests, when Zhirinovsky “backed free vodka and the reconquest of Alaska,” when the president fired a minister on live TV (!), the minister refused (!!), and Medvedev responded with farcical lecture on Russia’s globally-regarded ‘constitionalism’ (!!!). Or just read this from Gawker on the Putin the crossbow-toting whaler and tell me you don’t burst out laughing – over a head of state with superpower pretensions?

These are the sorts of howlers and hijinks we expect from leaders like Qaddafi, with his retinue of female ‘bodyguards,’ or Idi Amin, with so many gold medals on his uniform you could store it in a bank vault. But modern states, desirous of global prestige, seeking to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, just don’t do this stuff. Could you imagine Wen Jiabao doing he-man photo-ops? You’d laugh, right? Well… Putin’s become a punchline, regardless of Russia’s other strengths, which is ultimately what motivated the original post.

As Niall Ferguson put it last December, “Russia—who cares? With its rampant voter fraud and declining population, the country is careening toward irrelevance. …Russia isn’t quite “Upper Volta with missiles”—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s immortal phrase. But it’s certainly a shadow of its former Cold War self. The U.S. economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. Per capita gross domestic product is not much higher than in Turkey. Male life expectancy is significantly lower: 63, compared with 71 on the other side of the Black Sea. And the population is shrinking. There are nearly 7 million fewer Russians today than there were in 1992. By 2055, the United Nations estimates that the population of Egypt will be larger. Remind me: why did Goldman Sachs group Russia with Brazil, India, and China as the “BRICs,” supposedly the four key economies of the 21st century? Give me Turkey or Indonesia any day.” That’s exactly right (I know people think Ferguson is a neo-victorian apologist for empire, but hold that thought),  and it should deeply worry and embarass Russians that the rest of the planet thinks this way about one of the world’s great cultures. I wrote something similar last fall when Putin announced his re-taking of the presidency, and the whole world shrugged.

Here is more from the Duck of Minerva comment section:

“My interest was more developmental than realist-theoretical. On re-reading the post, it was a bridge to far to say that Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It still is, by the skin of its teeth. Nukes compensate for other areas of decline, I suppose, as you are suggesting. De Gaulle saw this, as did N Korea.

My real goal was to developmentally differentiate between Russia and the other BRICS. That BRICS moniker is to imply some level of cosmopolitan comfort with the modern world economy and rapid growth to greater weight within that economy (hence my reference to Parag Khanna). The other 4 BRICS capture that upward trend – as do other economies like Turkey, S Korea, Mexico, or Indonesia (hence my preference for Khanna’s term ‘second world’). But Russia really doesn’t. Russia is slipping, not rising and has been, more or less, since the late 1970s. That’s quite a hegemonic decline. Its internal rot is pretty severe now. Its Transparency International score in 2011 is a staggering 143 out of 182, putting it in the company of Nigeria, Belarus, and Togo, and obviously calling into question not just its BRIC credentials, but its great power ones too. And the shirtless one’s return puts off a turn-around for another six to twelve years. Given that China rose to the ‘G-2’ in just 30 years, 20+ long years of Putinism (after 10 years of Yeltsin chaos plus late Soviet stagnation) portends a disaster for Russia. This is the real reason for the Moscow protests. They see this now.

Rotation at the top is just one marker for BRIC normalization, but other obvious red flags include the relentless xenophobia of the Putin regime, the alienation from the WTO, the huge missed opportunities of globalization, the blow-out levels corruption and state capriciousness including the murder of journalists, the third worldish reliance on carbon and weapons exports, the 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ obsession with countering the West in Eurasia, the confiscatory attitude toward private wealth most obvious displayed in the Khodorkovsky case, or Putin’s laughably ridiculous throwback-to-Kaiser-Wilhelm bravado of hunting on TV with a crossbow or fighting stage-managed martial arts contests. Does that sound like a BRIC or Khanna’s ‘second world’? Not really. It sounds like Venezuela or Iran. It sounds like an angry, Weimar-style pseudo-democracy high on petro-dollars with a ‘postimperial hangover,’ as Vice-President Biden once put it. Hence the argument that BRIC/second world is the wrong developmental category for Russia. For more of this, ‘should the R be taken out of the BRICS’ debate, try here and here. For a similar write-up on how Putin’s return will critically aggravate so many of Russia’s outstanding problems, try here.

2. I didn’t provide enough data.

Ok, so here you go. It’s pretty easy to find. Please read the links above and these below. From the Duck:

Actually there’s lots of data on this that’s pretty easy to find with Google. I suppose I should have included more links orignally, but I thought a lot of this was common knowledge at this point. But here you go; all the following links come from the last few years:

a. On demography, I was thinking of Nicolas Eberstadt’s work. He’s been writing on this for a long time now, most recently November 2011 in Foreign Affairs. His title, ‘The Dying Bear,’ is pretty blunt about the population contraction. For more, try this.

b. On corruption so high, it’s incommensurate with being a great power, here’s that Transparency International score again.

c. It is downright heroic, if not irresponsible, to suggest that alcoholism is not a huge problem in modern Russia and severely impacting men’s health and mortality: here or here. Just look at those estimates of average male lifespan – around 60! Gorbachev even thought alcoholism imperiled the very existence of the USSR and launched a major government campaign against it.

d. On the brain drain, try here.  Note the big listed reason – problems with the Putinist regime – and their profile: “vast majority of those who admitted wanting to leave were under 35 years old, lived in a major city, and spoke a foreign language.”

e. On the economic overreliance on carbon and how weak the economy really is under the hood, try this from the Financial Times just today. More generally try this and this from the Economist how post-‘reelection’ dysfunctional.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-russian gloom and doom.’ I studied in Russia for a bit and spoke it reasonably well once; I’d like to think I am sympathetic. But simply denying Russia’s internal decay is not really a response – as the Moscow protestors themselves understand.”

3. I am not sympathetic enough to Russia’s unique condition/I’m just spinning western propaganda.

Maybe, but I did study there for a bit, and I could speak the language pretty well once. And none of that really changes how Putin is dragging Russia down.

From the Duck:

“On my empathy, try this, which I wrote in 2009, long before this flap. I noted how Americans vastly underestimate how much Russia did to win the Second World War and that our Spielbergian self-congratulation leads us to overlook the huge suffering of Russians at the hands of the SS: “I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care.” Please note that a Russian even graciously commented there about how rare it is for Americans so say stuff like that. I did study in Russia; I did have friends there; I do have some language and culture skills. So I’d like to think of myself as a sympathetic critic. My real concern is that Putin’s awful misgovernment of Russia is pushing it towards irrelevance, per Ferguson above, and as I think the protestors intuit. Putin has become a global laughingstock, and he’s pulling Russia down with it.

I don’t disagree that Russians have deep social energies that we miss by focusing on Putin and the Kremlin, but one could say that about almost any country. Most peoples like to think of themselves as proud, energetic, innovative, unique, etc. Americans love to call themselves exceptional, and Koreans regularly tell me how the ‘miracle on the Han’ proves how Korea is the most awesome, cohesive, energetic, team-work society in the world that can overcome anything. Ironically, the most consequential grassroots/civil society movement in Russia is the anti-Putin protests, which fits my argument.

Finally, you raise an interesting question about whether all the issues I discuss combine into real momentum for decline. I wonder how that could not be the case, unless the leadership changes. Russia’s traditionally been a top-down place. It’s hard to see turn-around coming from below. (Again, this is why the protests are so important; they’re trying to change that.) Russia’s been slipping for three decades now. I agree it hasn’t fallen off a cliff, like, say, the end of the Ming dynasty or something, but a generation’s worth of negative trends is slowly chewing away at Russian power. I have stepped back from the original statement that Russia is not a great power; that was overreach. But the margins are narrowing.”

———————–  ORIGINAL POST ——————————————-

With Putin’s ‘return’ to the presidency, Russia is now officially a joke as a serious great power state. True, Putin has been ridiculous for awhile, what with those shirtless photo-ops that came across like desperate, bizarre geopolitical ‘ads’ that Russia is still a superpower. But this is different. Not even Chinese elites play the sorts of merry-go-round games at the top that Putin has engineered in the last 6 months. To their great credit, Chinese presidents and premiers serve and go. Russia is now the only one of the BRICS in which power does not rotate. Instead, Putin is starting to look like one of those oil-rich Arab dictators who never leaves, continually gimmicking the the ‘institutions’ and ‘constitution’ to justify how, mirabile dictu, he keeps staying in power. In the meantime, the real power structure morphs into an oil-dependent, rent-seeking, cronyistic despotism. And like those Arab dictators, Putin is facing a local resistance that increasingly realizes that Putinism is taking their country nowhere but nest-feathering. To paraphrase Helmut Schmidt, Russia’s pretty much a petro-state with nukes at this point.

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Russia is so Discounted that Putin Re-Takes the Prez & No One Cares…


Medvedev channels Donald Trump – ‘You’re Fired!’ – and fails

 

 

If you haven’t seen this, watch it. Jump to 2:20 for the fireworks. President Medvedev fires his finance minister, on live TV no less. But even more over-the-top, and a super clue to Russia’s parlous state today, is Kudrin’s ‘you’re not in command’ response. Even after Medvedev lectures him about the constitution and governing in accord with it, Kudrin replies that he won’t resign until the prime minister (Putin) tells him to. Hah! In the clash of Russian bureaucratic machismo, the head of state loses! That had me laughing even more than Medvedev’s preening about Russia’s commitment to democratic rule and the constitution, as well as his control-freak, Al Haig ‘I’m in charge here,’ firing of a minister on TV. Those three things together in just 3 minutes make US tea party-driven political dysfunction look normal. If we’re in decline, at least the Russians are declining faster.

This vid is pretty much ‘smoking gun’ evidence that the real power in Russia is Putin, and that its ‘institutions’ are a joke. Medvedev took a huge chance axing a finance minister (normally one of the most important positions in a cabinet) in such a public venue. It all but invited pushback if Medvedev is just a figurehead.(Maybe that’s why Medvedev did it; just to see if his suspicions were true.) Kudrin probably figured he had nothing to lose, so why not go to mattresses by invoking the godfather? I imagine Putin was livid when Kudrin let the cat out of the bag so publicly – although actually, maybe Putin just doesn’t give a d— anymore. We all strongly suspected it was a faux-constitutional charade with Medvedev anyway, but this is probably the most public sign from within the government that Putin reigns.

In any reasonably normal presidential system, the cabinet, including the PM, serves at the president’s discretion. If you get fired, you go.  And if you get axed on TV no less, then it’s just about your national duty to immediately say ok and then apologize in shame. Instead Kudrin humiliated Medvedev and revealed to all the sham authority of his faux-presidency. In fact, Medvedev should be so embarrassed that I wonder why he would want to stay on as PM when Putin re-takes the presidency next year. He just looks like a lackey. He could actually be a decent contender for the presidency in a post-Putin Russia if he can avoid the taint. Too bad, because he genuinely seems to want to change Russia for the better.

If this wasn’t enough, did anyone notice how little outrage or even comment followed Putin’s announcement he would ‘run for’ (i.e., assume) the presidency again in 2012? I get a whole bunch of daily news feeds – Foreign Policy, the Council of Foreign Relations, the New York Times, Slate, the Financial Times, etc. – and there was barely a peep from them. No outraged articles claiming that Putin has just proven Russian democracy to be a sham; no op-eds from Russia hands calling him the ‘new czar;’ no retrospective time-lines on the decline of Russian democracy from Yeltsin through today’s rigged kleptocracy. I did like this, but I really didn’t see much else from the usual suspects. Even the Economist, which I think has been (wonderfully) relentless in exposing the fraudulent, sivoliki non-democracy of the Kremlin, didn’t cough up a top-line cover story on its webpage. (Read this and this, for the minimalist, we-all-knew-this-was-coming-so-what’s-the-point-in-covering-it-that-much-anymore Economist coverage.) Like the Economist, the National Interest (which writes a lot and well on Russia, IMO) didn’t even bother with outrage or dirges for Russian democracy; instead it was just corruption-as-usual.

As with Kudrin’s insolent response to his nominal boss, this journalistic silence says a lot actually. We all have such low expectations of Russia now, that this sort of constitutional gimmickry – which would produce global headlines if it happened in a real democracy – is just written off as more of the same. We discount Russia so much, we so expect fatuous nationalist posturing and neoczarism, that no one even bothers to care. Russians should take note of this. The Kremlin is desperate for global attention and status recognition. Yet the clownish ‘bromance’ and secrecy at the top tells everyone its just more buffonery; what investor will take her cash to Russia when even the president can side-step the constitution? Russia is astonishly badly governed. Everyone knows it desperately needs to clean government, a circulation of elites, real elections, and economic diversification. This has just been delayed by another 8 years of strut, posturing, corruption, and foreign policy hijinks.

I say this with some sympathy too. I studied Russian for several years and completed summer language programs there. I had a great time, and Russia clearly has deep human capital resources from a very serious education system. But this is being squandered, and Putin has just guaranteed yet another rough, stagnant, erratic 12 years (!) for Russian consumers and foreign partners. Russia will fall further behind China; Americans will remain hostile; the much-sought visa-free travel for Russians to the EU won’t materialize. Russia’s position in the BRICS will be less and less tenable as Russia emerges more fully as a ‘oil-rentier state with nukes.’ (Helmust Schmidt once famously described the Soviet Union as ‘Upper Volta with missiles.’) This is why I scarcely even write about Russia; there’s just not that much to be said. Too bad.