August 31, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - All Unquiet on Russia's Western Front


Russian President Vladimir Putin, it seems, has found a kindred spirit in Chicago’s most notorious gangster, Al Capone. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, Putin shot off a version of Capone’s famous quip about “a smile and a gun” during an inspection of new military vehicles in Moscow. “You can get a lot more done with weapons and politeness than you can with politeness alone," Putin said.

In the coming weeks, there will be a lot of weapons but no politeness as Russia holds its quadrennial Zapad military exercises on its western border. An estimated 100,000 troops and personnel will take part over seven days, making it the largest such exercise since the end of the Cold War. Of course, Moscow doesn’t claim this distinction. The military has hidden the total number of people involved to be in nominal compliance with international agreements on the size of wargames.

The Kremlin says Zapad is purely defensive. It’s not. A map of the planned exercise area reveals Moscow’s intentions. Russian troops will encircle the three Baltic NATO members and, from the heavily militarized exclave Kaliningrad, threaten Poland and central Europe. If previous Zapads are any guide, Russian troops will simulate launching attacks against Western targets, including nuclear attacks, as they did against Poland in 2009 and Sweden in 2013. European countries are also concerned that practice will veer into preparation for the real thing. In July, the US Army’s top general in Europe said that allies see Zapad 2017 as a possible “Trojan horse” to move equipment to the Russian border and into Belarus, building caches to supply future attacks.

It is essential here for NATO to demonstrate resolve and unity. After all, Putin has shown a gangster’s penchant for opportunism. In Crimea, in Syria, in elections in Western countries, he has gotten away with what he could, when he could. NATO must raise the stakes such that Putin does not, as a result of the Zapad show of force, see any new windows of opportunity to threaten European countries further.

There is good news on this front. The United States has deployed additional F-15C fighters to Lithuania ahead of Zapad, and on Wednesday the US Air Force took over leadership of NATO’s long-running Baltic Air Policing mission. Four new NATO battlegroups announced last year in Warsaw also became operational this week. As a result, 4,500 additional troops from more than a dozen NATO countries are stationed in Poland and the Baltic states. While President Trump’s reluctance on Monday to call Russia a security threat was a missed opportunity, others in his administration have made more encouraging statements, including the new US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Meanwhile, the FBI, the same organization that brought down Capone, is continuing its investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

More can and should be done. There is nothing unclear about Putin’s intentions in brandishing Russia’s military buildup and modernization. The Russian president has been remarkably consistent. As Capone might say, a crook is a crook, and Putin is Putin.

This Week’s Reads includes other interesting pieces on Russia and Europe. I hope you find them worth your while. As always, I welcome your comments and reflections.

Chastised by EU, a Resentful Greece Embraces China’s Cash and Interests

Jason Horowitz and Liz Alderman/The New York Times

It has been nearly a decade since the start of the global financial crisis. For nearly a decade, then, EU leaders have pushed Greece to implement fiscal austerity. In that time, Greek leaders have soured on what they perceive as diktats from Brussels and Berlin, and instead are looking to Beijing for a financial boost. China has been all too happy to invest in Greece, seeing the nation of nearly 11 million as both a beachhead into the wider European market and a suitable terminus for its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project.

Germany Must Abandon Its Military Reluctance and Lead

Anne Applebaum/Der Spiegel

Now would be a good time for Germans to speak up and to invest in a bigger stick, to turn a phrase by President Theodore Roosevelt. That is the core argument Anne Applebaum makes in this essay for the German weekly Der Spiegel. Under the current US administration, and perhaps beyond, America looks hesitant to lead the global liberal order as it has done for some seventy-odd years. At the same time, European allies have looked to Angela Merkel, backed up by the German economic powerhouse, to be a strong voice and force against revisionist impulses from Russia and elsewhere. Yet Germany has too diligently adhered to its post-Cold War pacifism, which in practice has hollowed out the German military. It won’t work any longer. Applebaum advises Germans, “if you want to keep what you have achieved, you will have to change.”

The Hollow Ring of the Brexiters’ Rule Britannia

Philip Stephens/Financial Times

“Global Britain” is Theresa May’s new official mantra. Yet the vaulted ambitions expressed therein are at odds with the reality of Brexit and the United Kingdom’s turn inward. Philip Stephen writes in this sharp column in the Financial Times that UK ministers are making half-baked “fudges” to stall the worst effects of Brexit. Plans are being drawn up to leave the EU customs union, but also to have access to it, and to clear out burdensome EU regulations, but also to mimic them to ensure trade with the continent. It won’t work. “The only way to replicate the advantages of EU membership is to remain a member,” he writes.

Piece by Piece, the Case for Severing Britain’s Ties to Europe Is Falling Apart

Martin Kettle/The Guardian

In this essay for the Guardian, Martin Kettle essentially makes the case for “BINO” -- Brexit in name only. The so-called “Norway option” would see the United Kingdom remain in the EU single market and customs union -- with all of the rules and regulations that would entail -- but remain nominally outside of the European Union. Prime Minister Theresa May and many in her party seem eager to try the diplomatic and political contortions necessary for BINO, rather than simply drop Brexit, for fear of a backlash at the ballot box. Nonetheless, the earlier chorus from leaders of “go-it-alone” has noticeably and perhaps irreversibly changed its tune to “status quo.”

Trump Locks America into Its Forever War

Fareed Zakaria/The Washington Post

President Trump entered the White House full of sound a fury about America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan, determined to end the country’s misguided nation-building abroad. Just a few months into his first term, however, it has come to nothing. As Fareed Zakaria writes in the Washington Post, the president’s new plan for Afghanistan differs only from the status quo by a few thousand troops, a number unlikely to turn the tide one way or the other. The United States, Zakaria writes, has essentially recreated its Vietnam strategy with a lower causality count -- “quagmire-lite,” he calls it.

Why Afghanistan’s War Defies Solutions

Max Fisher and Amanda Taub/The New York Times

The simplest questions often elicit the most complex answers. In this essay for the New York Times, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub start with the simplest: Why has nothing worked in Afghanistan? “Its combination of state collapse, civil conflict, ethnic disintegration, and multisided intervention has locked it in a self-perpetuating cycle that may be simply beyond outside resolution,” they conclude. It is an informative and compelling read.

Pakistan Looks to China as It Turns Away from Washington

Farhan Bokhari, Yuan Yang, and Kiran Stacey/Financial Times

Much of the commentariat in the United States saw President Trump’s plans for Afghanistan as more of the same, give or take a few thousand troops. Islamabad didn’t, viewing the president’s sharp words about Pakistan sheltering terrorists as an affront. As the reporters in this Financial Times article explain, the rift looks to push Pakistan closer to China, with Islamabad now eager to jump deeper into Beijing’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project across Eurasia. Is this the end of the US-Pakistan partnership? Not quite. Pakistan is unlikely to turn its back on the United States completely. Rather, Islamabad will attempt to play Washington and Beijing off each other to its advantage.

Malaysian Leader in Billion-Dollar Scandal Is Invited to White House

Gardiner Harris/The New York Times

A billion-dollar corruption scandal is swirling around the prime minister of Malaysia, who was also just invited to the White House by President Trump. That alone would make for an interesting story. But in this smart article for the New York Times, Gardiner Harris gets to the deeper issue. Since exiting the TPP, the Trump administration has found few tools to ensure American interests in Asia against a China that is exerting much stronger influence in the region. Faced with this fact, the Trump administration has dropped nearly all concerns about corruption and human rights violations by leaders -- so long as the country offers some prospect to balance against Beijing.   

Japan Doubles down on Its US Alliance

Josh Rogan/The Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogan came away from his talk with Japan’s foreign minister with a clear conclusion when it comes to the US-Japan relationship. While there is “zero public daylight between the governments on key issues,” there is nonetheless concern in Tokyo about Washington’s commitment to see Pyongyang fully denuclearize. This is a must-read piece to better understand the Japanese politics animating much of its current foreign policy. As I wrote in the Financial Times recently, what allies want seems all too often to be overlooked by the United States. This opinion piece is an important corrective to that habit.

The Conflict at the Heart of Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

Robert Zoellick/Financial Times

Here George W. Bush’s trade representative and deputy secretary of state offers a five-point appraisal of Donald Trump’s foreign policy to date. Robert Zoellick presents a clear-eyed assessment of Trump’s transactional view of diplomacy and his ambivalence toward long-established alliances. Yet US institutions have shown remarkable resilience, Zoellick adds. When it comes to foreign policy, the much-derided “deep state” is in fact the recognition by officials “that most often US nationalism and internationalism have been in synchrony, not conflict, and that the mixture created America’s unique global leadership.”


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