October 18, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - Responding to Russia's Resurgence


Russian meddling in US elections last year has rightly caused outrage among many Americans, and investigations remain underway to reveal the full extent of the offense. Yet Moscow has been up to much more than just intruding in our elections, as I explain in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has embarked on a systematic challenge to the West. The goal is to weaken the bonds between Europe and the United States and among EU members, undermine NATO’s solidarity, and strengthen Russia’s strategic position in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. Putin wants nothing less than to return Russia to the center of global politics by challenging the primacy that the United States has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War. He has undertaken a major military modernization designed to intimidate neighbors and weaken NATO, and he has resorted to the overt use of military force to establish new facts on the ground — not just in what Moscow calls its “sphere of privileged interests,” which encompasses all of the former Soviet republics, but also further afield, including in the Middle East, an area where the US military has long operated with a free hand.

“Think of it as a journey back to the front,” Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose writes of the new issue’s organizing theme, “America’s Forgotten Wars.” The issue includes a series of essays returning our focus to still simmering, still important conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. As I argue in my essay, Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Eastern Europe have more than earned it a spot on the list.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the continued fighting there have exacted a huge toll on the country. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 10,000 people have died since mid-2014, nearly 25,000 have been injured, and some 1.6 million Ukrainians have been internally displaced. Every day brings exchanges of fire and more casualties. Yet the incursion into Ukraine represents only one part of the expansion of Russia’s military footprint, which stretches from the Arctic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south.

Read the full essay here, and if you’re interested in hearing more about Russia, Ukraine, and Europe, watch my recent discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum. She has a superb new book, Red Famine, on the famine that struck Ukraine in the 1930s and its enduring relevance today.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and reflections on this topic or on any of the articles below in This Week’s Reads.

The Return of Russian Nationalism

Charles Clover/Financial Times

Nationalism in Russia came rushing back to the forefront in 2012 when Vladimir Putin returned for a third term as president, writes Charles Clover. He would know. Clover was the Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times then, and has since authored an excellent book on Russian nationalism. Yet here he turns his attention to three other newly published books on the topic. Each author has her or his own view of how to interpret the rise of Russian nationalism. Masha Gessen, for example, sees it as a kind of revival of Soviet totalitarianism; Serhii Plokhy as a perennial issue of debate among Russian intellectuals; and Anton Shekhovtsov as a newer tactic used to support far-right parties across Europe. But one point is shared among all the authors, Clover writes: Putin’s flirtation with nationalism has worrying implications far beyond Russia’s borders.

A Visit to Russia: Can Relations Be Improved?

Paul Saunders/The National Interest

What do the Russians really want? That was the question Paul Saunders and his colleagues sought to answer on a recent trip to Moscow to meet with top Kremlin officials, including Sergeys Lavrov and Kislyak. The impression Saunders was left with is of a leadership annoyed by Washington’s recent actions, such as closing the Russian consulate in San Francisco, yet nonetheless hopeful that a rapprochement between the two countries is still possible. Are the Russians, then, ready to make major concessions toward this goal? Don’t count on it, Saunders concludes. While hopeful for better relations with Washington, many in the Kremlin remain cagey in their engagement and possessive of their interests.

Turkey and the West Clash, Pleasing Russia and Iran

Yaroslav Trofimov/Wall Street Journal

The accumulating grievances between Ankara and Washington are almost too complex to follow. Turkish leaders have found fault with the United States for a long list of slights and supposed hostilities, and Washington, as much as it has tried, has been unable to mollify the situation. When in late September President Trump said that Turkey and the United States are “as close as we have ever been,” it was seen by many as a statement buoyed by optimism but belied by facts. One anecdote from Yaroslav Trofimov in the Wall Street Journal tells you a lot of what you need to know about which direction Turkey is moving: Russians and Iranians can travel visa-free to Turkey. But it is much more difficult for Americans, despite both the United States and Turkey being NATO allies.

Turkey and the US Face the End of a Promising Partnership

Philip Gordon/Financial Times

When exactly did Turkey change course? Philip Gordon, an assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration, recalls the country straddling Europe and the Middle East as “one of the brightest spots on the foreign policy horizon” as recently as a decade ago. Now, however, “that vision is a shambles — and the relationship is probably beyond repair.” In this op-ed for the Financial Times, Gordon gives a clear-eyed analysis of the disputes that have soured the US-Turkey relationship. The careful, sober analysis makes Gordon’s conclusion all the more stark: “it is now past time that [Americans] start to see and treat Turkey for what it is — a Middle Eastern country with its own values and priorities — and not as the like-minded, close and reliable ally they may wish it would be.”

Erdogan’s High-Stakes Game

Henri J. Barkey/The American Interest

The White House has been trying to downplay its differences with Turkey in recent months. But there’s a problem: it’s just not working. Turkey’s President Erdogan has repeatedly sought to raise the stakes in his dangerous game with Washington, writes Henri J. Barkey in the American Interest. For example, Turkish leaders have blamed the United States for everything from supporting terrorists to causing earthquakes. Yet for all the recent animosity between the allies, the worst might still be ahead. “Down the road, one can imagine that, once the main operations against the Islamic State in Syria are completed, Washington will tell Ankara that it no longer needs and will vacate İncirlik Air Base,” Barkey writes. “That’s when the real calamity for US-Turkish relations will set in.”

In Brexit Talks, the Risk of No Deal Looms Large

Stephen Fidler/Wall Street Journal

Britain and the European Union will either settle on a Brexit deal or not. But in a worrying development, talk in Britain has shifted more toward the latter option in recent weeks. Further confusing the issue, as Stephen Fidler writes in the Wall Street Journal, is uncertainty over what exactly a no-deal Brexit would look like. In an “orderly” no-deal Brexit, Britain would be given most-favored nation terms under World Trade Organization rules, bringing a raft of tariffs but also establishing some sense of what comes next. But in a “bad-tempered” no-deal Brexit, there would be no agreement and no way forward. The result would be “no legal basis for many EU companies to do business with the UK,” Fidler writes. Of course, neither option is particularly pleasant for Britain, as several recent studies noted by Fidler have projected.

The Real Problem with Trump's Foreign Policy Plans? He May Not Have Any.

David Ignatius/Washington Post

For Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, the biggest concern with President Trump’s diplomacy is not that he does too much of it through Twitter or that his policies are at odds with decades of US statecraft. Rather, the real danger is that Trump may have neither coherent policies nor the tools to implement them. The State Department remains woefully understaffed, Ignatius writes, and key policies on Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and a range of other pressing issues are in limbo. Trump’s criticism of his predecessors’ foreign policy during the 2016 campaign — “No vision. No purpose. No direction. No strategy.” — risks becoming an apt description for his foreign affairs as well.

Xi Jinping Has More Clout Than Donald Trump. The World Should Be Wary.

The Economist

“The world’s most powerful man” is emblazoned across the cover of the latest Economist. But the accompanying picture is not of President Trump. Instead, it’s of President Xi Jinping. After all, the Chinese president commands growing clout abroad and, with China’s 19th Party Congress beginning this week, seems poised to hold unchecked authority at home. Of course, none of this new power has fully assuaged Xi’s core concerns, the Economist says: “The fate of the Soviet Union haunts him, and that insecurity has consequences.” Nor does the publication foresee Xi’s rise as a boon for the Chinese people: “One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution.”

Electric Cars: China’s Highly Charged Power Play

Charles Clover/Financial Times

More than half a million — that’s how many electric vehicles were sold by Chinese companies last year, making up nearly half of the world’s total. In the coming years, the number will only increase. Beijing has thrown its full economic, technological, and planning might behind electric vehicles. Yet the drive to replace the internal combustion engine with battery power is fueled not just by a desire for fewer smoggy days in downtown Beijing. Chinese leaders want nothing less than to dominate the EV industry globally in the coming years, leapfrogging the United States in developing better technology and infrastructure for electric vehicles.

A Daughter’s Mission: Rescuing Elderly Parents Stranded in Puerto Rico

Arian Campo-Flores/Wall Street Journal

Chicago Council on Global Affairs intern Sonia Negrón Bell is featured in this essay in the Wall Street Journal about getting power to a small town in Puerto Rico where her parents live. Power remains a scarce commodity throughout much of the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria. With the Wall Street Journal reporter and photographer in tow, Sonia embarked on a courageous journey to help her parents and their neighbors by bringing generators and much needed supplies to their town. It is a poignant reminder that much of the island remains in perilous condition: “Swaths of the island look like they were thrashed by a wrecking ball,” reporter Arian Campo-Flores writes. 

Rohingya Recount Atrocities: ‘They Threw My Baby Into a Fire’

Jeffrey Gettleman/The New York Times

For twenty years Jeffrey Gettleman has reported on conflict and war. Last week, he said, he felt he had conducted the “worst interview of my life.” What shook the veteran reporter so much was interviewing Rohingya Muslims who had escaped atrocities at the hands of Myanmar soldiers. Now in refugee camps in Bangladesh, the survivors tell harrowing accounts of rape, murder, and destruction. “Much of the violence was flamboyantly brutal, intimate and personal,” Gettleman writes, “the kind that is detonated by a long, bitter history of ethnic hatred.” This is an important and moving read about horrific crimes, many of which are only now coming to the attention of the wider world.


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