The Ukraine War is a Stalemate. What if Putin Escalates to Try to Win?

Russia Su-34Russia is not going to win unless it escalates. So what do we do if it uses a really horrific weapon?

This is a re-post of a column I wrote recently for When I wrote it, it still looked like Russia would win by sheer weight. As we come up on April, a Russian victory is increasingly unlikely. The Russian military, as structured, is too heavy, too poorly supplied, too corrupt, and too reliant of sheer firepower to win.

By winning, I mean something like Russia’s original war aims – replacing the Ukrainian leadership, annihilating its military, or taking territory (Donbas, the Black Sea coast). If you define down ‘winning’ to mean just blowing the place to hell, I guess Russia is ‘winning.’

But Putin has tied his legacy to this war; he’s macho, self-possessed, and desperate for Russia to be ranked as a great, consequential power in world politics. He is likely to escalate to try to win rather than withdraw, even as this war reduces Russia’s claim to great power status even more.

So what do we do if Russia uses a chemical or even tactical nuclear weapon to break the battlefield stalemate? The pressure from the Western public to do something in response would be overwhelming. At minimum, I think much of the objection to a no-fly zone would dissipate. That, in turn, would become a low-intensity NATO-Russian shooting war with the ever-present possibility of it spiraling out of control.

We need to start thinking, now, what we would do if Russia uses non-conventional weapons in a desperate bid to win. Naturally, all our options are bad. Here’s that 1945 essay:

The war in Ukraine is devolving into a grind of limited, costly Russian advances and ferocious Ukrainian counterattacks. It still looks as if Russia will win – if only because it will relentlessly pound Ukrainian cities with artillery – but there is now a reasonable chance Ukraine will fight Russia to a stalemate.

It is now painfully clear that Russia expected a blitzkrieg victory, a quick, in-and-out invasion similar to its ten-day war in Georgia in 2008. A modernized, high-tech Russian military was to roll over a poorly-armed and -trained Ukrainian army fighting for a weak state with low public legitimacy. The plan was, apparently, to impose a Russian stooge in the place of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and then go home before the West could organize a response.

Read the rest here.

Guest Post – Dave Kang: International Relations Scholarship Underutilizes Asia for the Same Old Western Cases (WWI & Cuba Forever!)

This is a guest post from my friend David C. Kang of the University of Southern California. Dave is a political scientist and runs the Korean Studies Institute there. He is way better at East Asia than I’ll ever be, so stop wasting your time on this blog and get to his author page to start reading his books.

Dave and I were just at the Korea Foundation’s big conference on Korean studies in the 70 years since liberation from Japan. There he made a number of the points below, which I broadly agree with. In short, western IR says Asia is really important – China, North Korea, the pivot, and so on – but still use the same western cases in its writing. Dave has some nice data on this below. I made similar points a few years ago. I think the basic problem is that we still aren’t learning the languages or coming here early in our careers. How many of you studied French and did your junior year abroad in Europe? So when IR actually gets into the casework, its WWI, WWII, and the Cuban Missile Crisis all the time.

Dave’s comments follow the jump.

My October Diplomat Essay: Russia between Empire and Modernity


This is a re-up of an essay I just wrote for the Diplomat (posted here). And that image to the left comes from this famous (notorious, really) tweet. If that doesn’t capture the values clash between Putin and modernity – real men have tigers as pets, while Obama is a well-dressed wus – I don’t know what would. If you ever wondered where feminism in the study of international relations came from, there you go.

Russia is a bit outside my normal purview, but I’ve always had a running interest. I studied Russian in grad school and spent a few summers there learning the language. I enjoyed it a lot and like to think I am sympathetic. Like a lot of post-Soviet analysts, I find it tragic how badly misgoverned Russia has been for so long – literally back to Ivan the Terrible. Russia has so much human capital; if only it was governed properly, it could be a serious emerging market player like China. But instead its one megalomaniac czar after another – whether they be imperial, Soviet, or Putin – wrecking the economy for their own vanity and nationalist unwillingness to accommodate the West.

Putin would rather posture and bluster like a bully on the school parking lot than whip Russia into shape. Everyone knows what’s needed – real elections, press freedom, an anti-corruption campaign, and so on. But I guess if Western analysts say these things, the ‘Russian’ way for Putin must be to do the opposite. So we’re back to 19th century ‘Dostoyevskyan’ images of Russia as an Orthodox, anti-western nationalist power with a unique mission (read it for yourself, then compare it to Alexander Nevsky). That may sate the ideological cravings for global status of Russia’s nationalists, but it won’t help Russia rival the West in the medium-term, will scare non-Russians along Russia’s borders, especially Muslims, and will not impress Beijing, which long ago learned how to profit from globalization and capitalism (while corruption is destroying Russia).

Here’s that essay after the jump:

My October Diplomat Essay: Was Syria a Bridge-Too-Far for Untrammeled Executive War-Powers? (yes)

Jump to 1:13: That’s best question asked during the GOP debates last year

This is my monthly essay for the Diplomat web-magazine. The original can be found here. I will say upfront that I am not a lawyer, but a political scientist, so I am aware that the legal argument about presidential war powers independent of Congress is fierce. But that interests me less than the absolute (or moral or philosophical) argument for unconstrained presidentialism on the use of force. That is, whether or not presidential unilateralism in the use of force is ‘constitutional,’ as the lawyers would say, is something a dodge. That does not mean it’s right. The Constitution is not perfect and has been amended for things like slavery, women’s enfranchisement, and Prohibition. So ultimately the president should justify ignoring Congress in war-time by some argument consonant with liberal democratic values, rather than an ex cathedra appeal to authority. And I don’t really think it is possible to coherently argue that presidential free-lancing with minimal Congressional oversight and consent is good for democracy. In fact, that strikes me as self-evident, which is why I love that Ron Paul quote in the video (1:13 mark) above. The essay follows the jump and is written in an op-ed style.

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The International Relations Discipline and the Rise of Asia


A few months ago, I was commissioned by the International Relations and Security Network of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology to provide a brief write-up on how Asia’s rise will impact the formal discipline of international relations (IR) within political science. I didn’t get a chance to put it up earlier, and inevitably, the brief means sweeping judgments in just a few pages, but I think it’s a reasonable effort. Here is the version on their website; below it is reprinted:

“It is widely understood that international relations (IR) relies on modern (post-Columbus) and North Atlantic cases as the research base for its general theory. Our graduate students are well-versed in a heavily researched set of cases such as the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, or the Cuban Missile Crisis. While this is arguably ‘eurocentric’ training – white, western practitioners feigning to build ‘universal’ theory from just the cases and languages they know best from their own civilizational background – it might be also reasonably explained by Western dominance of world politics for so many centuries. So long as the West (including the USSR as a basically Western leftist project) so overawed the planet’s politics, then a modern and Atlantic prejudice was perhaps less narrow than it seems. Whatever the cause, this will likely change in the coming decades.

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What Exactly is the Social Science Citation Index Anyway? or, which Korean IR Journals should You Read?


Yeah, I don’t really know either. I always hear the expression ‘SSCI’ thrown around as the gold standard for social science work. Administrators seem to love it, but where it comes from and how it gets compiled I don’t really understand. Given that we all seem to use this language and worry about impact factor all the time, I thought I would simply post the list of journals for IR ranked by impact factor (after the break).

I don’t think I ever actually saw this list before all laid out completely. In grad school, I just had a vague idea that I was supposed to send my stuff to the same journals whose articles I was reading in class. But given that I haven’t found this list posted on the internet anywhere, here it is. I don’t know if that means it is gated or something, or if my school has a subscription, or whatever. Anyway, I thought posting the whole IR list would be helpful for this site’s readership.

Note that a bunch of them are published in Asia, and 3 alone are about Korea (Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Korean Observer, and NK Review) – so get to work!

But I have a few questions. First, why does Thomson-Reuters create this? Why don’t we do it? Does anyone actually know what they do that qualifies them for this ? And don’t say ‘consulting’ or ‘knowledge services’ or that sort of MBA-speak. The picture above includes some modernist, high-tech skyscraper, presumably to suggest that lots of brilliant, hi-tech theorists are in there crunching away big numbers (but the flower tells you they have a soft side too – ahh), but I don’t buy it. Are these guys former academics who know what we read? Who are they? Does anyone know? The T-R website tells you nothing beyond buzzwords like ‘the knowledge effect’ and ‘synergy.’ I am genuinely curious how T-R got this gig and why we listen to them. Why don’t we make our own list?

Next, I am not sure if the SSCI and the Journal Citation Reports from T-R are different or not or what. Click here to see the SSCI list; and here is the JCR link, which is probably gated, but ask your administration; they probably have access. There are 3038 journals in the whole SSCI list (!), 107 listed under political science, and 82 under IR. There is some overlap between the last two, but the PS list does not completely subsume the IR list, as I think most of us would think it should. For example, IS is listed only under IR, not political science, but ISQ is listed under both, even though I think most people would say IS is a better journal than ISQ. Also, there is no identifiable list for the other 3 subfields of political science. I find that very unhelpful. More generally, I would like to know how T-R chooses which journals are on the SSCI and which not. It doesn’t take much effort to see that they’re almost all published in English…

Next, I thought the SSCI was only peer-reviewed, but Foreign Affairs and the Washington Quarterly (which I understand to be solicited, not actually peer-reviewed – correct me if I am wrong) are listed on the IR list, and even Commentary and the Nation magazine are on the PS list. Wow – your neocon ideological ravings can actually count as scholarship. Obviously FA should be ranked for impact factor; it’s hugely influential. But does it belong on the SSCI? Note also that ISR is listed on the IR roster, as is its old incarnation, the Mershon ISR. Hasn’t that been gone now for more than a decade? Also when you access the impact factors (after the jump),T-R provides an IR list with its ‘Journal Citation Reports’ that has only 78 journals listed for IR, not 82. So the SSCI for IR (82) does not quite equal the JCR for IR (78). Is that just a clerical error? If so, does that mean the super-geniuses in the futuristic skyscraper are spending too much time looking out the windows at the flowers? I guess if you double-count M/ISR, you get 79, which is pretty close to 82, but given how definitive this list is supposed to be, it seems like there are problems and confusions.

Anyway, I don’t really know, so I just thought I’d throw it out there. Check the IR rankings on the next page.

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Syria Sanctions failed b/c of R2P Overreach in Libya – get out Nato

In the last 6 weeks, I warned that if NATO kept the operation in Libya rolling, it would tarnish the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P). R2P says external military force can be used to prevent massive human rights abuses, like Srebrenica or Rwanda. In Libya, an R2P intervention was justified, because Gaddafi and his sons talked about ‘rivers of blood in the streets’ and hunting the rebels ‘like rats, allay by alley.’

But after the fall of Tripoli, it was clear that Gaddafi was not longer a massive human rights threat in Libya. The National Transition Council clearly no longer needed NATO assistance. The NATO mission was no longer necessary in what is now a fairly traditional civil war. A focused, limited, and coherent R2P doctrine is the best antidote to the ‘its an internal affair’ siren song used by oppressive states like China or Sudan to prevent outside scrutiny of their illiberalism. Here was an intellectually defensible wedge against using ‘sovereignty’ as all-purpose excuse to brutalize your own people.

Hence, keeping the NATO mission going past necessity was a sure way to tell everyone that R2P is just another name for “regime change,” Bushism, neoconservatism, etc. R2P would lose its focus and look yet again like western imperialism to non-western states.

And that is what we got this week when the UN Security Council voted against sanctions on Syria. The BRICS explicitly noted that Libya’s R2P vote turned into regime change, and that they didn’t vote for that or want that. The more we stay in Libya, the less it looks like R2P and the more it looks like Iraq-light.

No wonder no one trusts us. Despite all of our angst and hand-wringing about Iraq, as soon as we won another war, our neocon, ‘inside every g—, there is an American struggling to get out (video above)’ instinct came roaring back. But all the western victory laps do is undercut R2P as real human rights-protecting mechanism because no one will vote for it in the future, now that they’ve seen Libya. Another opportunity for better global governance squandered by neocon arrogance…

Some Media on the 9/11 Anniversary and Libya


1. This week I wrote on an op-ed for the local Korean affiliate of the International Herald Tribune. It is based on my two 9/11 posts from last week.

Re-reading it today makes me wonder if I was too tough in calling Afghanistan a ‘quagmire.’ But honestly I don’t think that is an exaggeration anymore. Does anyone really believe we are winning there anymore? I find this as frustrating as anyone else; is there no way to ‘win’ (no, I don’t know what that means either) that wouldn’t keep us there for decades and cost more trillions we don’t have? I just don’t see it anymore, even though I supported the original invasion. Similarly this the most high-profile platform in which I state that I think Iraq 2 was an error. I supported that too until recently, but we killed so many people and disrupted so many lives, for such modest improvement in Iraqi governance, that I just can’t find a way to defend it anymore.

2. I also spoke about Libya on Pusan’s English language radio station, 90.5 FM. (Go here and click on no. 117, for September 5, 2011 show.) Those comments are based on these blog posts. In the last two weeks, I still don’t understand why NATO is staying in Libya anymore. I argued both in print and on the radio that the only way to keep R2P as a legitimate humanitarian intervention doctrine is for the interveners to get out of the way as soon as they are no longer needed to prevent the massacres that brought about the intervention calls to begin with. If the interveners (in this case, NATO) stay in beyond necessity (as is clearly so in Libya now), then R2P increasingly becomes a gimmick for externally-imposed regime change. That casts the R2P debate back into the terms broached by the Iraq invasion – R2P will be read as human right imperialism, American empire, neocolonialism, etc. Please don’t do this!

Libya is an important opportunity to demonstrate the R2P is a limited, non-western intervention doctrine that can hold non-western support, because its based in human rights lessons learned in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur. NATO needs to get out immediately to keep it that way. If we stay in there taking victory laps, Russia, China, and India will never go along with this again. GET OUT NOW.

Libya Lessons (2): NATO is No Longer Necessary – Get Out Now


Part one of this post is here. Here are a few more lessons to draw:

6. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is, unfortunately, encouraging dictators to dig in instead of scram. The ICC is classic liberal internationalism -a multilateral forum crafted mainly by the liberal democracies for the purpose of spreading international law and taming the ‘anarchy’ of international relations. It looks like a great idea, and indeed the US reticence to it is based on rather specious claims that US soldiers might somehow get hauled before it despite the myriad protections to prevent that from happening. (The real US concern is any constraint on war-making by the Pentagon, and the US obsession with its ‘exceptionalism.’) I support the ICC and wish the US would join.

That said, it is pretty clear that ICC indictments against Gaddafi and sons encouraged them to stay and fight, because flight was impossible. If they can’t flee to a safe haven – because the ICC makes it a sanctionable offense for any state to harbor them – then they have no choice but to stay and slug it out to the bitter end. And indeed, there is a nice rest home for Afro-Middle Eastern despots – autocratic Saudi Arabia. The Saudi took in Idi Amin in 1980 and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Gaddafi would make a nice addition; perhaps he and Ali could reminisce about the good old days, like in some John Hughes movie for dictators. But once the indictments came down, the Gaddafis had nowhere to go, even though they were sending pretty clear signals for awhile that they would exchange an exit for abdication and an end to the conflict.

It seems to met that getting these guys out of power is the most important priority. The ICC, paradoxically, gets in the way. Remember that for awhile there it looked like Gaddafi might win or split the country. No one expected Tripoli to fall so easily. I think it would be a much better outcome to offer these guys just about anything they want to scram. Usually all they want is their family out with them, some cash to keep on with the good life, and immunity from prosecution. That strikes me as a pretty good bargain, even if if thwarts justice. And it is a good precedent for trying to get other autocratic nasties, like the Mugabe and Kim cliques in Zimbabwe and NK, out the way as well without a huge bloodbath.

7. The American president needs to start declaring war again. Libya has all but set in stone the awful, dictatorship-looking, and very unconstitutional practice that the US president can war with minimal Congressional intervention or even approval. The president’s shenanigans around the War Powers Act were disgraceful. Obama made a good case for the war in March and April, and it would have been a good exercise in national deliberation on US warmaking after Iraq to have had a big national and Congressional debate. Instead, Obama – a constitutional lawyer no less! – took the low road; isn’t this one of the reasons we voted for him, and against the Bushist, I-can-do-whatever-I-want GOP?

8. Get NATO out as soon as possible, i.e., right now. The NATO mission, against high odds and great (and deserved) skepticism, helped. Don’t push your luck, and keep the mission as absolutely minimal as necessary. Once Tripoli fell last week, NATO should have withdrawn immediately. The NTC clearly no longer needs NATO assistance. Gaddafi is finished, not matter what his nut-ball sons say on TV. To keep NATO on-mission when it isn’t necessary anymore, only stokes the anger of countries, especially China and Russia, that dislike R2P already. If NATO keeps staying involved, it will indeed look like R2P means ‘regime change’ and not the protection of human rights. NATO’s desire to stay in the game is understandable: this is a nice win for NATO after a decade of GWoT confusion and transatlantic tension, and Libya’s course clearly impacts the southern tier of the NATO states. But those benefits are more than outweighed by the need for limits: the West is broke now, so it should set a precedent of restrained intervention, even when things are going well. Nor do we want anything like Iraq – where the US/West gets pulled deeply into domestic reconstruction by hanging around. The best way to prevent the mission creep everyone worried about in this operation is to end as soon as possible (i.e. in this case, when the NTC would no longer be wiped out in a bloodbath without NATO) and we have clearly reached that point now.


NB: On an unrelated note, you should probably read this, from the foremost proponent of the ‘China threat’ school.

NB2: Last week I argued that the US needs another stimuls. US conservatives and the whole GOP field oppose this. But on Monday the yield on US Treasuries dropped below 2%! That hasn’t happened since the 40s. If that doesn’t tell you the USG should spend, because no else will – i.e., people are so desperate to save, they will even take just 1.98% interest on their savings – then nothing will. But I have no doubt the GOP will trash Obama’s jobs initiative today with no hesitantation. It’s going from bad to worse.

Libya Lessons (1): Don’t Gloat, but Liberal Interventionism did Work

Part 2 of this post will come on Thursday.

There is a lot of commentary, of course, on the war. I think, this, this, and this are a good start. Here are my own thoughts:

1. Can Libya be rolled in with Kosovo 1999, Afghanistan 2001, and France’ recent intervention in Ivory Coast into a winning model for future western interventions in the severe conflict zones? Somalia 1993 is not necessarily a counter-case, because the US went there to distribute aid (ie, nation-build), not to actually intervene militarily with a defined outcome for ‘victory.’

2. NATO pulled itself back from the post-GWoT brink, especially concerning Europe. Libya helps counter-act the growing belief that the Europeans don’t want to fight anymore. But it’s very obvious that Libya – minor country of just 7 million people – pushed NATO coordination to the brink. I remain a supporter of NATO, because it pools liberal democratic force, but Libya was a bullet dodged as much as a success. NATO should not be gloating or cheering, but rather thanking the gods that it all didn’t go horribly wrong.

3. The emergence of NATO a la carte is now entrenched. Some allies simply decided they didn’t want to be involved in Libya – Turkey and Germany specifically. But to avoid an alliance-wide crisis, they didn’t stand in the way either. So NATO countries, including the US (‘leading from behind’, the early shift in command to NATO), dipped in and out, more or less as dictated by their domestic politics. This was presaged by the many conditions placed on the operation of national forces in NATO’s Afghanistan operation in the last decade. Together, this could portend a major, new, de facto (although never admitted) modality in NATO’s use of force. On the one hand, it opens the possibility that other non-NATO members could cooperate more easily (if Germany can drop out, why not invite Mexico or SK in for a mission or two?). But most importantly, a la carte modalities effectively erode the collective security guarantee of Article 5 (that all the NATO members will fight as a unit if any is attacked). So the Eastern Europeans should be pretty terrified right now – maybe Germany or Spain will slack if Russia starts bulllying the Baltics.

4. This should not be a cause for neo-con gloating, or otherwise lead to a renewal of Bush, democratic imperialism, American empire talk, and the rest. The arguments against the campaign were very strong and the reason why most proponents argued for a limited intervention – a thumb on the scale to help the rebels, not an invasion cloaked in overwrought ‘freedom agenda’ rhetoric. My support for the intervention was narrow. NATO was to prevent a bloodbath, but otherwise let the rebels do it themselves. That would encourage local ownership of the results, prevent another Mideast quagmire for western forces, and limit the West’s moral culpability if it all went horribly wrong (as it may still). The obvious comparison is of course Iraq, where we are far more responsible for all the death and chaos of the 2000s. Intellectual defenders of the intervention should realize that we got fairly lucky in Libya, even as we did help shape the course. So hubris is foolish. On the other hand, opponents who discounted the closeness of Libya to NATO (making intervention easier), the close attention to limits (so keeping the intervention cheaper and less bloody for the West), and moral value of Gaddafi’s ouster (the rationale to begin with), really should recognize this. Walt ducks this by saying he never doubted the outcome once the US got involved, even though he argued earlier that we shouldn’t get involved, and the National Interest really should apologize to Samatha Power for its mean-spirited May/June 2011 cover.

5. Keep refining R2P. If Libya had gone wrong, it would have killed liberal interventionism. The West is running out of money for this sort of things, and its publics don’t like it either. The ‘rest’ worry that it is imperialism, and even non-western democracies like India, Japan, and S Korea, quietly reject or won’t sacrifice seriously for R2P. R2P Critics insists on taking an all-or-nothing attitude toward these sorts of operations – that any intervention will become a quagmire like Iraq, so we shouldn’t do it. But to be fair, Libya actually worked out pretty well. The limits on western intervention were maintained; ‘mission creep’ did not happen. The right guys won the war with minimal western assistance. The whole world didn’t have an Iraq-style freak-out over US imperialism. That’s not bad at all for R2P to my mind. But we should be open to the possibility that most R2P operations won’t go as well, but that isn’t a reason for not trying. R2P is so messy and hard, that we should be prepared to accept some level of failure.