Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Understanding the situation in Ukraine

Kiev and Russian backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine have agreed to a ceasefire while they work on the details of autonomy for the Donetsk/Luhansk regions. A few skirmishes have flared but all in all the ceasefire appears to be holding.

Many people in the West are left scratching their heads wondering what the deal is. What does this mean? What is Putin doing? What’s the end game?

How did we get here?

It’s been both amusing and disturbing how the media has reported on the Ukraine crises. Regardless of whether it’s TV, radio, or print you’ve probably been duped into thinking that after much struggle the evil Vladimir Putin twisted his mustachios and walked away having outsmarted the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Let’s make this abundantly clear...Russia has endured a tremendous loss in Ukraine. When Viktor Yanukovych halted deals with the EU he made it very clear that Ukraine was no longer neutral and would be a partner with Russia. This effectively alienated 75% of the country and plunged them into full on revolt. The rumor from the inside walls of the Kremlin is that Putin fired his entire staff of Ukrainian advisors after Yanukovych was deposed. He was furious with their reckless miscalculation.

Annexing Crimea was a last ditch effort and one that Putin had no choice but to take. Yes, he gained Crimea….but he LOST Ukraine. Moscow’s strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union has been to keep Ukraine neutral. Neither tipping one way or the other. The usually patient and calculating Putin uncharacteristically moved too soon. This had the effect of pivoting Ukraine towards the West rather than to Moscow. Putin has been in full on chaotic damage control ever since.

What does Ukraine mean to Russia?

First of all, it’s important to identify what Ukraine’s importance is to Russia. That’ll be important to clarify when we contrast Ukraine’s importance to the West.

Ukraine is Russia’s strategic priority in Central/Western Europe. Ukraine represents the gateway of either foreign invasion into mother Russia or mother Russian invasion into Western Europe.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In the book The Grand Chessboard Brzezinski says this about Ukraine:

“Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”
“However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine, with its 52 million people and major resources as well as access to the Black Sea, Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia.”

Russia must maintain influence over Ukraine if it ever aspires to be a dominant Empire again. Even if Putin see’s those aspirations as being far off or even untainable again Moscow must continue to pursue it. To do otherwise would show considerable weakness to Russia’s periphery, the rest of the world, and their own citizens.
Ukraine represents Russia’s symbolic and actual desire to be an empire once again.

What is Russia’s strategy in Eastern Ukraine?

Putin’s Ukrainian strategy is similar to what he has done in other breakaway regions in Eastern Europe such as Georgia and Moldova. The goal is to unite and arm minority ethnic Russians and have them claim self determination.
If the host nation responds violently Putin can intervene claiming humanitarian relief to ethnic Russians. If the host nation grants autonomy Putin can use the threat that eventually the autonomous region may eventually try and achieve full on independance. Possibly even amalgamation by Russia entirely.

The threat of ethnic instability will be a considerable lever Moscow can pull to gain leverage. That along with energy control is how Russia manipulates her periphery.

The biggest problem with this strategy is two fold:
  1. Putin is stoking ethnic tension in an area that is highly volatile. At a time where nationalism and far right groups are gaining ground rapidly. Ethnic Ukrainians are rising up in considerable numbers. Rather than having a favorable opinion towards Russians or even neutral, Putin has turned Ukrainians into enemies.
  2. Ethnic Russians in many regions that Putin is employing this strategy are on the decline. Ethnic Russian birth rates are going down in places like Eastern Ukraine, the Caucasus, Georgia, etc. The older generation that remember the glory days of the Soviet Union are dieing out.

What does Ukraine mean to the United States?

Ukraine has no immediate strategic value to the United States. Ukraine’s primary purpose for the U.S. is to distract the Russians. Washington knows that Ukraine is vital to Moscow and this provides an obvious weakness. Russia can never let Ukraine fall out of influence. They’ll literally drop everything they’re doing to run to that battle field. It’s that important.

6-12 months ago Moscow was making a push into the world that we hadn’t seen in a long time. They were challenging US interests in the Middle East, South America, etc. Putin made considerable strides in Syria, Egypt, Venezuela, and China. He also stepped up aggressive politics in his periphery attempting to gain leverage in the former Soviet influence states of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, etc.

From the Western point of view it appeared that Putin had reached a point where he believed that the time was ripe to expand Russian influence and power in the world. It’s of no coincidence that the Ukrainian revolution quickly followed. Overnight Moscow went silent on Syria, Egypt, etc. All Russian assets focused on Ukraine. This in turn freed up the U.S. and her allies to re-engage and gain momentum in other parts of the world without Russian interference.

What is the United State’s strategy in Ukraine?

The United States will not resort to a strong military response in Ukraine. Don't take this the wrong way. We're definitely not scared to do it. In fact if we were really serious about halting Russian advances in Ukraine we would most definitely encourage NATO to put boots on the ground in Eastern Ukraine.
George Kennan was the father of the Soviet containment policy and had this to say about the Russians:

"Soviet power, unlike that of Hitlerite Germany, is neither schematic nor adventunstic. It does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw--and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point.

Thus, if the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so. If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns."

We have no intention of forcing Putin to back down so early in this conflict. If we did we would have responded as per our knowledge and doctrine on Russia tells us what will work. This doctrine is true today just as it was in the 50's. Show Putin you're willing to hit him on the jaw....he'll back down.
The truth is we don't want him to back down yet.  We want this to drag on as long as possible.

Long term strategy

Putin looks to control the Russian periphery with minority ethnic Russians and natural gas control. The United States pursues a strategy of economic reform and maintaining pro democracy groups that form mass demonstrations like the one at Maidan.

There of many examples of how the U.S. tempts nations with their economic superiority. Even in Eastern Europe. In the 1950’s during the Cold War General Electric bought into light bulb manufacturing in Hungary. That along with other Western foreign investment provided a considerable temptation to the native Communist party.
More recently, the United States has almost single handedly transformed Poland into one of the strongest economies in Europe. Between 1992 and 2001 the United States pumped in over 50 billion in foreign investment. You can track U.S. interest in a country by following foreign investment.

Today in Ukraine we see similar signs that U.S. economic power is starting to sneak in. Organizations such as the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC) are quietly bringing in Western companies to invest.
U.S. energy company Westinghouse has also moved in to supply Ukranian Nuclear facilities with nuclear fuel. This is part of a much larger plan to begin weaning Europe off of Russian energy as a whole.


In the end Ukraine currently represents two things: A grand strategy to Russia and a grand Distraction Mechanism by the West. Remember that geopolitics ultimately is a big game against competing nations. The name of the game is who can politically dominate the most space. Russia is concentrating on her region and the U.S. is more concerned with Russian interference in other parts of the world.

As for the Ukrainians? The name of their game is the same as its been their entire existence. Survival. Survive while being tugged on between powerful outsiders. Caught in the middle of an argument they didn't  start. Geography is cold and and without empathy. Ukraine is an example of a nation destined for struggle based off of its unforgiving geography.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

U.S. hits Khorasan Group - A favor to Iran?

The United States began air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria last night. If you’re a reader of my twitter account or blog you know my opinion on that. However, reading through the battle damage assessment this morning one thing caught my eye. In addition to processing ISIS targets the U.S. also hit the Khorasan Group. A smaller and not as well known affiliate of al qaeda. Where did that come from? Who or what is the Khorasan Group?

Pre 2001 my unit hadn’t studied al qaeda too extensively. We were focused on another area of responsibility (AOR). That all changed after September 11th. My intelligence unit was stationed aboard a carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean at the time, and we immediately began sailing towards Pakistan reading up on all we could to catch up.

We saw how al qaeda was attempting to become a global movement. They were setting up affiliates everywhere they could. Mostly in areas that were not all that stable. Places where they could recruit, train, and plan future missions. The U.S. and the West were major fundamental targets but regional targets were of high priority as well.
Of note, most all of al qaeda’s affiliate groups were located in areas that were once dominated by the Umayyad Caliphate around 600-700AD. Al qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb conducted operations in Northern Africa, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula conducted operations in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Al Shabaab conducted operations in East Africa, etc. Their positioning was purposeful. They had a clearly defined role to bring global jihad to their AOR.

Studying up on al qaeda affiliates we ran across a smaller cell that operated out of Eastern Iran. Their group was responsible for bringing forth an old Islamic Hadith (story or prophesy) that foretold the rise of a new Islamic army in the old Umayyad Caliphate province of Khorasan. Khorasan was located in Eastern Iran and was the birthplace of modern Persian culture. The modern Persian language, science, philosophy, etc came out of Khorasan.
This group posed a clear and present danger to the Iranian government. It was basically an insurgent group biding time. To the Khorasan Group, and many other jihadists, the current maps mean nothing. They don’t respect them. They still see the maps laid out with the old Umayyad boundary lines. The Shia government of Iran is an example of why regional al qaeda groups were formed. To bring global jihad to everywhere possible.

Fast forward to September 22nd (last night). The Obama administration began bombing ISIS targets within Syria. On top of that they also chose to hit the Khorasan Group. The President even mentioned them in his speech the following morning.
Air strikes over a sovereign nation that has not sanctioned them is no small thing. Hitting ISIS would be justified and explainable to the rest of the world. Processing additional targets is an entirely different matter.

Lets say the Obama Administration wanted to prove a point that they’re not arming the wrong rebels. Hitting an al qaeda affiliate would be a good bonus right? Then why wouldn’t they hit a larger affiliate like Jabhat Al Nusra? That makes way more sense. Instead, media reports are coming out today that show government officials reporting that the Khorasan Group is one of the scariest affiliates they’ve seen. Bull. Al qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is operationally far more potent than even Al Nusra...much less Khorasan.

Iranian officials are in New York City today discussing their nuclear program. It’s very clear that the U.S. and Iran are aiming for rapprochement. Striking a clear and present threat to the Iranian government along with our strikes against ISIS is just too convenient. Admitting they’re working together is something that both Obama and Rouhani won’t do. Politically they’d never recover. However, that doesn’t change the fact that last night the United States, Iran, and Syria all gained ground.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Arming the Syrian Rebels - A bad idea

Last week the United States Senate voted to arm and train the Syrian rebels. It’s amazing to me how such an awful idea can appear the absolute right choice to policy makers. I think it’s important for not only Americans but the majority of the West to realize what it is we’re supporting here.

The Middle East and Western manipulation.

Ever since the end of WW1 Western governments have been putting their fingers in the Sykes-Picot damn hoping it won’t burst. For nearly 100 years the Middle East has been on fire moving from one war or conflict to another. It’s of no surprise that the people living in the west have rationalized this areas constant state of warfare as being due to it just simply being a highly volatile place. Western societies are so far removed from the Middle East that understanding the “Why” of the problem was never considered important.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire T.E. Lawrence suggested the Middle East be split up like so:
Lawrence’s main dealings were with the Hashemite family who were the rulers of the Hejaz. The Hejaz is in present day Saudi Arabia and contains the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Lawrence wanted to give the majority of the land to the Hashemites, but he made sure and allocated mandates for both the British and the French. You can see he was conflicted on what to do with the Kurdish lands. He marks those simply as question marks.

I truly think that Lawrence loved the Arabian lands. He really wanted to give the Arabs a kingdom that ruled over the former Ottoman areas in the Middle East. Dealing with the Hashemites seemed like the best way to go. They had direct lineage to Muhammad and were influential during the Umayyad Caliphate. Their King was ruler over the Hejaz which gave them credibility all over Islamic lands.

However, Arab tribes were highly competitive. The Sykes-Picot Agreement played off of Arab rivalries. The S/P map looked like this:

The al Saud’s would immediately rebel against the Hashemites attacking and conquering the Hejaz. As a consolation prize the British would create TransJordan to give to the Hashemites. The Hashemites were also given the Kingdom of Syria but France would renege on that deal. Again, as a consolation prize the Hashemites would be given Iraq. Syria, Iraq, and Jordan were all made up countries with made up borders. Half of them given away as consolation prizes. The Saudis would maintain their border and respect the new nation states as part of a British treaty.

A natural regional evolution.

The following map is what we’ve had since. It should be very recognizable:MIDDLEEAST_TRADITIONAL.jpg
This entire area should hold new meaning now. It should be of no surprise why after 100 years we are still seeing such turmoil. The governments of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are all Western creations. The Middle East should have gone through a natural evolution after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, Imperialistic tampering stunted their growth.

I believe what we’re seeing now in the MIddle East is the progression that would have taken place back in 1918 if Sykes-Picot would have never happened. I think the U.S. invasion of Iraq created a power vacuum that jump started this process. Then came the Arab Spring...then came a power vacuum in Syria.

ISIS has now carved a path through the Middle East that looks very similar to what T.E. Lawrence originally promised to the Hashemites. Lets be very blunt here. We currently don’t have operational governments in Syria and Iraq. They lack the ability to project power within their own borders.
Basically you have a Middle East that is being fought over by warlords and tribes. Assad in Syria is no more than a warlord that governs the city of Damascus. Likewise the government in Iraq doesn’t govern much outside the boundaries of Baghdad.
In contrast, the Islamic State governs and projects power throughout the borders of two separate states. They have instituted Sharia law in their controlled cities. Most people don’t know this but ISIS controls oil fields that used to belong to both Damascus and Baghdad. The Islamic State sells that oil to neighboring countries….just like a typical nation state.

The Middle East now looks more like this:
The only border lines that actually mean anything are the Israeli, Jordanian, and Saudi lines. Everything else is about to go through significant change. It’s reverting back to not only tribal but clan rivalries. The Sunni/Shia differences are only a fraction of the problem. In some tribes/clans Sunni/Shia inter marry.

Arm the Syrian Rebels?

Now back to the point of arming the Syrian rebels to fight off ISIS. Does that make sense now? Do the rebels in Syria have more conflict with ISIS or with the Western created government of Bashar al Assad? Most people haven’t heard that the American and British journalists beheaded by ISIS were sold to them from a rebel group in Syria.

It is not in the National Interest of the American people to support the rebels in Syria. In the end, this will only increase ISIS’s influence not deter it. More weapons and soldiers will flip and join ISIS. Those that don’t will turn to Damascus and re-engage Assad. Eventually, the power vacuum that widens will open a door for ISIS to move further into Syria.

We have to support a policy that treats the Islamic State as an actual nation state. Now, I don’t support granting it any independant recognized status, but to fight them we have to stop treating them like Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is more like an international espionage group. They work in the shadows training “agents” to attack targets all over the world. The Islamic State is an army that is trying to influence power in a specific space. That right there, in the words of Robert Strausz Hupe, is the definition of geopolitics.

What should U.S. policy be?

To fight any other state abroad we would seek a reliable counter or check to their power. Now is the time to erase Lawrence’s question marks on his map and define the borders of Independent Kurdistan. The Kurds shouldn’t be used as bargaining chips and levers between Iran and Turkey. A strong Independent western backed Kurdistan could be the regional counter that we’re looking for. They could push on the IS from the North and diminish their foothold in both Northern Iraq and Syria. You don’t have to worry about them defecting to ISIS or turning and fighting against Assad. They’ll be defending their homeland.

We would seek to build a coalition. Not just any coalition, but a coalition of nations that have a reason to fight the Islamic State. There is absolutely no reason why French or U.S. aircraft should be bombing ISIS right now. Especially not when Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey could be doing it instead. U.S. and western direct support should be held back as a guarantee. It should not be the first strike option.

Before the President goes to war with ISIS he needs to clearly define our National Interest in doing so. There’s no question whether ISIS should be defeated or not….they should be. The question is how do we manage the situation in a way that improves the overall situation in the Middle East and aligns with the nations national interest.
We simply must reconcile the past. The West is directly responsible for the current turmoil in the Middle East. There’s no denying it. We must now admit that yes we are an empire but there are ways to fix the mistakes of the past. We can’t continue to put our fingers in the dam. We have to let the dam come down and build new infrastructure that’s not founded in deceit.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland’s Independence Referendum - more at stake than just the UK

“When you drop a pebble into a pond, ripples spread out, changing all the water in the pool. The ripples hit the shore and rebound, bumping into one another, breaking each other apart. In some small way, the pond is never the same again.”
-Neal Shusterman

After WW2 the European continent locked it’s borders. The horror of the fascist Nazi military was the manifest of what Europeans have always feared and still feel today. That fear is the feeling of ethnic superiority and nationalism.

The First Ripple

Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”

I assume what Putin meant was that all they had worked to achieve was now over. They had attempted to do what Nazi Germany tried to do...to single handedly dominate Eurasia and control the mass production machine of the Eurasian Heartland. The Nazis and then later the Soviets wanted to prove Halford Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory” was accurate. So after WW2 the west fought the Cold War to ensure that didn’t happen.

As I reanalyze what Putin said I now see that the fall of the Soviet Union did one more thing. It unlocked the borders of the European continent that were previously set following WW2.

Suddenly people began to wonder what it takes to be a nation. What defines a nation in Europe?
  • Is it a collective of common people with a like mindset?
  • Is it an area that has ethnic majority?
  • Is it an area that speaks the same language?

Then the Yugoslav wars happened. Ethnic majority was determined to be the deciding factor for statehood and Yugoslavia would break apart.

The West was riding high on the success of the Cold War. It seemed apparent that they were purposely ignoring Russian interests when they backed the separation of Kosovo. Putin would never forget this. You could make the argument that Russia’s renewed rivalry with the west occurred right there.

Putin used that justification as a precedent. He would invade Georgia over the breakaway region of Ossetia, and he used the threat of ethnic Russian minorities in several periphery countries. After all, the UN gave their stamp of approval on Kosovo….they’d be hypocrites not to support Russia in South Ossetia, Transinistria, Ukraine, etc. With Kosovo, the west unknowingly gave Russia a lever to pull in their former Soviet sphere of influence.
You see the reverberations of this today in Ukraine. Putin will continue to support Russian backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine until they gain some level of autonomy. From there he can claim the right of self determination and amalgamate whatever he wishes.

More Ripples

On September 18th Scotland will vote on whether to stay in the United Kingdom or to become a separate independent state.

Again, we see an ethnic majority claiming their right to self determination. I know that the United Kingdom will handle this appropriately. They won’t respond violently and they’ll be good neighbors to the Scots. However, the precedent will have been set for self determination in Western Europe. The previously locked borders after WW2 will be suddenly up for debate.
What now happens in Catalonia, Northern Italy, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, parts of the Balkans, the Caucasus, Belgium, Azerbaijan….all of these regions have similar ethnic disputes….all of them.
Looking past Europe we can see the Middle East evolving as well. Will this precedent be used in the ongoing ISIS/Syria/Iraq war? What’s to stop the Caliphate from forming if their citizens have self determined their right to exist as a state?

The Precedent Is The Key

Forget the ramifications to the Scottish economy, the British economy, what to do with the British bases in Scotland, rights to oil in the North Sea…..etc. Scottish independence creates a precedent that will be felt all over the world. How will the world react?