• US-Russian Relations: What matters but isn’t covered in all the tabloid news

    Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election matters. So do any possible connections to the Trump campaign

    But the media’s obsession with those issues is missing other major developments in US-Russian relations

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    The news about US-Russian-European relations goes far beyond the 2016 election interference and possible connections to the Trump campaign.

    On the international stage, Vladimir Putin has skilfully played a very weak hand, while the US misplayed its own for 8 years. Putin has taken an economy the size of Italy’s and returned it to status as an international power.

    It is Iran’s major outside supporter and a major player in Syria, where, in return for supporting the Assad regime, it has acquired major bases.

    It has used Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas for political leverage.

    And it has effectively offered to step in and assist North Korea if they want assistance beyond China’s.

    But he can only stay in power by running a corrupt kleptocracy, in close alignment with the oligarchs, with everything stage-managed from Moscow.

    That’s a good way for him to stay in power, but it is a terrible way to grow a diverse, modern economy. Over the long run, the Russian economy will continue to sputter as the US grows.

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    What has the Trump Administration done to cope with Putin internationally?

    The media focus has been entirely on US weakness, especially Trump’s mixed statements about NATO and his inexplicable reluctance to recognize the threat from Russia in clear, unambiguous language. There has been some focus on the recent cease-fire in Syria, too.

    But there is much more to the story. And all these other developments put pressure on a Kremlin ill-equipped to handle it.

    NATO

    On NATO, as I have noted, Trump is now a firm supporter but he still wants two major changes: a focus on terrorism and fair-share payments from European partners, as they promised. One reasonable interpretation of his threats to back away from NATO is that they are meant to get Europe to pay up.

    Poland

    In Poland, Trump did more than make a speech (a very good one in my opinion, a very bad one in the opinion of Democrats). He also agreed to an important arms sale the Obama Administration had refused.

    In a move set to counter Russia’s reinforcement on NATO’s borders, Poland and the U.S. have agreed that Warsaw will purchase the American-made Patriot air defense missile, the Polish government announced Thursday.

    Although Poland is a long-term advocate for more U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia’s decision to deploy Iskander missile systems on its borders in November made the demand for assistance more urgent. The S-400 surface-to-air missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander systems are set to be delivered in Kaliningrad, Russia’s exclave bordering Poland. –Newsweek, story here

    Ukraine

    Totally missing from news coverage is the startling news that Ukraine is now openly seeking NATO membership–understandable, given the Russian threat, but an open insult to the Kremlin, which refused even to let Ukraine strike a trade deal with the EU.

    The Reuters story is headlines: “Pledging Reforms by 2020, Ukraine Seeks Route into NATO

    [Ukraine’s] President Petro Poroshenko, whose country is fighting a Kremlin-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, revived the prospect of NATO membership during a visit by NATO Secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg who himself used the occasion to call on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

    “Ukraine has clearly defined its political future and its future in the sphere of security,” Poroshenko speaking to reporters alongside Stoltenberg.

    “Today we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

    Russia, deeply opposed to enlargement of NATO toward its borders, weighed in quickly, saying the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine would not promote stability and security in Europe. –Reuters

    It’s unclear how NATO will approach this or what the Trump Administration will say (or even if it will speak with one voice).

    But the very fact that Ukraine has raised the NATO issue is sure to be a major irritant in US-Russian relations.

    Energy

    The Russian economy depends on oil revenues, and so does the Kremlin to retain support from oligarchs.

    The problem is that energy prices are under permanent, long-term pressure from the US, where shale technology is getting more and more efficient. The US is now a major (and growing) energy exporter, and Trump is doing everything he can to ramp up production and ramp down prices.

    The impact on Russia is not his primary concern here. He’s more concerned with the positive impact of lower prices on the US economy. But the impact on Russia is real, nonetheless, and Trump means to exploit it.

    On his recently completed trip, the president said:

    Let me be clear about one crucial point. The United States will never use energy to coerce your nations, and we cannot allow others to do so,” Trump said at a press conference flanked by European leaders. “You don’t want to have a monopoly or a monopolistic situation. –CNBC story here

    Trump did not name Russia, but everyone understood his message. After all, Russia had cut gas supplies to Europe in 2008 over a Ukraine dispute. Trump was saying, in effect, that we intend to stop that blackmail by giving you an alternative supplier.

    Bottom Line

    The possible connections between Russia and the Trump campaign are worth a thorough investigation, as Mueller is doing.

    But don’t be mislead by Democrats’ talking tough: they did little to buttress Central European defenses during the Obama years. Pres. Obama had no intention of increasing US hydrocarbon production, if he could prevent it. (He couldn’t, thanks to new technology.) Lower energy prices it contradicted his broader concerns about fossil fuels and global warming. Fracking technology beat his regulatory onslaught, just as it beat the Saudis’ attempt to drive them out of business with low energy prices.

    For all Trump’s inexplicably warm language about Putin, his actions tell a different story. He’s selling arms to Poland, pressuring Europeans to pay up for NATO, unlocking American oil reserves to lower prices over the long-term, and working to ween Europe from Russian natural.

    Taken together, these actions put enormous pressure on a Kremlin underperforming economically, highly dependent on oil prices, and overstretched by its foreign commitment.

     

     

     

  • Trump’s Powerful Speech in Poland (my column at Real Clear Politics)

    President Trump’s speech in Warsaw was the best statement yet of his foreign policy.  It

    • Showed a clear-eyed recognition of the threats from Russia and radical Islam,
    • Promised continued U.S. engagement in Europe, and
    • Offered to support Poland against Moscow.

    He wrapped it all in a full-throated defense of Western civilization and its achievements.

    To the people of Central Europe, who live under the Kremlin’s threatening shadow, it said, “We hear you. We believe you. And we will work with you to defend something precious.”

    The column is here (link) at Real Clear Politics.

  • A Brief Guide to Trump’s upcoming NATO Summit

    What Can NATO Do in Today’s Threatening World?

    May 25, the NATO heads of state will meet in Brussels. It’s an important meeting for the world’s most important alliance, the cornerstone of America’s military and diplomatic partnerships.

    If NATO is important to the US, the US is critical to NATO. It is the organization’s de facto leader because it has the diplomatic and military muscle and because it contributes 70 percent of NATO’s $890 million budget.

    What issues are on the table when Trump arrives in Brussels? The same ones that have plagued the organization since the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
    1. Is NATO obsolete?
    2. If not, what is its mission?
    3. Is NATO a paper tiger? If it is, how can it become more relevant?

    A Little Background

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in the late 1940s to contain the Soviet Union and safeguard the security of its original fourteen state members. It expanded occasionally during the Cold War, adding Greece and Turkey in the early 1950s, for instance, to contain Soviet probes to gain influence (and a warm-water port) in the Mediterranean.

    After the Cold War, NATO took in many of Eastern Europe’s new democracies, former Soviet satellites eager to form close connections with the West. In the process, the original 14 members doubled to twenty-eight, with Montenegro scheduled to become the twenty-ninth.

    NATO is both political and military

    Although the sub-text of NATO’s mission is to prevent conflict, in reality its reason for being is not peace.

    Today, NATO’s primary purpose is to constrain a belligerent and expansionist Russia.

    That is both a political and military task, and NATO has both dimensions. Or, rather, it has them in principle but not always in practice.

    NATO did not respond to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea or its bombing of the Syrian military and civilian opposition. Russia also guaranteed that Syria’s chemical weapon inventory would be totally liquidated. Not so. Last month the Syrian government committed a chemical attack resulting in the deaths of scores of opposition fighters and civilians. Again, NATO did not respond, although the US did with a barrage of cruise missiles.

    How should the US approach NATO now?

    The contemporary threat array facing the US and NATO is
    • Russian expansionism,
    • A hostile ISIS-Islamic Caliphate, and
    • Acts of domestic terrorism, which struck the West again this week.

    What should NATO’s role be in tackling these threats? My assessment is that NATO is still germane to constraining Russia, but it is not capable of countering ISIS or domestic terrorism.

    The US can regain its global leadership responsibility by using and supporting NATO, provided the NATO member states recognize, define, and implement their limited role as diplomats who are dressed in military uniforms. This is an expensive charade.

    The NATO member state budget commitment is two percent of their GDP. Compare the US 3.6 percent contribution and the 2 percent commitment made by Estonia, Greece, Poland, and UK, with the other 23 states that do not meet their commitments.

    NATO should stay in its lane.

    America’s focus–our national interest–lies in protecting the Baltic states from Russian military aggression, providing military weapons to the Ukraine (a non-NATO member), and re-integrate Turkey into NATO.

    The US can regain its global leadership position and responsibility by leading, using, and supporting NATO.

    Bottom Line: Keep NATO, but consider reducing its budget by 50 percent to allay US critics who seek to terminate the alliance because it is not cost-effective.

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    Richard Friedman was chair of the National Strategy Forum/Chicago. He has served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Counselor to the American Bar Association Committee on National Security.

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Thursday, March 2

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

     Comment on allegations against AG Jeff Sessions: If there is anything substantive in the allegations about Jeff Sessions, that would be a big deal. Brief discussions are not, but knowingly misleading a Senate Committee would be. Obviously, the attacks are part of a broader Democratic effort to deligitimate the Trump Administration, which is on the edge of a Witch Hunt, but the underlying facts and the truthfulness of Sessions’ testimony will determine.

    In any case, it would be wise for Sessions to accede to Democratic demands to remove himself (though perhaps not recuse himself) from any investigation of Russian ties to the Trump campaign.

    Meanwhile, the Democrats are edging up to asking, “Are you now or have you ever been . . .?” They will ask it now of every Trump nominee.

     Stay Classy: Valerie Jarrett has moved into Pres. Obama’s house in DC which “is now the nerve center for their plan to mastermind the insurgency against President Trump,” according to the Daily Mail.

    Comment: As with so much of Jarrett’s activities, this is the opposite of wisdom. Why. First, because it leave fingerprints. Second, because it keeps Obama and his team prominently in the party’s leadership at a time when the Democrats desperately need new leadership . . . after their party was decimated at all levels during the Obama years. Third, because it highlights the Democratic Party’s role as full-frontal obstructionists. Other than that, smart move.

    Sad-but-true footnote: CNN has actually hired Valerie’s daughter as their main reporter on the Department of Justice. Are these CNN executives so clueless or so partisan they don’t understand that you cannot do this and present yourself as a disinterested news organization?

     Excellent economic news: “U.S. jobless claims near 44-year-low as labor market tightens” (Reuters)

    The stronger labor market combined with rising inflation could push the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates this month.

    It was the 104th straight week that claims remained below 300,000, a threshold associated with a healthy labor market. That is the longest stretch since 1970, when the labor market was much smaller. It is now at or close to full employment, with an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent. –Reuters

    The offsetting news this week is that economic growth in 2016 Q4 was still sluggish.

    Comment: For all the criticism of Pres. Obama’s economic management–some deserved, some not–he deserves praise for nearly all of the 104 weeks of low jobless claims.

     North Korea sez: “Heart attack, not nerve agent, killed Kim Jong Nam”  (Washington Post)

    Comment: And if you don’t agree, you, too, will die of a heart attack.

    In other news, Pyongyang is offering going-out-of-business prices on the Brooklyn Bridge.

     Think Baltic tensions with Russia are high? Well, Sweden just brought back the draft  (BBC)

    Non-aligned Sweden is worried about Russia’s Baltic military drills.

    In September, a Swedish garrison was restored to Gotland, a big island lying between the Swedish mainland and the three ex-Soviet Baltic states.

    Why is this happening?

    Ms Nyh Radebo [speaking for the Defense Ministry] said the return to conscription was prompted by “the security change in our neighbourhood”.

    “The Russian illegal annexation of Crimea [in 2014], the conflict in Ukraine and the increased military activity in our neighbourhood are some of the reasons,” she said. –BBC

    Comment: They aren’t drafting very many (only 4,000), but it’s the thought that counts.

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    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-100px-w-margin♥ Hat Tip for helpful suggestions:
    ◆ Ed Vidal
     for Valerie Jarrett story

     

  • ZipDialog’s Roundup of News Beyond the Front Page . . International Focus today on Friday, February 3

    Hand-picked and farm-fresh–
    Linked articles in bold purple

     Nikki Haley, new US ambassador to United Nations: blunt talk to Russia over Ukraine (CNN)

    The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea.

    Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine. –Amb. Nikki Haley

    Comment: There is zero chance that the Putin regime will pull out of Crimea and slim-to-none that any successor regime would.

    Here’s my interpretation: The sanctions stay until Putin gives up something significant to Trump. My assumption here is that Trump is transactional and ready to bargain, but he will never give up anything without full compensation. Same for Tillerson. Big difference from Obama and Kerry. 

     “Decline, Not Collapse: The Bleak Prospects for Russia’s Economy” Important new paper from the Carnegie Foundation’s Moscow Center

    Russia faces bleak economic prospects for the next few years. It may be a case of managed decline in which the government appeases social and political demands by tapping the big reserves it accumulated during the boom years with oil and gas exports. But there is also a smaller possibility of a more serious economic breakdown or collapse. –Andrey Movchan at Carnegie’s Moscow Center

     UK Prime Minister Theresa May strongly supports NATO. Now, she will press Europeans to contribute more (BBC)

    Britain’s strategic ambition to act as a bridge between Europe and the United States long predates Brexit, but it has now become a central component of the government’s hopes of keeping and building influence in the world.

    But pressing for higher defence spending looks like a tough ask.

    And her hopes of becoming a bridge – or honest broker – between the EU and the US won’t be easily fulfilled either. –BBC

     Comment: This bridge needs building, but it cannot be built from the middle pier. It must have a strong anchor in Washington and buy-in, literally, from European nations that have been paying too little.

     Wall Street Journal reports that Trump Administration will sanction 25 Iranian entities for its missile test and provocations by regional proxies

    Comment: Washington’s simple message to Iran’s mullahs: “Under New Management”


    The Free Market. It’s like Uber, But for Everything.” –Robert Tracinski


     Sarah Silverman goes off the rails, calls for a military coup. She does it on Twitter. Perfect for a bird-brain idea

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