The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
In this edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, the editors speak with a panel of experts, Gregory Feifer, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, Jeffrey Stacey, and Nussaibah Younis, to discuss Russia’s intervention in Syria, what to do about Putin, and how to prevent the next Cold War.
To learn more on the subject, check out the related reading:
This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.
HOST: This is Foreign Affairs Unedited, and I’m Katie Allawala.
The conflict in Syria has never been simple. From popular uprising, to civil war, to proxy war, the evolving conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. And now, with the addition of Russian airstrikes, things could get a lot more complicated.
Today on Foreign Affairs Unedited, we’re taking a deep dive into the Russian intervention, from Putin’s ultimate goals—and whether he’ll succeed—to where he might go next. We also check in with the Deputy Secretary General of NATO about the Western response.
But first, we go to Foreign Affairs’ Brian O’Connor.
O’CONNOR: Everyone seems to have an opinion about the U.S. response to the intervention in Syria, but we at Foreign Affairs were curious about what the top experts would have to say. And so we asked dozens whether they agreed that the United States should work with Russia to==== fight ISIS.
In the end, 33 responded, with 14 agreeing, 14 disagreeing, and 5 remaining neutral. The responses themselves ranged from, quote, Strongly Agree, Working with Russia is the only way to end this conflict anytime soon” -- that’s from Chicago University Professor John Mearsheimer -- to, quote, “strongly disagree, Russia’s main military objective in Syria is to complicate the situation on the ground rather than help seek a resolution that would undermine ISIS. Propping up Assad, Russia’s sole Middle East ally, is part of Moscow’s effort to take international center stage.”
I talked with the author of that last response, Gregory Feifer, to learn more.
FEIFER: I think that Russia's main goal is to essentially trap the US and its Western allies in Syria. After the fall of a whole series of Russian allies, Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade, Victor Yanukovych in Kiev, and others, Putin is trying to avoid the humiliation of having propped up Assad for a number of years only to see him fall. But he's also been able to essentially further expose the pitfalls of America's having a lack of strategy in Syria.
He's caught us again on the back foot. He is testing NATO's commitment to collective security by sending cruise missiles into Syria, and as it apparently happens, Iran, the day before a NATO defense ministers' meeting. And so, his whole modus operandi is to complicate the situation, and I think that in fact, he's already succeeded in his aims, because Putin is at the center of attention. Everybody is talking about Putin. The images of Russian missiles and bombs dropping from planes are going viral in Russia.
O’CONNOR: Do you think that Putin can envision a scenario in which Russia fares better in the Middle East than the United States has?
FEIFER: I don't think he thinks that far. I think Putin is a very good tactician. He's caught us on the back foot, but he is no strategist. And I don't think he's actually interested in Russia's long-term prosperity and influence. His actions are, at the end of the day, incredibly reckless. We see fragile ceasefires in several villages north of Damascus are unraveling. Apparently, ISIS is closing in on Aleppo, so the situation after just several days of Russian bombing is significantly deteriorating.
O’CONNOR: One thing that we found interesting in terms of some of the responses we got to the poll was the number of people who said that if Russia really were fighting ISIS, that the United States should take some sort of role. I'm wondering if there's any credence to that in your mind, or if that's something that seems too far-fetched to be plausible?
FEIFER: Well, I think that's the opposite of what we should be doing. I think that's exactly what Putin wants. Putin has for many, many years, in fact, from the very beginning of his role in the year 2000, has been playing at both creating the image of somebody who is moderate on the world stage and wants to cooperate, and yet carrying out actions that are very aggressive and geared toward essentially consolidating and expanding his own personal authority at home, which again, I think is his overriding aim. I actually think that the best way, in fact, the only way to deal with Putin, especially after what he's doing now in Syria is to revisit George Kennan's policy of Containment, which was actually a very nuanced, very long-sighted, and ultimately successful proposal for dealing with the Soviet Union.
FEIFER: Containment has been mischaracterized. In fact, George Kennan has very famously criticized how it was implemented, and in later years, sought to essentially increase cooperation with the Soviet Union. He was very concerned about nuclear war. But I think as it was initially formulated, Kennan saw Joseph Stalin's regime as not only unwilling to cooperate with Western powers, but essentially going on foreign adventures as the only way to shore up an intellectually bankrupt authoritarian regime at home. I think there are a lot of parallels between Stalin's regime, especially foreign policy, and Putin's today. Not, of course, in the extent of their authoritarianism and their adventures abroad, of course, that's an important distinction to make, but I think the nature of their rules. And I think that the policy of Containment from 1947, 1948, as it was formulated, that we should revisit it now and institute a similar policy to contain Putin, not necessarily militarily, but politically and economically in order to put the West, and especially the US in a position of strength to be able to negotiate some sort of relationship, some sort of dealing with Putin until his regime, inevitably as it will, collapses or ends in one way or another, because it is not sustainable what he's doing politically and economically at all.
This is a long-term strategy, and it will only succeed if we stick to it just like we did during the Cold War. Now, I don't mean to sound hawkish. I think it's dreadful. I wish that we could extend a hand to Putin as we have many, many times in the past, and not only during Obama's initial Russia Reset policy, but it simply doesn't work. Putin is not interested in cooperating in Syria, in Iraq, in Ukraine, or anywhere else. In fact, his entire tactic is to try to trap the West into trying to cooperate and catching us on the back foot. It's a losing proposition. It's failed from the very beginning, and it will not succeed. I just don't think it's an option.
O’CONNOR: What steps should other Western countries take to make sure that if Containment were to happen again, that perhaps, this time it was a bit more successful?
FEIFER: Well, I think Containment was successful ultimately, and I think that there's no predicting how long Putin will stay in power, how long he will be able to keep his regime in place. As I said, ultimately, politically and economically, it is not sustainable, and Putin's regime will fall one way or another, in the long-term.
I think that what NATO is doing, carefully, of course and slowly, is good, it's stepping up its forces in Europe and in Eastern Europe, it's putting together a 40,000 troop rapid reaction force, it's going to have major exercises later this year. It is sending some small groups of officers for logistics to Poland and the Baltic states. But we've also seen a lot of disagreements over how to respond to Putin. I think Putin's very successfully exploited these.
HOST: For more on NATO’s perspective, and the broader challenges that it faces, Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose sat down with the Deputy Secretary General of NATO, Ambassador Alexander Vershbow.
ROSE: You've been involved with NATO for many, many decades in many capacities. There were periods in there, even a decade ago, when it wasn't the most exciting organization with the most compelling mission. These days, it seems to be hopping again. What's going on with NATO?
VERSHBOW: Well, NATO is a pretty busy place these days. I've been there for almost four years as the Deputy Sec. Gen. And it was kind of dull the first two years but thanks to Russia plus the meltdown of the countries to our south, we have more than enough to do. It kind of recalls for me as more happy period --\\ I first served in NATO in the early '90s when we were dealing with the consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of Europe and bringing not only central Europe but Russia into our family as partners and eventually some of them became members. Sadly, some of that hasn't worked out as well as we would like and talking about Russia as a partner seems, at best, a very distant proposition.
ROSE: Does NATO have one mission or many and has that mission remained constant over time?
VERSHBOW: Well the basic mission of NATO has remained constant. That's the collective defense of our members. An attack on one is an attack on all. But we've taken on additional missions over the years. In the '90s, we decided to do crisis management with the interventions in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. We also established this global network of partners where we're trying to kind of export security and stability by helping other countries strengthen their own capacity and become contributors to the international system. All those missions continue but collective defense has gone back to being job number one, thanks to the Russian aggression against Ukraine.
ROSE: Now, the Russian aggression against Ukraine, Ukraine was not a member of NATO, is not a member of NATO, and it doesn't have the Article V security guarantee that NATO members have, so why have so many people been so worried that Ukraine will be followed up with some kind of Russian move against an actual NATO member?
VERSHBOW: Well, unfortunately, for Ukraine, as you said, they don't benefit from the Article V guarantee, and so we've had to put other forms of pressure on Russia to try to impose costs for its aggression, but we have to look at what the Russians did in Ukraine and reckon with at least the possibility, it may be a remote possibility, but it's a real possibility, that they could engage in the sort of hybrid attacks that they used, especially with the annexation of Crimea.
ROSE: So the danger is no longer tanks coming through the Fulda Gap, it's little green men showing up in Estonia or some place like that.
VERSHBOW: Indeed. I mean it may be a remote possibility. I don't think Russia is looking for a direct conflict with NATO. We don't think the threat of aggression is immediate or imminent, but given the willingness to tear up the international rule book that Putin has displayed in Ukraine and given the fact that he talks about the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, greater than the Holocaust or other minor events like that, we have to at least be prepared for the possibility that our expectations are wrong.
ROSE: So some people have criticized NATO's dealings with Russia for being too aggressive and provoking a crisis over places like Ukraine, others have criticized NATO's response to what happened in Ukraine as being too weak and appeasing. NATO people presumably think it's been just right. How would you describe how NATO has responded to the entire Ukraine crisis?
VERSHBOW: Well of course, I work for NATO, I would say the response has been just right, but it's a difficult challenge, because Ukraine isn't a member, but they deserve to be respected as a sovereign state, so we've tried to help them, but not to pour oil on the fire. We've provided them some assistance to their defense reforms. We've set up some trust funds to help them improve their capacities, like in command and control, logistics. We're not directly encouraging them to seek a military solution, 'cause there is no military solution.
ROSE: Some people have argued that NATO helped provoke the European... The Ukraine Crisis by holding out the prospect of eventual NATO expansion to Ukraine. Peeling off some of core Moscow's clients. Do you buy any of that?
Vershbow: Well, I can't deny that the Russians attach special importance to Ukraine and to the other neighbors that were in the Soviet Union, such as Georgia and so they've never liked NATO enlargement, although I would maintain, as I've said when it first started, that ultimately it's good for Russian security to actually have stable neighbors who are part of a collective security and defense system, who don't have border disputes with their neighbors, who are interested in mutually beneficial trade and economic development. Russia however seems to like weak, unstable neighbors. That seems to be their formula for security for Russia, which is simply not an acceptable way to proceed.
ROSE: Is time on the side of NATO or its opponents?
VERSHBOW: I think time is on the side of NATO. I mean, we have work to do to actually deliver on all the pledges we've made to strengthen our defenses, nations need to start spending more on defence. We've had a little bit of progress on that since they all took the pledge at the Wales Summit, but some are still lagging. But I think also historical factors are playing against Putin, his economy is suffering, not only from the sanctions and the declining oil price, but from the inability to reform and diversify that economy over many years since he first took power 15 years ago. So, Russia is a society that is in decline. It's main way of demonstrating it's power right now is military power. But in an era of globalization, Russia sooner or later are gonna realize that isolation from the International community will leave Russia behind, and they will be, if not on the dustbin of history, at least more and more marginalized in world affairs.
ROSE: So their involvement in a new theater such as Syria is something that they're gonna end up regretting, and it's our job not to get in the way of them screwing up?
VERSHBOW: Well, I think they may find themselves in over their heads in Syria, but we can't be complacent, I mean they're clearly trying to defeat moderate opposition, they're not countering ISIL, they're not targeting ISIL so far at least. And so, there may be some strengthening of the Assad regime, which seems to be their main agenda. But over time, I think they're gonna find that they're turning the whole Sunni world against Russia by lining up with the Shiite axis, and I think they're gonna find that as casualties begin to mount for their forces, that this may not be such a winner for Russia or for President Putin, personally.
ROSE: You began your career in one Cold War, are you gonna end your career in another Cold War?
VERSHBOW: Well, it kinda looks that way on the surface, 'cause my career isn't over yet, I do hope that we can come up with an effective response to Russia so that we avoid another Cold War, and there are so many areas where we should be able to cooperate with Russia, and the last 20-25 years show that cooperation is possible. And people forget that we had Russian forces operating under NATO command in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. We've worked together on fighting terrorism and dealing with hijacked aircraft. So, it's not foreordained that we're forever doomed to this sort of tense relationship. But unfortunately, the present leadership in Russia seems to want NATO to be an adversary, I think it's part of their strategy for maintaining control at home, and for exerting hegemony in their neighborhood. So we have to have strategic patience, make clear that partnership is where we'd like to return to, but not by compromising our principles.
STACEY: “What we have is not just the largest projection and use of force by Russia outside the territory of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War, we are now also witnessing, I think everyone has to start to admit, a new Cold War, except it isn't so cold, it's warm, and it's getting hotter. This, in fact, is more dangerous than the famous East/West tank showdown at Checkpoint Charlie that took place in Berlin, the height of the Cold War.”
HOST: That’s Jeffrey Stacey, Managing Partner of Geopolicity U.S.A and former State Department Official, offering a slightly different take. As to what the West should do, he said?
STACEY: we have to first, I think, ask ourselves how was Russia able to do this? And the immediate answer that it was not successfully deterred. The US was, I think we have to admit, stared down by Putin over Ukraine. It was the US that blinked. This directly emboldened Putin. He concluded that he could go even further without getting a forceful reaction from the West and ever since then, this has been going on for a better part of a year and beyond, Russia has been poking and prodding the West ever since the outset of the Ukraine crisis. Not just to be a nuisance, but to see what Russia could actually get away with and to gain any Western responses, which have been fairly meager. He also previously successfully intervened in the Syrian conflict and he got the US the UK and France to back off from their own intervention plans and he did so with relative ease.
Western deterrence of Russian projection and use of force has now deteriorated so badly that I am concerned that Russia may yet attempt Baltic incursions. The inaction in Syria may lead to some form of this, so NATO has to be on particular guard. But Putin has basically been counting Western slights to Russia ever since Kosovo.
If the US and the West do not act, Putin will interpret this as additional weakness and he will press further at the very next opportunity and what has he done that has been costly? The list gets longer by the day. Russia has violated Turkey's air space. It has messed with US drones. Its fighters have buzzed US fighters. It launched cruise missiles with no warning in skies with Western planes in them.
Instead of de-conflicting right up until now, it has forced the US to stay out of its way and perhaps worst of all, it has relentlessly attacked US-backed and trained anti-Assad rebels, which should have been a red line. These provocations have to be answered or Putin will escalate even further.
HOST: I asked him what the United States should do to counter Russian Agression.
STACEY: It must re-establish deterrents. It can do so by actually confronting Russia directly. First, it should tell Russia, it will shoot down the next plane that violates either Turkish or other NATO air space. When and this actually happens if it does, Russian pilots should fire warning shots and lock on at radar terms, that might do the trick, but they should go ahead and shoot one down if this happens again.
With Turkey, the UK and France, the US should also set up, a mini no-fly zone, a refugee exclusion zone on the ground. People say that you can't do this anymore, because of the Russian air strikes and the cover from Russian ships off the coast. We need to think about it a little more strategically and operationally in the following terms. Turkey has been pushing for this and this is a good reason for having one. Not a large one, but a small one de-limited only to the zone on the ground.
What else should the US do? It should and is, I am pleased to see, not ceasing in it's backing of the free Syrian army and the Sunni Assad opposition groups. It needs to continue to arm them, continue to support them and if we see Russia backing down in the other ways that I'm discussing, a red line can be instituted, I mean the US was smart, not to see to Russian request to get a list of which parts of the anti-regime opposition the US didn't want bombed, because of course the Russians might have bombed those directly.
HOST: If Russia is, indeed, bent on antagonism with the West, then it stands to reason that its interventions won’t end with Ukraine and Syria. To learn more, I went to the co-author of a recent Foreign Affairs article.
NUSSAIBAH: I'm Dr. Nussaibah Younis and I'm a Senior Resident Fellow at The Atlantic Council where I focus on Iraq and ISIS.
HOST: In her piece, Putin’s next conquest, she makes the case that, for Moscow, Iraq may be next.
NUSSAIBAH: The Iraqi government is really very frustrated with the slow place of US Military engagement in the country. Iraqis feel that they are battling a threat from ISIS that is not only directed at them, but is directed at the region as a whole and also directed at the Western world. And they believe that the US and other Western countries should be doing more to help them to fight ISIS. The Iraqi government really present themselves as being on the front lines fighting against a global threat. And they feel that the US has not been meeting its obligations. They feel that the pace of weapons delivery is too slow, that there are too many conditions on who can use the weapons that are supplied and how they can be used.
Meanwhile, the Russians offer a very tempting alternative. They don't have the same kind of legal infrastructure, they don't have the same kind of concern for human rights and fear of causing collateral damage. They're not as cautious and they're much more willing to respond to requests from Iraq for weapons deliveries and supplies. And given their recent performance in Syria where they've conducted an extraordinary number of strikes in a very limited time period as compared to the much more cautious US approach the Iraqis are now wondering whether Russia might be more a better ally for them in this war against Islamic State.
The Iraqis have not yet issued a formal request for Russian air strikes in Iraqi territory, but we're hearing from corners of the Iraqi government that this could well happen and the Russians have made it clear that if the Iraqis request Russian air strikes on their territory, the Russians will be happy to respond. And I believe that we're really in a crucial moment where the United States should be stepping up its support to the Iraqi government and ensuring that this eventuality does not happen, ensuring that Iraq does not end up requesting Russian air strikes on Iraqi territory.
HOST: When I asked how a Russian campaign in Iraq would go, Dr. Younis had this to say
NUSSAIBAH: The Russians believe that going in hard and strong simply bombing territories that are being held by terrorist groups that that's going to be enough to defeat an Islamic State, and we know it's much more complex than that.
And Russia doesn't have any such complexity in its view of the counter-insurgency effort. It's shown absolutely no indication that it's interested in reaching out to those political factions who feel excluded by the current Iraqi government, and it's shown really no aptitude for taking part in what's ultimately a delicate and nuanced counter-insurgency effort. And rather, they're enjoying the shock and awe moment. And it's something that frustrated Iraqis who're very tired of the Islamic States atrocities want to see. They want to see these people being hit hard, but that's not a solution. And we've been here before and so we know it's not the solution.
HOST: That was Nussaibah Younis on Iraq. For more on this subject and others covered in today’s podcast, please visit ForeignAFfairs.com. If you like our show, please leave a review on iTunes.
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