Archive for September, 2011

The Rebirth of President Putin

Posted in 2012 Presidential Election, Diplomacy, Russia, Russian-American relations, US Values and Freign Policy with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that he will trade places with current president Dmitry Medvedev next year, running for the presidency while Medvedev settles for the number two spot of prime minister. Under revisions to the Russian constitution, the presidency has been lengthened from a four-year to a six-year term, and presidents can run for re-election once. Twelve more years!

The announcement was hardly a surprise, of course. Despite appearances and titles, Putin has largely been running the show in Moscow even since Medvedev formally became the country’s chief executive in 2008, and virtually no one is surprised that Putin will seek to regain his formal status as president next year or that he will, in all likelihood, be elected overwhelmingly by the Russian electorate in reasonably free and open voting. Unless he either becomes ill or Russia experiences a great downturn during his first six years, he will dutifully be reelected in 2018. If all goes according to plan, Putin will remain in power until he is 72. Speculation about anything past 2024 is not worth making.

While exhibiting the beauty and inevitability of a mud slide (an analogy I crib without permission from an old University of Alabama dean), this is not particularly good news for the United States or the region, at least in term of promoting greater democratization and independence for the countries and peoples there. Russians apparently do not care terribly about such matters; what they care about is what Putin delivers.

Putin is attractive to the Russian (and especially ethnic Russian) majority in the federation. A robust and charismatic figure, Putin has three obvious sources of attraction. First, he is a dynamic and forceful leader who, particularly in the minds of Russians, projects an image of strength and importance of their country in the world. Just as we are entreated not to “mess with Texas,” the image of Vladimir Putin is that you had better not mess with Russia either.

Second, Putin is committed to restoring Russia’s place as a major power in the region and the world. This determination, which is related to the first source of his attraction, rings very much true to the Russian electorate. One of Russian history’s major themes is the quest for status as a world power. While most Russians do not look back at the old Soviet days with much poignancy, they do remember favorably the fact that the Soviet Union was an acknowledged, even feared, superpower which held sway within its region and was, for many purposes, the major peer of the United States. Russians want to return to that status; Putin, by word and deed, offers them what they believe is the best chance to do so. This perception stands in stark contrast with the image of the affable Medvedev, who appears much too bland and compliant for Russian tastes. Think Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

Third, Putin is a consummate politician. His rise to power happened to coincide with Russia’s emergence as the world’s second largest exporter of oil and largest exporter of natural gas (especially to Europe, which is highyl dependent on Russian supplies), and he turned this windfall into two advantages for himself and his country. Internally, Putin has skillfullyused energy revenues essentially to “buy off” the voting public with the largesse of government disbursements that have improved the material conditions of many Russians. He became, during the 2000s wshen he was formally in the presidency, one of the two particular experts in what Thomas L. Friedman calls “petrolist” politics, using oil revenues to bolster support and, not entirely coincidentally, to erode democracy. It is a Faustian bargain of sorts, but one the Russian people have accepted as a necessary tradeoff for their own prosperity and sense of national resurgence.

Internationally, energy exports give Russia leverage they have lacked since the end of the Cold War. While Russia retains a nuclear force roughly equivalent to that of the United States, that is not enough to insure Russian prestige and acceptance as a”super” power: to many, it is still a “Third World country with nuclear weapons.” Oil and natural gas change that, since the world is hungry for energy, and especially for energy that does not come from the unstable Middle East: Russia may still be a Third World country, but energy makes them more consequential, and Putin both knows this and how to exploit it.

Will Putin return to his old ways when he returns to office? There is no reason to think he won’t. What will this mean for the United States? The answer somewhat depends on how the US government decides to treat a new Russian regime, but it will detainly dampen American enthusiasm for Russian movement toward “normal” status in the region and world and dim any hope that Russia will soon evolve into a full-scale western democracy. It will also mean a more assertive Russian stance toward the “internal abroad” (those ethnically non-Russian parts of Russia that seek autonomy or independence–think Chechnya and Dagestan) or the “near abroad” (the former Soviet republics on itrs periphery–think Georgia). Russia will almost certainly act in ways of which the United States disapproves, and the results will almost certainly return greater strain to those relations.

Russia still has its problems, which Putin cannot wish away. Russian demographics are still horrible, and population decline will continue and hamper Russia’s return to major status. The rate of exploitation of Russia’s oil reserves cannot be sustained long before they begin to become depleted. Russia needs to be looking toward new bases of influence beyond energy, and buying off the population only serves short-term, not long-term goals. These are Russian realities that face any Russian leader.

As yesterday’s indicates, Valdimir Putin is back. He never really went away, but in March, the Russian public will put him back in the driver’s seat, while his understudy, Dmitry Medvedev, will be consigned to the rumble seat. It is not particularly good news, but there is not a whole lot that can be done about it.


The Arab Spring: Libya and Syria

Posted in Egypt, International Terrorism, Libya, Middle East Conflict with tags , , , , , , , on September 18, 2011 by whatafteriraq

Libya and Syria have become the poster children for the varied impacts that the so-called Arab Spring have had on the Islamic Middle East. They are not the most important countries to have undergone changes (Egypt, the outcome of whose upheaval remains a work in progress, can claim that distinction), but they do represent the most polar outcomes that the popular uprisings have produced to date. In Libya, the rebels–with the generous and probably critical assistance of Western militaries–have succeeded in dislodging long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi, whose whereabouts remain a mystery of the Carmen San Diego variety at this point. In Syria, the regime of Bashar al-Assad remains in power in the face of worldwide condemnation but little effective action, and seems likely to remain so for the foreseaable future.

The countries and their situations are a study in similarities and contrasts. Both are, of course, majority Sunni countries (as are most Muslim states), both have a diverse population that is tied together by common religion, both have long-standing traditions since achieving statehood of authoritarian rule in which the military has played a prominent role, and both have ties (admittedly of different varieties) to international terrorism. On the face of it, Syria is in many ways the more important country by virtue of size (71,500 square miles of territory to Libya’s 43,000 square miles), population (22 million to 6.5 million) and strategic location: Syria has long borders with Iraq and Turkey and less lengthy borders with Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, whereas Libya borders six North African countries, the only one of which that has strategic significance being Egypt.

There is, of course, one very significant difference between the two which explains the highly differential way the international community has reacted to demands for political change in the two countries. That difference, of course, is that Libya has a large amount of very desirable petroleum, and Syria does not. The contrast is enormous. Using CIA World Factbook figures, Libya exports approximately 1.5 million barrels a day (15th largest in the world), while Syria exports 155,000 barrels a day, about one-tenth of the Libyan figure and 56th in the world. Known Libyan reserves stand at 47 billion barrels, comparecto 2.5 billion for the Syrians. Moreover, Libyan oil is relatively cheap to extract and is particularly “sweet” (low-sulfur content), a particularly important factor for Europeans who have geared their refineries to processing sweet crude and can only deal with other oil with considerably more difficulty and expense.

Oil production has driven the economies of the two countries in opposite directions. Libyan GDP per capita, for instance, is about $14,800 (84th in the world), and while it is distributed in an unequitable manner of which the Tea Party would be proud and Ayn Rand disciples envious, it is considerably higher than in Syria, with a per capita GDP of $4,800, 151st the in the world. Prior to the revolution, Libya was a classic “petrolist” state (to borrow Thomas L. Friedman’s term), where huge oil revenues (95 percent of export earnings, 80 percent of government revenues) were used to buy off the population and blunt its democratic urges. Petrolist success took a hit with the success of the revolution in Libya.

Libya has succeeded in throwing off its shackles for the moment, and Syria has not. The outcome in Libya is far from ordained, and could vary from a total democracy to the rise of a new dictator: prudence suggests somewhere in between, whatever that may mean. The al-Assads cling to power, and despite universal pleas for them to cease their repression and to step down, Bashar al-Assad shows no indication he will do either. Nobody wants to talk about his success in holding power, but it is not unlikely, at least in the short run.

The key element in Libyan success and Syrian failure is outside pressure. Put simply, it is highly unlikely that the Libyan rebels would have succeeded without the covering air power of NATO to suppress government forces (attacking them directly, preventing their forays against rebel units in the field intent on their destruction). These rebels, it must be remembered, were a pretty woebegone, rag-tag coalition when they began, and the early prognosis for them was not good until NATO airpower shifted the balance of power. There has, to put it mildly, been nothing like that in support of Syrian dissidents who are, as best one can piece together from media reports, been treated much more harshly than the Libyan government treated its citizenry. Why the difference?

The answers, of course, are pretty obvious. The first and overwhelmingly most important is that Libya has something the outside world wants (oil), and Syria does not. This makes Syria, despite its geography and demographics, much less important to the world–and specifically to the countries that can militarily interfere–than Libya. The fact that Libya is a short and undefended flight across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya and that effective assistance did not include putting boots on the ground (sand?) and thus creating the possibility of many casualties, added to the ease of making the decision to help Libya but not Syria. Any actions against Syria are likely to have to come from neighbors, who show neither the interest nor capability to tangle with the regime in Damascus. Human rights violations alone are simply not enough.

The other element has been that the coercive capacity of the Syrian government has proven more capable and resilient than that of Libya. On the face of it, the Libyans has the wherewithal to expunge the rebels but could not. Part of the reason was geographic (target cities were fairly far away), and traversing the terrain meant crossing open territory and being left vulnerable to NATO air power. Partly, however, the Libyans seemed less capable (ruthless, blood thirsty)than Syrian forces). For the time being, Syrian brutality has succeeded; it may not in the longer run, but for the moment, the Syrians have held the line.

None of this suggests how the revolutions in either country or the region will come out. There are simply too many variables, someforeseeable and others not, that could influence the ultimate outcomes. Roughly nine months after the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisia and spread through the region, however, the experiences in Libya and Syria do suggest the range of possible outcomes.