Russia should love, not fight, the EU

As a believer in the project of European integration, I have watched the debate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with alarm.  In particular, I have found frustrating the conventional wisdom that Putin was justified in viewing the European Union’s (EU) expansion as a threat.  To me, this assumption is far too simplistic and borders on legitimizing Putin’s actions.  As such, I want to offer the following argument as a quick, yet provocative, thought exercise.  I believe that EU and Russian history allow for an alternative argument: that Putin could have viewed the EU’s expansion as the greatest gift to Russian security in the history of his country.

It is widely recognized that Russia has a justified fear of invasion.  It was this fear that partially motivated Stalin’s push for control over Eastern Europe after World War II.  He wanted a buffer zone that could protect Russia proper in the case of another European war.  While the USSR’s collapse eliminated this physical buffer, the EU was poised to provide a substitute security blanket in the form of ideology, rather than geography.  The EU was established, in the words of Robert Schuman, one of its founding fathers, to make war among its members “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”  In this sense, the Union has been remarkably successful.  No two EU member states have gone to war with one another since the organization was created.

This political transformation was accompanied by a gradual material and operational one as well.  European defense budgets had been in decline for decades prior to Russia’s seizure of Crimea.  Moreover, Europe had proven inept at operationalizing what resources it had left – its missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya all proved to varying degrees the decreasing capabilities of European militaries to carry out complex operations, even when operating as part of large multi-national coalitions.  In this sense, Robert Kagan’s thesis from his influential 2002 article “Power and Weakness” remained true: Europe was content to live in its own post-modern world where the utility of force was marginal and therefore not worthy of investment.

Given this mission and history, Russia should have welcomed the ascension of every new country to the EU.  That so many countries would be willing to essentially forswear the use of force in Europe should have been seen as an incredible strategic gift in Moscow. Instead, Russia responded to the EU’s eastward expansion with alarm and invaded Ukraine.  The result has been a wake up call to Europe and to NATO, with numerous countries pledging to increase their defense spending and readiness levels.  Ironically, then, Russia’s invasion has produced the very situation it was designed to avoid: a hostile and stronger Europe on its doorstep.

That Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a humanitarian tragedy is obvious.  The thousands of dead strewn across Donetsk and Luhansk stand as a testament to the violence occurring there.  Yet the conflict is also a political tragedy because it has returned the possibility of major state-on-state conflict to the European continent.  For a country scarred by numerous invasions, Russia could have welcomed the growth of an institution dedicated to eliminating war from its neighborhood and perhaps even aspired to join it one day. Instead, Putin chose to view the EU’s expansion as a threat.  The conventional wisdom suggests he was right to do so.  I hope this brief counterargument serves as a provocative thought exercise in how events could have turned out differently.

68 Hours of Hunger

I’ve written about a variety of topics on this blog, but the majority of my posts address foreign affairs and strategic issues.  While these topics are my passion, they can often be rather abstract, talking about consequences in terms of sovereign states, global institutions, international relations theory, and so on.  When individuals are mentioned, it’s usually in the form of significant leaders. The citizenry, in whose name foreign affairs is practiced, is oddly enough, often absent from the discussion.  It’s implied that the benefits of a sound foreign policy will trickle down to them, but rarely is it ever stated directly. Given this characteristic of foreign affairs, it’s important to be reminded every now and then that we do all of this to help people.  That at the end of the day, the measure of success should be, by and large, whether people’s lives have improved or not.

I mention all of this because we had a family reunion two days ago and I had the pleasure of talking with one of my cousins and her wife about an amazing charity they run in their hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire called End 68 Hours of Hunger. The purpose of the charity is simple: to end the 68 hours of hunger “that some school children experience between the free lunch they receive in school on Friday afternoon and the free breakfast they receive in school on Monday morning.”  That’s right – even in the richest country in the world there are still kids who go hungry on the weekends.  I had no idea this was a problem until my cousin Sandy and her wife Lisa opened a branch of this charity several years ago.  Since then, they have expanded to provide food for over 150 kids during weekends throughout the school year. Nationwide, the charity now feeds thousands of kids every year.  It’s truly an amazing program and one that makes a direct and tangible improvement in people’s lives.

I’m writing about this not to brag – although I am incredibly proud of Sandy and Lisa – but because talking to them reminded me to think about people, rather than nation states, and how we can help them.  It was also a reminder about priorities.  Can we truly say we budget our money well as a nation if kids are going hungry all over the country? Both morally and practically I think the answer is pretty obvious.  If government success was actually measured by improvement in people’s lives, charities like End 68 Hours of Hunger wouldn’t exist, because there’d be no need for private individuals to fill such a gaping hole in our social safety system.  Which is why a reminder about helping people is necessary every now and then, especially for those of us who prefer the abstract world of foreign affairs.

Published on Small Wars Journal

I’m currently taking a course on special operations and unconventional warfare taught by David Maxwell, a retired Colonel with 30 years of experience in Army special forces.  We recently received our first assignment back and Professor Maxwell encouraged me to submit it for publication at Small Wars Journal.  Thanks to his support it was posted to their site today and I’m proud to share it with you all.  The link can be found here.  I hope you enjoy it.



Our strategy for ISIS is meant to fail, and that’s OK

What do you do when you face a problem and must respond, but the response necessary to fix the problem is unacceptable to you and those you lead?  This is the quandary facing the United States with regards to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The recent capture of Ramadi by ISIS has led to a renewed chorus of pessimism from skeptics of America’s strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group by partnering coalition air power with Iraqi and Kurdish forces.  While this approach has faced significant setbacks, the critics’ focus on the ebb and flow of the front lines is like missing the forest for the trees.  They are forgetting the purpose of strategy, which is to prioritize and then align ends, ways, and means.  Despite the president’s rhetoric to the contrary, the simple fact of the matter is that America’s strategy to combat ISIS is a red herring: it was never designed for success, and that’s OK.

The main problem with the critics’ analyses stems from their tendency to treat the destruction of ISIS as an isolated end goal of American policy in the Middle East.  Instead of seeing ISIS’s defeat as the end goal, US policymakers must ask how ISIS’s destruction will serve broader strategic goals. For many analysts this poses a challenge because it means they have to actually define what US interests are not only in the Middle East but in general.  It’s a lot easier to simply advocate for a series of actions – crush ISIS, remove Assad, support the Kurds – than to ask the more difficult followup question of “why?” The result is a foreign policy driven by slogans and the latest fad rather than critical thinking.

The discord between the Administration’s strategy and many critics, therefore, is due almost solely to the fact that President Obama has asked the difficult question of why. What are US interests in the region and how does destroying ISIS support them?  Based on Obama’s words and actions, it’s obvious he has defined US interests in rather limited terms, such as: preserve the flow of oil, prevent terrorist safe havens, and reach a nuclear deal with Iran.

ISIS poses a threat in all of these areas, which is why the US had to respond in some manner, but the group is in no way enough of a threat that it justifies the effort it would take to truly destroy it. In this instance, the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates still hold true: anyone who “advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’.” Yet that is exactly what it would take to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in the near term, baring a miracle reinvention of Iraqi ground forces.

It’s hard to justify the deployment of a large American army overseas without an existential threat for it to fight, which is why the critics themselves have largely avoided advocating for such a position. Instead, they have offered tweaks to the current strategy, such as deploying more spies, increasing the number and intensity of air strikes, and entering into a quasi pact with Iran. It is unlikely these measures would have the desired effect.  In late 2014 the CIA estimated ISIS has roughly 30,000 fighting members governing a swath of territory the size of Great Britain.  However, as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross reported in War on the Rocks in February 2015, this estimate is probably far too low, with a total closer to 100,000 being far more realistic.

Given the size of its security forces and the territory it controls, not to mention the difficulty of operating in the failed states of Iraq and Syria, the alternatives proposed by the critics are equally divorced from reality.  Faced with such poor options, it’s not a surprise the Obama administration settled on its current strategy.  Yet this still doesn’t explain why the administration has said one thing and done another.  Why say your strategy is to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS but then not take the necessary action to do so?

As a global power, the US has to weigh the opportunity costs of action not just in terms of domestic programs but also in terms of other international priorities. At a moment when China and Russia are increasingly testing US resolve in countless geographic and functional areas, Washington simply cannot afford to get sucked into another expensive Middle Eastern adventure. Yet, because the US is the underwriter of global security, and because it has many interests at play in the region, the United States had to be seen acting in a bold and decisive manner.  America’s allies in the Middle East would not tolerate anything less than the destruction of ISIS as the goal of any US action taken to counter the group.  Likewise, domestic political pressure in response to the beheading of James Foley and pressure from allies to help stem the flow of foreign fighters rushing to join ISIS all contributed to the imperative to do something.  And of course, there’s the simple fact that ISIS is indeed a threat to US interests in the region and deserves some kind of response.

The problem is that this imperative ranks lower than the other priorities of the Obama administration, namely to preserve US strength for confronting the far more pressing and significant threats from Russia and China.  As such, the strategy chosen by the administration actually reflects a well-defined list of strategic priorities and an admirable balance between ends, ways, and means.  When one compares the president’s rhetoric and actions on ISIS, it appears as if the strategy is failing.  And in a sense, it is.  But this dichotomy is purposeful and reflects a broader understanding of not only ISIS’s place in U.S. strategy for the Middle East but an even broader vision for how the Middle East should fit into a U.S. grand strategy.  President Obama’s strategy for dealing with ISIS was designed for failure, and that’s OK.


The U.S. is actually quite good at fighting insurgencies

The failure to achieve strategic victories in Afghanistan and Iraq has reinforced the idea that the United States is bad at fighting insurgencies.  Much of the criticism of U.S. policy in both conflicts is warranted.  Policymakers failed to do sufficient post-conflict planning. The military took too long to switch to a counterinsurgency strategy.  Bush administration legal policy – particularly the support for torture – provided fuel for the insurgency. Moreover, the public remained disengaged from the wars throughout their duration, making it difficult for the nation to commit the resources necessary to win.

These failures, however, obscure the fact that the U.S. is actually quite good at fighting insurgencies – when it wants to.  The idea that counterinsurgency is not compatible with an “American way of war” is simply untrue. The most prominent example of this is the Cold War.  The United States’ struggle against the Soviet Union represents nothing but a global counterinsurgency operation.  As George Kennan so famously outlined in his “Long Telegram” and in his “X” article in Foreign Affairs, the Soviet Union saw itself as locked in a global, zero-sum struggle with the capitalist world.  Peaceful coexistence was not an option.  As such, Soviet foreign policy was focused, inter alia, on subverting capitalist governments, recruiting neutral states to its cause, undermining Western cohesion, delegitimizing the Western international system and capitalism in general, and of course, overtly expanding its power and influence where possible.  In short, the challenge to Western capitalist power was comprehensive and unending.

This challenge was equivalent to an insurgency against the historical dominance of Western capitalist states in modern world affairs.  This is apparent in many of the strategic difficulties associated with countering the threat.  For example, Kennan noted that “the Kremlin is under no ideological compulsion to accomplish its purposes in a hurry” because it believed “it is dealing in ideological concepts which are of long-term validity, and it can afford to be patient.” Therefore, confident in its purpose as the challenger to the status quo, as long as the USSR wasn’t losing, it was winning. This meant it could choose the time and place of its attacks on the capitalist system.  On the flip side, as the defender of the status quo, the United States faced the frustrating problem of choosing between concentration and dispersion. Washington could deploy the majority of its resources to secure selected high-profile areas at the risk of leaving other areas vulnerable or it could try and defend everything but risk not being strong enough in any one place to resist Soviet aggression.  Moreover, because of nuclear weapons, defeating the USSR through force of arms was not a realistic option; the U.S. could not kill its way out of this problem.  Instead, victory could only be achieved by convincing people both inside and outside the USSR that communism was a dead end.

U.S. policy ultimately reflected the demands of these strategic necessities.  In fact, U.S. policy throughout the Cold War, while hardly static, consistently satisfied Sir Robert Thompson’s Five Principles of Counterinsurgency:

  1. The government must have a clear political aim: to establish and maintain a free, independent and united country which is politically and economically stable and viable.
  2. The government must function in accordance with the law.
  3. The government must have an overall plan.
  4. The government must give priority to defeating the political subversion, not the guerrillas.
  5. In the guerrilla phase of an insurgency, a government must secure its base areas first.

Washington’s Cold War strategy met every single one of these requirements. It had a clear political aim, it functioned in accordance with international law and through the rule-based international system it established, it had an overall plan (containment), it kept the conflict mostly cold rather than hot, and it prioritized Western Europe’s security.

Washington also successfully confronted the problem of choosing between concentration and dispersion. According to the noted Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, American policymakers, while committed to the policy of containment, oscillated between what he called “asymmetrical” and “symmetrical” versions of the strategy. He concluded that:

Certain postwar administrations (Truman’s before 1950, Eisenhower’s, Nixon’s and Ford’s) had sought to compete with the Soviet Union at times, in places, and in manners of their own choosing, even if this meant leaving some arenas uncontested while escalating the conflict in others; while other administrations (Truman’s after 1950, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s) had sought to compete wherever a challenge existed, without leaving any arena uncontested but also without expanding the conflict into others.

While these strategies were successful in balancing Soviet power and aggression, they failed to ultimately end the Cold War. It was Ronald Reagan who found a final solution to the Soviet challenge by combining the best of both approaches and focusing on changing minds inside the Kremlin. As Gaddis notes:

Reagan’s objective was straightforward, if daunting: to prepare the way for a new kind of Soviet leader by straining the old Soviet system to the breaking point. Kennan, Nitze, and other early strategists of containment had always held out the possibility that a Soviet leader might someday acknowledge the failures of Marxism-Leninism and the futility of Russian imperialism – the two foundations upon which the Soviet state had been constructed.

While Reagan’s policy of rollback and his decision to increase defense spending were key to fusing the symmetrical and asymmetrical approaches to containment, his true innovation came in calibrating his foreign policy around its psychological impact. Reagan knew he couldn’t kill or fight his way out of the Cold War, so he placed “the Soviet leader in the center of the picture” and embraced a policy of winning minds; he focused on defeating the source of the political subversion rather than its warriors. The result was the emergence of Gorbachev and a group of like-minded reformers inside the USSR. The rest is history.

Taken together, the Cold War represents four decades of successful US-led global counterinsurgency operations against Soviet revisionism. While recent failures such as Iraq and Afghanistan have called America’s COIN capabilities into question, the reality is Washington has the ability to effectively execute counterinsurgency strategy, as history so powerfully shows.  It follows, then, that there’s nothing inevitable about the U.S. losing against insurgencies.  It simply needs to follow Sir Thompson’s Five Principles and harness the willpower to stay the course. Such lessons are important to keep in mind not only for the next theater-focused counterinsurgency operation but also as Washington struggles to respond to China’s growing power and assertiveness in the decades to come.


All Gaddis quotes taken from his speech “Strategies of Containment: Post-Cold War Reconsiderations,” presented at George Washington University on April 15th, 2004.

Sir Robert Thompson’s Five Principles of Counterinsurgency taken from Chapter 2 of John Nagl’s book “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife” (pg. 29 to be exact).

I’ve Been Published! (¡He sido publicado!)

Several months ago I took a break from blogging to pursue an interesting opportunity. Today, I can announce the results of this side project: an article of mine has been published in the Spanish edition of the Air and Space Power Journal, which is the official journal of the US Air Force.  The article discusses the possibility and benefits of the United States forming a closer, strategic relationship with Latin America in the coming decades. In particular, I use the example of the Anglo-American rapprochement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a guide for how common values and growing cultural ties can bring the two bodies together. From there, I examine how Latin America’s growing defense expenditures make it an attractive security partner for the United States.

The original article is published in Spanish (which you can find here if you prefer), but the journal has posted an English copy as well, which you can find here.

As always, thanks for reading.



Haz clic el enlace para una traducción en español.

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