Friday, January 23, 2009

Fun with Fox

Stratfor's Security Report

By Fred Burton and Ben West

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As Umar Israilov, a 27-year-old Chechen political refugee living in Vienna, Austria, returned home on foot after grocery shopping Jan. 13, he spotted two men standing outside his apartment building — one of whom had a gun. Upon spotting the men, Israilov dropped his groceries and fled down Leopoldauer Street in the Floridsdorf neighborhood of Vienna, dodging cars and pedestrians. But the gunman managed to wound Israilov, halting his flight. The two men then approached him in a side alley, where the armed man shot Israilov twice in the head, killing him.

One man has been detained in connection with the killing, which a Stratfor source alleges was carried out by organized criminal assets in Vienna at the behest of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and with Kremlin approval. Israilov was an outspoken critic of Kadyrov and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Because of this, Israilov had frequently expressed concerns for his safety and that of his family.

Before seeking asylum in Austria, Israilov fought during the Second Chechen War against Russian forces, which captured him in 2003. Afterward, he served as one of Kadyrov’s bodyguards, a position that gave him a front-row seat to the activities of Kadyrov, who at that time led the militia of his father, then-Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov. (Ramzan Kadyrov became Chechen president in 2007, three years after his father’s assassination.) Israilov and the younger Kadyrov had a falling-out in 2004, after which Israilov said his former boss tortured him using electric charges.

Israilov fled to the West shortly thereafter, first seeking asylum in Poland and later obtaining asylum in Austria. Once in Europe, he often spoke out against Ramzan Kadyrov, filing complaints about his alleged torture with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, and talking to reporters from The New York Times about his experiences. While allegations that Kadyrov and his associates committed torture were not new, Israilov’s former position in Kadyrov’s circle set him apart as a dissident — and marked him as a security risk to his former employers due to his firsthand knowledge of how Kadyrov operates. Israilov reportedly told police in Vienna that he felt threatened and asked for extra security.

Austria has long been a popular place for political asylum-seekers who are facing threats due to their political views; providing adequate protection for all of these dissidents is impossible. Israilov further endangered himself by maintaining a relatively high profile due to his court filings and conversations with journalists. (He might have sought publicity in a bid to support himself and his family financially.)

Chechnya, Russia and the Israilov Killing

According to Israilov’s father, in June 2008 a Chechen visited the younger Israilov, showing him a hit list of 300 Chechens who oppose Kadyrov. Ramzan Kadyrov is well-known for not tolerating detractors, allegedly having ordered the deaths of dissenters before. While spokesmen for Kadyrov have distanced the Chechen president from the Israilov killing, saying the latter did not pose a significant threat to Chechnya, Israilov’s killing could well have been intended as an example to other Chechen dissidents who felt safe abroad. While Chechen dissidents routinely die or disappear under murky circumstances in their country, this is the first time a vocal Chechen dissident has been slain abroad. The brazen nature of Israilov’s killing in particular suggests an effort to highlight the vulnerability of exiled Chechen dissidents.

According to Stratfor sources, agents were not sent from Chechnya to carry out this operation. After getting permission from Moscow for the Israilov killing — Russia keeps a tight grip on Chechnya, so Moscow would interpret a unilateral assassination abroad as subversive — Kadyrov allegedly mobilized organized criminals in Austria to carry out the deed. While it is not clear exactly which organized criminal faction carried out the killing, the man detained in connection with the killing was a Chechen who has lived in Austria for several years under the name Otto Kaltenbrunner. While he has not been charged with anything, the getaway car was registered in his name — suggesting the involvement of Chechen organized crime, which has a strong presence in Russia and Europe as well as in the Caucasus.

As major fighting in the Second Chechen War wound down from 2005 to 2007, many of the militants who had fought the Russians disbanded and fled the country. These soldiers, highly trained and accustomed to using violence to get their way, had limited options beyond putting their skills to use with the various Chechen organized criminal factions that thrived in postwar Chechnya. Chechen gangs are prized for their high level of training and brutality, abilities that have proved very valuable to criminal groups in Russia, the Caucasus and Europe.

The high degree of professionalism in the Israilov killing tends to support the existence of a Chechen organized criminal angle. This professionalism includes the audacity of Israilov’s killers, who attacked in broad daylight on a busy street. It also includes their ability to kill Israilov (himself a militant trained under Kadyrov) without any significant struggle or collateral damage. Moreover, at least a low level of surveillance must have been carried out on Israilov’s residence to confirm that he lived there and to establish his schedule so the attackers could wait for him.

The Chechen leadership has a relationship with Chechen organized crime because of the military and security service background of many Chechen criminals, and because Kadyrov led these militias during the Russo-Chechen wars of the 1990s. Such a relationship could be called on in commissioning a killing in Vienna.

Using hired guns from Austria would allow any foreign entity that ordered the killing to distance itself from the crime. Even if Austrian police managed to track down and initiate a prosecution of those who carried out the killing, arranging the extraditions of suspects from Russia would be virtually impossible without Moscow’s cooperation. Russia has not cooperated with British authorities investigating the killing of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, for example, and the investigation has turned into a political skirmish in an already-tense relationship between the two countries. Attempting to pursue the Israilov case with Russia probably would bring a similar outcome for Austria: inconclusive findings and weakened relations with a Russia that is asserting itself much more than it did in 2006.

Suspicions of Moscow’s involvement in the assassinations of Russian dissidents by various means have become common in the past three years. Russian organized criminal groups, as well as the Russian domestic security and intelligence service, the FSB, are the most likely culprits behind the increase in high-profile assassinations of Russian dissidents over the last few years. Many of the assassinations have been connected to the issue of Chechnya and alleged human rights abuses there.

The Chechen wars are a sensitive issue for both Russians and Chechens. Those who stir up tales of past offenses by either side are seen as undermining the stability in Chechnya that has come about because of the ongoing alliance between Putin and Kadyrov. The suspicious deaths of individuals (followed by their date of death) who fall into this category include:

· Anna Politkovskaya, October 2006. A prominent journalist and critic of the Kremlin, Politkovskaya was in the process of publishing a series condemning the government’s policy in Chechnya. She was shot in the head in her apartment building.

· Alexander Litvinenko, November 2006. Litvinenko was a former KGB agent who had defected to the United Kingdom and published books on the internal workings of Putin’s FSB networks, and he was critical of the new Russian state. He was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210.

· Ivan Safronov, March 2007. Safronov was a journalist who criticized the state of the Russian military and was accused of leaking military affairs to foreign parties. He allegedly committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of his apartment building, though some reports say a person behind him forced him out of the building.

· Oleg Zhukovsky, December 2007. Zhukovsky was an executive of the VTB bank, which at the time of his death was being taken over by the state so the Kremlin could handpick its senior officers to oversee many strategic state accounts. Zhukovsky allegedly performed the feat of committing suicide by being tied to a chair and thrown into his swimming pool, where he drowned.

· Arkady Patarkatsishvili, February 2008. A wealthy Georgian-Russian businessman, Patarkatsishvili was extensively involved in Georgian politics. Patarkatsishvili died in the United Kingdom of coronary complications that resembled a heart attack. His family and many in Georgia have accused the FSB of involvement, however, saying the FSB has many untraceable poisons at its disposal.

· Leonid Rozhetskin, March 2008. Rozhetskin was an international financier and lawyer who held stakes in strategic companies, like mobile phone giant MegaFon. He disappeared while in Latvia after losing Kremlin backing by selling his assets to multiple parties, including some government ministers who are former FSB agents.

· Paul Klebnikov, July 2008. The editor of Forbes’ Russian edition, Klebnikov was shot dead in Moscow as he was heading into a subway station. The driver of a stolen car that pulled out of a parking lot and drove toward Klebnikov fired four shots before fleeing the scene.

· Ruslan Yamadayev, September 2008. Yamadayev was a Chechen military leader and former member of the State Duma. He was shot in his Mercedes as it was stopped at a red light near the Kremlin in Moscow.

· Stanislav Markelov, January 2009. A prominent Russian lawyer who had prosecuted an army colonel convicted of murdering a Chechen woman, Markelov was shot dead along with a journalist in broad daylight on a Moscow street near the Kremlin. He was also involved in the case of Anna Politkovskaya.

Vienna, City of International Intrigue

Vienna has long been a key battleground for international disputes between competing countries’ security and intelligence operatives. No stranger to international intrigue and attacks, the Austrian capital has had a reputation for assassination plots, intelligence gathering and foreign operatives conducting missions against dissidents who thought they were safe living in a Western city in an otherwise peaceful country.

In one example of this tradition, Iranian agents linked to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security shot and killed three members of a Kurdish delegation conducting negotiations with the Iranian leadership in 1989. Similarly, many cases of espionage between the United States and the Soviet Union unfolded in Vienna, including the cases of Marine Sgt. Clayton Lonetree and Felix Block, who passed information to the Soviets when he was second-in-command at the U.S. Embassy in Vienna. The Israilov case is thus probably only the latest in a long tradition of foreign intrigue.

Austria’s central location between the former Warsaw Pact countries of Czechoslovakia and Hungary and NATO countries of Italy and West Germany, along with Vienna’s official neutrality, made Austria a natural Cold War battleground. The Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States all focused intelligence-gathering capabilities there. And as Cold War battle lines are redrawn with Russia’s resurgence, the significance of places like Vienna re-emerges. Considering that these activities only began to slacken less than 20 years ago, old intelligence networks could be put into operation again with relative ease.

The blurring of the line between Russian intelligence agents and organized crime that occurred during the 1990s means that Russia still has a considerable network around the world, though now, elements of this network also are engaged in criminal activities. This network must be considered when looking at cases like that of Israilov.

Significantly, Austria is home to the largest Chechen refugee population in Europe. An estimated 20,000 Chechens — not all of them legal residents — live in the Central European country; many of them fled the bloody Chechen wars with Russia. In general, ethnic organized criminal outfits flourish among immigrants or refugee populations because they can offer illegal immigrants services that they cannot get from the state. They also flourish there because they can use the immigrant community to operate with more secrecy. This is because many immigrant communities live apart from the indigenous population, often in separate neighborhoods, speak a different language and generally stick together in opposition to their host country’s police services. Additionally, family bonds (intensified when around strangers) strengthen ties within immigrant communities, allowing for the kind of secrecy that lets organized crime thrive.

The establishment of a strong Chechen presence in Austria, along with a pre-existing Russian presence, means that Chechnya and Russia have a long reach in the country. Considering the organized crime-FSB nexus, the increase in politically motivated murders of Russian dissidents and how Moscow most likely was pleased with Israilov’s demise, Russian assets in Vienna could well have been involved in the murder. While Russia is broadly suspected of killing dissidents abroad in recent years, Chechnya is not known to have carried out attacks in the European Union before — meaning the Israilov killing will send chills down the spines of exiled Chechen dissidents.

This report may be forwarded or republished on your website with attribution to

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Sopranos - Season 4

I got through the last 2 episodes on Monday. As I usually mention every time I post about this, I still don't get the hype. I will say, however, that I do gather more appreciation for the series listening to the commentaries that accompany some of the episodes. The best are when David Chase, the creator of the series, does them. Not only does he give you trivia about where scenes are filmed, how they are filmed, who the extras in certain scenes are, he seems to give more insight into the what the characters are thinking, which is sometimes difficult for the normal viewer when they are speaking in their "coded" speak. He said a couple of interesting things in the final episode - that there were lots of complaints about the finale because not enough people got killed. As death or killings make a good cliffhanger. He also said you had to look at the first 4 seasons in very broad terms in relation to Tony. That in general they were about Tony the son (Season 1), Tony the brother (Season 2), Tony the child (Season 3) and Tony the father (Season 4). In reflection, that made a lot of sense, but perhaps I have the advantage since I'm able to watch them differently than someone who had to wait months between seasons.

The other thing he mentioned that I found interesting was the effort they went through to make Tony likable and a "hero", while at the same time knowing they had to keep showing him as the sociopathic mobster he is. That they had a very fine line to walk in that regard, because the hero in any tv series or movie has to be likable or someone you care about, even if they do horrible things and/or are a horrible (in certain aspects) person.

The one thing that stood out for me in Season 4 was what, so far at least, is the funniest scene of the entire series. I watched it several times and each time, I was laughing so hard I was crying. It occurs in the episode entitled, "The Strong, Silent Type" and is an intervention for Tony's nephew who has a heroin addiction. Just the thought of super-macho, emotional Italian mobster's trying to be"non-judgemental" in regards to anything makes me laugh - to put them in a situation like that, was just brilliant.

Only 2 more season's to go - I'm in the home stretch.

New supply line deal reached

Appears President Obama solved one of his crises even before taking office. From Yahoo/AP:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Russia and neighboring Central Asian nations have agreed to let supplies pass through their territory to American soldiers in Afghanistan, lessening Washington's dependence on dangerous routes through Pakistan, a top U.S. commander said Tuesday.


Today is the 48th anniversary of the luckiest day of my life. 49 years ago my mother got the phone call, “Congratulations, Betsy, you have a son.” Obviously, the adoption procedures were long since finalized. Dad and a neighbor (who was also my mom’s physician) were on the way to the hospital to pick me up, with Mom and her mother waiting at home.

Mom paced around the house while her mom tried to reduce expectations by reminding her that some infants are plain ugly and red. Mom continued to pace and could only think one thing, “I’m a new mother. I need to be clean. I need to be clean.”

So she went to the bathroom to take a shower. It was only after the water was rushing over her did she realize she was fully clothed.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Fox News has started already

According to one of their talking heads, Obama isn't President because of the botched oath (Justice Roberts fault, btw. Why did he go without notes for THIS of all oaths??). THAT didn't take long, did it?

This is interesting because ABC (the network I watched) had a discussion about when does the President become President about 30 minutes before the oath ceremony. What prompted this discussion was the fact that the inauguration was running 45 minutes or so behind schedule. According to the Constitutional scholars quoted by ABC, the President-elect becomes President at noon on January 20th, whether or not the oath has actually been taken by then.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Inauguration

As the rather lonely right-wing nutcase of my office, I must say the mood here is something else. Free ‘que in the kitchen in 20 minutes for those who want to watch there. I don’t remember getting a free lunch for the Reagan funeral.

This is an email making its rounds today:

Last Official Act as President

In what he hoped would be the capstone to his eight years as President, George W. Bush today signed an executive order repealing the English language.

Scrawling his name on the official document, Mr. Bush said that in abolishing English he had vanquished his "greaterest enemy."

For Mr. Bush, the executive order represents the realization of a longstanding dream that began in 2001 when he declared an official War on Grammar.

The President followed up that declaration of war in 2003 when he signed an executive order cancelling the agreement between nouns and verbs.

Mr. Bush's decision to repeal the English language could complicate matters for his successor, President-elect Barack Obama, who is scheduled to deliver his inaugural address tomorrow, presumably in English.

But thoughts of Mr. Obama seemed far away during today's jubilant Oval Office ceremony, which Mr. Bush summed up in four words: "I can has legacy."

Mr. Bush's executive order also drew high praise from a fellow Republican, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska: "Being that the English language can and has been used in confusing and also too in harming ordinary Americans, knowing that it no longer can or will be used in doing that is something positive that this is doing also."

From the today in history gadget over there on the right...

28 years ago, minutes after RR was sworn in, the hostages of Iran were released.

Up at dawn for the dawning of a new era in our country's history

Not sure I can even grasp what the events of today truly represent. But I'm sure the networks will try their best to explain it to me. I tried watching CNN yesterday and I could only make it about 20 minutes. It was too over-the-top and too much. And today will only be worse. Whatever coverage of the events today that I will watch I'll do via C-SPAN.

Stratfor's Enter President Obama

Because they let me:

By George Friedman

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in on Tuesday as president of the United States. Candidate Obama said much about what he would do as president; now we will see what President Obama actually does. The most important issue Obama will face will be the economy, something he did not anticipate through most of his campaign. The first hundred days of his presidency thus will revolve around getting a stimulus package passed. But Obama also is now in the great game of global competition — and in that game, presidents rarely get to set the agenda.

The major challenge he faces is not Gaza; the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not one any U.S. president intervenes in unless he wants to experience pain. As we have explained, that is an intractable conflict to which there is no real solution. Certainly, Obama will fight being drawn into mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his first hundred days in office. He undoubtedly will send the obligatory Middle East envoy, who will spend time with all the parties, make suitable speeches and extract meaningless concessions from all sides. This envoy will establish some sort of process to which everyone will cynically commit, knowing it will go nowhere. Such a mission is not involvement — it is the alternative to involvement, and the reason presidents appoint Middle East envoys. Obama can avoid the Gaza crisis, and he will do so.

Obama’s Two Unavoidable Crises

The two crises that cannot be avoided are Afghanistan and Russia. First, the situation in Afghanistan is tenuous for a number of reasons, and it is not a crisis that Obama can avoid decisions on. Obama has said publicly that he will decrease his commitments in Iraq and increase them in Afghanistan. He thus will have more troops fighting in Afghanistan. The second crisis emerged from a decision by Russia to cut off natural gas to Ukraine, and the resulting decline in natural gas deliveries to Europe. This one obviously does not affect the United States directly, but even after flows are restored, it affects the Europeans greatly. Obama therefo re comes into office with three interlocking issues: Afghanistan, Russia and Europe. In one sense, this is a single issue — and it is not one that will wait.

Obama clearly intends to follow Gen. David Petraeus’ lead in Afghanistan. The intention is to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, thereby intensifying pressure on the Taliban and opening the door for negotiations with the militant group or one of its factions. Ultimately, this would see the inclusion of the Taliban or Taliban elements in a coalition government. Petraeus pursued this strategy in Iraq with Sunni insurgents, and it is the likely strategy in Afghanistan.

But the situation in Afghanistan has been complicated by the situation in Pakistan. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. and NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan are delivered to the Pakistani port of Karachi and trucked over the border to Afghanistan. Most fuel used by Western forces in Afghanistan is refined in Pakistan and delivered via the same route. There are two crossing points, one near Afghanistan’s Kandahar province at Chaman, Pakistan, and the other through the Khyber Pass. The Taliban have attacked Western supply depots and convoys, and Pakistan itself closed the routes for several days, citing government operations a gainst radical Islamist forces.

Meanwhile, the situation in Pakistan has been complicated by tensions with India. The Indians have said that the individuals who carried out the Nov. 26 Mumbai attack were Pakistanis supported by elements in the Pakistani government. After Mumbai, India made demands of the Pakistanis. While the situation appears to have calmed, the future of Indo-Pakistani relations remains far from clear; anything from a change of policy in New Delhi to new terrorist attacks could see the situation escalate. The Pakistanis have made it clear that a heightened threat from India requires them to shift troops away from the Afghan border and toward the east; a small number of troops already has been shifted.

Apart from the direct impact this kind of Pakistani troop withdrawal would have on cross-border operations by the Taliban, such a move also would dramatically increase the vulnerability of NATO supply lines through Pakistan. Some supplies could be shipped in by aircraft, but the vast bulk of supplies — petroleum, ammunition, etc. — must come in via surface transit, either by truck, rail or ship. Western operations in Afghanistan simply cannot be supplied from the air alone. A cutoff of the supply lines across Pakistan would thus leave U.S. troops in Afghanistan in crisis. Because Washington can’t predict or control the future actions of Pakistan, of India or of terrorists, the United States must find an alternative to the routes through Pakistan.

When we look at a map, the two routes through Pakistan from Karachi are clearly the most logical to use. If those were closed — or even meaningfully degraded — the only other viable routes would be through the former Soviet Union.

  • One route, along which a light load of fuel is currently transported, crosses the Caspian Sea. Fuel refined in Armenia is ferried across the Caspian to Turkmenistan (where a small amount of fuel is also refined), then shipped across Turkmenistan directly to Afghanistan and through a small spit of land in Uzbekistan. This route could be expanded to reach either the Black Sea through Georgia or the Mediterranean through Georgia and Turkey (though the additional use of Turkey would require a rail gauge switch). It is also not clear that transports native to the Caspian have sufficient capacity for this.
  • Another route sidesteps the issues of both transport across the Caspian and the sensitivity of Georgia by crossing Russian territory above the Caspian. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (and likely at least a small corner of Turkmenistan) would connect the route to Afghanistan. There are options of connecting to the Black Sea or transiting to Europe through either Ukraine or Belarus.
  • Iran could provide a potential alternative, but relations between Tehran and Washington would have to improve dramatically before such discussions could even begin — and time is short.

Many of the details still need to be worked out. But they are largely variations on the two main themes of either crossing the Caspian or transiting Russian territory above it.

Though the first route is already partially established for fuel, it is not clear how much additional capacity exists. To complicate matters further, Turkmen acquiescence is unlikely without Russian authorization, and Armenia remains strongly loyal to Moscow as well. While the current Georgian government might leap at the chance, the issue is obviously an extremely sensitive one for Moscow. (And with Russian forces positioned in Azerbaijan and the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow has troops looming over both sides of the vulnerable route across Georgia.) The second option would require crossing Russian territory itself, with a number of options — from connecting to the Black Sea to transiting either Ukraine or Belarus to Europe, or connecting to the Baltic states.

Both routes involve countries of importance to Russia where Moscow has influence, regardless of whether those countries are friendly to it. This would give Russia ample opportunity to scuttle any such supply line at multiple points for reasons wholly unrelated to Afghanistan.

If the West were to opt for the first route, the Russians almost certainly would pressure Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan not to cooperate, and Turkey would find itself in a position it doesn’t want to be in — namely, caught between the United States and Russia. The diplomatic complexities of developing these routes not only involve the individual countries included, they also inevitably lead to the question of U.S.-Russian relations.

Even without crossing Russia, both of these two main options require Russian cooperation. The United States must develop the option of an alternative supply route to Pakistan, and in doing so, it must define its relationship with Russia. Seeking to work without Russian approval of a route crossing its “near abroad” will represent a challenge to Russia. But getting Russian approval will require a U.S. accommodation with the country.

The Russian Natural Gas Connection

One of Obama’s core arguments against the Bush administration was that it acted unilaterally rather than with allies. Specifically, Obama meant that the Bush administration alienated the Europeans, therefore failing to build a sustainable coalition for the war. By this logic, it follows that one of Obama’s first steps should be to reach out to Europe to help influence or pressure the Russians, given that NATO has troops in Afghanistan and Obama has said he intends to ask the Europeans for more help there.

The problem with this is that the Europeans are passing through a serious crisis with Russia, and that Germany in particular is involved in trying to manage that crisis. This problem relates to natural gas. Ukraine is dependent on Russia for about two-thirds of the natural gas it uses. The Russians traditionally have provided natural gas at a deep discount to former Soviet republics, primarily those countries Russia sees as allies, such as Belarus or Armenia. Ukraine had received discounted natural gas, too, until the 2004 Orange Revolution, when a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev. At that point, the Russians began demanding full payment. Given the subsequent rises in global energy prices, that left Ukraine in a terrible situation — which of course is exactly where Moscow wanted it.

The Russians cut off natural gas to Ukraine for a short period in January 2006, and for three weeks in 2009. Apart from leaving Ukraine desperate, the cutoff immediately affected the rest of Europe, because the natural gas that goes to Europe flows through Ukraine. This put the rest of Europe in a dangerous position, particularly in the face of bitterly cold weather in 2008-2009.

The Russians achieved several goals with this. First, they pressured Ukraine directly. Second, they forced many European states to deal with Moscow directly rather than through the European Union. Third, they created a situation in which European countries had to choose between supporting Ukraine and heating their own homes. And last, they drew Berlin in particular — since Germany is the most dependent of the major European states on Russian natural gas — into the position of working with the Russians to get Ukraine to agree to their terms. (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Germany last week to discuss this directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)

The Germans already have made clear their opposition to expanding NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. Given their dependency on the Russians, the Germans are not going to be supporting the United States if Washington decides to challenge Russia over the supply route issue. In fact, the Germans — and many of the Europeans — are in no position to challenge Russia on anything, least of all on Afghanistan. Overall, the Europeans see themselves as having limited interests in the Afghan war, and many already are planning to reduce or withdraw troops for budgetary reasons.

It is therefore very difficult to see Obama recruiting the Europeans in any useful manner for a confrontation with Russia over access for American supplies to Afghanistan. Yet this is an issue he will have to address immediately.

The Price of Russian Cooperation

The Russians are prepared to help the Americans, however — and it is clear what they will want in return.

At minimum, Moscow will want a declaration that Washington will not press for the expansion of NATO to Georgia or Ukraine, or for the deployment of military forces in non-NATO states on the Russian periphery — specifically, Ukraine and Georgia. At this point, such a declaration would be symbolic, since Germany and other European countries would block expansion anyway.

The Russians might also demand some sort of guarantee that NATO and the United States not place any large military formations or build any major military facilities in the former Soviet republics (now NATO member states) of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (A small rotating squadron of NATO fighters already patrols the skies over the Baltic states.) Given that there were intense anti-government riots in Latvia and Lithuania last week, the stability of these countries is in question. The Russians would certainly want to topple the pro-Western Baltic governments. And anything approaching a formal agreement between Russia and the United States on the matter could quickly destabilize the Baltics, in addition to very much weakening the NATO alliance.

Another demand the Russians probably will make — because they have in the past — is that the United States guarantee eventual withdrawal from any bases in Central Asia in return for Russian support for using those bases for the current Afghan campaign. (At present, the United States runs air logistics operations out of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.) The Russians do not want to see Central Asia become a U.S. sphere of influence as the result of an American military presence.

Other demands might relate to the proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland.

We expect the Russians to make variations on all these demands in exchange for cooperation in creating a supply line to Afghanistan. Simply put, the Russians will demand that the United States acknowledge a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. The Americans will not want to concede this — or at least will want to make it implicit rather than explicit. But the Russians will want this explicit, because an explicit guarantee will create a crisis of confidence over U.S. guarantees in the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, serving as a lever to draw these countries into the Russian orbit. U.S. acquiescence on the point potentially would have ripple effects in the rest of Europe, too.

Therefore, regardless of the global financial crisis, Obama has an immediate problem on his hands in Afghanistan. He has troops fighting there, and they must be supplied. The Pakistani supply line is no longer a sure thing. The only other options either directly challenge Russia (and ineffectively at that) or require Russian help. Russia’s price will be high, particularly because Washington’s European allies will not back a challenge to Russia in Georgia, and all options require Russian cooperation anyway. Obama’s plan to recruit the Europeans on behalf of American initiatives won’t work in this case. Obama does not want to start his administration with making a massive concession to Russia, but he cannot afford to leave U.S. forces in Afghanistan without supplies. He can hope that nothing happens in Pakistan, but that is up to the Taliban and other Islamist groups more than anyone else — and betting on their goodwill is not a good idea.

Whatever Obama is planning to do, he will have to deal with this problem fast, before Afghanistan becomes a crisis. And there are no good solutions. But unlike with the Israelis and Palestinians, Obama can’t solve this by sending a special envoy who appears to be doing something. He will have to make a very tough decision. Between the economy and this crisis, we will find out what kind of president Obama is.

And we will find out very soon.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I've been sucked onto Facebook by a childhood friend. It's like being at a whole-life reunion while sitting in your sweats in your living room.