Our Fearless Freelancers

by Jonah Shepp

Among the many pieces written in memory of Steven Sotloff since the news of his death broke on Monday, a few of them struck a particular chord with me, touching on the dangerous, precarious, but potentially greatly rewarding life of a freelance war correspondent: a job in which many young journalists cut their teeth and often make their careers. Michael Totten, who corresponded with Sotloff but never met him in person, remarks that he was “a hell of a lot braver than I am”:

I have not for even a second considered going to Syria during this conflict, and I doubt I’d be willing to go there even a couple of years from now if the conflict were to miraculously end later today. When he lived in Benghazi and everyone was heading for the exits, he told me—and I believed him—that Benghazi was the same old Benghazi, by which he meant mostly fine aside from some unfortunate incidents. Dangerous places are often, though not always, less dangerous than they appear in the media. At least they appear that way. Maybe that’s just a trick of the mind.

Joe Klein didn’t know Sotloff at all, but praises his ilk of freelancers:

I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride. But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news.

Recalling her time as a stringer in Moscow, Julia Ioffe wrestles with the question of why young journalists take these risks:

[I]f we’re honest with ourselves, we journalists are not just doing it to inform the reader. We’re also taking these risks for ourselves, making the calculation that, stringing and freelancing in places where papers and magazines are either too scared or too cheap to send permanent correspondents, going to iffy places and often for a pittance, someone will notice our labors and reward us with more work, and maybe even a job. It is a bright and risky way to launch a career. It’s also a way to discover that, even if it’s hard to break in, if this is what journalism is, you don’t want to do anything else for the rest of your life. … But the gambit never paid off for Sotloff. His beheading will be, for most anyone who hears his name, the sum total of his career. That is so immensely crushing and disappointing. It’s also, for us journalists, a reminder of the gambit’s downside, the shortness and slipperiness of the future, and the utter fragility of our plans.

I came into journalism through a side door, never having intended to enter the profession until a job as an sub-editor at The Jordan Times simply fell into my lap, mainly by dint of my ability to write in English. I did a little reporting, but nothing very substantial. What I liked about the job was getting to know the country through what my colleagues reported, as well as what our stories left out, which came to me in editorial meetings and cigarette breaks with the reporters. Friends advised me to do what my colleague Taylor Luck later managed to do and offer myself as a stringer to American newspapers. I e-mailed a high school friend who works at the WaPo to find out how to do that, but never followed through with the editor she referred me to.

The reason, to be perfectly honest, is that I never really had the disposition of a reporter. I love the news, but digging it up requires a certain fearlessness that I never really had. And I certainly could never hack it as the sort of reporter who travels to a war zone: I just don’t have the guts. I could never, like Nir Rosen once did, disguise myself as a member of the Taliban to get an angle on the Afghanistan war that those who followed the US Army could not.

So while Taylor immersed himself in his reporting, learning to speak Arabic 100 percent fluently and making such deep connections in Islamist circles that we joked around the office that he had become one of them, I sat at my desk and got to know Jordan mainly through the stories I edited and by becoming close friends with some of my Jordanian colleagues. By no means is that a bad way to get to know a country, but I always felt a little guilty that I wasn’t taking advantage of the opportunity to go deeper, and worried that I was missing that extra insight that comes from “being there” in the middle of the riot or the battle or the aftermath of the natural disaster.

It takes a great deal of courage, or at least much more than I have, to travel to a foreign war zone and report directly from the rubble and carnage, to embed among rogue militias, to see the destruction firsthand and actually look the widows and orphans in the eye and give them a voice with one’s writing. It’s especially brave to do so without a net. Dedicated war reporters like Foley and Sotloff, to say nothing of their Syrian colleagues who risk imprisonment, torture, and death to get the story, are heroes to humanity in that respect. Bravery like theirs is hard to come by.

A Degrading Strategy?

by Jonah Shepp

President Obama’s statement yesterday that the US intends to “degrade and destroy” ISIS raised a few questions about just what he meant by that. Spencer Ackerman observes that the statement adds to the conflicting rhetoric coming from the administration:

Obama’s goals have caused confusion in recent weeks. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said in the short term Isis can be contained, while Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, said the group must be “crushed”. Each of those endpoints require different military approaches for achieving them. Degrading and destroying an adversary are also two different goals. Degradation is a line short of destruction, a difference Obama appeared to split by suggesting his desired end state is a neutralized, unthreatening Isis.

As Keating points out, if the goal is indeed to “destroy” ISIS, that strongly implies that our air war in Iraq will expand to Syria:

It seemed obvious that continued videotaped killings of U.S. citizens would provoke a more steadfast response than what we’ve seen so far. The goal of the U.S. operation has now expanded from averting a “potential act of genocide”—or recapturing control of a critical dam, or even propping up the Iraqi government—to eliminating ISIS as a force entirely. The thing is, Obama’s own military commanders say that destroying ISIS is impossible without strikes against its strongholds in Syria, a step this administration has been extremely reluctant to take. U.S. strikes on Syria probably aren’t imminent—for one thing,more intelligence gathering is probably needed before the military would take such a step—but eventual military action against ISIS on the other side of the border is starting to feel inevitable.

But Hassan Hassan calls that an opportunity, arguing that the US can leverage it to effect a solution to the Syrian civil war, provided we don’t sell out the opposition and work with the Assad regime:

Local communities and armed groups, even if many of them might be currently displaced, have a direct stake in fighting the Islamic State. However, there are already voices within the anti-jihadist opposition condemning the potential airstrikes against the Islamic State because the perception is that they will be coordinated with Assad. An activist who led a campaign against the jihadist group for months, for example, said he would join the Islamic State if intervention comes at the expense of the rebels. … If Washington plays its cards right, it can use the fight against the Islamic State to spur broader political change in Syria. There is already regional will to defeat the jihadists — American action has the power to unite disparate groups around a solution that could end the bloodshed. As Obama develops his strategy to combat the Islamic State, he would do well to keep that in mind.

That would be the ideal outcome, of course: it’s certainly preferable to the massive PR disaster of an alliance with Bashar al-Assad, and that might even be what Obama’s thinking as he looks to build a regional coalition to fight this war. I’m not as sanguine as Hassan that it will work, though, and I suspect the president himself is leery of “owning” the effort to resolve the Syrian crisis, lest it fail. Rand Paul, on the other hand, thinks an alliance with Damascus (and Tehran) is a no-brainer:

In addition to Iran and Syria, Paul said he believes “the Turks should be enjoined” in the fight. … Paul charged that the chain reaction of U.S. involvement in the Middle East is what, in part, led to the rise of ISIS: “I think part of the reason they’ve gotten so large is that we have armed Islamic allies of theirs, Islamic rebels, in Syria, to degrade Assad’s regime, and Assad, then, couldn’t take care of ISIS. Really, I think what we’ve done, the unintended consequences of being involved in the Syrian civil war, have been to encourage the growth of ISIS by supporting their allies… I think it’s our intervention that really held Assad at bay, and Assad would have wiped these people out long ago.”

But Larison rejects the premise that we should, or even can, fight this battle at all:

When people talk about “destroying ISIS,” they are setting a goal that doesn’t seem to be realistic at an acceptable cost, and their policy would require committing the U.S. to a war in Iraq and Syria that would almost certainly ensnare the U.S. in that country’s ongoing civil war for years to come. Opposing such a poorly thought-through and ill-defined policy doesn’t amount to pacifism, as [Richard] Epstein tendentiously claims, and one doesn’t need to be anything close to a pacifist to see the dangers of overreacting to potential threats with military action on a regular basis. ISIS and other groups like it thrive on such militarized overreaction, which is one reason why it is doubtful that such a group can ever be thoroughly “destroyed” without creating more like it in the process.

Waldman, meanwhile, monitors the outrage machine as it combs through Obama’s rhetoric for signs of weakness and perfidy:

[M]embers of the media (and conservatives, of course) were jumping all over Obama for another line: “We know that if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its military capability to the point where it is a manageable problem.” The sin here was apparently the word “manageable.” If Obama had said, “My plan is to go over there and punch Abu Bakr al-Baghadi in the face, whereupon all his followers will disappear in a puff of smoke and we’ll never have to worry about them again,” he would have been praised for being “tough.” But because he is acknowledging that dealing with ISIS is going to be a complex process that will play out over an extended period of time, Obama will get pilloried.

Zack Beauchamp has a voxplanation for that:

Obama’s rhetoric on ISIS is confused because his administration’s policy on ISIS is confused by internal contradictions. On the one hand, Obama really does have long term ambitions to destroy ISIS. On the other hand, he recognizes that this is impossible in the near term, and that the best the US can do is lay the groundwork for ISIS’ eventual collapse. This essential tension in American objectives explains why Obama’s rhetoric and actual policy on the group are so at odds.

Anyway, Goldblog argues, Obama is much more of a hawk than he gets credit for being:

It is important to remember that Obama is perhaps the greatest killer of terrorists in American history. … Obama has launched strikes against Islamist terror targets in several countries. He has devastated the leadership of core al Qaeda, and just this week — as Washington opinion-makers collectively decided that he was hopelessly weak on terror — the president launched a (quite possibly successful) strike in Somalia against the leader of al-Shabab, a terror group nearly as bloodthirsty as Islamic State. And here’s the important bit — at the same time the White House is the target of relentless complaints that it has not done enough to combat Islamic State, Obama is actually combating Islamic State, launching what appear to be, at this early stage, fairly effective strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The rhetoric is not inspiring, but the actions should count for something.

Interventionist Insanity

by Jonah Shepp

Shadi Hamid characterizes Obama’s foreign policy as reflecting a lack of faith in American power:

Obama, far from the prudent technocrat some assume him to be, is a believer in the limits not just of American power (which would be understandable) but American agency, colored by a lack of faith in America’s ability to play a constructive role where religious and ethnic divides are paramount. The president has been surprisingly dismissive of the growing number of former U.S. officials and Middle East and Syria experts who have criticized him for not intervening in Syria more than two and half years ago when less than ten thousand Syrians had died. That Obama appears unwilling to question his original assumptions, despite rapidly changing events on the ground, suggests an insularity and ideological rigidity that surpasses even the Bush administration.

The fact that Syria has gone to shit without American help doesn’t disprove the argument that US intervention wouldn’t solve Syria’s problems. Hamid’s logic here is telling: Obama thought it was a bad idea to intervene in Syria in 2012, and today he thinks it’s still a bad idea (and no evidence has emerged to demonstrate otherwise), therefore Obama is insular and ideologically rigid. After a series of disastrous exercises (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya) brought about by an overabundance of faith in American power, where do interventionists like Hamid get off criticizing Obama’s lack of faith in this power as though it were some kind of nebbishy tic? Is that lack of faith not a rational response to repeated demonstrations that there are problems in the world that American power can’t solve? Having “faith” in a course of action that has been repeatedly been demonstrated not to work demonstrates not strength, resolve, or leadership, but rather a failure to see what is in front of one’s face. And lacking faith in it seems pretty smart to me.

Hamid, of course, is on the long list of Libyan war cheerleaders whom Freddie deBoer calls out, wondering when their mea culpas will emerge. I’m not on the public record regarding that intervention, but for what it’s worth, I had serious misgivings about it and wasn’t terribly surprised when it went awry, though I admit I was not sorry to see Qaddafi go and did argue with friends on the far left who believed (still do) that he was a great humanitarian rather than an eccentric narcissist who killed a lot of people and bought off a lot of other people with oil money.

But now, the American Power Caucus has turned its attention to Ukraine, where Walter Russell Mead claims (literally) that the only thing separating us from a “Mad Max world” is a good, old-fashioned US intervention:

America’s choices here (as in the Middle East) are few and they are ugly. We can back Ukraine with enough weapons, money, political will and if necessary air power and boots on the ground to tip the balance on the ground, or we can watch Russia conquer as much of the country as it wants. A Russian victory here won’t be the end; Putin is an empire builder and his goal is to restore the Kremlin power in all the former lands of the USSR, for starters. A Russian win in Ukraine will change the world. Putin’s flagrant violation of every standard of decency and restraint leaves the United States with the choice of confronting him or living in a Mad Max world ruled—if at all—by the law of the jungle.

But as Daniel Larison points out, arming Ukraine wouldn’t actually accomplish very much other than raising the death toll:

It’s telling that no one in favor of arming Ukraine believes that it would do anything more than drag out the conflict. That’s the best-case scenario. It is just as likely that Russia would respond to the arming of Ukraine by Western governments with a much larger attack that inflicts even greater damage on the country. Russia has consistently been willing to go much farther than the U.S. and its allies in terms of what it will risk over Ukraine, and we should assume that will also apply to its response to attempts by Western powers to arm Ukraine. At each stage of the Ukraine crisis, Western governments have pursued their policies there without considering how Russia would respond to them. This has repeatedly put Western governments in the absurd position of provoking reactions from Moscow that they should have expected but failed to anticipate.

Remembering Sotloff, Foley, And The Rest

by Jonah Shepp

For the past two weeks, the gruesome death of James Foley has returned to my mind over and over again. Now that Steven Sotloff has met the same fate, I, like many other Americans of conscience, am now haunted by two ghosts. It is well established that journalists, even those of us who do not work in the field, can get PTSD from the horrors we read about and the images we see day in and day out. I didn’t go looking for the videos of these brutal murders, because I don’t need to see someone get his head sawn off from front to back to be chilled by the thought of such an agonizing death. I’ve seen enough as it is. And as long as this war and others drag on, I know there are more horrors to come.

The impulse to make martyrs of our dead leads us to ascribe more importance to some murders than others. Yet Foley and Sotloff are but two among nearly 70 journalists killed while covering the conflict in Syria, hundreds who have been brutally murdered by ISIS jihadists in similarly gruesome fashion, and nearly 200,000 casualties of a civil war gone hopelessly off the rails. We feel for Foley and Sotloff in a way we do not feel for other victims of this compounded Syrian-Iraqi crisis because they look like us and speak our language, because many of us share their Irish and Jewish surnames, and because their grieving families remind us of our own in ways that ululating Iraqi widows don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that: in-group bias can’t be helped, and it doesn’t follow from this outpouring of grief that we do not care about the many others who have suffered so terribly in this war.

Still, as proponents of American leadership-by-war turn to these atrocities as casus belli for an engagement they already wanted, it bears remembering that the forgotten victims of this maelstrom of death are human, too, as Sotloff’s own reporting so eloquently brought out. The humane character of his approach to his job has come up in many of the eulogies written since yesterday. For example, Ishaan Tharoor highlights a story Sotloff wrote from the bread lines in Aleppo:

The piece was the product of a ten-day trip to Syria’s war-ravaged commercial capital at a time when Syria’s “moderate” rebels still appeared to lead the fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It was published on Christmas Eve. In an e-mail sent to a Time editor alongside a link to the Foreign Policy article, Sotloff wrote that the “situation is nothing like the media dispatches from the West depict it,” alluding to the darker forces shaping the rebellion as well as the revolutionary fatigue of Aleppo’s beleaguered populace. “We are people not cattle,” an Aleppo resident told Sotloff, as the pair watched fights break out in a long line for rations of pita bread. “But this war is slowly killing our humanity without a shot ever being fired at us.”

Sotloff, and Foley too, went to Libya, Syria, and other dangerous locales not to cheer for more war or to agitate against it, and not to propagandize for any cause, but rather to bear honest and clear-eyed witness to the human tragedy unfolding beyond the abstracting lenses of policy and strategy through which politicians, elites, experts, the media and by extension the public, often view these “foreign” wars.

The best way to remember Steven Sotloff, then, is not only to remember Steven Sotloff.

Dissents Of The Day

by Jonah Shepp

My assertion yesterday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have had something to do with the eastward expansion of NATO is drawing some fire from the inbox. One reader writes:

I think that you and John Mearsheimer may think yourselves very clever for understanding that the US and NATO’s hubristic expansion is at fault in the Ukrainian crisis. You claim, that without this expansion there would be no Ukraine crisis, a totally ludicrous statement, for which you give no justification. What you fail to appreciate is that the countries in Eastern Europe who clamored to join NATO are also rational independent actors totally capable of acting independently the US or other Western Powers. Poland, the Baltics, Czech Republic, etc.. all know what it is like to be dominated by an imperial power from the east and they certainly wanted protection again such a thing happening again. They chose NATO, not the other way around. In the 90s, most people in the west didn’t think that NATO was even necessary anymore. I think it is completely preposterous to claim that NATO expansion was borne out of some desire for conquest.

Another reader argues that the eternal Cold War mentality belongs to Putin, not the West:

I kept expecting [you] to acknowledge that this only ‘bears out’ anything if one already views NATO’s expansion from a Cold War perspective. I’ll certainly admit that there’s significant tension between the West’s interests and the Russian government’s and that this is not all Russia’s doing, but until this year I’d never though Ukraine joining NATO was even plausible, and even then until this week I’d never thought it was *likely* that Ukraine would join NATO. Now Putin has made it clear to everyone that regardless of anyone else *he* is waging a cold war, so he will keep creating more Cold War responses in those he’s made his foes. I think it’s a real stretch to say  that the failure of the world to dance around this world-view counts as confirmation of it.

And a third points out that the link between Russian aggression and NATO expansion can also go the other way:

I think you have causality the wrong way around when you say that Russia has attacked Ukraine (and, earlier, Georgia) in response to the threat of NATO expanding to include those countries. But there had been no NATO expansion in Russia’s immediate neighborhood in a decade.  And neither Ukraine nor Georgia were going to join NATO . . . until Russia attacked them.  Then they acquired an enormous motivation to try to join an alliance which could defend them against further Russian attacks.  Georgia wasn’t getting anywhere with its request to join either — until the attack on Ukraine, which has caused NATO to reconsider whether “trying not to provoke Putin” was an impossible quest. I can see why Russia would be upset at the prospect of Georgia or Ukraine in NATO.  But if it happens, the overwhelming reason will be Russia’s actions towards those two countries.  In short, Russia will have nobody to blame but themselves.  (Not that this will prevent them from blaming everybody else in sight, of course.)

Well, the causality is a little more complicated. The effort to bring Georgia into NATO started in 2005 and was a major item on Mikheil Saakashvili’s to-do list long before the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. One can easily argue, as Saakashvili himself did, that this effort was in response to fears of Russian bellicosity, but one can also see it the other way around, as Putin and his cohort clearly do, and argue that Russian assertiveness (they probably wouldn’t say “aggression”) was necessary to check NATO’s nefarious plan to weaken Russian influence in its former imperial holdings. It’s not hard to see how they arrived at that conclusion; that is different, however, from saying that the conclusion is correct.

I don’t actually share Mearsheimer’s conclusion that this mess is all the West’s fault. I think it’s useful to remember, though, how the West has condescended to Russia since the end of the Cold War, and to consider how that treatment might have influenced the mentality that drives Putin to adopt such an aggressive posture. Remember how Germany was demonized, humiliated, and driven hopelessly into debt by the victors of World War I? Well, how did that turn out? When Alexander Motyl compares Putin to Hitler, he focuses primarily on their dictatorial ways, but their countries also have some salient similarities:

Both Germany and Russia lost empires and desired to rebuild them. Both Germany and Russia suffered economic collapse. Both Germany and Russia experienced national humiliation and retained imperial political cultures. Both Germany and Russia blamed their ills on the democrats. Both Germany and Russia elected strong men who promised to make them grand and glorious again.

In other words, Hitler had others to thank for the conditions that enabled his rise to power, and one can say the same of Putin. I don’t mean to engage in some wishy-washy, “it’s all society’s fault” leftish apologetics. Putin clearly believes in restoring the Russian Empire by any means necessary, including force, and has committed many misdeeds in pursuit of that belief. But if the question at had is what the West ought to do about it, it’s worth thinking about our past policy choices and how they might have contributed to the problem. If instead we attribute the crisis solely to Putin’s grandiosity, that implies that there’s not much we can do to change his behavior, and that’s scarier to me than admitting we made some missteps.

Putin’s “Peace” Plan

by Jonah Shepp

The Russian president has unveiled a seven-point plan to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, which he claims to have arrived at after consultations with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko (NYT):

Mr. Putin said he and the president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, had a similar understanding about what was needed, and he urged Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists in the east to reach a settlement at talks scheduled for Friday in Belarus. The primary conditions on Mr. Putin’s list are that the separatists halt all offensive operations and that Ukrainian troops move their artillery back out of range of cities and large towns in the rebel-held area. Mr. Putin also called for Ukraine to cease airstrikes; the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors; an “all for all” prisoner exchange; and “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged roads, bridges, power lines and other infrastructure.

Or in other words, according to Armin Rosen’s interpretation, the plan is for Ukraine to retreat and Russia to invade:

The proposal would formalize the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine while requiring the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from their internationally recognized territory in the Donbas region, where pro-Russian separatists have been fighting Kiev’s forces since February. This proposal, which both Ukraine and the international community are unlikely to accept, amounts to Russian annexation of eastern Ukraine — Putin would be able to secure and develop the region, and Ukraine would be forced to accept a new reality on the ground. This follows Moscow’s longstanding game plan from other conflicts on the Russian periphery. For instance, the Georgian separatists regions of South Ossetia and Abhkazia are secured with the help of “peacekeepers” from the Russian army, even though both areas are internationally recognized as part of Georgia.

Also, the plan notably omits any mention of the status of the territories in dispute. But Leonid Bershidsky argues that there is “nothing here to which Poroshenko might reasonably object”. He believes the plan should be implemented simply because the fighting needs to end before any other progress can be made. The tricky part, in Bershidsky’s view, is what comes after the peace:

Putin will not want to give up a measure of control over eastern Ukraine. Although it might be tempting for Poroshenko to declare it a Russian-occupied territory and wash his hands of it, he won the presidential election in May on a promise to keep Ukraine together. Hence, there will have to be further negotiations on issues that are much harder for both sides to agree on than Putin’s lenient cease-fire terms. There is every chance that the cease-fire will break down as the political talks fail, and that Poroshenko’s plan to hold a parliamentary election in October will fall through. For now, however, the steps Putin proposes must be taken.

Must they? Those particular steps, in that order? Yes, the fighting must end first and foremost, but ending it on Putin’s terms could mean walking into a trap. Either way, Ukraine appears not to be taking the bait:

“This latest plan is another attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community ahead of the NATO summit and an attempt to avert the EU’s inevitable decision to unleash a new wave of sanctions against Russia,” [Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk] said in a statement. “The best plan for ending Russia’s war against Ukraine has only one single element — for Russia to withdraw its troops, its mercenaries and its terrorists from Ukrainian territory.” His comments come despite Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko saying he and Putin had agreed on the peace plan aimed at ending the near five-month conflict in eastern Ukraine.

That makes it sound like the Ukrainian leadership is divided over how to respond. That wouldn’t be surprising: after all, Poroshenko is known to be a bit friendlier to Russia than Yatsenyuk, and indeed that’s why some people think he’s the best man to make peace. But then there’s the question of whether Putin can actually get the rebels to stop fighting in the first place:

The insurgency clearly does not represent a unified organization with a central command, and furthermore Moscow’s interaction with its leaders is varied, according to Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy head of the Institute of Political and Military analysis, a Moscow-based think tank. “Following rebel advances, the Ukrainian government is ready to make certain concessions. Moscow sees this as a window of opportunity to exploit and come to terms, with the captured territories becoming autonomous within Ukraine. Hence, Purgin came up with the plan,” he told The Moscow Times in a phone interview. “The problem is that many insurgents do not want to settle anything now that they have got the upper hand in the military conflict. It is naive to believe that the Kremlin controls everything there,” he said.

Meanwhile, the West has finally shamed France into suspending a delivery of warships to Russia, and aggressive military posturing continues on all sides. The US and NATO allies are going ahead with a joint military exercise in western Ukraine later in September, while Russia’s defense ministry has announced a 4,000-soldier drill, also this month, by the forces in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal:

RIA news agency quoted the ministry as saying the exercises would take place in Altai in south-central Russia and would also include around 400 technical units and extensive use of air power. The agency quoted Dmitry Andreyev, a major in the strategic rocket forces, as saying troops would practice countering irregular units and high-precision weapons, and “conducting combat missions in conditions of active radio-electronic jamming and intensive enemy actions in areas of troop deployment.” He said enemy forces would be represented in the exercises by spetsnaz (special forces) units.

Surely this is just in case the “peace plan” doesn’t work out.

Can NATO Stop Putin?

by Jonah Shepp

Michael Peck doubts the new rapid response force NATO is proposing to establish in Eastern Europe would be much of a deterrent to Russian aggression:

[A] NATO quick-reaction force is unlikely to actually deter Russia. For starters, a deterrent is only as effective as it is credible. And military credibility is what the new force will lack. Prepositioning mechanized units in Eastern Europe is a possibility. But as U.S. troops discovered when moving from Germany to Bosnia in 1995, it’s hard moving tracked armor long distances. Harder when you have to move fast. It seems more likely that the new force will include light infantry, wheeled armor and special forces—all easier to move by air or road than heavy tanks. While these light troops might have a fighting chance against irregular troops such as Ukraine’s eastern rebels, they wouldn’t stand a chance against a Russian tank regiment. To say nothing of Russian warplanes.

Judy Dempsey also suspects that the new strategy won’t pose much of a challenge to Putin, and that the real threat comes from elsewhere:

NATO strategy still leaves Eastern Europe highly vulnerable. The last thing that Poland, Sweden, Finland and the Baltics want is for Eastern Europe to be turned into a new cordon sanitaire. It would, in fact, create a new, divided and highly unstable Europe, which is why these countries are determined that the EU prevent this from happening. …

What could deter him is his own combustible southern flank and Islamic State, which Russia would be very unwise to ignore. It is these threats that are far, far more dangerous to Russia than NATO’s limited intentions in Poland and the Baltic states. These threats are also more dangerous than the EU, whose openness has hugely profited Russian companies and ordinary Russian citizens. If Putin thinks NATO and the EU are his big threats, competitors and enemies, he hasn’t seen anything yet.

Dempsey alludes to something important here regarding the relationship between the Russia-Ukraine and Iraq-Syria conflicts, and I wish her article explored it in greater depth. ISIS may be a threat to Europe, and even to the US, but it threatens Russia more directly. Could that threat be leveraged to talk Putin down from his war horse? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see whether the NATO summit touches on it. These crises don’t exist in bubbles. The War on Terror divided NATO, but John Cassidy argues that Putin is helping the alliance overcome its post-9/11 sclerosis:

American officials charged that the Europeans weren’t carrying their weight. (Alliance members are supposed to spend two per cent of their G.D.P. on defense, but few of them do.) European officials muttered about the United States using its hegemony to destabilize things rather than calm them down. Looking ahead, the future of the alliance seemed increasingly uncertain. A 2013 brief from the Atlantic Council warned, “The world is changing rapidly, and if NATO does not adapt with foresight for this new era, then it will very likely disintegrate.” Then, along came the reëlected Putin, singlehandedly providing the NATO members with what all allies need: a common threat. And not only a common one but a familiar one, too: a Russia itching to expand its power and influence.

Meanwhile, Eli Lake highlights some new American sanctions legislation that “would amount to an economic nuclear bomb against the Russian federation” (My goodness. Phrasing!):

The Daily Beast has obtained a draft of proposed legislation from Sen. Mark Kirk, the Republican lawmaker who co-authored the crippling sanctions against Iran. In short, Kirk proposes to do to Russia what he and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Robert Menendez, did to Iran: make it all-but-impossible for any Western bank to do business with the state. If passed, the draft legislation would essentially make Moscow a pariah economy. Specifically, Kirk’s legislation, still circulating among his colleagues, would impose strict limits on any bank that does business with Russia’s central bank to participating in the U.S. banking system. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Kirk also said he supported moves to compel President Obama to support kicking Russian banks out of the SWIFT interbank payment system, a move that would stymie the ability of Russian businesses to efficiently pay foreign companies for goods and services.

Harder sanctions on Russia make sense, and might even be more effective than beefing up the NATO presence in the Baltic countries. My fear, though, is that we will end up with another “all stick, no carrot” approach that does a lot of economic damage without offering the Kremlin a way out. Coercive diplomacy is all well and good, but putting pressure on an aggressive state only goes so far when that state doesn’t see any benefit to behaving more responsibly. After all, we still don’t know for sure that the sanctions we imposed on Iran worked, and every time the nuclear talks have broken down it’s been because the Iranians didn’t think we were serious about lifting the sanctions if they played nice. Rewarding a bad actor for being less bad isn’t exactly justice, but war is much worse.