Geopoliticus

Putin’s Maginot Line Exposed by North Korea’s Missile Launch

                                   
Hey mom there’s something in the backroom
I hope it’s not the creatures from above
What if people knew that these were real
I’d leave my closet door open all night
I know the CIA would say
What you hear is all hearsay
I wish someone would tell me what was right
                                             – Blink-182 “Aliens Exist”
                                   

As Russian President Vladimir Putin aims his country’s missile defenses westward toward an ambiguous adversary, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un chipped a ballistic missile into Mr. Putin’s eastern backyard. On Sunday, 14 May, a North Korean ballistic missile launched from the Paekun-ri (aka Paegun) missile base located northwest of Pyongyang flew 700 kilometers in thirty minutes to land in the Sea of Japan—a mere 97 kilometers from Vladivostok, where Russia’s Pacific Fleet is home ported. The following day, the North Korean government identified the missile as a Hwasong-12,[1] which first appeared in public at a mid-April military parade in Pyongyang.[2] The official Rodong Sinmum news agency issued photographs purporting to show the launch, accompanied by a lengthy statement, which reads in part:

The most perfect weapon systems in the world will never become the eternal exclusive property of the U.S., [Kim Jong-un] said, expressing the belief that the day when the DPRK uses the similar retaliatory means will come. He continued that on this occasion, the U.S. had better see clearly whether the ballistic rockets of the DPRK pose actual threat to it or not. If the U.S. awkwardly attempts to provoke the DPRK, it will not escape from the biggest disaster in the history, he said, strongly warning the U.S. not to disregard or misjudge the reality that its mainland and Pacific operation region are in the DPRK’s sighting range for strike and that it has all powerful means for retaliatory strike.

Source: Rodong Sinmun

The successful launch of the Hwasong-12 is important in and of itself, and also for what it may signify. Some experts question whether two earlier North Korean test launches conducted in October 2016 were in fact part of an intercontinental missile program and not tests of medium-range ballistic missiles.[3]

It bears further consideration that the Hwasong-12 came within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok, and did so at a time when Mr. Putin was in Beijing attending the Chinese government’s “One Belt” (aka “Silk Road”) forum. According to one public report, Russia, only a few weeks earlier, deployed its S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system to the border with North Korea south of Vladivostok.[4]

Russia’s Far East

Source: Wikipedia

After Sunday’s Hwasong-12 launch, Mr. Putin said laconically, “There’s nothing good in this.” He elaborated that while “the launch did not pose a direct threat to us, it undoubtedly will further provoke conflict and isn’t a good thing.”[5] He called the test “unacceptable” according to Regnum, continuing, “We need to return to dialogue with North Korea, stop threatening it, and find ways to solve these problems peacefully.”[6]

We are categorically opposed to the expansion of the nuclear powers club, including on the Korean peninsula. We consider [the North Korean missile test] counterproductive and dangerous. On the other hand, so are gross violations of international law, regime change, and promoting an arms race with threats to invade.[7]

The “no direct threat” line was echoed in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which wrote:

North Korea’s missiles fly in unpredictable ways. They do not always impact where their flight guidance system directs them. In principle, they can fall on Russian territory, something that would lead to unpredictable consequences. But Russian air defense and anti-missile defenses are on constant alert. If these missiles threaten our territory, they will be intercepted and destroyed.[8]

It quoted a frequently cited Russian military analyst, Viktor Litovkin, who added:

The fact is North Korea doesn’t target its missiles towards Russia, it aims them toward the Sea of Japan. It therefore doesn’t pose a direct threat to us militarily, though politically, it certainly violates all applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions.[9]

Mr. Litovkin echoed the Russian Defense Ministry, which said, “The missile attack warning system tracked the North Korean missile before it fell into the Sea of Japan. As a result, the Russian military remained fully in control of the situation.”[10] As time progressed, the reported impact spot moved farther from the Russian coastline. The Russian Defense Ministry identified the point of impact as “500 kilometers from the Russian coast,”[11] and some Russian media outlets downplayed its proximity to Vladivostok, for example, electing to use the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Japan-centric identification of the impact point.[12]

Oleg Zhdanov—a politolog or ideologist whose extreme nationalist commentaries appear in publications like Russkaya vesna (“Russian Spring”)[13]—accused the United States of using “North Korea as a pretext” to achieve “their main goal—they deployed a strike group with Tomahawks aboard near the borders of the Russian Federation . . . Russia, in fact, today is isolated. I understand the next step is to declare that Russia is a source of a military threat.”[14] He continued:

On the one hand, while it monitors North Korea, the United States’ Tomahawk strike group continues to blockade the Russian Federation, at the point where all the ballistic missiles located in Russia’s Far Eastern region aimed at the United States are controlled.  There are destroyers on the Baltic side, where [the United States] established an aviation-strike force that can fly to Moscow and back with a single aerial refueling. In Poland and Romania, [the United States] deployed antiballistic missile systems and troops, and transferred a tank division to Poland. In Syria and Afghanistan, Russia was given a clear understanding that any military movements would be brutally suppressed by high precision weapons.[15]

Joining in the Kremlin effort to deflect attention from the North Korean missile test, the Russian Federal Assembly’s official Parlamentskaya gazeta (“Parliamentary Newspaper”) published survey findings, which said that while “39% of Russians consider the North Korean nuclear threat to be real . . . The real threat of the use of nuclear weapons, according to Russians, comes from the United States (50%) and al-Qaida (32%).”[16]

With a land border running over 20 thousand kilometers (12,577 miles), Russia today resembles Charles Dickens’ c.1858 description of Prussia:

It is the awkwardest state on the face of the globe. Its breadth bears no proportion to its length, and its possessions are divided from each other by foreign states. She cannot defend her whole line of frontier.[17]

Mr. Putin faces the perennial challenge of defending a largely indefensible border in Russia’s Far East. As far back as 2009, Russia reportedly deployed an S-400 Triumph [NATO reporting name: SA-21 Growler] air defense missile system near Nakhodka (the red dot on the map above) to counter the then rising threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.[18]

In August 2016, the Russian language news portal Gazeta asked military analyst Mikhail Khodarenok the question “What is the state of Russia’s missile defense?”[19] He responded:

With the completion of the full deployment of the missile attack warning system (including the space echelon) and the adoption of the development-stage AMD A-235 Nudol missile system, Russia will regain the positions largely lost in the 1990s.[20]

Regaining a position lost over two decades ago is useful only insofar as the threat landscape remained largely unchanged. As last weekend’s North Korean missile test makes clear, however, that threat landscape has changed ineluctably.

Credit: RIA Novosti

A few weeks ago, Mr. Putin spoke at the restored memorial cross marking where the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, was assassinated in February 1905 just steps from the Kremlin’s Nikolskaya Tower. Calling the memorial cross a reminder “of the price that had to be paid for disunity,” Mr. Putin said, “We must protect and defend Russia.”[21] Speaking in November 2016, Mr. Putin said he would protect Russia without “indulging in a frenzied military buildup” (predavat’sya militaristskomu ugaru) against threats arising from “the creation of a United States missile defense system in Europe and NATO’s enlargement eastward;”[22] in 2007, Maksim Agarkov assessed that such threats had “drawn [Russia] into an arms race.”[23]

Crashing into the sea less than 100 kilometers from Vladivostok, North Korea’s Hwasong-12 exposed the fatal porosity of Russian missile defenses in the East. Mr. Putin’s pointless commitment to a westward-facing ballistic missile defense has served to emphasize Russia’s wide-open back door. It is a Russian Maginot Line, and an unaffordable one at that. 

The national missile defense is our Maginot Line. It would give us a false sense of security and be completely ineffective in countering threats that simply go around it . . . The Maginot Line of national missile defense will not only encourage countries to go around it, or to overwhelm it, it could also become the Trojan Horse that lets our enemies into the nuclear club.[24]

Mr. Putin would have been wise to heed the above warning by Senator Richard Durbin, articulated during a 1999 Senate debate. The false promise of Mr. Putin’s European Maginot Line has been exposed by a single North Korean Hwasong-12 missile flying unimpeded to within 100 kilometers of Vladivostok. Yaroslav Shimov’s claims that “at the moment, Russia is fairly inactive in the Far East, as opposed to Europe, where the opposite is true”[25] is as true militarily as it is politically. Notwithstanding Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s late March declaration that Russia will “complete its air defense system to protect Russia’s air and sea borders”[26] by year’s end—and Russian demands that “North Korea refrain from further provocative actions”[27]—last weekend’s missile test bolsters Mr. Putin’s internal critics, who assert Russia’s “Far East has been left unprotected”[28] behind Mr. Putin’s western-facing Maginot Line. 


The translation of all source material is by the author unless otherwise noted.

[1]“Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of New Rocket.” Rodong Sinmum [published online 15 May 2017]. http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/. Last accessed 15 May 2017. According to the report, “A test-fire of new ground-to-ground medium long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 was successfully carried out on Sunday by scientists and technicians in the field of rocket research, who are bravely advancing toward a new goal to be proud of in the world, true to the far-sighted idea of Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK and supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, for building a nuclear power. Kim Jong Un guided the test-fire on the spot.”

[2] “North Korea’s 2017 Military Parade Was a Big Deal. Here Are the Major Takeaways.” The Diplomat [published online 15 April 2017]. http://thediplomat.com/2017/04/north-koreas-2017-military-parade-was-a-big-deal-here-are-the-major-takeaways/. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[3] “Failed North Korean missile launch was possibly an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.” Chosunilbo [published online in Korean 28 October 2016]. http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/10/28/2016102800238.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[4] “SPOTTED: Putin ‘moves military forces’ to North Korea border as world prepares for WAR.” Express [published online 18 April 2017]. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/792225/Russia-Putin-North-Korea-nuclear-Trump. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[5] “Nichego khoroshego: Putin prokommentiroval novyy raketnyy pusk KNDR.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/world/20170515/1494304896.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[6] “Putin: «Nuzhno vozvrashchat’sya k dialogu s KNDR».” Regnum [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2274888.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[7] “Putin: Pusk rakety KNDR ne predstavlyal opasnosti dlya Rossii.” Life [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://life.ru/t/новости/1007780/putin_pusk_rakiety_kndr_nie_priedstavlial_opasnosti_dlia_rossii. Last accessed 15 May 2017.

[8] “Kim grozit obrushit’ mech na golovy amerikantsev.” Nezavisimaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://www.ng.ru/world/2017-05-16/7_6988_kndr.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “V Minoborony Rossii prokommentirovali ocherednoye ispytaniye raket v KNDR.” Tsargrad [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. https://tsargrad.tv/news/v-minoborony-rossii-prokommentirovali-ocherednoe-ispytanie-raket-v-kndr_63333 . Last accessed 15 May 2017. The missile attack warning system is commonly known by its Russian language acronym, SPRN (Sistema preduprezhdeniya o raketnom napadenii).

[11] “Vladimir Putin: Pusk severokoreyskoy rakety Rossii ne ugrozhal, no konflikt provotsiroval.” Vladnews [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://vladnews.ru/2017/05/16/127547/vladimir-putin-pusk-severokorejskoj-rakety-rossii-ne-ugrozhal-no-konflikt-provociroval.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[12] The Japanese Defense Ministry stated that it had “determined the missile fell into the Sea of ​​Japan 450 km from Okushiri Island in Hokkaido Prefecture,” according to Izvestia. See: “Minoborony Yaponii ustanovilo mesto padeniya severokoreyskoy rakety.” Izvestia [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. http://izvestia.ru/news/706934. Last accessed 126 May 2017.

[13]  For example, Mr. Zhdanov wrote in a commentary published in Russkaya vesna that the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariapol is “mentally prepared” to leave Ukraine and join the DPR,” the latter an acronym for the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic [Russian: Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika. Ukrainian: Donets’ka Narodna Respublika]. See: “Mariupol’ i Odessa gotovy vyyti iz sostava Ukrainy, — ukrainskiy ekspert.” Russkaya vesna  [published online in Russian 18 April 2017]. http://rusvesna.su/news/1492350071. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[14] “Severnaya Koreya blefuyet, — ekspert.” Politolog [published online in Russian 15 May 2017]. http://politolog.net/analytics/severnaya-koreya-blefuet-ekspert/. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Rossiyane vidyat ugrozu primeneniya KNDR yadernogo oruzhiya — opros.” Parlamentskaya gazeta [published online in Russian 16 May 2017]. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[17] “The Opinions of Field-Marshal Radfetsky.” Bentley’s Miscellany, v.XLIV. (London: Richard Bentley) 591.

[18] “Chetvertyy polk S-400 zastupit na boevoe dezhurstvo v Nakhodke.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 15 August 2012]. https://ria.ru/arms/20120815/724086797.html. Last accessed 15 May 2017. The S-400 is designed to engage aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia deployed its first S-400 system in 2007.

[19] “Kuda prodvinulas’ rossiyskaya PRO. Kakovo sostoyaniye rossiyskoy protivoraketnoy oborony.” Gazeta [published online in Russian 27 August 2016]. https://www.gazeta.ru/army/2016/08/27/10162349.shtml?refresh. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[20] Ibid. According to published reports, Russia’s AMD (antimissile defense) A-235 Nudol ballistic missile completed its first successful test flight on 8 November 2015 (the first two test flights failed).

[21] “Putin prizval berech’ i zashchishchat’ Rossiyu.” RIA Novosti [published online in Russian 4 May 2017]. https://ria.ru/politics/20170504/1493662148.html. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[22] “Putin poobeshchal zashchitit’ Rossiyu bez «militaristskogo ugara».” Vedomosti [published online in Russian 30 November 2016]. http://www.vedomosti.ru/politics/articles/2016/06/30/647451-putin-militaristskogo-ugara. Last accessed 16 May 2017.

[23] Cited in Keir Giles (2014). European Missile Defense and Russia. (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press) 13.

[24] Congressional Record- Senate (17 March 1999) 4760.

[25] Yaroslav Shimov (2017). “Politika dvukh maniy.” Inosmi [published online in Russian 12 February 2017]. http://inosmi.ru/politic/20170212/238712546.html. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

[26] “Shoygu: diviziya VS RF na Dal’nem Vostoke sozdayetsya isklyuchitel’no dlya zashchity Rossii.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/armiya-i-opk/4108902. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

[27] “Yaponiya i Rossiya potrebuyut ot KNDR vozderzhat’sya ot provokatsionnykh deystviy.” Tass [published online in Russian 20 March 2017]. http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/4108799. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

[28] “Dal’niy Vostok ostavlen bez zashchity.” Voprosik [published online in Russian 28 March 2016]. http://voprosik.net/dalnij-vostok-ostavlen-bez-zashhity/. Last accessed 17 May 2017.

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Cybersecurity Sitrep: It’s My PC and I’ll Cry If I Wanna…

In February 2016, we wrote about the dispute between the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Apple, Inc. over the government’s demand that Apple intentionally create an insecure “back door” version of its iOS software that would permit the FBI to break encryption on the iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, Syed Rizwan Farook. Apple and others claimed that once a “back door” into a system was created, it would inevitably become known and would be used by criminals and spies to steal personal information. Apple worried that the FBI would not be able to keep the back door safe from hackers, pointing to previously publicized hacks that had exposed a great many government secrets.

While the solution we favored, having Apple digitally “sign” software written by the FBI to access the iPhone, was not implemented (the Bureau purchased hacking software from an Israeli company for nearly $1 million instead, and reported that no useful information was then recovered from the device), the larger issues related to encryption and system security went unresolved.

Beginning on May 12, 2017, hundreds of thousands of computer systems across the world were incapacitated by a ransomware attack dubbed “WannaCry.” Computers in hospitals in Britain’s National Health Service caused facilities to be closed, surgeries to be postponed, and ambulances to stop transporting patients. Other critical computers became inert, and system operators scrambled to disable networks to keep the virus from spreading. 

While such attacks are not new, WannaCry is slightly different, and thus, more virulent than earlier ones. Carried by email, this trojan virus infects Windows computers and encrypts most or even all of the files. The virus then demands that a ransom in BitCoin be paid in order to have the files decrypted. In the case of WannaCry, the demand is a ransom of $300 at the time of infection. If the user doesn’t pay the ransom within three days, the amount doubles to $600. After seven days without payment, WannaCry will delete all of the encrypted files, leaving the computer completely useless.

The reason that this virus has been so dangerous is that it uses an “exploit” or security hole in Windows that was developed by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Called “EternalBlue,” this flaw in Windows was kept secret by the NSA for its own intelligence gathering purposes. It was made public last month when a group of hackers called Shadow Brokers released the details of the exploit on the internet. Because this flaw exists in Windows XP, 8, and 2003 Server, which are no longer updated with security patches by Microsoft unless an expensive custom support agreement has been purchased, (as well as unmatched newer versions of Windows) any system running these unpatched versions contained the seeds of its own destruction. (Last Friday, Microsoft did finally issue a free update to patch the vulnerability, which should immediately be installed by anyone running these systems.)

When NSA’s EternalBlue code was mixed with an aggressive internet scanner program and a run-of-the-mill ransomware program, WannaCry was born. We still do not know who is behind the attack, but it is still in progress. A new Windows PC placed on the internet will be attacked by this virus in less than 30 minutes, according to security researchers. We may also expect that modified and more deadly versions of this software will begin circulating quite soon.

The policy debate reignited by WannaCry is whether governments should develop and stockpile cyber “exploits” that they use in espionage and cyberwar actions. Microsoft President Brad Smith, in a blog post stated, “We have seen vulnerabilities stored by the CIA show up on WikiLeaks, and now this vulnerability stolen from the NSA has affected customers around the world. Repeatedly, exploits in the hands of governments have leaked into the public domain and caused widespread damage. An equivalent scenario with conventional weapons would be the U.S. military having some of its Tomahawk missiles stolen.”

In the game of cat-and-mouse that is cyber, intelligence agencies argue that they must stay one step ahead of adversaries in order to perform their functions. On the other hand, discovered vulnerabilities may disproportionately affect both the U.S. government and the private sector, as well as our allies. Bills have been proposed in Congress to force confidential disclosure of such vulnerabilities to companies whose systems have been penetrated, but the debate over such measures is still far in the future, and the fate of the legislation is uncertain.

Microsoft’s Smith went on, “The governments of the world should treat this attack as a wake-up call. They need to take a different approach and adhere in cyberspace to the same rules applied to weapons in the physical world. We need governments to consider the damage to civilians that comes from hoarding these vulnerabilities and the use of these exploits. This is one reason we called in February for a new ‘Digital Geneva Convention’ to govern these issues, including a new requirement for governments to report vulnerabilities to vendors, rather than stockpile, sell, or exploit them.”

We at FPRI look forward to the debate that WannaCry may instigate, and we pledge to provide our research results and views to those engaged in that debate, in what we view as a pressing need to protect our “Digital Commons.”

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What Russia Wants in Syria

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Col. Hamilton served as the Russia policy advisor in the U.S. delegation to the International Syria Support Group in the summer of 2016.

The recent U.S. cruise missile attack in Syria disrupted—at least for the near term—any prospect of a “reset” in the U.S.-Russia relationship and brought into sharp focus the incompatibility of Washington’s interests in Syria with those of Moscow. For Russia, Syria represents one of two pillars of its strategy in the Middle East, the other being Iran. Moscow has staked its regional strategy on an alliance with these two states as counterweights to the U.S.-aligned Sunni regimes that dominate most of the region. Syria is of particular importance in this strategy because it hosts naval and air bases that enable a Russian military presence in the Levant and the Mediterranean. This presence is important to Russia for military reasons and because it demonstrates Moscow’s revival as an important player on the global stage.

Additionally, Russia’s bitter experience with the Sunni insurgency in Chechnya leads it to view the Sunni-led uprising against the Alawite Shia—but largely secular—Assad regime as another case of Sunni terrorism that directly threatens Russian interests. To Russians, the U.S. insistence that some of the Sunni groups fighting the Syrian regime are moderate opposition—and therefore deserve to be differentiated from the terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham[1]—rings hollow. Despite the fact that these groups are signatories to the February 2016 cessation of hostilities in Syria, Russian official statements rarely refer to them as moderate opposition, instead often labelling them terrorists or “so-called moderate opposition.”[2]

Syria also figures prominently in Russia’s geopolitical calculus for what it represents: a chance for Russia to take a stand against what it sees as a U.S.-engineered series of regime changes that target the stability of Russia itself. From the “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union to the Arab Spring uprisings, many Russians believe the U.S. is carrying out a deliberate and comprehensive program of enforced democratization, with Russia as its ultimate target. Reflecting this belief, Russian representatives to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Geneva remarked to their U.S. counterparts on multiple occasions in 2016 that Russians are not fond of the “Iraq model.”

References to the “Iraq model” convey two Russian concerns about the potential outcome in Syria, both of which revolve around the UN plan for political transition there. In the Russian view, this plan, which calls for “fresh elections” 14-18 months after the achievement of a durable cease-fire, is a recipe for chaos and renewed civil war. This fear is not unreasonable. After all, voters in a country that has experienced a six-year conflict that morphed into a bitter ethnic and sectarian civil war with considerable interference by outside powers can hardly be expected to have sufficient trust in the democratic process to refrain from casting their votes along those same ethnic and sectarian lines.[3] And the political institutions of a country riven by such ethnic and sectarian violence can hardly be expected to contain the grievances this violence has stoked, especially if those institutions themselves are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. So the first Russian concern with the “Iraq model”—that is, democratization imposed from without, in a country with deep divisions in identities—is its potential to plunge the country into renewed civil war.

A second Russian concern, not expressed openly but deeply held, is that if a democratically elected government in Syria does manage to hold itself and the country together, it will turn Syria from a strategic partner of Russia into an adversary. This is because any democratically elected government in Syria, a country with a 74% Sunni majority, is likely to align itself with the other Sunni regimes in the region and against Russia. In this case, Russia stands to lose one of the two pillars of its regional strategy, along with its air base at Latakia (Hmeymim) and its naval base at Tartus. Since it sees renewed civil war or an adversarial regime as the two most likely outcomes of the UN transition plan for Syria, Russia routinely works to undermine this plan while supporting it officially.

So Russian objectives in Syria can be summarized as preserving a Russia-friendly regime, striking a blow against what it sees as Sunni terrorism, and ending the string of what it believes are U.S.-inspired regime changes in states friendly to Russia. Prior to the chemical attack at Khan Shaykhun on April 4, these objectives were not fundamentally incompatible with those of the U.S. under the Trump administration. Even the Obama administration, which had earlier taken a much harder line on the Assad regime, had near the end of its tenure signaled a willingness to consider an extended transition period that preserved a privileged position for the Alawites, if not Assad himself. Since taking office, the Trump administration had prioritized the defeat of ISIS over all other goals in Syria, including that of free elections in accordance with the UN transition plan. So there appeared to be room for an agreement in Syria that met the minimum acceptable outcome for both the U.S. and Russia.

The murder of some 85 people in Khan Shaykhun changed the U.S. position almost overnight and removed the possibility of any agreement over Syria in the near term. We may never know whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime’s chemical attack. But we do know that Russian diplomatic and military support for the regime emboldened it and may have encouraged it to take drastic action in an effort to accelerate the military victory it is pursuing. One thing that has become clear since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 is that, whereas the U.S. and the UN are trying to end the war in Syria, Russia and the Syrian regime are trying to win the war there. Even before Khan Shaykhun, in the pursuit of a military victory over the insurgency, Russia and the regime had withheld humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas and bombed civilian infrastructure, including hospitals. But Khan Shaykhun was an even more obvious violation of international law and left the new U.S. administration, which had come into office explicitly rejecting many traditional U.S. foreign policy ideals based in international law and the liberal world order, repulsed by the carnage and driven to military action in response.

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. strike will deter further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. It also remains to be seen whether the strike signals a change in the level of U.S. involvement in Syria. What is clear is that although U.S. and Russian objectives in Syria were not fundamentally incompatible before April 4, any space for a deal over Syria has vanished for the time being, and many more people will die before the prospect of another deal re-emerges, if it ever does.


[1] This group was formerly named Jabhat al-Nusra and was the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. In the summer of 2016, it changed its name and allegedly cut ties with Al Qaeda, but remains classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the UN.

[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense website’s Syria page (http://syria.mil.ru/en/index/syria.htm) has numerous examples of this tendency. In direct conversations with U.S. officials, the tendency for Russians to refer to these groups as “terrorists” is even more pronounced.

[3] Elections in these conditions contain many of the aspects of a “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In other words, if one ethnic or sectarian group refrains from casting its votes along ethnic or sectarian lines, but the others do not, the group that refrained from ethnic or sectarian voting will be deprived of representation, while its competitor groups will not. The incentive for every group in this type of environment is therefore to vote along ethnic or sectarian lines, which ensures the election of a divided government.

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China’s Nuclear Interest in the South China Sea

Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent could be added to that list of reasons.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats—and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the United States and then the Soviet Union. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent.

China’s Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent

Early on, China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea.  And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be.  Thus, in the late 1950s, China began to acquire the technology needed for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), which can operate underwater for long periods, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).[1]

By the 1980s, China built its first SSBN, the Type 092 (or Xia-class), along with its first SLBM, the JL-1. Though only one Xia-class submarine ever became fully operational, China went to great lengths to protect it. Chinese engineers tunneled under a rocky promontory at Jianggezhuang, adjacent to the Yellow Sea, to provide the submarine with a hardened shelter. As it turned out, the Xia rarely went to sea during its service life.[2] But if it sailed into the Yellow Sea today, China might have some cause for concern, given the proximity of capable naval forces from Japan, South Korea, and the United States on the sea’s eastern edge.

China’s Southern Strategy

After the Cold War, China continued to improve its sea-based nuclear deterrent. About a decade ago, China began serial production of its second SSBN, the Type 094 (or Jin-class). So far, the Chinese navy has commissioned four Jin-class submarines; the completion of the JL-2 SLBM followed.[3] But years before the submarines entered service, China had already started construction on a new naval base for them that runs along Yalong Bay, near the South China Sea. With satellite imagery, one can see the grand scale of the new base.  (See image below.) It even features a submarine tunnel, like the one at Jianggezhuang, but with enough room for loading facilities and multiple submarines.[4]

Yalong Bay Naval Base

 

China’s Jin-class SSBNs are now regularly seen at the base.  (See image below.)  South of it is the South China Sea—a region increasingly dotted with Chinese military outposts and airfields. It is also a region with no navies capable of directly challenging China’s. Indeed, Chinese strategists may have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s SSBNs could safely operate under the protection of friendly air and naval forces. The Soviet navy operated in the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in much the same way during the Cold War.

Jin-class Submarines
Source: Jamestown Foundation

To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. If China has come to see the South China Sea as important to the security of its sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they have been to date.


[1] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China’s Strategic Seapower: The Politics of Force Modernization in the Nuclear Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 23–125, 129–205.

[2] Stephen Saunders, ed., Jane’s Fighting Ships 2014-2015 (London: Jane’s Information Group, 2014), p. 128.

[3] Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, Apr. 2016), p. 26.

[4] Richard D. Fisher, Jr., “Secret Sanya: China’s new nuclear naval base revealed,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2008, pp. 50–53.

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Snap Judgments on Snap Elections in the UK

As Europe digests the results of last Sunday’s referendum in Turkey and prepares for this weekend’s first round of presidential elections in France, Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom has added a further electoral entrée to the Continental smorgasbord. This morning, the PM announced her decision to call for an early parliamentary election, proposing that parliament dissolve on 3 May and that new elections take place on 8 June.

This announcement is not the first time that a British Prime Minister has called for a “snap” election before Parliament’s formal term expires, but it is the first time since the Fixed Term Parliaments Act tightened the regulations of such a decision. According to that law, parliamentary terms are set for five years (meaning the next scheduled general election would have been in 2020), unless a 2/3 supermajority in the House of Commons votes in favor of early dissolution. With PM May’s Conservatives and the main opposition Labour party each signaling support for the decision, that vote appears to be a foregone conclusion.

Why did May choose this course of action? In some ways, her motivations are the same as for other prime ministers who have called snap elections in the past. After winning the 2015 general election, the Conservatives have held a narrow majority in the house of Commons (330 of 650 seats), but since then, the Labour Party appears to be in such disarray that polls suggest an early election offers a real opportunity to widen their lead. Furthermore, Prime Minister May gained office not through that general election victory, but through intra-party maneuvering after her predecessor David Cameron’s decision to resign last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum. So, she has an interest in claiming an independent mandate as she attempts to guide the UK through the process of turning the vote for Brexit into reality.

Brexit is the issue which gives her decision a significantly different cast from previous snap elections. The May government formally triggered the two-year process of leaving the European Union on March 29, which means that by the end of March 2019, the UK will no longer be a member of the EU. The concrete shape of a post-EU United Kingdom—its relations with its former partners, and with the rest of the world, not to mention whether the UK, facing secessionist rumblings in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, will be united at all—will depend on the deals that Her Majesty’s Government is able to negotiate. Initially, hoping to avoid instability, May had declared her intention to work out those deals with her current majority, and then frame her 2020 re-election campaign as a referendum on her handling of Brexit. After several months of turbulent debates in both Houses of Parliament over the strategy of Brexit, however, May has apparently decided that she needs a clearer mandate from the British electorate to weaken opposition forces in all parties and perhaps even to send a message to frustrated “Remain” voters that she has the country behind her and that they should give up hopes of reversing the relatively narrow result of last years’ Brexit vote.

Political cynics would also mention that an electoral mandate would also make it easier for Prime Minister May to reshuffle her government. Mounting criticism of Foreign Minister Boris Johnson in particular has become a problem, especially because of the Foreign Office’s central role in Brexit talks. May put Johnson in Whitehall in the name of party unity during the maneuvers that brought her into No. 10 Downing Street. Firing the bumptious Brexiteer would thus be politically awkward. A strengthened, post-election May, however, could announce a Cabinet reorganization, putting people more loyal to her personally into key positions and clarifying the lines of responsibility.

So it is not difficult to see why calling an early election makes sense for the prime minister, even if critics such as Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accuse her of “one of the most extraordinary U-turns in recent political history” and  “once again putting the interests of her party ahead of those of the country.”

There is the risk that a poor performance by the Tories could mean that May comes out weaker rather than stronger, but she has several factors in her favor. Most importantly, the Labour Party remains a disaster. Jeremy Corbyn’s weak and ambivalent role in last year’s Brexit referendum exposed deep divisions. Although he won re-election as party leader thanks to his popularity with the left-wing rank and file, many traditional Labour constituencies (working class voters in small towns as well as educated professionals in the big cities) are disillusioned. Polls indicate Labour is facing a debacle on the scale of Thatcher-era drubbings of 1983 and 1987.

Pro-EU voters may dream of using this election to re-run the Brexit referendum, but the British electoral system offers them little opportunity to do so. Conservative Remainers are likely to be wooed back into the fold by the desire to secure their party’s majority. Labour, worried about losing working class voters to the hard core Euroskeptics of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), are unlikely to make remaining in the EU part of their campaign. With the two major parties apparently focused on negotiating the terms of Brexit rather than rethinking it, the only party likely to stand up for remaining in the EU are the Liberal Democrats, who claim a surge in members over the past year but who are still smarting from their disappointing showing in 2015 and the criticism they earned for their coalition with Cameron and the Tories from 2010-2015. It will be worth watching to see if the LibDems rise in enough cosmopolitan boroughs to challenge May’s majority, but that is a long shot.

One party whose fate may depend on this election is the aforementioned UKIP. As the most enthusiastic Brexiteers, UKIP claimed victory in last year’s referendum, but since then, the party has been struggling to decide what it stands for. Should it simply count their winnings in shillings and pence and head off to the pub for a few pints (NOT half-liters) and a couple of appropriately curved bananas, assuming its work is done? Or should it attempt to position itself as a permanent fixture on the British political spectrum, a populist alternative to both major parties? Current poll numbers indicate the party’s future is unclear. The results of this election will tell us more about its future.

The last wild card in this discussion is the question of Scottish or Northern Irish secession, which deserves its own essay. Both of those regions voted to Remain in the EU, and in both, one hears a rising chorus speculating about exiting the UK. Nicola Sturgeon and her Scottish Nationalist Party have announced plans to push for a new independence referendum, but the result there is far from certain. If this general election follows the pattern set in 2015—Tory victories south of Hadrian’s Wall, SNP dominance in Scotland, and Labour gravely weakened—divisions between Westminster and Holyrood will only get deeper, no matter how big Theresa May’s majority in the House of Commons may be.

All of these moving parts remind us that these elections will not happen in a vacuum. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that electoral results can always surprise the most confident analysts, and results in one place can influence what happens in the next. The mere fact that the British will vote after the French have selected a new president, for example, may seal the fate of the EU even before the Germans go to the polls this fall. Or maybe not. We are still working through a substantial period of uncertainty, as weakened political establishments struggle to respond to populist challenges. Now that British voters will add their voices to the cacophony, harmony continues to recede into the distance.

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