Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seven Precipices: Venezuela After Chavez

 
"Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the Guianas" (1906)
Cram's Quick Reference Atlas and Gazetteer of the World
Recap

Venezuela has been riven by class conflict for years - it is generally regarded as "the" source of the newest wave of populist, socialist bureaucratic-authoritarianism in Latin America. The United States has been hampered in its ability to influence the situation on the ground, thanks in no small part to its own historical bungling of its image in the region - as is so often the case the US is blamed for a great deal of what is its fault and a helluva' lot besides.
 
Attempts by the pro-liberalism factions of Venezuela to oust the regime of the late Hugo Chavez failed repeatedly during his lifetime - but following his death last year a sense of possibility has emerged among his enemies. The result? Steadily swelling protests that are beginning to be spiked with violence and the emergence of armed, fortified militias - half yelling "communist," half yelling "fascist," and so far none inclined to moderation of rhetoric.

That's what you already know if you read my earlier brief .  Fair enough. Now onto the new material.

To understand Venezuela we need to understand the tensions in that nation.  They’re not too difficult to comprehend, but nonetheless deserve a little attention. 

Chunk I: Geography + Economy = Ideology

(1) Venezuela is middle-of-the-road economically.

That’s right – it isn’t a wealthy nation, but Venezuela is also better off than about half of polities on Earth with a gross domestic product (per capita) of US$13,600, 97th in the world according to the CIA’s WorldFactbook. Of course in political-economics that is generally the most dangerous place to be – enough wealth to guarantee folks’ fundamental needs (food, water, shelter, clothing) but not enough to improve the quality of life, environment, and community. 

(2) There are a lot of dissatisfied customers.

Reported unemployment is only about 8%, but that belies some heavier problems – almost 32% of people are below the poverty line and the GINI index for income inequality is pretty high, 39 – though this is better than the GINI for the United States and much better than the GINI the year I graduated college – almost 50 in 1998.  In light of the underdeveloped economy, however, the effect is still potentially destabilizing.  There are other relevant numbers too – the inflation rate, already very high (21% in 2012) is in a spring now – 57% in 2013 – while economic growth is stagnant, to say the very least – only 1.6% (GDP) last year. [For these and a lot more data check out the World Bank's World DataBank]

The dissatisfaction is made worse because it comes in two very different forms.  On the one hand are the former owners and managers of the nationalized industries and agricultural firms – many lost everything, virtually all experienced radical declines in income and many have fled to other nations (many meaning, quite literally, hundreds of thousands) – this last bit is significant – a general rule of development is “thou shalt not run off your bankers and educated elites.”

The other form lay in the radicalized poor – the very poor, especially the urban poor, who lack basic services and have, essentially, horrible lives because of it – and their allies.

What happens when you combine either of these forms with cheap, readily available mass communication and social media technologies?  Double-whammy ideological activation in different directions.  Problematic.

(3) Oil.

The seed of growth and destruction are one in the same in Venezuela, it would seem – a classic example of resource curse.  That seed is, of course, petroleum.  Venezuela has vast reserves of the stuff and has been milking it for everything it is worth for a good while – it is the 8th largest producer of petroleum on earth, in fact, something that never ceases to surprise most Americans.  This of course traditionally contributed to Venezuela’s income inequality, a condition which has decreased largely because of the nation’s nationalization of the substance (as well as most export-oriented agriculture) – meaning that decline in GINI I mentioned earlier?  Probably the result of making the owners and managers of the old system poorer more than it is a result of making the poor wealthier.

Nonetheless Venezuela’s oil treasure has muted many of the worst potential effects of the unconventional, shall we say, economic policies of Hugo Chavez’s regime – until something insane happened.  The United States of America began to import less petroleum.  In part this is because the US economy declined so precipitously during the first decade of the post-9/11 world – less business means you need less gas.  In part this is because the US finally started producing, and its consumers purchasing, vehicles with substantially improved fuel mileage.  In part this is because the US radically upped its domestic fuel production in the last few years.  No matter the cause, or who you give credit for it, he effect has been simple – Venezuela is losing is cushioning petro-income.

(4) Foreign investors have long memories.

There used to be a lot of investment in Venezuela – however most of that investment was into the industries and agriculture.  You know, those same fields that Chavez nationalized? 

Thus another commandment, this of bankers themselves, “thou shalt not throw good money after bad.”

As long as Chavez’s clique remains in power, and the general population continues to see that clique as legitimate, foreign investors aren’t going to invest and risk further nationalization of their wealth. 

Summary

In other words, we can understand the economic problems of Venezuela as falling into two broad categories, at least for our purposes – those geopolitical and neo-colonial issues which motivated Chavez and generated the broad public support to allow him to take and hold power (more on that below) and those which Chavez himself wrought. 

Chunk II: Chavismo

I’m going to call it like it is – Chavismo, the term generally used to describe the various ideological tenets lumped together into Chavez’s incompletely defined ideological position, may best be summarized in the following terms:

(1) Service-Oriented Socialism

Oh, socialism – one of those terms that makes Americans, with their love of political-economic liberalism, feel more than a little itchy and twitchy.  But it need not be so – heck, the word has more definitions than you can shake a stick at.  The way I’d put it is that it makes more sense for us to understand socialism as a spectrum, ranging from a condition of no state ownership of productive processes to another extreme in which the government owns all productive processes.  Oh, sure, we could get more philosophical and debate whether or not the state really owns those processes or whether it is merely a manifestation of the general will of the people and whether or not there are serious moral and practical implications for both or either, but that is probably more appropriate for a different venue.  So, um, to be continued.

Regardless, if we regard the United States as a mostly capitalist, a little socialist – a state that has socialized certain services but, even for those, generally still allows citizens to purchase comparable, privately distributed services, we can understand socialism as not alien – it is just watered down.  On the other hand, in Venezuela we have seen a steady increase in socialism since the first election of Chavez almost a decade and a half ago – in other words Venezuela has functionally been moving away from the US in terms of its institutional characteristics. 

How far away? Hmm.  Well, there has been a radical expansion in both the quality and quantity of services provided to the Venezuelan people – some of these are hard to argue against since, for the first time, they have provided normal folks with regular access to healthcare and education.  However, the Venezuelan state has also socialized its productive capacities to a substantial degree as part of its  “solidarity economy” – not just base-of-everything-else industries and services (e.g. water, electricity, media) which are often held in common in our more left-leaning friends’ states across the Atlantic (much to Milton Friedman’s chagrin!), but also of good-producing activities – notably, again, petroleum and plantation agriculture. 

(2) Populism

The ancient Greeks understood the emergence of monarchies, those types of states in which one person predominates absolutely or near-absolutely, as an almost inevitable outcome of high levels of poverty.  See, the poor don’t want much – they want food, water, healthy kids, a roof, and some entertainment.  Even minor improvements to their condition make the lives of the very poor much, much better.  All it takes then is a popular figure to provide the people with access to those things which the normal people want, be it minor healthcare, subsidized food, and cheap distractions and, well, they’ll often follow him or her like a puppy, even into giving up their own sovereignty.  Bread and games, we call it in political science.    So, how do you win power in a very poor country?  You either manipulate and buy the poor or disempower the poor. 

Machiavelli would call thisdichotomy the love/fear dichotomy – if you rule a highly unequal people with principally love (directing fear-tactics at the previously privileged) you get monarchies; if you reverse the equation you get aristocracies.   The former we call populism – giving the public what they want economically and socially in exchange for their political support. 

(3) Personalism

I love the song “Cult of Personality” and, honestly, it is appropriate here.  See, when populism is employed it may be employed to build support around ideological, religious, or ethno-national tenets.  Alternatively, or coincidentally, populism may build support around a symbolic figure, a hero or messiah or some other trope.  When this latter is the case one finds an instance of personalism. 

That said, personalism has another apt meaning as well, one significant in this context.  Specifically it refers to the tendency of some states to put the power to exercise authority executively, legislatively, and/or judicially into the hands of individuals rather than the making those individuals mere arbiters of preexisting laws.  The intent is often to compensate for complex moralistic paradigms, a general distrust of liberal rationales, and/or a distrust of institution in general.  To put it simply, legalistic polities don’t really give a damn if you are or are not moral as long as you obey the law – which means bad people sometimes win and it is considered an ethical outcome.  Personalistic societies insist that, since law and morality are non-equivalent morality must be taken as the first consideration.  This being the case law must be of less concern than the empowering of ethical trustees.   

(4) International Opportunism

Chavismo is opportunistic internationally.  The decisions of the regime have alienated, well, most states.  This isn’t surprising – populism and a willingness to ignore contractual agreements and proprietary definitions don’t make friends among people who regard law and property as sacrosanct (i.e. those who rule and own stuff).  As a result Chavez’s Venezuela made friends wherever they could find them – indeed, look at the polities that honored him – it is like a who’s who of nations that the United States kinda’ hates.   Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Belarus?  Oh yeah – superfun best-friend time.  This even extends to a willingness to use the great powers disagreements and mutual distrust against them – remember Venezuela’s agreement to let Russia use its airspace and facilities for bombers and naval vessels?

The US government sure as hell does.

(5) Snowball/Demonstration Effect

Finally, Chavismo envisions itself as an internationalist movement with high demonstration effect potential – the idea wasn’t merely to revolutionize Venezuelan society but to catalyze similar movements throughout the developing world.  And, honestly, to a degree this has been the case – certainly Bolivia has been influenced by Chavez, and it is arguable that movements like those transpiring in Brazil right now draw directly on Chavez’s influence.  That said, I suspect Chavismo is taking more credit than it deserves – Latin America and the developing world in general have had leftist movements for a very long time and not all of these, even by a long shot, we delegitimized by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – most important among them, in my opinion, being the liberation theology movement. 

Chunk III: Anti-Chavismo

Okay, knowing what Chavismo is constitutes a good start.  Yet it is worth a pause to note, further, who has emerged as anti-Chavismo, the groups which we can assume are the principal movers behind the protests which have emerged in the wake of Chavez’s death. 

(1) Those who despise Chavismo economics.


Easy enough – the more ideologically capitalist you are on that spectrum  I mentioned above, the more likely you are to reject the fundamental tenets of populism and socialism. 

(2) Those who despise Chavismo politics.

Chavez and his clique have remained in power through a lot of techniques, some of them legitimate (give enough voters what they want and they vote for you), others less so – there are pro-regime militias, reports of near constant violence, extreme levels of media censorship, extended periods of constitutional suspension and rule by fiat, and the human rights record under Chavismo is just abysmal, honestly.  Add to this the unusual interstate company Venezuela has begun keeping and, well, under such circumstances even if you are sympathetic to Chavismo economic ends there is a damn good chance you’re not fond of the political means.

(3) Those for who hate Chavez and his successors personally.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs – it is one of the oldest metaphors for realist politics that exists.  It also explains part of Chavismo’s problems – the broken eggs in this case weren’t cooked up and served with delicious bacon, but instead were left, brooding, poorer, angry, and with more rather than less free time.  They didn’t forget their educations and they didn’t lose their old international connections to the US, Canada, Europe, and the non-socialist Latin American polities.  And some of them aren’t just angry, but they hate.  Hate makes them willing to accept costs and risks that would otherwise be untenable.  And that makes them very, very dangerous to the regime.

The Timing

Okay, so a fair question – check that, a very fair question is – why now?

Well, in part we can attribute it to the absence of Hugo Chavez who passed away in March of 2013 from complications related to cancer – if you found a regime on the personal charisma of one leader, well, you are unlikely to see the regime endure much longer past his or her death without some sort of serious challenge – as often as not one that is successful. 

I’m reminded of Hua Guofeng. 

When Mao Zedong died in the fall of 1976 he was torn about who to leave the chairmanship to.  His most trusted confidant of any competence, Zhou Enlai, had died earlier that year.  He didn’t trust most of his other competent lieutenants to maintain the Maoist path – mostly moderates like the late Deng Xiaoping – but he also didn’t trust the more ideologically charged leftists (the dominant figures being he folk who would ultimately be grouped under  the less than complimentary nickname of the “Gang of Four”).  As a compromise he appointed the well-regarded, but politically not particularly important, Hua – a man loyal to Mao and his vision of China’s future.  Within two years, however, the final reins of power had been wrested from Hua and the Gang of Four was on trial as Deng and the moderates became the premier force behind the People’s Republic of China.  

It wasn’t that Hua was a bad leader, or incompetent, or stupid.  He simply wasn’t the man for the job.  Indeed, by helping the moderates with the disempowerment of the Gang of Four he, in essence, negated the rationale for his holding position in the party – making the moderate domination of the state, and the emergence of the Dengist reforms, nearly inevitable. 

Nicholas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela, bears many shades of Hua.  Endorsed by Chavez in the days before his death and supported, at least officially, by his primary competitors for power his ascension to the presidency was smooth – and legal, given his role as vice-president.  Chavez’s endorsement also carried him through the next presidential election, only about a month later – but barely.  Winning only about 1.5% over his primary competitor, substantially less than Chavez’s last win of around 5% and radically less than his substantial margins in earlier elections, Maduro won only by the skin of his teeth – or, if reports of electoral incongruities are to be believed (I have found mixed statements on this so I leave it open – but the close margin means even small variations in free and fair elections geographically could have serious implications), lost.

That said, dissatisfaction clearly isn’t enough.  We have yet to deal with  a lag – the current crisis didn’t begin until almost a year after Chavez died and was elected – indeed, protests didn’t emerge until February 12th of 2014, to be specific.

Easy enough – the kindling was stacked, it would, apparently, only take a match to light it.  That match as a series of particularly brutal crimes (including the murder of a former Miss Venezuela) that initiated widespread anti-crime and corruption protests that, in essence, merged with student protests that were taking place in commemoration of overlapping events – National Youth Day and a national holiday commemorating the Battle of La Victoria from the Bolivarian revolutions in the early 19th Century.  From that point the protests gradually became coopted by the opposition leadership which coordinated overlapping, multiple city protests.  These continued to swell – the government attempted to abate them by arresting key leaders (most notably Leopoldo Lopez) and attempting to radically increase censorship (going so far as to shutdown opposition media sources completely in some cases).  There were also attempts to undermine the protests by raising the minimum wage however this did little to abate the staggering national inflation of Venezuela.

Increasingly the government has deployed police and military forces, particularly when opposition protestors constructed barriers, armed, and/or armored themselves.  Incidents of violence are on the rise between state and protesting forces but nonetheless remain less frequent than might ordinarily be expected – thank goodness.

International Reaction

I’m going to summarize this pretty simply – the more left-leaning a government is, the more likely they are to support the government of Venezuela; the more right-leaning, well, the protestors.  The United States saw several State Department officials ejected when the Venezuelan government started scapegoating, attempting to explain away the protests as an American conspiracy – probably a very unwise political move given that it was this action that brought the crisis in Venezuela into American media’s active consciousness.  Above all, however, the international community has called out for peaceful resolution and meaningful addressing of the protestors’ concerns.  And, of course, attention to Venezuela has waned as the Ukrainian crisis has heated up - once again, if it happens in Europe, it leads.

Emergent Outcomes Possibilities and Probabilities

This is a tough one to call – those election numbers, 50/50 – well, they’re scary.  That means there is a powerful, meaningful ideological division in Venezuela, one that is unlikely to be alleviated soon and, equally, one that may harden given the fact that Venezuela’s problems are simply not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.  Honestly, I see two potential outcomes and I wouldn’t want to put money towards either one.  Option one – the protestors and state come to blows and whichever side the military comes down on, well, wins.  And honestly, I’m guessing the military comes down on the side of government given recent trends in behavior.  Option two – the protests continue, sometimes more dramatically, sometimes less dramatically, but never going away as the government’s approval rating continues to shrink, not only thanks to the its near-inevitable failure to deal with Venezuela’s economic problems but also because of mismanagement of the protests (in the age of social media state censorship does not win battles over the future of nations).  As a result the protests destabilize the state to the degree that emergence elections are held, allowing opposition leaders to take control – a position they will only continue to hold if they consciously deal not only with the economic problems but also with the fact that the politically activated poor and military of Venezuela must be included in any reform-of-regime efforts. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Seven Precipices: The Ukrainian Crisis [UPDATED]

Map of Crimea (1854) from A School History of England
Courtesy of Maps, Etc. 
Recap 

The history of Ukraine is complicated to say the very least.  It is a principally Slavic nation which has been dominated in part or in whole for most of its history by outside powers - Russia (sometimes in the guise of the Soviet Union), Prussia, Austro-Hungary, Turkic tribes, the Mongol, and Poland-Lithuania.  It is religiously somewhat diverse, but it is Ukraine's ethno-linguistic divisions which are driving the competition for control of the state and two fundamentally different visions of that nation's political-economic future.

Rural Ukrainians and urban western Ukrainians (those who principally speak the Ukrainian language) want a liberal political-economy allied and linked to the West.  Urban eastern and Crimean Ukrainians want a Russo-centric polity, one that follows the bureaucratic-authoritarian principles of Putin's everything-old-is-new-again state. Finally, there are other regional minorities - notably Crimean Tatars (returned from Stalin's deportation), Bulgars, Romanians, and Hungarians - who are generally in accord with Ukrainian-speakers.   

Put simply - this looks messy from the get-go. 

Make it messier from the fact that Russia's meddling has made this a face-contest - if Putin let's Ukraine out of its sphere of influence then Russia looks like it can't keep its house in order and its domination of other parts of Eurasia, perhaps even within its own border, becomes far more problematic. 

Make it messier still by adding some realpolitik.  Take a second and look at a map of the world.  Russia is big with lots of coastlines, but not all coastlines are made equal.  Little of that vast coast is pointing in the right direction to efficiently reach markets or strategic locations either in-region or inter-regionally and much of it requires passing through minority-dominated areas, areas that, were they to rebel, could be cut off from Moscow. Not only that, but most of those ports are ice-locked for large periods of time during the winter months.  Russia therefore sees domination of Ukraine, and its portages, as essential to its interests - economic at the least, since the strategic value of the Black Sea ports is radically lower given NATO's post-Cold War domination of the Straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus (though I dare say that Russian policymakers emphasize the military at least as much).

That's what you already know if you read my earlier brief brief (one being an adjective, the other a noun).  Fair enough.  Now onto the new material.

Before the Olympic War

Viktor Yanukovych was president of the Ukraine.  If you are in favor of the ousting you probably consider this a restoration of liberalism and Orange Revolution ideals.  If you are against the ousting you consider this an illegal and unjustifiable act of violence. 

Fact of the matter, it was a coup - justifiable or not being a matter of ideology, ethnicity, or both.  

Let me reveal my bias - Yanukovych was an autocrat, crushing dissent and freedom of speech, movement, assembly, and privacy.  There is a lot of discussion with regards to the quality of the election that brought him into office but it certainly is a matter of some contention due to concerns of Russian efforts at electoral corruption.

Regardless of the validity of the election (which I think is interesting but not immediately the crux of the matter) the official geodemography of it reveals a great deal - check out these maps of the internal political divisions in the nation and a helluva' lot becomes immediately clear - kudos to The Washington Post's "WorldViews" contributor Max Fisher.

Fair enough.  Fast forward to 2013, late November.  Yanukovych announces by fiat that he is withdrawing Ukraine from trade discussions with the European Union in favor of closer political-economic ties with the Russian Federation.  Among ethnic Ukrainians and other non-Russian ethnic groups there is widespread and general outrage at the decision.  Within a week and a half not only are there nationwide protests but furthermore there are clear efforts to suppress the protests using police violence.  In mid-January Ukraine reinforces efforts to undermine the protests by passing several extremely repressive anti-protest laws - I have been looking for an English translation of these but so far haven't found one, but the manner in which they were passed was, frankly, offensively anti-democratic (and a helluva' justification of bicameral legislatures) - in essence, in the middle of discussions of unrelated materials the vote was initiated without discussion, completely surprising the opposition and clearly coordinated secretly by the leadership of the ruling party.  To summarize, however (with the rejoinder that, again, I haven't read these myself and would be immensely grateful to anyone who could get me a translation to read and, if possible, publish) the laws created huge civil and criminal punishments for protesting or critiquing the regime in person, print, or online.  

The effect was, rather predictably, to encourage rather than discourage opponents of the regime and the scale and violence of protests increased until late February when it seemed that civil war was nearly inevitable.  

Finally, as the threat loomed so large even Yanukovych couldn't deny it, the president resigned his office, fled the capital for parts unknown, and the parliament cancelled the majority of the anti-protest laws.   

This was, however, to be no Second Orange Revolution, however, which is not an entirely negative thing - after all, a repeat of that regime change would more than likely result in similar long-term outcomes.  Yet this was not to be a Velvet Revolution either, leading to a peaceable parting of ways between ethnic Russian and non-Russian Ukrainians.  Heck, it wasn't even to be an inelegant modern-day Sudentenland Incident.  Why?  Because Russian interest in Ukraine isn't limited to the ethno-national angle - heck, it probably isn't principally interested in the ethno-national angle.  No, friends, this is about the Black Sea and the Black Sea fleet.  

The Olympic War: Everything Old is New Again

First, let's address the term I'm using (that I damn well made up).  The Olympic War.  Have a lot of people died - no, not yet.  But did a great power invade a weaker neighbor with the intent of intervening in the government and guaranteeing geopolitical and geostrategic dominance over it?  You're damn right.  And that, my friends, is a war. 

So, let me liberally quote the good folks at al-Jazeera who are maintaining a very nice timeline of the events. Consider: 

Feb 22: Ukraine politicians vote to remove Yanikovich. Tymoshenko is freed from prison and speaks to those gathered in Kiev. May 25 is set for fresh presidential elections.

Feb 23: Ukraine's parliament assigns presidential powers to its new
speaker, Oleksandr Turchinov, an ally of Tymoshenko. Pro-Russian protesters rally in Crimea against the new Kiev administration.

Feb 24: Ukraine's interim government draws up a warrant for Yanukovich's arrest.

Feb 25: Pro-Russian Aleksey Chaly is appointed Sevastopol’s de facto mayor as rallies in Crimea continue.

Feb 26: Crimean Tartars supporting the new Kiev administration clash with pro-Russia protesters in the region. Potential members of the new Ukrainian government appear before crowds in Independence Square. Turchinov announces disbanding of Berkut - the feared riot police. Russian troops near border with Ukraine are put on alert and drilled for "combat readiness".

Feb 27: Pro-Kremlin armed men seize government buildings in Crimea. Ukraine government vows to prevent a country break-up as Crimean parliament set May 25 as the date for referendum on region’s status. Yanukovich is granted refuge in Russia.

Feb 28: Armed men in unmarked combat fatigues seize Simferopol International Airport and a military airfield in Sevestopol. The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of aggression. United Nations Security Council holds an emergency closed-door session to discuss the situation in Crimea. The United States warns Russia of militarily intervening in Ukraine.

Moscow says military movements in Crimea are in line with previous agreements to protect its fleet position in the Black Sea. Yanukovich makes his first public appearance, in southern Russia.

Mar 1: As situation worsens in Crimea, local leaders ask for Russian President Vladimir Putin's help. Russian upper house of the parliament approves a request by Putin to use military power in Ukraine.

Damn elegant.  Let me make it more complicated.  The Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia.  The Ukraine attempts to deal with their crisis smoothly.  The Russians wait until the international press has shrunk to pre-Olympic levels.  They call up their forces, design a strategic incursion plan (or more likely a series of said plans), make sure Yanukovych is safe and sound in their own borders (cough - puppet - cough) and begin taking steps to secure their bases in the Black Sea, steadily expanding their capabilities from the bases themselves into the territories abutting those bases.  After Putin gets permission to intervene (unanimous permission - probably a combination of rally-around-the-flag, patrimonialism, corruption, and good-old-fashioned threats) he begins upping the ante, actively moving forces on a significant scale into strategically important areas of the Ukraine, most importantly the Crimean Peninsula and its its principle port, Sevastapol (or Agyar in Crimean Tatar), though there is reason to expect at least the ethnic Russian dominated cities of eastern Ukraine stand to be occupied as well - a broader incursion is possible but the costs entailed are radically higher, of course.  

So, where do Russian forces stand now?  I'll be honest, I'm having a difficult time confirming specifics - some things seem to be emerging from the fog however.  First, there are clearly troops in several strategic points in Crimea who are working for the Russians - the reports are just too overwhelming to doubt that.  The "identity" of these troops is dependent however on the report you're reading - mercenaries (think Russia's very own Blackwater), Russian military forces, or some combination of those being no matter.  There are some indications that Russia is at least in communication with ethnic-Russian militias in different parts of the Ukraine, almost definitely gleaning intelligence and possibly establishing weapons caches, training insurgents, and establishing plans for strategic and tactical sabotage and Ukraine military resource diversion.  There has been a significant increase of military preparedness on the Russo-Ukrainian borders (I suspect there are probably similar preparations in Transnistria as well - call it a gut instinct).  

So why aren't we calling it a war?   Easy.  They're big.  They're beautiful.  They are the most dangerous things our species has ever created.   And Russia has a helluva' a lot of them.  

If you said nuclear weapons, well, you probably remember the Cold War.  Everything old, my friends, is new again.  

The International Reaction

Is exactly what we'd expect at this early stage - Europe is up in arms, but only allegorically.  The United States is fuming and spitting but not substantially changing its military disposition.  Russia is insistent of its good intents.  The United Nations is generally condemning but the only organ that really matters, the Security Council, is functionally unmoved despite closed negotiations and talks (which I would love to have been a fly on the wall for) - unsurprising since Russia has a veto on the UNSC.   

More specifically, I have rounded up some official, up to the minute, press statements from the big players.  Consider:

China


[Most other statements on Ukraine from recent days seem to have disappeared - indicating China is considering a policy shift]

European Union




France



Germany





Russia



MOFA on monument dismantling - February 25 2014  [there are many examples of this sort of release]

United Kingdom



United Nations






United States






The Emergent Outcome Possibilities and Probabilities

Well, now to the crux.  What comes next? 

Almost Definite - Ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars will engage in open conflict with Russian troops and ethnic Russian Ukrainian militias. 

Almost Definite - Ukraine will, for the foreseeable future lose control over the Crimean Peninsula.

Almost Definite - The United States and its allies (de facto and de jure) will covertly and diplomatically oppose Russian actions on a large scale but this opposition will fall far short of overt military action or economic sanctions on a large scale, in part because the US is incapable of replacing Russian supplies of natural gas to European consumers, in part because the West and its liberal allies will be unable to mobilize intergovernmental organizations to actively punish Russia (in part because of Russia's powerful role in these institutions), and most importantly because of Russia's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. 

Almost Definite - The People's Republic of China will be extremely uncomfortable with this Russian military activism in the borders of another nation and will further lean towards the West - this potentially (consider this Likely, not Almost Definite) could be mirrored in the behavior of other states that have complex relations with the West and share strategic space with Russia, including India, Iran, and Pakistan.

Almost Definite - Whatever element of the Ukraine survives as an independent sovereign polity will seek to rearm with weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent to Russian depredation.  NATO will radically increase its deployment of anti-ballistic missile technology in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, possibly openly extending the ABM shield to the Ukraine and Georgia and possibly other former Soviet polities.  

Almost Definite - A broad international consensus will emerge between the West and much of the Islamic world officially, improving intercivilizational relations.

Possible - Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea could become yet another of the growing class of polities which are recognized only by a single patron polity and its puppets (most of which today are clients of the Russian Federation), declaring themselves independent but exercising sovereignty only insofar as Russia allows this in practice.  Western Ukraine would almost definitely align with the West, signing bilateral defense treaties in the near-term and fast-tracking as much as possible denser association with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Insurgency or even civil war is almost inevitable should this come to pass and massive refugee movements should be expected.  This likely would further spur other disestablishmentarian movements in Russia proper, including among un-repatriated Tatar (descendants of Tatar expelled from the peninsula by Stalin who have not returned).  This group of Tatars, principally Muslim in terms of religious identity, are likely to be targeted by transnational radical religious fundamentalists as a source of recruiting and potential allies.  

Unlikely - The broad emergent international consensus will result in tangible Western and/or Islamic political and economic responses of strategic importance - serious economic sanctions.

Very Unlikely - The broad emergent international consensus will result in tangible Western and/or Islamic political and economic responses of strategic importance - a closing of the Bosporus and Dardanelles to Russian military and/or economic naval vessels.

Very, Very Unlikely - A United Nations peacekeeping operation of the Cypriot-type (divide and keep 'm from fighting) stabilizes de facto Russian Ukraine's border from ROU (Rest of Ukraine). 

Almost Impossible (But Not So Impossible That it Doesn't Warrant Note) - Russo-American military standoff a la the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Terrifying, but a near-worst-case scenario.   

Conclusion

This is far from over, and information is very limited - I'll continue to update as the crisis unfolds, however. 

God save the Ukraine and the Ukrainians. 

UPDATES

March 2 2014

There have been three major developments, concurrently transpiring in the short hours since I wrote this entry - notably (1) Russian military forces control virtually all of Crimea, thankfully with little or no loss of life, and are digging in on the peninsular border; (2) Ukraine has activated its entire military strength, reservists and militia included; and (3) the Western powers are apparently very close to imposing "targeted economic sanctions" against Russia.  More as I learn it. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Seven Precipices: An Introduction to the Emergent Violence in Brazil, the CAR, Pakistan, South Sudan, Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela

In a few hundred years our descendents are, I believe, going to look at the few decades following the end of the Cold War and compare them to the cataclysms of the Protestant Reformation and early Renaissance. 

A lot of good will have come from these days of chaos and insecurity, but only at the cost of much that was good before.  And lives.  So very many lives.

Set aside the disruptions of the halcyon days of the Third Wave of Democratization and shutter your eyes to the Arab Spring for a moment.  Ignore post-occupation Iraq and occupied Afghanistan.  In the dimness of our inattention, in this moment, as I type these very words, there are other threats, dark clouds threatening civil war in many nations.  But these are the places that are ill understood by Americans, places alien or poor, places we dare not notice too clearly for fear that our attention will be followed by our treasure and our sons and daughters. 

I want to talk about them, in part, because of their inherent importance and in part because people are starting to smell the smoke and hear the chants.  And, as it were, they are starting to ask questions. 

First, a plan of action:

Brazil

Economic/Ideological/Internationally-Complex


Brazil is one of the most important nations on earth - rapidly developing, huge, a regional power, and a real contender for the postition of the number two power in the Western Hemisphere.  The international community has recognized, in a sense, this importance in recent years by bestowing upon Brazil two distinct crown jewels - the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.  Lovely, to be sure, except that Brazil isn't a developed nation, but, again, a developing nation - high income inequality and poverty rates, as well as a tremendous slum geography and highly unequal infrastructure development. Problematic on the best of days, but mix in the fact that international sporting events are obscenely expensive and provide at best questionable economic benefits and the tinder is lit.

Less than 50% of Brazilians now think they should be hosting the World Cup - 80% think that the wealth spent on building infrastructure for the games should have been directed to more appropriate developmental goals.  Thousands of poor and very poor families are being displaced to build new sports centers, hotels, and other facilities. 

Cue protests in nearly every city in Brazil and riots in several.

The Central Africal Republic

Ethno-National/Religious/Malthusian 


Take a nation with little strategic importance. Imagine it is ethnically incredibly diverse, having nearly 90 different ethnic groups, each of which has their own language - necessitating communication between groups be conducted principally in either a creole or the language of their former colonial rulers.  Imagine that the nation is profoundly underdeveloped.  Imagine that it is in the most unstable interstate neighborhood on Earth and that predatory no-nation's armies, like the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) ravage the people and their economy like locusts.  Imagine that it has experienced military coup after military coup, with the notable color of a three-year "empire."  Imagine that nearly 12% of people had HIV or AIDS and that most of them had no access to viral suppression methods.  Imagine that said nation had experienced ages of religious diversity but, recently, political leaders have managed to synthesize factional politics around religious identity for their own ends, resulting in the emergence of inter-religious community violence, a la Bosnia.  Imagine France, as part of its dedication to keeping a lid on emerging conflict in its former colonial possessions in Africa, attempted intervention and found things were stickier and more problematic than they'd ever imagined. 

Yes.  There will be blood.


Pakistan

Radical Religious Fundamentalism v.
Military-Dominated Bureaucratic Authoritarianism v.
Tribal Paternalism v. Liberalism


Pakistan is, well, complicated.  Population-wise, it is huge.  The geography is incredibly complex.  It is the crux of three civilizations - the Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and Indian.  It is a focus of great power politics - bordering two (China and India), laying a stone's throw from another (Russia), still recovering from the colonial domination of a fourth (Britain) and dealing with the occupation of one of its neighbors by a fifth (the United States).  It is a member of the nuclear club yet can hardly be imagined to control its own borders.  It is riven by internal divisions, some sectarian, some political-factional (particularly the divide between military and civilian political leadership).

Pakistan has never been known for evincing any regime stability, but things have gotten even more complicated lately - why?  Well, the short version is this - certain internal actors in Pakistan have taken advantage of the American invasion of Afghanistan and the porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistani border to attempt to co-opt the displaced Taliban regime (which has always had a high dependence on Pakistan for resources and recruits) and then use them to control, de facto, large parts or even, eventually, all of Afghanistan after the Americans - nominally allies of Pakistan - withdraw.  A great idea, right? 

The problem is that, as is so often the case with radical political groups, the Taliban were anything but content to stay out of the affairs of Pakistan proper and they have turned on the hand that fed them, demanding a Taliban regime be erected in Pakistan.  The result?  An emergent insurgency that threatens to pull Pakistan into the maelstrom Afghanistan has been trying to drag itself from for decades. 
South Sudan

Ethno-National/Malthusian/Resource War


South Sudan is the newest polity that has near-universal recognition in the international system - it emerged after years of civil war between Arabic speaking northern Sudanese and non-Arabic speaking southern Sudanese.  It is also profoundly underdeveloped and deeply internally divided  - most of the provinces of South Sudan are currently experiencing some sort of conflict and virtually all of them are conducting their operations in a manner and method which would hardly be considered ethical according to international standards.  The most important conflict, however, is between the South Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM), who, formerly, were members of the South Sudan Defence Force (SSDF) and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) who have split along tribal, ethnic, and pragmatic lines over control of government apparatus, division of the receipts from oil production in particular provinces, and the security of their respective cattle herds - though the interference of the transnational (and vicious) Lord's Resistance Army in South Sudanese affairs is a a further destablizing factor as well.

Thailand

Corruption/Personalism/Malthusianism
Neo-Byzantine Politics


Thailand is a bit unusual - experiencing dozens of regime changes since the end of absolute monarchy but nonetheless remaining fairly socioeconomically akeel.  Yet recently it has been experiencing steadily less and less stability. I could go into detail but I'll put it simply:

(1) There is a 2006 military coup, overthrowing the Thaksin regime.
(2) In 2007 the military allows elections again and Thaksin's party wins the government.
(3) Less than a year later Thaksin flees Thailand and, after months of protests Thaksin's party is banned.
(4) Wait two years.  Now gigantic pro-Thaksin protests emerge and the Thai army responds by dispersing them, preventing a coup.
(5) Wait another year - Yingluck, sister of Thaksin, is elected to the position of Prime Minister.
(6)  Come 2013 anti-government protests begin anew - an election is finally called (under a state of emergency) in January of 2014 - the election is disrupted by protestors on a massive scale (anti-Thaksin) and around a quarter of polling places were affected significantly.  The source of the protests? Yingluck attempts to get a bill passed to pardon her brother on his corruption charges and allow him to return to Thailand.
(7) Violence is starting to raise its head in Thailand as protests shift increasingly toward riot and insurrection; the military so far has not intervened but reserves the right to do so should things deteriorate too far.

Ukraine

Ethno-National/Ideological/Internationally Complex

The history of Ukraine is complicated to say the very least.  It is a principally Slavic nation which has been dominated in part or in whole for most of its history by outside powers - Russia (sometimes in the guise of the Soviet Union), Prussia, Austro-Hungary, Turkic tribes, the Mongol, and Poland-Lithuania.  It is religiously somewhat diverse, but it is Ukraine's ethno-linguistic divisions which are driving the competition for control of the state and two fundamentally different visisons of that nation's political-economic future.

Rural Ukrainians and urban western Ukrainians (those who principally speak the Ukrainian language) want a liberal political-economy allied and linked to the West.  Urban eastern and Crimean Ukrainians want a Russo-centric polity, one that follows the bureaucratic-authoritarian priniciples of Putin's everything-old-is-new-again state. Finally, there are other regional minorities - notably Crimean Tatars (returned from Stalin's deportation), Bulgars, Romanians, and Hungarians - who are generally in accord with Ukrainian-speakers.   

Put simply - this looks messy from the get-go. 

Make it messier from the fact that Russia's meddling has made this a face-contest - if Putin let's Ukraine out of its sphere of influence then Russia looks like it can't keep its house in order and its domination of other parts of Eurasia, perhaps even within its own border, becomes far more problematic. 

Make it messier still by adding some realpolitik.  Take a second and look at a map of the world.  Russia is big with lots of coastlines, but not all coastlines are made equal.  Little of that vast coast is pointing in the right direction to efficiently reach markets or strategic locations either in-region or inter-regionally and much of it requires passing through minority-dominated areas, areas that, were they to rebel, could be cut off from Moscow. Not only that, but most of those ports are ice-locked for large periods of time during the winter months.  Russia therefore sees domination of Ukraine, and its portages, as essential to its interests - economic at the least, since the strategic value of the Black Sea ports is radically lower given NATO's post-Cold War domination of the Straits of Dardanelles and Bosporous (though I dare say that Russian policymakers emphasize the military at least as much).


Venezuela

Ideological/Socio-Economic


Venezuela has been riven by class conflict for years - it is generally regarded as "the" source of the newest wave of populist, socialist bureaucratic-authoritarianism in Latin America.  The United States has been hampered in its ability to influence the situation on the ground, thanks in no small part to its own historical bungling of its image in the region - as is so often the case the US is blamed for a great deal of what is its fault and a helluva' lot besides.

Attempts by the pro-liberalism factions of Venezuela to oust the regime of the late Hugo Chavez failed repeatedly during his lifetime - but following his death last year a sense of possibility has emerged among his enemies.  The result?  Steadily swelling protests that are beginning to be spiked with violence and the emergence of armed, fortified militias - half yelling "communist," half yelling "fascist," and so far none inclined to moderation of rhetoric.


Summation

Seven states.  Five continents.  Five civilizations. 

Complicated - I'm going to need to do some serious reading, so be patient - this is worth doing right.

So, here is my plan - I will address each of these as I have the chance in the next week or so, explaining them more fully and providing research links, etc.  Any advice, wisdom, links, articles, questions, etc. are very much appreciated as we move forward. 

God save humanity from itself.

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All maps courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook (online edition)