Thursday, March 5, 2015

Which Costs Matter

There has been much focus, and deservedly so, on the economic sanctions hitting Russia hard.  The problem is whether they hit those who support Putin or not, and whether they create economic opportunities for those who are good at evading the law (the police, organized crime) who also happen to be tied to Putin.

The latest reports focus on a different set of costs--that the Russian military is losing "large numbers" of soldiers in Ukraine.  This matters a great deal not so much because the mothers of these soldiers might become a huge political force (I am not sure their impact during Afghanistan was exaggerated or not) but because coercive political rule always, always, always depends on a key question: are the folks with the guns going to fire upon those who oppose the government?

Chenoweth and Stephan have engaged in much research on when non-violent dissent works, with one key factor being defection among the military/police.  What might cause the military to be more ambivalent about Putin?  Bearing the costs for his adventures.

I am not saying anything is going to happen soon or quickly, nor should we be thrilled that Russian young men and women are paying the price of Putin's aggression.  Also, as Bill and I argued in our book, there is nothing new about a country paying the price for a leader's ambition--the question is not what is best for the country but for the "kin".  In this case, the relevant kin are not the Russians in the near abroad (nor in any case of irredentism we studied) but those who prop up the government.

This is not going to end soon, but it may at some point end.  Hope is not a plan, but costs are integral for Ukraine's future and perhaps Russia's as well.  Does that make me favor the delivery of arms to Ukraine?  Um, still not sure about it.  It would increase the costs for everyone involved, and I am not sure that is a good thing even if it promotes dissension in Russia's ranks in the long run.  Why?  Because Ukraine will pay a higher cost in the short run as Russia has escalation dominance--it can and likely will go up and up in terms of escalating the conflict.

On the other hand, Ukrainians die while we sit by patiently.  If this were an easy problem, the answer would be obvious.....  And the last few times I have advocated the use of force, I have been not so happy with the outcomes (Libya, Afghanistan surge).   I have learned a wee bit of humility in all of this. 

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