Russia can count on the BRICs… to say nothing.

The crisis in Ukraine, if it escalates further, could spell trouble for the BRICs*.

Brazil is home to some 500,000 Ukrainians (the third largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world) and the two countries have committed to a long-term partnership in space technology development (rockets and satellites). India, similarly, has established long-term defense contracts and cooperation agreements (in areas such as nuclear safety) with Ukraine. Indo-Ukranian ties, it is true, pale in comparison to Russia’s long term political and military relation with India; but they are not negligible.

In contrast, China has very little to lose (China’s investment in Ukraine has been hugely exaggerated, based on unconfirmed figures and details of aid and investment that have likely not come to fruition, as is the case with most Chinese OFDI). But China is not sympathetic to Russia’s support for irredentist movements in East and, especially, Central Asia, and staunchly opposed to the redrawing of state borders on the bases of ethnic ties (if Putin wanted Chinese support he should’ve couched his actions in terms of historical rights and strategic value).

Neither of these countries is likely to speak out publicly against Russia. As I have argued before in several places, the BRICS are experts in avoiding elephants in the room. BRICS summits, like the one to take place later this year in Fortaleza (Brazil), are a forum for talking about pie in the sky ideas, not solving actual problems of global order or disputes between the member countries. Probably the only thing the BRICS agree on is that it hurts their cause to air their grievances in public (though they don’t agree on what that cause is).

But neither are they likely to come out in support of Russia. In 2008, when Russia crashed China’s party and fought with Georgia over South Ossetia in the middle of the Beijing Olympics, China withheld support and pressured the other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to do the same. China has and will likely continue to hedge and distance itself from the present crisis.

India kept remarkably quiet during the 2008 war despite having no discernible stake in Georgia (it had just very recently signed a nuclear deal with the US), so it is even more and will likely to do so now. The Russian press will trumpet the recent declaration by National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon that Russia has “legitimate interests” in Ukraine (which is true but meaningless), but India’s position will likely be one of favoring peaceful negotiation and multilateral dialogue.

Brazil was also absolutely silent during the Russo-Georgian war. In 2008, Brazilian foreign policy was arguably at the peak of its activeness and visibility. President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva was treated as an international rockstar and David Rothkopf even went so far as to anoint foreign minister Celso Amorim as the “world’s best foreign minister” (whatever that means). The situation today is very different. Not only does Brazil have much more of a stake in Ukraine than in Georgia (where it had no real interests), but Brazil no longer has the international presence it had years ago. President Dilma Roussef has pulled Brazil back from the international spotlight, and Brazil today gets more international press for its domestic unrest than for its foreign actions. Brazil has been especially cautious in engaging with issues of international security in the past few years, abstaining in the UN Security Council vote on Libya in 2011 and distancing itself from the crisis in Syria. The inaction on Libya, which many observers in the US viewed as a bold stance was actually tame and passive if compared to Brazil’s mediation efforts and “no” vote on sanctions against Iran a year earlier. So far Brazilian officials have issued no statement regarding the situation in Ukraine–the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account is probably the only one in the whole world not bursting with tweets about Ukraine. We can expect them to remain largely quiet until after the crisis is over, and only retroactively support whatever mutual understanding is arrived at.

At the end of the day, this crisis will not be the death of the BRICs but it will make many people stop caring about whether it’s alive.

*Yes, I’m ignoring South Africa here, and usually do when discussing the BRICs. I’m still waiting to be convinced that I shouldn’t…

Russian revisionism and the status security dilemma

Steven Ward has smart things to say about this whole Ukraine thing. He argues that Putin is acting out of distress over continued Western denial of Russia’s place in the sun.

Though he doesn’t make it explicit, his article puts into question claims about the “open, inclusive and flexible” character of the “American liberal order” that is supposed to allow for the peaceful accommodation of rising challengers. It’s pretty clear that this now-standard liberal trope downplays the very real limitations to status and power mobility within the liberal order or, at the very least, the existence of such perceptions in key countries like Russia, China, Brazil, etc. Whether these perceptions have a basis in fact or not, they are deeply consequential.

That said, though I clearly sympathize with the argument (and made it myself here before), it begs the age-old question of whether Russian revisionist behavior is a product of status obstruction and spiral dynamics or motivated by something else entirely and just exacerbated by these dynamics. In the latter case, more accommodationist policies could potentially be dangerous as well. You can call it the status security dilemma if you want. I don’t have the answer to what are the underlying motives any more than Ward does, but this is a central piece of the theoretical and policy puzzle that essentially determines everything else. Just saying that “Putin isn’t Hitler or Tojo” isn’t terribly informative.

Moreover, part of the problem with this argument is that status, security and economic goals are all hard to disentangle here (and usually elsewhere), such that it might not be possible to concede more status to Russia without making concrete policy concessions that carry real security and economic implications for Europe and for the US. Token concessions meant to stroke Russia’s ego (like G8 membership) are just not enough anymore. This is the exact same problem the US is facing with China, in that all possible cheap concessions have been made, and now any further adjustments to the international political (and institutional) order require the US (and Europe) to give up some influence and autonomy over real policy issues. As we know, however, power and influence can be reallyreally hard to part with. Grand bargains that reshape the field are not easy to accomplish, and usually involve some bloodshed (see also here and here).

Putin: The unlikely liberal-internationalist

Putin’s op-ed on Syria is the subject du jour. The article is meant as a reminder to Americans that they need to uphold the order they helped create in the post-WWII, and that this requires self-restraint and respect for international law. Bypassing the UN Security Council and going against the express opposition of public opinion and leaders the world over could throw the whole system out of whack, he tells us. Pursuing diplomacy and not unilateral force in Syria will help build trust and bolster the international legal system. How dare he?! That’s John Ikenberry’s schtick!

This is probably a Russian leader’s most awkward attempt at communicating directly with the American public since Konstantin Chernenko sucker punched Joan Rivers on the Johnny Carson show.

All kidding aside, Putin’s op-ed doesn’t hold a candle to Khrushchev’s 1959 Foreign Affairs article on Peaceful Coexistence, where he not only berated the US for being too aggressive and unwilling to cooperate on disarmament and to refrain from interfering on the affairs of other nations, but added insult to injury by suggesting that this was the case because America was too chicken to let history play out on its own terms.

A Kübler-Ross model for International Politics?

The Syria situation is moving too fast to allow for careful and thoughtful analysis and commentary (or at least that’s the most generous reason I can think of for the poor quality of coverage). But instead of sticking my head in the sand, I want to stick my neck out and offer up a couple of predictions regarding this new proposal by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov. Lavrov suggested that Syria will hand over its chemical weapons, doing away with the rationale for an attack.

As I have already hinted I predict that the proposed deal will fail to resolve the crisis. It will fail not because it’s a terrible idea or a disingenuous proposition, but because it’s “just too good to be true”.

Why it’s a good idea

Right now, Syria’s chemical arsenal is more a liability than an asset. These chemical weapons were first sought as a deterrent against Israel, but Israel is far from being Assad’s main concern right now. Also, giving them up would not leave Syria completely incapable of inflicting damage on Israeli cities. Having their delivery capabilities (which probably would include the capability to deliver conventional ordnance as well) destroyed by an American strike would make Syria much more vulnerable.

As far as the US is concerned, if I’m right and Obama doesn’t want to get involved in Syria in the first place or if the goal is to prevent against use of chemical weapons against civilians, even an imperfectly executed handover/destruction of chemical weapons accomplishes more than an attack would.

Why it probably won’t work

Bargaining and Signalling

It won’t work because finding a peaceful solution to problems isn’t just about being able to point out a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s about getting the players there. One obstacle might be that even though the players prefer a mutually cooperative solution, they might suspect that the other prefers to cheat. For fear of being suckered, no one cooperates.  Under conditions of uncertainty, the greater the payoffs from cooperation, more likely players are to cooperate; but the greater the costs of being deceived, more likely they are to play it safe. Cooperation can be hard to achieve even when all parties want it. A slightly different formulation is what we have come to call the “bargaining model”: states that prefer a peaceful bargain might end up going to war over an issue if they can’t agree on who’s the strongest or the most resolute. If only there were a way to tell truth and lie apart…

Rationalist International Relations scholars tell us that players who are intent on cooperating should be able to signal that intent to others. Seeing as how cheaters would have an incentive to misrepresent their intent (bargaining states have incentives to play up their strength and resolve), talk is cheap and signals must be costly to be convincing — actions must be so costly that an actor wouldn’t undertake them unless they were serious about cooperating. We can see this at play explicitly in British, French and American claims that for the Russian proposal to be taken seriously they need a credible signal that proves that this is not just some delaying tactic. The problem here is twofold.  First, Western powers are essentially asking Assad to agree to a strict and internationally supervised program to destroy his chemical arsenal, and are asking Russia (and China) to give up opposition to the use of force and/or international sanctions if Assad fails to comply with that plan. This isn’t just costly, it’s probably prohibitive and thus unreasonable. These things take a lot of time to set up and execute, would put a toll on the government and open it up to scrutiny in ways that handicap it vis-à-vis the rebels. Russia is also unlikely to want to give Western powers carte blanche at the UNSC. Second, and related, Assad and Russia can’t be certain that Western powers will be content with the relinquishing of chemical weapons. They have, after all, suggested that Assad should abdicate power. After going to great lengths to credibly demonstrate that the US can attack Syria even without support from the UN Security Council, European allies, the US Congress or the American people, there is little Obama can do to assure Assad that it won’t just decide to bomb him anyway. “Bombed if you do, bombed if you don’t”, isn’t very conducive to cooperation.

Denial and Anger

This mutual perception of insincerity will only be reinforced if there is no space for actual bargaining.  While Obama and those who oppose military force might be satisfied with diplomacy and could be willing to accept an imperfect deal, the hawks in the Administration and in the public will probably be assuaged by nothing short of what they’re putting on the table. Deluding themselves that they are bargaining magnanimously but in absolute denial that they might be contributing to the failure of a peaceful resolution, the Russian and Syrian response will do nothing but anger them further and prove to them that Assad isn’t to be trusted. They don’t believe any deal is possible anyway (Kerry said so himself).

Depressing predictions

In the next few days and weeks we’ll probably see the following:

1 – Administration officials claiming that diplomacy is only taking place because of the threat of force, and that the threat needs to be maintained if not increased. (ed. While I was writing this Obama came on TV and beat me to it. Gee, thanks, Obama…)

2 – The talks will fail to secure total and immediate compliance.

3 – When talks fail, we’ll hear things like “I knew it all along”, “it was too good to be true”. And these voices will go right back to pushing for an attack, but with probably even more expansive goals next time around. Some of the more dovish voices will argue that increasing the threat level might produce better results at the negotiating table, but that the “window of opportunity” is short and closing fast.

4 – Despite the failure in continued negotiations and whatever happens after (an attack might still follow, but it might not), if the internal situation shifts in Syria and Assad concedes in any way the US will claim credit, saying that the threat (or eventual use) of force was decisive.