The Week: Elections, Russians and Missiles

March 19, 2016 The U.S. presidential candidates grabbed headlines, while events in the Middle East and the Korean Peninsula also took center stage.

Geopolitical Pulse

|March 19, 2016

By George Friedman

The world’s attention this past week was focused on negotiations and power plays – in Syria, North Korea and even the U.S. presidential election. Obviously, the U.S. elections dominated much of the thinking in the United States, but it also garnered a lot of attention abroad. Americans would be surprised by the degree of interest foreigners have in American elections. They shouldn’t be. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world and what it does and says affects all countries. There is, therefore, an obsession over the election. Recall that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Barack Obama shortly after his election, simply because he was elected. There were expectations about what he would do during his presidency that were preposterous in retrospect, and pretty absurd at the time. But the global myth of the American president is that he is a mystic emperor, with the ability to will the impossible into being if he chooses. The fact that the president has pretty limited unilateral powers really isn’t understood.
 
Therefore, the world is both appalled and delighted by the American election. It is appalled because its vision of Donald Trump frightens people. Most believe that he would create chaos. They are much happier with Hillary Clinton, because they think of her as far more conventional and predictable. Many in the world are also delighted. It is always hoped that the leading power, whoever it is, will self-destruct, freeing the world of all its problems, and also demonstrating that it was unworthy of the role. Many see Trump’s success thus far as proof that the United States is as deeply flawed as they had feared and hoped. But as it becomes more likely that we have identified the candidates, the specter of Trump has fixated a far greater portion of the world than we might think. Whether fair or not, the fear of Trump is great, which motivates other countries to close deals while Obama is still in power.
 
In a sense, the American elections will be the major theme in the world in coming months. But there will be other developments. This week, the Russians decided to withdraw the core of their forces, mostly aircraft, from Syria. That was followed by a phone conversation between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as the announcement that Secretary of State John Kerry was traveling to Moscow for talks. We should recall that a few weeks ago Henry Kissinger went to Moscow. At his age, that was not a frivolous trip. He is frequently used by U.S. all administrations to explore possibilities and float ideas. Kissinger is likely appalled at the events in Ukraine and the deterioration of Russia’s relationship with the world, and he would, on a guess, be used to float ideas for a settlement.
 
I want to remind readers that, in our view, the Russian intervention in Syria seemed to be a challenge to the United States but actually solved an American problem. The U.S. was historically hostile to the Bashar al-Assad regime, and the uprising against Assad was welcomed. With the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria, that opposition had become problematic. If Assad loses and the opposition is fragmented into dozens of groups, what would stop IS from taking Damascus? There are many factors that might stop them, but since IS has done what seemed impossible in the past, the U.S. can’t discount the worst case. Therefore, the U.S. didn’t want Assad to fall, but it didn’t want to reverse policy and save him. Enter the Russians, whom the U.S. roundly condemned and I think quietly welcomed. There had to be prior discussion and coordination, if only because the Russians were introducing combat aircraft in an area where the U.S. has air superiority and neither side wanted the kind of incident that occurred in Turkey, when the Turks shot down a Russian plane. So there were talks. And each side leaks like a sieve.
 
Still, the intervention solved an American problem, and the withdrawal nailed it down. The presidents spoke and it was made public that they spoke on two things: Syria and Ukraine. The two have been linked from the beginning. As we have outlined, Russia’s intervention in Syria was never primarily about Syria. The Russians want to use their demonstration of military capability (however limited) to create a solution in Ukraine. The United States has far fewer military options in Ukraine than it might seem, as Ukraine is a very big country to defend. And the Russians are not yet militarily ready to undertake an attack. 
 
There is a compromise possible on Ukraine. That would be in the Kissinger tradition. This would require an agreement by both sides that Ukraine would be militarily neutral. In other words, it would not be drawn into the Western defense system or have Russian forces present. Arms sales would be limited and controlled, and military training also limited. Ukraine would be a vast buffer. The Russians would halt all operations in eastern Ukraine, but the region would receive a form of limited autonomy. Crimea would return to its prior condition – formally Ukrainian, but effectively under Russian control. Sanctions would be dropped.
 
But an agreement could be pushed further. The Russians might ask for the U.S. to withdraw the prepositioned weapons it placed in Poland and Romania and limit its deployment there, as the price for returning official control over Crimea. That would be very hard for the U.S. to do as it would shake the foundations of the alliances the U.S. is building with Poland and Romania, and force them to seek accommodation with Russia on their own. The U.S. might ask for guarantees that the Russians would not bring pressure on the Baltic states or on Moldova. The Russians might agree to this.
 
And here the problem begins. The U.S. withdrawal of equipment violates its rights as a NATO member and, more important, would undermine U.S. credibility deeply. The effectiveness of the Russian guarantee is uncertain. The weapons are gone, but how do you measure the strength of Russian pressure on Moldova in three or four years? And this is what the talks will pivot on. Will there be a minor agreement on Ukraine? Or having spread beyond Ukraine, can the crisis only be settled by a general agreement? Kissinger and Kerry might argue the U.S. should start small, but for the Russians, the U.S. deployments to their west are part of the Ukrainian crisis and must be settled.
 
There is a settlement possible on Ukraine, and the Europeans would jump at it (Poland, the Baltics and Romania excepted). But can the Russians live with a defensive belt to the West? They should be able to, but that is what will be tested next week. The neutralization of Ukraine would be hard to swallow. But the Russians have other issues. Will they use Syria to set the framework for a Ukrainian settlement, or will they try to have a broader redefinition of relations with the West? That is probably not doable in any reasonable time. But it is going to be hard to go with the lesser solution. We will have to wait to hear the outcome next week; the talks will be frank but secret, with only misleading leaks to guide us.
 
This past week, the other major issues all involved missiles – Iranian, North Korean and a few South Korean. They would seem to have very different roots. Although Iran reached a settlement on nuclear weapons months ago, it proceeded to test-fire ballistic missiles. North Korea has no agreement. South Korea is just joining the fun. But why missiles and why now?
 
The purpose of developing nuclear weapons is not to use them, but to use them for bargaining. The North Korean leadership is not eager to die. And the Iranians aren’t either. But what they have learned is that if you want to negotiate with the United States, you need to have a weapon that may not be all that important, but symbolizes an ongoing threat. It’s a strategy of “speak loudly and carry a small stick.” A missile that could hit Kansas City would spark media attention. This in turn would lead to congressional speeches on the threat to Kansas City. And this in turn would lead to secret contacts with the foreign governments involved, possibly leading to the exchange of money or some other nice things. Zero risk, favorable outcome.
 
It is important to remember a missile has to be mounted on a launch pad. A warhead has to be placed on the missile. This is not a 15-minute exercise. So satellites and other platforms would see it and a submarine or aircraft could fire a cruise missile ending the show. There is time. But if the North Koreans actually fired it at Kansas City, whether it got there or not, both countries would have a very short but exciting life. Of course, they both know it. So it is a game and if it stops being a game, you can’t hide a launcher. There will be much chatter about this next week. 
 
Iran bargained away its nuclear program. The North Koreans have a nuclear program but it’s a joke since they can’t deliver the weapons. Therefore, the North Koreans announced they had miniaturized their bombs to fit on missiles – not easy to do and not obvious they did. Iran simply fired some missiles. This is useful internally, as it shows the people that the leaders have bold intentions. It is also a wonderful platform to start a new round of negotiations. 
 
North Korea is a trivial country, trying to assert that a test device launched under controlled circumstances is the same as a weapon. Iran wants another bite of the negotiating apple. The two countries are masters of playing a weak hand and making it appear powerful. They are aided in this by politicians and media – particularly during election season – who make their living exaggerating threats. No one has ever written a story with the headline, “Iran Fires Missile. Not Important.”
 
On the schedule for next week will be the EU trying to get Turkey, as well as EU members, to follow through on pledges after an agreement formally reached during Friday’s summit. The Europeans will act as if it is the Turks’ moral responsibility to solve Europe’s problems. The Turks will enjoy the show. So will we.