Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Weekend catch-up: Putin's grand strategy, Obama in Syria, Kunduz, Malabar and more

Weekend catch-up: Putin's grand strategy, Obama in Syria, Kunduz, Malabar and more
Published 10 Oct 2015   Follow @BrendanTN_

With Russia's ongoing air strikes in Syria, including land-attack cruise missiles fired from Russian naval vessels in the Caspian Sea, Kyle Wilson has written a three-part series on Putin's strategy and motivations:

Putin has shown a gift for improvisation, especially as regards extracting advantage from setbacks. In 2004 he used the hideously botched attempt to rescue the hostages at School Number One in Beslan in the Caucasus (which left 385 dead, 186 of them children) to justify strengthening the presidency, gathering even more power into his hands. His response to that setback included another tactical hallmark: deflecting the blame for all difficulties onto foreign powers. Without naming the US, he implied it was somehow responsible for the massacre. A few years before, in 2000, his senior officials claimed the US was behind the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk, with a loss of 118 lives (two years later the official Russian report attributed the tragedy to 'shoddy, obsolete and poorly maintained equipment' on the vessel).

But self-disciplined and tactically adept as he may be, Putin is at times driven by his emotions, especially a visceral resentment over perceived personal slights and his intense dislike of the US and its current president.

In part 2, Kyle looked at how Russia sees the Anglosphere and Moscow's conception of power:

Australians, living in a bubble called the Anglosphere, are unaware of the toxicity of the treatment of the US in the Russian media, especially television, which is state-controlled and the main source of news and commentary for almost all Russians. A liberal Russian commentator recently noted the practice in some provincial cities of staging 'bash Obama days', in which citizens are encouraged to belabour cardboard cutouts of the US president. Racist jokes about Obama circulate in Russia. Most Russians would reject the charge of prejudice and point bitterly to what they see as stereotypes of Russians in the Anglophone media. It's true that much media commentary on Russia is poorly informed and superficial, but those media do not enact government directives (ask Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd).

What is Putin's ultimate goal? The lifting of sanctions:

The sanctions are a key concern driving Putin's resort to the classic Soviet tactic of a peace offensive. This involves giving the Russian leadership a media make-over as newly minted moderates in a mood for compromise and willing to be flexible and reasonable. Propaganda outlets have reduced references to NATO and moderated the tone of their anti-American rhetoric. Ukraine has virtually disappeared from Russian television, to be replaced by Syria. Russia's ambassadors to the Nordics have presumably been told to watch their language.

At the same time, there are hints of a mini-thaw at home, signaled by the abrupt re-emergence in the Russian state-controlled media of Putin's docile prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. After being almost invisible since 2012, he was recently shown pumping iron with Putin. Then came an article under his name setting out a program of economic reform, followed by reports of him chairing a committee on human rights. Medvedev has a reputation inside and outside Russia as a moderate, and his popping up again is a sign that Putin is, in Europe at least, momentarily on 

Rodger Shanahan defended President Obama's Syria strategy: [fold]

Now the Russians' apparent decisiveness in deploying a modest strike force to its decades-old ally Syria has led people to claim Obama has been outmanoeuvred by Putin. But this same argument was leveled against Obama more than two years ago. It also ignores the fact that the Syria problem has always been more straightforward for Moscow than for Washington. For Russia there is simply the Assad regime and those opposed to the Assad regime. Moscow's only real question has been the degree and timing of its support to Assad.

With the US effectively taking responsibility for the air strike that killed 22 people in Afghanistan, Susanne Schmeidl said that infringement on medical neutrality in the country has been growing over the past few years:

What happened in Kunduz unfortunately highlights the infringement on medical neutrality that has been happening in Afghanistan over the last few years, and which MSF highlighted in 2014 in various workshops and in a published report. Clinics have been raided and medical staff questioned numerous times by both national and international military (though the behaviour of the latter improved with time). It is a dangerous deterioration in a war where desperation prevails and any means seem justifiable or excusable.

A recent series of explosions in Guangxi, China, last week received little to no international media attention. Alexandra Grey

Seventeen parcel bombs exploded in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region last Wednesday, and there was a further explosion on Thursday. There were ten deaths, more than 50 casualties, and photos of a five storey building partly collapsed.

The story did make international news, but only just, and by the weekend it had faded, including from the homepage of China Daily Mandarin edition.

Shashank Joshi wrote an excellent piece that included some original research on the Malabar naval exercises between the US and India:

Looking at the broad arc of the Malabar exercises – the steady rise to 2007, and the slump thereafter – one sees a missed opportunity. At a time when US officials are proposing to institutionalise a multilateral format for Malabar (former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Vikram Singh: 'Malabar is very frustrating because...we wanted to have Japan, Australia all the time') and Australia is keen to resume participation, India seems content to let things tick over.

In a continuation of a mini-debate, Steve Grenville responded to a piece by Peter Briggs last week on Australia's future submarines:

The substantive difference between Peter Briggs and me relates to the impact of spending on submarines on the economy. It is standard practice for consultants-for-hire to make their lobbying case on the basis that spending on the target industry will boost the economy, not just by the amount of the actual expenditure, but by a multiple of this because of successive rounds of spending. This is akin to the familiar textbook multiplier process. You can go one step further (as the 'eloquent' testimony of Professor Goran Roos does) and double-count the contribution of sub-contractors. If you want to get a good reception where 'jobs and growth' are the paramount political concern, this is the way to go.

It is only in rare circumstances, however, that this makes any economic sense. 

Leon Berkelmans doesn't think the TPP is worth the risk:

First, it wouldn't be the first time we have been told that an agreement did not change our IP obligations, when it fact it did. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, before a Parliamentary Committee, that it was not aware of any changes necessitated by the Korean Free Trade Agreement, only to have to change its tune in a Question on Notice.

Second, even if our law can remain unchanged (and we await the text to see), the TPP further entrenches our intellectual property regime in international treaty. This gives us less scope to amend our own laws. As Professor Kimberly Weatherall of the University of Sydney has pointed out, this has been a problem in the past — policy supported by both sides of parliament has been rejected because it conflicted with the US-Australia FTA.

David Wells on the counter-terrorism implications of the shooting in Sydney's west on the weekend:

There is, and should be, zero tolerance of risk when it comes to the terrorist threat. One attack is one too many. But in our response to Friday's tragedy, we must be clear about why it occurred and whether it could have been prevented. And when answering the latter question, we should balance the chance of sporadic and small-scale attacks under the current framework with the risk that a reflexive, heavy-handed Government response could make us less safe.

Hillary Clinton tweeted that Xi Jinping was 'shameless' for giving a speech on gender equality at the UN while imprisoning female activists. Hannah Wurf and Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus on China's gender record:

To understand why China took such offence, it is worth looking at China's approach to gender equality. In China's eyes, Clinton has conflated gender equality with activism and law-breaking. China's actual record on gender equality is relatively good, while its human rights record remains problematic.

Female employment in China was 45% of the total population in 2013 and women contribute 41% to China's GDP. China also has the highest female labour participation in G20 countries. In China, it seems, women really do hold up half the sky.

Aaron Connelly wrote on the TPP and his recently published paper, Congress and Asia-Pacific Policy: Dysfunction and Neglect:

The problem is thus one of multiple audiences. The same global information environment which the Obama Administration hopes to take advantage of through the TPP also makes it more challenging to sell to Congress without agitating the very region in question. Moreover, during my research on Congressional attitudes toward Asia Pacific policy over the last year for my recent Lowy analysis on the subject, I found that the Administration's attempts to capture the attention of Congress by using China as a foil had limited reach among Republicans and almost none among Democrats.

The Administration would thus be well advised to revert to its earlier language on the TPP, which stressed the way it could draw other countries to adopt higher standards. The TPP is not about containment; the Administration should take care not to speak about it as though it is.

You may also be interested in