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 Russian Reaction Blog / MilitaryTeasers

I once wrote a long article about a Korean War II.

But this one chart tells essentually the same tale.


I suspect it will be a harder nut to crack than Iraq in 2003, or even 1991. It is an ultranationalist (not a Communist) regime with a formidable secret police, so you’re not going to be buying any generals off. North Koreans have higher IQs than Iraqis (so more competent), do not practice inbreeding (so more cohesive), and a have a lot more hills, mountains, and tunnels (which partially negate South Korean/American technological predominance).

Still, the gap is too vast for the ultimate result to be in doubt. (Unless China gets involved. Then things get complicated.)

And this is why it’s isn’t going to happen.

I do think that Kim Jong Un enjoys the good life, as do the elites he’s fostered in Pyongyang the past decade – according to Andrey Lankov, one of the foremost experts on North Korea, living standards are now far higher than during the grim 1980s or the dismal 1990s – and would prefer to keep things that way. If there is a limited strike on Nork nuclear facilities in the coming days, I doubt we will see anything more substantial than outraged rhetoric.

China will probably be just fine with that. There is very little love lost between Kim Jong Un and the current Chinese leadership. Xi Jinping recently noted that whereas his father had visited China four times, the son had yet to do so, which is a rather open criticism by demure Chinese standards. This was understandable, since Kim Jong Un has spent the last few years suppressing pro-Chinese factions in his country, including members of his own family (executed uncle, assassinated half brother). I suspect the Chinese are fine with Kim Jong Un receiving a demonstrative slapdown, and wouldn’t mind seeing his nuclear program set back a few years. After all, Beijing is considerably closer to Pyongyang than is Tokyo, to say nothing of Honolulu, and there is no telling what North Korea would do in a truly serious future crisis.

Why not get Donald “I Make the Best Deals” Trump to give Kim Jong Un a good beating, especially when he’s also offering to throw in some excellent trade deals for free. It’s a bargain!


Although militaries are fond of making grandiose announcements about prospective weapons systems that don’t end up amounting to much, this is the real deal.

The idea of the railgun is nothing new. The French thought up the concept almost a century ago, the Germans came up with the first viable designs during WW2, and there was interminable work on them by both the US and the USSR during the Cold War – the concept kept stumbling upon the twin challenges of barrel wear and power generation.

But technological progress is now finally making them practically realizable and once they deploy on a large scale they will revolutionize naval warfare.


You can have thousands of projectiles on a destroyer versus the 96 missiles a typical US destroyer is currently limited to. They do not pose an internal explosion risk. Like cruise missiles, they can be precision guided. Unlike cruise missiles, they approach from a ballistic trajectory that is more difficult to counter, they are far smaller, and they are capable of much more rapid fire. It should in fact be trivial to deliver a simultaneous barriage of several projectiles from a single railgun by angling the barrel over time in an appropriate pattern.

Moreover, the technology syncs very well with concurrent developments in free-electron lasers (FELs). Indeed, the same power plants that enable railguns can also power FELs. If one can already imagine the day when railguns will become a viable defense against cruise missiles, with the possible exception of the latest hypersonic ones being developed by Russia, then prospective FEL systems will all but annul them by providing an extremely potent point defense around the warship.

There has been some talk in the past two decades that the proliferation of cheap cruise missiles, which can be easily concealed within freight containers, might herald an end to modern “gunboat diplomacy” by providing Third World countries with an affordable deterrant against even the most technologically advanced navies. One consequence of these developments is that these visions are highly unlikely to ever get realized, with the advantage remaining firmly on the side with the advanced navy.

The US currently has the lead on railgun development, but China at least is not far behind. Their next destroyer model is basically going to see a convergence with that of the Zumwalt:

The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) has reported online that its 206 Institute, which researches electromagnetic launch technologies, has made breakthroughs in electromagnetically launch boosted missiles and railguns designed for close in weapons systems (CIWS)… There have been online rumors that suggest that the second batch of Type 055 guided missile destroyers (potentially to be termed the Type 055A, following the naming pattern) will be armed with large railguns in the place of older 130mm cannons, for long range anti-surface and air defense warfare. The putative Type 055A destroyer class would likely be launched after 2020, and feature integrated electrical propulsion, for increased power generation to power railguns, lasers and advanced sensors.

Russia also claims to be developing railgun technology, although the lack of any concrete evidence suggests that it is lagging considerably (it’s not like Russia tends to refrain from showing off its weapons platforms on principle). However, this is probably not a major issue, since the railgun will enjoy its greatest utility at sea and Russia is primarily a land power.

In the prospective Great Power naval wars of the future – say, 2050, between China and the US – an extrapolation of current trends would suggest a conflict dominated by almost or completely automated destroyers or cheap “arsenal ships” firing autonomously-guided railgun volleys wherever their drone “eyes and ears” detect an enemy presence or even just based on probabilistic models (military satellites having been knocked out in the first days of the conflict and any further complex space activity having been made unfeasible for the next few decades).

Of course in this new environment surface ships will be in more danger than ever before, so the next logical step would be to install railguns on submarines. Or revive the old Soviet “dive boat” concept of a surface warship capable of shallow submersion.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military 

Many recent articles and online discussions have been rife with the idea that the reason for Russia’s “withdrawal” from Syria (which we now know is really nothing of the sort) was due to its mounting economic problems.

In reality that could not be farther from the truth. Here’s why:

(1) As of March 2016, half a year since the start of military operations in Syria, it had cost a total of $464 million – that’s just about 1% of Russia’s annual military budget.

And most of that came out of the Defense Ministry’s 2015 funds earmarked for training.

(2) Which is quite appropriate, since functionally Russia’s Syria campaign has been one huge, ongoing, live-action training exercise. A sort of desert Salusa Secundus for the Russian Air Force and special forces.

The average age of Russia’s pilots in Syria is 27 years. The youngest are closer to 25 – that is, almost straight out of flight school. Many pilots share the same plane, and there are frequent rotations, so a huge percentage of Russian Air Force personnel gets this training relative to the modest scale of Russia’s investment into Khmeimim.

(3) Equipment also gets tested. For instance, the recently withdrawn Su-25′s have been replaced with attack helicopters armed with the new President-S system of countermeasures against MANPADs. It has worked in controlled environments; will it work in a real war environment? So far the answer has been “yes.”

(4) Like the US during the Gulf War, it is also an excellent opportunity for getting rid of the old munitions that Russia has absolutely no shortage of.

Meanwhile, the SVP-24 technology addon allows old Russian fighter planes to drop old Soviet bombs with the near accuracy of a JDAM delivered by a modern American bomber.

(5) This is only to be expected, but yes, the actual use of Khmeimim – a pretty useful strategic asset in its own right – is completely free.

(6) Finally, the good performance of Russian weaponry in Syria has led to an additional $6-7 billion increase in foreign orders, which translates to a more than 10% increase in Rosoboronexport’s total portfolio of foreign orders.

(7) Paradoxical as it might seem, there are grounds to believe that Russia’s intervention in Syria has also improved its image in the world. Neocon blowhards shilling for a no-fly zone in the Washington Post to protect ISIS from Russia ultimately only represent a certain fraction of the American elites. They do not speak for the world or even most Americans. Most normal people appreciate the sight of Islamist fanatics getting lit up along with their Turkey-bound oil truck convoys and Western MSM propaganda to the contrary has had very little effect on these healthy sentiments if the comments sections are anything to go by.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, Russia, Syrian Civil War 

This is as hardcore cyberpunk as it gets.pol-vs-isis

Target painting via dank memes!

(1) Moderate Rebels (TM) make YouTube video that includes their dispositions.

(2) Russian journalist Ivan Sidorenko who has good SAA contacts sends a geolocation request to the fine gentlemen of /pol/ (a 4chan “forum”).

(3) /pol/ rises up to the task and geolocates the Al Nusra base.


(5) BOOM

Incidentally, this is not the first time target acquisition has been “crowdsourced.”


In other Syria news: Al Nusra attack in South Aleppo (later repelled).

One has to admit this was an impressively well coordinated attack that betrays good training, for this region anyway. Well above ISIS quality or for that matter most of the SAA rank and file.

And of course there’s the issue of the tanks as well as the body armor and shiny new helmets. Looks like Turkey has been putting the ceasefire to good use. :|

Anyhow it increasingly looks like the ceasefire will fully unravel any day now.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, Syrian Civil War 

Today a ceasefire has been agreed upon between Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which unlike the unilateral ceasefire declared by Azerbaijan three days ago seems to be holding.

This allows us to make some more conclusions observations on what happened.


Source:, via Cassad.

Nagorno-Karabakh War 1.5

First, the Azeris have made gains, but their advance was ultimately quite modest – only around a quarter of a kilometer across a narrow stretch of the northern front – and ultimately ground to a halt. A total of eight defense positions were lost, as well as the village of Talish in the north. There are conflicting reports on whether Mataghis was captured – the weight of the evidence suggests that the Azeri assault failed with high casualties – while the main town and operational center for that front was never seriously threatened. It did suffer a bombardment, and was the target of intensive Azeri drone surveillance. Several Azeri drones were shot down around that area. The conflict also saw the first use in anger of the Israeli Harop “kamikaze” drone by the Azeris, which was remotely steered into a bus carrying Armenian volunteers, resulting in seven deaths.

Second, as has become familiar from the War in Donbass, official and unofficial casualty figures differ by an order of magnitude. Oficially, there had been to date 35 Armenian military deaths 37 Azeri deaths, although each side claims 300-400 enemy casualties. I suspect it is closer to around 50-75 for the Armenians (especially once the 28 listed as MIA, most of which usually end up dead in the end, are accounted for) and up to 150 for the Azeris. The photographic evidence appears to show a lot more Azeri than Armenian troops, and in any case it stands to reason since it was the Azeris who were assaulting well-fortified positions.

Furthermore, the NKR’s tally of how many tanks it lost – some fourteen of them – are virtually the same as Azeri claims of how many tanks it destroyed. In contrast, Azerbaijan implausibly acknowledges the loss of only one tank, whereas the Armenians claim they destroyed 29 tanks. Since it is harder to hide hardware losses, this suggests an NKR-Azeri combat loss ratio of 1:2. Apart from this, the Azeris have also lost several APCs, 1-2 Mi-24 helicopters, and tons of Israeli UAV’s (one of them was apparently downed by a hunter with a rifle! Not very good PR for Israel’s defense export industries).


Armenian volunteer.

deluded-aliyev All in all, it’s safe to say that at least so far, this has been a comprehensive defeat for Azerbaijan, regardless of how earnestly President Ilham Aliyev prevaricates on Twitter and the rather unconvincing assertions of Azeri propaganda.

Their purely military gains were insubstantial, and attained at the cost of much higher losses in personnel and equipment than the worse-armed but far more motivated, skilled, and dug in NKR Army. This was accomplished without any reinforcements from Armenia proper. Any hopes for a blitzkrieg campaign have been dashed. Consequently, if the Azeris also intended to test the limits at which Russia would start moves to intervene, they failed at that as well through their failure to achieve any major military successes against NKR in the first place.

Political Aspects

The Azeris also lost the information war. Although this flareup elicited very little European or American official commentary, it was clear that public opinion outside Turkey and Azerbaijan itself – at least as gauged by social media on Twitter and Reddit – was overwhelmingly on Armenia’s side. This was especially so after evidence of Azeri war crimes began to crop up, including the execution and mutilation of three Armenian civilians in Talish and the ISIS-style parading of the decapitated head of a Yazidi soldier from the NKR ranks (note that both links are probably NSFW). While the provenance of the former is uncertain, the latter appears to have definitely happened, appearing on a pro-Azerbaijan military Vkontakte page. There were also claims from pro-Armenian media sources that many Azeris in the ranks of Islamic State were turning to Azerbaijan. There is reason to be skeptical about this since it is unlikely that the sorts of Azeris who would go off to Raqqa would return to fight for a secular Shi’ite state.

If the intent was to use military assault to catalyze the diplomatic process, that too must be considered a failure. Apart from Erdogan’s boorish but entirely predictable expression of unconditional support for Azerbaijan, nobody else followed suit. Instead, everybody from Russia and Iran to NATO and the US issued formulaic injunctions to observe the ceasefire and resolve the issues through the OSCE Minsk Group (i.e. back to the status quo of doing nothing).

Even the US was noncommital, with a State Department spokesman saying that the final status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be determined on the principles of “non-use of force or threat of force, territorial integrity of states, and the equal rights and self-determination of people.” The second and third points are of course self-contradictory in this case, but the reference to “threat of force” might have been a veiled rebuke against the Azeri Defense Minister for his threats to bomb the NGK capital Stepanakert.

The only countries of note apart from Turkey to assume a decidedly pro-Baku position were Pakistan, Georgia, and Ukraine – but this ghost of the GUAM alliance is not really a diplomatic triumph by any stretch of the imagination.

There was however one Azeri success, though. Or rather an Aliyev success. In Azerbaijan’s current economic circumstances, one might think the ruling dynasty could certainly do without is the media quacking about its offshore network of secret holding companies revealed by the Panama Papers. And unlike with Putin, Aliyev’s family members are directly mentioned as owners. It is worth noting that Mossack Fonseca had informed its clients of the data breach several months in advance, and they would have been aware of the approximate dates of its publication.

Is there a conspiracy theory here? Who knows. It need not have been a decisive factor, since the mainstream media doesn’t have the freedom to talk about such things anyway, while foreign journalists can be fobbed off with the always reliable “[the children] are grown up and have the right to do business” excuse. Even so, it might well have been a significant contributory factor.

After all, it is better to have people rhapsodizing about a “short victorious war,” or failing that at least about “our heroic shahids,” than grumbling about the plummeting currency and the offshore secrets of the elites.

A Final “Optimistic” Note

As I pointed out in my last post, this year represents the likely peak of Azeri military power relative to Armenia for at least the next decade. With Baku getting engulfed by financial crisis in the wake of the collapse of oil prices, it is cutting its military budget by 40% this year, in addition to already substantial cuts in 2015. This means its military modernization efforts will crawl to a stop. Those hi-tech toys its been “testing” these past few days are probably not going to be replaced anytime soon. Meanwhile, while the Armenian economy is hardly booming either, it can at least expect to maintain spending at similar levels or even increase them further considering the rising incidence and fierceness of its clashes with Azerbaijan.

This means that for Azerbaijan, it is a question of now or later… where later might either be decades down the line, or even more likely, never.

On the other hand, though these skirmishes were a far cry from what a real large-scale war would look like between Azerbaijan and Armenia-NKR, they were exceedingly useful from a calibration point of view in that they allowed the Azeris to get a good gauge on the actual combat effectiveness of their rebuilt army. They might well have concluded that the oil-splurge spending of the past decade didn’t automatically translate to much higher proficiency or combat effectiveness, with all that it entails for the prospects of a future large-scale operation to reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh (even putting to the side the issue of Russian intervention).

In this sense, the continued bellicose rhetoric of the Azeris – and the Turks – regardless, the chances of a serious war in the future for Nagorno-Karabakh may well have actually diminished in the past few days.

EDIT 2016/04/06: Now that the fog of war has cleared up, it has become clear that the Azeris even failed to retain the village of Talish. What a debacle.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Corruption, Military 


Column of Azeri tanks around the Talis region. Via Cassad.

Another Flareup in the Caucasus

The past two days has seen some of the most intense fighting over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh since the 1994 ceasefire that froze the conflict. It was a typical post-Soviet tale: Illogically drawn up borders, stranded Armenians in the historically Armenian territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the flareup of nationalist tensions in the late 1980s that resulted in the outbreak of anti-Armenian pogroms, and the slide into war between two collapsing states as Nagorno-Kabakh declared independence and deported its Azeris.

As it was, Azerbaijan collapsed faster. Composed of incompetent generals and unenthusiastic soldiers and facing a highly motivated enemy with support from Russia and the vast Armenian diaspora, the Azeris were unable to make gains in the region’s mountainous terrain and eventually retreated after being bled dry by a 5-1 casualty ratio. The Azeris continue to pine for revenge. There are monthly small-scale artillery exchanges, their borders are sealed (Turkey also blockades Armenia), and there was an infamous case in 2004 when an Azeri officer axed a sleeping Armenian to death while they were both on a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest.

Officially, there were 18 Armenian dead and 12 Azeri dead in the recent clashes, as well as the loss of some military equipment. The Azeris claim this was provoked by Armenian bombardments. However, the higher number of Armenian dead plus the fact that the Azeris were the ones who seized a chunk of Nagorno-Karabakh territory throws some doubt on these claims. (That said, the usually well informed Colonel Cassad claims that both sides’ losses were substantially higher, especially those of the Azeris).


The territories Azerbaijan has taken on April 2 according to an Azeri news source.

Three graphs that explain the renewed clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh

First, Russia is in a precarious position. The situation in Syria can change at any time while the conflict in Donbass has again been simmering up (recent reports from NVF troops indicate intense Ukrainian Army attempts to seize the E50 highway from Donetsk to Gorlovka and dozens of deaths on both sides). It is also apparently committed to keeping a low profile until the next EU vote on extending sanctions. Although Russia is formally committed to come to Armenia’s defense as part of its CSTO obligations, it has been carefully ambiguous on whether the guarantee applies to the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is internationally recognized by noone. All of this will be factors that the Azeris are sure to be weighing and considering.

Second, since the 1990s, the Azeris have massively increased their military preponderance over the Armenians. It may by now be cliche, but it is true nonetheless that Azeri military spending exceeds the entire Armenian state budget. Although Armenia enjoys preferential rates for Russian weaponry – it is something like Israel with regards to the US in this regard – ultimately soaring oil revenues matter more. The two biggest spurts, around the mid-2000s and the early 2010s, were clearly associated with high oil prices.


According to the Comprehensive Military Power (CMP) index, which integrates personnel quantity, equipment stocks, and technology to provide an assessment of each country’s military potential across time and space, Azerbaijan’s preponderance over Armenia has climbed from a multiple of no more than 1.5 in the 1990s – nowhere high enough to force a breakthrough across heavily defended mountainous terrain – to a multiple of 3 in the last few years. At this degree of disparity, formerly impossible things become possible.


Third, the Azeri economy is extremely fragile. The collapse in oil revenues has forced Baku to impose capital controls and devalue the manat twofold, but nonetheless, foreign currency reserves have plunged from a peak of $15 billion to $4 billion by January. Its credit ratings have been reduced to junk. Discontent is beginning to brew with the Aliyev dynasty, which is criticized for corruption and the ineffective use of Azerbaijan’s oil wealth.



Most tellingly, military spending is going to be axed by as much as 40% in 2016. This will allow Armenia to tilt the balance of power back in its favor a bit.

What next?

So to sum this all up, as I noted at the start of the year, now would not be the absolute worst time for Azerbaijan to engage in some geopolitical adventurism, to take minds off economic woes. If there ever was a time for reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s now. All the more so if in addition to the factors listed above Azerbaijan also enjoys support from a Turkey (and even Ukraine? Though tying the clashes around Yasinovataya to this would be a long stretch, and is probably connected mainly to Poroshenko’s visit to the US) whose relations with Russia have collapsed in recent months.

But there are reasons for be optimistic. The recent clashes are appearing to die down instead of escalating into something bigger. Neither side has declared a mobilization. Instead, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev is appealing to the Security Council with a renewed demand for Armenians to vacate the “occupied territories.” And the fate of the late President Abulfaz Elchibey – whom Ihham’s own father replaced in a coup after his string of losses during the Nagorno-Karabakh War – must weigh heavily on President Aliyev’s considerations.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Military 

So let’s do just that.


Here is one of the latest maps via Al-Masdar News.

Not only have all of the hills towards the west of Palmyra been brought under firm SAA control, which allowed them to rain down fire on the hapless Islamic State defenders, but according to the latest reports Palmyra Airport has also been captured.

This means that Palmyra is as good as fully encircled, a development enabled in significant part by Russian air strikes in support of the SAA advance. Looks like Russia’s “retreat” wasn’t as total as some feared!

The current Islamic State plan is to abandon positions and establish a new line of defense at Al-Sukhanah, which controls a vital crossroads triangulated between Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa. This is a critical point, because its loss would practically bisect the Islamic State between Iraq and Syria.

In general Islamic State seems to be pretty much falling apart now, showing up NATO/State Department claims about how Russia wasn’t doing anything against them for the self-serving lies they were.

Front-line commanders no longer speak of a scarily formidable foe but of Islamic State defenses that crumble within days and fighters who flee at the first sign they are under attack.

Of course seeing all this makes Atlanticist propagandists like Bild’s terminally Russophobic ISIS supporter Julian Roepcke very sad.


Additionally, Palmyra’s liberation also means that the Islamic State will be deprived of the oil wells around Palmyra. This is not hugely important, since the Islamic State has always drawn the bulk of its revenues from tithes on locals even before Russia fighters put an end to their nice little oil smuggling arrangements with the Erdogan family. Nor will Syria itself will not be able to benefit immediately since it will take time to restore output and that’s making the bold assumption anybody will risk going there.

I suppose there might also now be a trickle of archaeologists coming in to assess the scale of the damage Islamic State wreaked on Syria’s cultural heritage.


Just as the original ruins immortalized the glory of the Roman Empire, so the ruins of those ruins – doubleruins? metaruins? either way, their Ruinenwert must have gone through the roof – will stand testament to the criminal malignancy of the neocons who helped enable all this.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, Russia, Syria, Syrian Civil War 


Today came the shock announcement that Putin has ordered the withdrawal of most of the Russian strike force in Syria commencing on March 15, 2016.

In contrast to the weeks before the start of the intervention, when multiple observers including Stratfor observed signs of an imminent intervention, this has come as a complete surprise. Many ill thought out explanations have been rushed out.

(1) The more rhetorical anti-Russian voices in the West and the pro-Western Russian liberal opposition claim that this was on account of Russia’s unwinding economy. No matter that Russia’s budget deficit is at less than 3% of GDP, comes on top of negligible government debt levels, and the mounting evidence its recession has bottomed anyway.

(2) Fervent Assad and SAA supporters of 2015, who the year before had condemned Putin’s “betrayal” of Novorossiya, now rushed to condemn yet another “zrada.”

(3) Maybe Borovoy’s ultimatum to Putin was successful after all? /s

The real reasons that this happened are rather more prosaic.

Freezing Syria

The most obvious and indeed tautological one is that there is now a ceasefire between the government and the FSA that to considerable surprise is actually being more or less observed.

First off, as The Saker points out, Russia’s goals in Syria were always limited: Not to outright win the war but to “stabilize the legitimate authority and create conditions for a political compromise.” This is a consistent goal that Russia has pursued from the earliest stages of the Syrian conflict, in contrast to Western politicians who have on at three separate points – the start of the uprising itself, the Ghouta false flag chemical weapons attacks, and as recently as the summer of the last year – plotted to lay the grounds for a no fly zone, which in practice translates into Assad’s forcible ouster and the transformation of Syria into either an Islamic State or a patchwork quilt of warlords. Moreover, Russia’s intervention was time-bounded from the outset. The influential Russian politician Alexey Pushkov had cited a figure of three to four months last October, while Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov talked of “not much longer than a few months.” The five and a half months of Russian air strikes fell within these projections, and avoided dragging Russia into a deeper quagmire that its supporters dreaded and its opponents anticipated.

Second, as I anticipated, Russian airpower as well as additional support in the form of training and equipment – for instance, you can observe in conflict videos that the SAA forces now tend to be much better outfitted, including with body armor that was almost universally absent half a year ago – has decisively swung the balance of military power across multiple fronts in favor of the government. Contrary to the pattern of slow retreat and periodic collapses that marked the conflict in prior years, now the SAA is on the advance in many areas and even the occasional local defeat such as the Islamic State’s takeover of the Khanasser road to Aleppo this February was reversed within days, whereas in previous years these sorts of setbacks tended to snowball into collapses across entire fronts. The insurgency has thus been “persuaded” into acknowledging that there is no longer a Final Victory in sight for them and negotiating with Syria’s legitimate authorities as a prerequisite of maintaining their “moderate” status. Considering Russia’s objectives as outlined above, Putin is quite accurate to say that they have been “generally accomplished.”

Otherwise, a tallying of Russia’s strategic gains minus losses reveals its final score to be almost entirely positive.

On the plus side, we have:

(1) The Khmeimim airbase, which will continue to host a few air assets as well as drones to monitor the ceasefire, together with the expanded naval base at Latakia. Should the ceasefire break down, it will be possible to rebase and restock within a few days.

(2) The cost of the Russian intervention was very low. The liberal Russian RBK media network has estimated it at around $2.5+ million per day; defense analyst Jane’s gives an upper bound of $4 million a day. Even taking the latter figure and multiplying it by 180 days yields a total cost of less than $1 billion. Military casualties number firmly in the single digits. For this very reasonable price, the Russian Air Force got the opportunity to practice “live,” show off its toys to potential buyers, and get rid of its surplus bombs US Gulf War-style.

(3) Taking air assets out of Syria removes the potential Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of the Turkish Air Force and an increasingly unstable Erdogan. Russia never had more than a dozen air superiority fighters in Khmeimim; even if they were one-for-one superior to Turkish F-15Ds, and regardless of the S-400 guarding them and the Moskva cruiser parked off the Syrian coast, they would have stood no chance in the event that Turkey decided to erase Russian airpower in Syria – thus leaving Russia in the unenviable situation of choosing between a humiliating climbdown or escalating to all out war with a powerful NATO country of “of which no one can predict the ultimate consequences” (to paraphrase a contemporary commentator on the Russian Empire stumbling into war against Japan in 1904).

(4) Finally, despite the increasingly demented ravings of neocon trolls such as Michael Weiss to shift the media narrative:

… and of General Breedlove’s (any relation to General Buck Turgidson?) attempts to lay the blame for Merkel’s mishandling of the refugee crisis on Russia’s actions in Syria, Western audiences have become increasingly reluctant to swallow the bait offered up by their elites. After all, most normal people don’t see anything wrong in wrong in dropping bombs on snackbaring fanatics in the desert and have been asking increasingly uncomfortable questions why the neocons seem to be having problems with that (especially once Russia started releasing drone footage of all those trucks ferrying oil from the Islamic State to Turkey).

There are a few negatives to be sure:

(1) The most obvious one is the breakdown of relations with Turkey, with which Russia had previously had good ties, including multiple industrial projects and visa-free travel. But ultimately the economic ties aren’t all that dense and are loaded aganist Turkey. Whereas Russian tourists can always go some other place – why not Crimea? – Turkey gets most of its gas from Russia, and is paying Rosatom to construct its nuclear power plants, so it would suffer far more from a total breakdown in relations than would Russia. In any case, since Turkey and Russia have so many conflicting spheres of interest – the Balkans, Caucasus, Central Asia, and now even Crimea and the Near East – which transcend the particularities of any regime that would conveivably happen to be in power in either Ankara or Moscow, I don’t think any true strategic partnership between the two is possible in principle. There is a reason that the Russian and Ottoman Empires were fighting wars nonstop from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

(2) Some analysts such as Vox’s Max Fisher have claimed that Putin has failed to link his help in resolving the Syrian crisis in return for a “grand bargain” in which Crimea is recognized as part of Russia and sanctions are lifted. Therefore, their argument goes, there is not much use in continuing the charade. The problem is that there is no actual evidence for this hypothesis. Both US and Russian officials have repeatedly excluded that any such considerations exist, plus there is the banal but extremely important fact that the sanctions have been almost entirely negligible in their contribution to Russia’s recession (Reminder: According to Citi Research, they were responsible for only 10% of the decline in output).

On the converse, Russia’s withdrawal from Syria will give it a great deal more leeway in Ukraine (though if the prospect of a surge in tourism to Novorossiya that some Russian pundits are now positing is but a pleasant daydream).

(3) Another “problem” is that Russia’s withdrawal will be painted as a sign of weakness – of conviction, and/or fiscal. Worrying about it is pointless since the Western media will absolutely never treat Russia fairly so long as Russia remains sovereign and certain elites continue to exercise power in the West. Better be thought cowardly and/or insolvent than be actually stupid.

(4) The final issue that people have with this “premature” withdrawal is that it paves the wave for Syria’s partition. This is an issue that deserves to be addressed at length.

The Road to Partition

I appreciate the arguments that perhaps foreigners don’t have all that much business in poking their noses into the constitutional arrangements of other countries. All the more so if said countries belong to different civilizations and cultural traditions.

To the contrary, it is worth stressing that more than 70% of Syrians themselves oppose the division of their country across territories held by the government, the opposition, and even Islamic State (though this falls to 50% in YPG-held areas).

That said, the poll that revealed this didn’t feature a critical addendum: Would any of those groups still have been so deadset against division assuming that a faction they dislike was in charge of the central government? Hypothetically, if continued unity meant being ruled by the top dog from Idlib (to say nothing of Raqqa), I assume that support for a unified Syrian state amongst the cosmopolitan Alawites of Latakia would plummet to near 0%.

This is why I ultimately end up agreeing with former USN Admiral and NATO supreme commander James Stavridis that it is time to seriously consider partitioning Syria.

From the outset, I will reveal a dirty secret: Neither Turkey nor the Saudis actually want a partition of Syria.

If there is a de facto partition now, the Turks and Saudis will be left with a vast desert wasteland – poor, rural, backwards, heavily inbred and IQ-depressed even before the war; now utterly destroyed and teeming with dozens of warlords and tens of thousands of Islamist fanatics. Refugee outflows from Desert Syria will continue, or intensify further if the rebels now proceed to turn on each other. Should Far Right parties continue to consolidate their gains in Europe, that particular relief valve will be turned off, thus turning up the pressure on Syria’s more immediate neighbors. With a population that is now a quarter refugee and strongly influenced by Wahhabi sentiment, Jordan would be the next country primed for blowup. Turkey would be faced with the spectre of an independent Kurdish state abutting its restive Kurdish provinces. Like the Chaos Wastes, this benighted region will become the spawning grounds for new forcefully bred generations of Salafi militants. If Peter Lee is correct, Libya will be the location of choice to where they will now be “laundered,” but puppets do sometimes cut their strings and should Saudi Arabia see increasing domestic unrest as its oil money reserves dwindle then Islamic State might suddenly seem far too close for comfort.

sectarian-syria In contrast, the areas currently controlled by the government can be built up into a reasonably well functioning and cohesive state. According to opinion polls, more than half of the population in all the governorates held by the government support Assad, but this figure falls to 39% in Aleppo, 27% in Raqqa, and a mere 9% in Idlib. Moreover, the government held areas have been far less ravaged by war, and though its demographic losses due to conscription and poor military performance have been very considerable, they are dwarfed by the scale of the horrors that have been inflicted upon areas held by the opposition, which have borne the brunt of the fighting, and the Islamic State, with its indifference to military casualties and inability to maintain basic infrastructure. Although the rebel held areas only account for about a third of Syria’s population, they have produced two thirds of its refugees.

This Coastal Syria will be small but politically stable, immutable to Wahhabi infiltration by virtue of a predominantly Shi’ite-Christian ethnic makeup that it could easily maintain by refusing to accept the repatriation of those refugees hailing from areas held by the opposition and Islamic State. Since repatriating them to Desert Syria will not be an option either, the infrastructure there being unable to support even the populations still residing there, they will instead wreck their havoc in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Western Europe – in a fit of poetic justice, precisely those countries most responsible for wrecking Syria in the first place. Coastal Syria will pursue close ties with Iran and Hezbollah and will seek to pepper itself with Russian and (perhaps, eventually) Chinese bases to further secure itself against Turkish, Israeli, and Western encroachment.

However, if Assad were to regain full control of Syria, this would be a poisoned chalice. The cost of repairing all the destroyed infractructure, rooting out radicalism, and providing welfare for millions more displaced people will be an unbearable strain on its already heavily beleagured finances, causing resentment in the Alawite heartlands and buying no love amongst people who will come to think of their defeated forebears as having pursued a noble Lost Cause. Most critically, there is absolutely nothing stopping the Saudis and the Turks from once again trying to topple a Syrian government strained from the costs of reconstruction, Sunni refugee repatriation, and demographically dominated by Sunnis in another 10-20 years time.

These are the reasons why for the Saudis and the Turks, the fundamental choice is about either Damascus or nothing. Preferably they would like to topple Assad outright and replace his government with some kind of Nusrastan – sharia with shopping malls – a full Assad victory is a clear second best. This, ultimately, is why they have refrained from directly wading into the conflict themselves, despite their obvious frustration with the entire situation. I suspect the Russians who advise Putin realize this and have no desire to play to Turkey’s and Saudi Arabia’s interests. Assad might not; from both his life story (an apolitical doctor promoted to the throne by the chance death of his elder brother) and his interviews, he strikes me as very straightforward character: Honest, civilized, not unintelligent, but not really cut out for the cynicism, deviousness, and paradoxes of geopolitics.

In this respect, the Russian withdrawal is if anything doing him and Syria a favor.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, Russia, Syria, Syrian Civil War 

Another (possibly abortive) North Korean nuclear test, another round of hyperbolic headlines about how Kim Jong Un is going off his rockers. Admittedly, this is an impression North Korea’s state media – perhaps the closest approximation we have to a Real Life troll – is always happy to feed.

But hystrionics aside, the reason for North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrant can be encapsulated in one graph, using my Comprehensive Military Power index.


Throughout the 1970s to early 1980s, North Korea had substantial military preponderance over South Korea, although even then it had no realistic chance of making a breakthrough due to the US presence. Their two lines converged by the waning years of the Cold War. After the withdrawal of Soviet support and the collapse of the North Korean economy, the military balance swung sharply and irrevocably in favor of the South, to the extent that South Korea by itself is now approximately four times as powerful even as it spends a mere 2.5% of its GDP on the military (the figure for North Korea is unknown but might be around 20%). Add in the US presence and the discrepancy becomes all the more extreme.

Recall that due to the exponential nature of Lanchester’s Laws even modest differences in force ratios will, all else equal, result in increasingly crushing victories for the more powerful faction. As such, the goals of North Korea’s prodigal militarization have long shifted from entertaining scenarios in which they could conveivably “win” to merely keeping the costs of South Korean/US preemptive aggression sufficiently high as to forestall them. But this is a race which they cannot win, and indeed, have constantly been slipping behind in.

Maintaining a huge army, which amongst other things has to man the ~10,000 artillery pieces in hardened dugouts close to the DMZ which are to flatten Seoul in the first hours of conflict, is a very expensive and suboptimal security solution. If you can get a nuclear bomb, or ten, to fulfill essentially the same deterrant function, then hundreds of factories can be converted to non-military production and hundreds of thousands of troops can be demobilized back into the civilian economy. This is called “nuclear substitution” in IR theory jargon.

This would fit in well with Kim Jong Un’s demonstrated priorities. Without much fanfare, market relations have been sprouting, and the post-collapse depression has long come to an end. Though this is not saying much, ordinary North Koreans have never lived better; though predictably marked by corruption and rising inequality, today things are vastly better than in the spartan 1970-80s, to say nothing of the famine-wracked 1990s. (This is not just my opinion but that of Andrey Lankov, one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea).

It appears that Kim Jong Un wants gradual integration into the global economy but only on North Korea’s own terms – not America’s, to be sure, but not China’s either (his uncle thought differently on the latter, which is the ultimate reason why he was executed). It is telling that North Korea’s condition for stopping its nuclear tests is a formal peace treaty with the US. It is probably better to take it as opposed to further sanctions because a better deal isn’t on the horizon. The pursuit of nukes is almost certainly done for this end, as opposed to any bellicose intentions, and its fiery but predictable rhetoric regardless.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, North Korea, Nuclear Weapons 

It is in some ways remarkable that there is still no commonly agreed method on quantifying and ranking national military power.

There is one such for economics, for instance. It is called the GDP. You can make somewhat different arguments on relative economic size or living standards based on various ways of measuring GDP – e.g., the eternal debates over whether nominal or PPP is best – but it does make these discussions factually “grounded” in a way that military discussions (at least as they are carried out in the popular press and comments sections) are not. This may even extend to some extent to the US military itself. For instance, here is a short quote from an article by Adrian Bonenberger, who spent 7 years as an infantry officer in the US Army:

This is the greatest risk we face for World War III. Not that Russia defeats Ukraine and moves toward Poland and Estonia, but that Ukraine wipes out the Russians currently in Ukraine, and Putin is forced to take some drastic action to prevent further losses. After all, why should Ukraine not feel entitled to take some of Russia’s territory in return for their lost Crimea? And who will be there to stop them, save demoralized and confused Russian conscripts?

russia-vs-ukraine-military-power The chances of that happening in the foreseeable future are precisely zero, so awesome is the current size of the military gap between Russia and Ukraine (it approximately doubled from a factor of 4.5 in 1992 at the time of the Soviet collapse, to a peak of 9 by 2013). Even cursory examinations of force structure would confirm it; just the Russian Southern Military District by itself is considerably more powerful than the entire Ukrainian military. Tall tales of Donetsk airport “cyborgs” mowing down thousands of elite Pskov paratroopers to the contrary, on the one occasion in the Donbass War that the Ukrainian military engaged directly with the Russian military resulted in a resounding defeat for the Ukraiians at Ilovaysk – and that despite the Russian military having to maintain plausible deniability and thus forego the use of its fancier toys.

Nor will this situation change cardinally in the future, as the graph to the right shows (which incidentally is based on some very “optimistic” assumptions about Ukraine’s ability to remain solvent and maintain military spending at 5% of GDP). The idea that Ukraine will be able to militarily reconquer the LDNR so long as Russia provides it with support, to say nothing of actually seizing chunks of territory from Russia itself, is too absurd for further commentary.

This is just one limited example of flawed military commentary in the popular press. Literally hundreds of other examples can be thought of, from ‘Murica patriots who literally believe it is 1,000 times stronger than any other “military or combination of militaries,” to the Russia stronk! types and neocons who are in strange agreement that Russia is currently establishing a “hegemony” over the Middle East with its small-scale Syrian air intervention (which if Washington really wanted to could put to a forcible end within 24 hours).

Anyhow, I don’t claim to be any sort of military expert. If you asked me to compare the EW capabilities of the F/A-18A versus the Su-30MKI, I would draw up a total blank. That said, I have read a fair bit about military history and military theory, so I think I can contribute in a small way to uplifting the level of the popular discourse by introducing some rigor to it by way of the Comprehensive Military Power concept, a sort of military analogue of GDP that is both additive (so that alliances can be compared) and consistent across time (so that historical comparisons can be made and even what-if scenarios of the Modern Poland vs. Nazi Germany type).

But first, I would like to criticize or introduce caveats to some other popularly accepted ways of making sweeping large-scale military comparisons.

Existing Attempts to Quantify Military Power

military-budget-2014-sipri Military Budgets

This is by far the most common and intuitive method of making comparisons. It is objective and commonsensical: All other things equal, the more you spend on your military, the better it will be.

As historians like Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers pointed out, in the longterm, it is almost invariably the countries with the biggest economic potential who end coming out ahead in superpower struggles. With a bigger economy, you can have a bigger military budget with less overall strain (since once you go much about 5% of GDP military spending, your overall economy tends to start becoming distorted).

But military effectiveness depends a lot more than just the amount of dollars that are pumped into it. It also depends on domestic price levels (e.g., salaries for equivalent-quality Chinese soldiers will be much less than for American soldiers); the presence or absence of a domestic military-industrial complex (e.g., compare Saudi Arabia buying US equipment at international prices versus the ability of a country like Russia with its own MIC to produce its own advanced equipment at much lower costs); the aggregate of former spending, accounting for things such as what percentage of it “stayed on” in the form of military capital (which itself is continually adjusted for depreciation); and what US military theorist Trevor Dupuy called “combat effectiveness value,” that is, the relative effectiveness with which a military can use its existing manpower and capital stocks to win engagements and wrack up good K/D ratios, and which itself depends on a myriad of factors beyond just money such as generalship, esprit de corps, etc.

As we shall soon see, while consideration of the above factors does not (for now) change the fundamental fact of US military dominance, but it does move the focus away from overly simplistic rhetoric of the type that “the US spends as much on its military as the next 10 countries/20 countries/rest of the world combined” with the unspoken assumption being that actual military power is a mere extension of dollar spending on it.

global-firepower-2015 Global Firepower and other Popular Indices

This is the best known popular online index of military power available. Unfortunately, its methodology is secret so far as I’m aware, and its scaling is strange and obviously non-additive. Nor is it very intuitive. For instance, the gap between the US and Russia seems to be similar to that between the UK and France. This is almost flat out impossible. French and British military power, much like economies and demography, are remarkably similar. There is no way that even the proportional gap between them is as big as that between the US and Russia, which does have a very formidable military but is currently in the midst of rebuilding it from the post-Soviet stagnation.

Likewise for this recent ranking from Credit Suisse.

There is the Composite Index of National Capability, which uses military expenditure, military personnel, energy consumption, iron and steel production, urban population, and total population as inputs to develop an index of “national capability.” This was developed in the US during the 1960s, a time when the use of such inputs would have been logical due to memories of the World Wars, which were won by mass conscript armies and steel foundries that produced the means to churn out thousands of guns, tanks, and artillery pieces.


But is it still relevant to today’s world? Suffice to say that it is a pretty sure thing that iron and steel production will not be a limiting factor in any plausible Great Power war either now, nor would it have been even by the 1970s. The fact that China now produces almost ten times as much steel as the US will have vastly less significance than Germany producing 17.6 million tons of steel in 1913 to 4.8 million tons by Russia in 1913. Indeed, the very fact that China overtook the US on the CINC around 2000 discredits it as a viable index of modern military power or even national capability.

The blogger and political scientist Phil Arena has a better version of the CINC which he calls “M” that is a much better proxy of military power. It is still flawed but has the major advantage of being very simple and possessing face validity.

comprehensive-national-power-2015 Chinese geopolitical think tanks have developed the concept of Comprehensive National Power, which attempts to measure all facets of national power (2015 rankings to the right).

The Chinese are obsessed with not repeating what they see as the mistakes of the Soviet Union – e.g., distorting its economy through massive military overspending – so they actually tend to deemphasize the military aspect from such comparisons in favor of financial and soft power influence.

This is, of course, perfectly valid – so long as an American CVBG doesn’t show up on your coast, at any rate – but this is going beyond the scope of what this post is about, i.e. strictly military comparisons.

Technical Discussions

On the Internet, most of the more informed military discussions tend to be about the superiority of one or another weaponsd platform over another. Who would win in a Leopard 2A7 vs. M1A2 Abrams vs. T-14 Armata slugfest? (I have no idea) Does the fact that Indian fighter pilots in Su-30MKI’s beat British Typhoons in a recent exercise mean that Russia is stronk and the RAF sucks? (No, because dogfighting isn’t the same thing as BVR combat) Will the F-35 program reinforce US air dominance or does it constitute the most spectacular military boondoggle thus far? (Somewhere in between most likely)

I don’t put much stock in these discussions. First off, a lot of the real details are classified, so real life performance can often differ from theory (and war games). Argentinian Mirages were supposed to outperform British Harriers in 1982, whereas the final “score” ended up about 10:0. These discussions frequently discount cost considerations. This is the classic Tiger vs. T-34 phenonenon: Crudely speaking, the former might be a match for 5 of the latter, but that isn’t so useful when you can have ten T-34s for the price of one Tiger (which will in any case break down due to its overengineering and have to be abandoned for lack of spare parts). But the crucial question of cost rarely enters these fanboyish arguments. Third, good militaries are supposed to act as tightly coordinated wholes, so the impact of any one platform – be it substantially above or below performance expectations – isn’t that relevant in the overall scheme of things. The French had substantially more and BETTER tanks in 1940, but that didn’t end up doing them much good, because their tanks had far less coordination due to a paucity of radios (which all Panzers were equipped with) and they were spread out all over the place, making it impossible to use them as the armored spearheads they were supposed to be. If you don’t have the appropriate doctrine for them, your fancy toys aren’t very useful.

This can apply even to really old, well-established tech. For instance, Liveleak and YouTube are full of videos in which Syrian Arab Army tanks in dense urban areas trundle about in the open without infantry support, making them easy targets for jihadist RPGs. You would think they’d have learned to stop doing it after four years and counting of defeats, but apparently not. They are lucky in the sense that while their jihadist opponents might be much more enthusiastic, they are also at least just as incompetent. Those videos are likewise full of Allah Akbaring in the middle of firefights and firing without aiming.

Professional Military Ratings

They are hard to dig up, but I have found a few examples of these.

For instance, from Ian Morris’ The Measure of Civilization – companion book to his more famous Why the West Rules – he cites war games designer James Dunnigan, who gave the following scores for land and sea power:


While the naval scores look feasible enough, the land scores are clearly incredible. Suffice to say that if that was true then Russian land power would not only be significantly lower than India’s (which sources a lot of its tech from Russia) and Israel’s (which is a respectable Power but nowhere near the very top leagues), it would also be less as a percentage of US land power than its naval power is as a percentage of US naval power. Considering the US relative focus on sea power, which Russia as a primarily land power does not share, this is just logically impossible.

In 2010, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released the following estimates of military power for 2010. Especially considering that Chinese analysts are not particularly given to nationalistic bombast, this looks to be about credible.


It shows that China and Russia are each at about a third of US military power, while France and the UK in return are a third of that of China and Russia. This tallies well with my CMP estimates.

Finally, it is also worth pointing out that according to one discussion I’ve had with a professional British military analyst – who must for obvious reasons remain anonymous – these figures all substantially understate Russian military power. In particular, he argues that “Russian ground capabilities would be a very close second to US ones,” which if so implies that Russia’s aggregate score – that is, including the naval component – on any such comparison would be closer to half that of the US than a third (although he strongly questions the utility of such quantification in general). He also has a very dim opinion of Chinese military power. I find it difficult to agree with many of his points, especially since even just the US Army is substantially bigger than Russia’s Ground Forces, and surely has a significantly higher combat effectiveness value on average. This would make it hard to square with his (80%-90%?) evaluation of Russia’s ground capabilities relative to the US. But as a professional, this opinion is worth mentioning at least as a FWIW.

A lot of great work has been done on detailed, startlingly accurate modeling of military engagements – starting all the way back from the war games of the Prussian General Staff in the mid-19th century, and culminating in complex computer models that query huge databases of past military engagements to find optimal strategies that are used by modern militaries today.

However, apart from the small detail that they tend to be classified, they are all focused on the tactical or operational level, not the strategic one. I.e., they don’t measure comprehensive military power.

Comprehensive Military Power

To compile my rating, it has to satisfy several prerequisites:

  • It has to make sense at a fundamental level (face validity)
  • It has to be both additive and historically consistent, so that cross-country comparisons across time and space can be made
  • It has to be fairly simple conceptually and use openly available data

Nuclear war power is a totally different kettle of fish and is entirely excluded. This is an index exclusively of conventional military power.

The solution I settled down is a “translation” of the GDP concept from economics into the military sphere.



  • CMP is comprehensive (national) military power;
  • L is “labor” aka military manpower, or Army personnel numbers;
  • K is “capital” aka military capital, aka the stock of equipment a military possesses i.e. tanks, guns, bulletproof vests, fortifications, etc.
  • CE is the “total factor productivity,” or how effectively L and K are used, and is a proxy for combat effectiveness value. This is a multiple of the technology level (T); of Troop Quality (Q); and of a cultural factor (C). Explanations below.
  • alpha is set = 0.5. This implies that a force with twice as many troops should be about equivalent to a force with twice as much military capital, everything else being equal. Is this a good assumption? Perhaps I underestimate labor slightly in terms of ground forces. But it would also massively overestimate labor in terms of its contributions to naval power. Clearly, having twice as many warships is preferable to having twice as many sailors (all else equal). I think 0.5 is a good compromise, but if you have good arguments for other figures, I would be happy to hear them.


armed-forces-personnel-1989-2013 The only comprehensive data I could find that goes back to 1989 is the World Bank’s figures for total armed forces personnel. This includes paramilitary forces, which rarely match up to the quality of the conventional forces, but in the absence of figures just for active duty personnel I had to go with those figures.

I made adjustments only for two countries, India and North Korea. India because it has a huge paramilitary component that virtually trebled the size of its military, so I specifically used the figures for its active duty personnel. North Korea because its paramilitary component is likewise unreasonably huge, plus actual academic demographic estimates of its military size indicate that it is at 700,000 troops and has long ceased to be a million man army.

As we can see on the graph to the right, the number of military personnel in all the Great Powers has been steadily going down since the end of the Cold War. Partly this has been to a general trend of military downsizing – most pronounced in Russia/USSR – but also due to the continuing devaluation of raw manpower in favor of more automated systems.

Military Capital

rand-military-capital-1950-1990 Military capital is the tools – tanks, artillery, airframes, etc. – that militaries use to deal out damage.

I found some historical figures for the 1950-1990 period (the 2000 and 2010 numbers are future projections, and as such useless) from a 1989 RAND report, Long-Term Economic and Military Trends, 1950-2010.

I got additional rough figures for East Germany and the Koreas from other sources. In addition, I recall reading that Israel’s total military capital in the 1980s was approximately equal to that of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, which enabled me to make a rough estimate of its military capital stock (unfortunately I can no longer locate this report).

I proxied other countries’ military capital stocks by reference to the averages of the respective groups they belonged to (e.g. Cold War NATO, Eastern European Socialist Bloc, Developing Nations, Asian Boomers, etc). This might seem like a very rough and imprecise way of going about things, but that is not actually the case – at least so far as estimates of military potential by, say, the 2010s, are concerned – because a big chunk of that initial military capital stock in 1990 would have depreciated by then.

This takes us to the precise way in which military capital stock figures were generated for the post-1990s period.

First off, I made the blanket assumption that 25% of military spending everywhere is devoted to procurement. This is pretty weak, but considering that there are major uncertainties over the size of military budgets in countries as big as China – to say nothing of individual components of that budget – trying to individually estimate the share of procurement spending across many countries would have been an extremely time-consuming and utterly pointless endevour. In any case, swings of 5% or even 10% points up or down would not have had absolutely cardinal effects, since the main factor here is total military spending, for which we have relatively reliable figures for the 1988-2014 period from SIPRI. This military spending data was adjusted to take into account yearly international price level differences.

anatoly-karlin-uss-midway Second, military capital depreciates. A tank built in 2005 will be worth considerably less today. Moreover, this depreciation rate varies across both historical time and particular militaries due to their different force structures, maintenance standards, etc. Over the course of twenty years, the majority of the then existing military capital would have depreciated. But some military capital can linger on for a very long time. The Tupolev Tu-95s were first built in the 1950s and continue to serve to this day. Is this because impoverished Russians can’t design or build anything newer and are forced to continue flying obsolete rustbuckets? Field this question to the USAF, which likewise built the first Boeing B-52 Stratofortresses in the 1950s and plans to keep them in service until 2045. The avionics get updated, of course, but an airframe can last a long time.

The picture to the right is of the author at the USS Midway (CV-41) aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1945 and serving the entire length of the Cold War to be decommissioned in 1992 and transformed into a museum.

How fast does military capital depreciate? There is a huge range of estimates, and for the above reasons, no exactitude can be hoped for in any case. Some estimates of yearly military capital depreciation I’ve encountered include: 6.3%; 3.5%-5%; 10%; 8%-10%; 3.5%-6%. I ended up using a simple 5% throughout.

Using 1990 as an anchor, the military capital calculations consisted of an addition of 25% of current military spending (inflation adjusted) and the subtraction of 5% of the existing accumulated military capital stock.

Combat Effectiveness

This crucial factor consists of a multiple of three components: Technology; Troop Quality; and Cultural Modifier.


Military technology is advancing at a continuous pace. Ian Morris in The Measure of Civilization cites an estimate that the weapons systems of 2000 have 50-100x as much mobility, resilience, and destructive potential as those of 1900, whereas those of 1900 are 5x as capable as those of 1800. This is an ongoing process that finds expression today in things such as drones, swarms, cyberwar, and even more exotic possibilities like railguns and DEWs. It will also accelerate or decelerate depending on the underlying rate of overall technological growth and the percentage of R&D that will be devoted to military competition in the years ahead. Furthermore, depending on their nation’s developmental level and international relations, some militaries will be systemically more technologically advanced than others.

annual-military-technological-growth To proxy this, I first compiled an estimate of the rate of technological military progress over the past century (see right). I didn’t try to be particularly detailed, since that is probably a futile endevour. Four broad historical periods can be made out, though:

  1. The 1900-1935 period saw a modest degree of both technological and doctrinal progress. In the former sphere, you had of course the appearance of the first rudimentary armor and air forces. You also had major matching doctrinal developments, such as the Hutier tactics that eventually broke the stalemate on the Western Front in World War 1, and would later wield great influence over the proper employment of armor. Outside Germany, however, these innovations were not readily accepted. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 3%.
  2. The 1935-1975 period saw blisteringly fast progress. To get a sense of the scale of the change, consider that the mid-1930s began with aircraft like the Spitfire and Messerschmitt Bf 109 replacing old wood and fabric models, culminating in the F-15 and Su-27 by the 1970s – both planes that in their modernized versions continue to form the backbones of the US and Russian Air Forces. The later part of this period also saw the development of the Revolution in Military Affairs, spearheaded by Marshall Nikolay Ogarkov in the USSR in the 1970s and most intensively adapted by the US after the 1980s. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 7%.
  3. The 1985-2015 saw a slowing down of military technological growth. To be sure, it still continues, predominantly in the fields of networking and IT, but you no longer have the major leaps every decade that you had in the previous period. Overall, yearly growth of perhaps 5% in 1975-1985, and 3% thereafter.
  4. The 2015-2050 period lies in the future, so any propositions are largely guesswork. But assuming no fundamentally new paradigms are developed, no computer superintelligences, no technological singularities, the yearly rate of growth might continue to be around 3%.

Using the year 2000 as an anchor, military technology of previous and future years is adjusted based on the above schema. It is further adjusted based on each individual military’s closeness to the military technology frontier, as represented by leading industrial countries such as the US.

  1. Technological frontier – The US, its closest allies (e.g. Israel and the Five Eyes), and NATO/allied countries that are economically well developed and possess substantial military-industrial complexes of their own (e.g. France, Germany, Japan). This does not necessarily mean that all their weapons systems are top notch. It just means that mere money is the only major obstacle in attaining such a state. If Germany right this moment decided to become stronk! and build itself a fifth generation fighter, and financed that project properly, there’s no real doubt over its theoretical capacity to do so. The extent to which countries do or do not do this is proxied by their accumulation of military capital.
  2. Lag of 5 years – Small NATO countries, close NATO clients, and the USSR and modern Russia as well as Russia’s closest allies and small rich countries like Singapore that devote a lot of attention to their militaries. Assigning a lag of a mere 5 years to Russia might be controversial, considering the poor reputation of Russian technology – largely a result of it being used by incompetent countries like Syria and Iraq against competent countries like Israel and the US – but all in all I do not think it unrealistic. There might indeed be a lag of 5 or even 10 years in individual spheres such as drones or fighter aircraft, but for every one of those there is a sphere where Russia is on the leading edge, such as tanks, anti-aircraft, and diesel subs.
  3. Lag of 10 years – China, India, most middle income countries and buyers of Western and Russian “monkey model” equipment – China is fast closing the gap and will soon reduce its lag to 5 years, but for now this is probably accurate. In particular, it continues to fail at building reliable high performance fighter jet engines that have long been mastered in the West and Russia.
  4. Lag of 15 years – So-called “rogue” regimes that have been heavily sanctioned by the West and are not in a position to innovate most of their own hi-tech equipment, such as Iran, as well as the more impoverished Third World tinpot countries.

Troop Quality

Spending more money per soldier will almost inevitably improve overall quality. Brighter, more motivated people will be incentivized to show up in the first place. More time can be devoted to training, using more bullets and flying time. Full time cooks and cleaners can be hired so that soldiers don’t have to waste time doing things irrelevant to their profession.

I made Troop Quality equal to per soldier spending times 4 in the last year, plus per soldier spending times 2 in the year before that, plus per soldier spending times 1 three years back. This loosely reflects the idea that it is the most recent spending that will have the most effect.

I then took the cube root of this figure to account for diminishing returns. After all, doubling spending on a soldier can hardly be expected to double his combat effectiveness. But a 25% increase is quite reasonable.

Cultural Factors

In both the World Wars, as Trevor Dupuy recounts in his books such as A Genius for War, the Germans consistently had a 25% combat effectiveness advantage over the Allies – the French, the British, and the Americans – and in individual engagements, they inflicted 50% more casualties adjusted for personnel numbers, equipment, local geography, and offensive/defensive status. Over the Russians, their combat effectiveness advantage was more along the lines of 100%+. (Incidentally, this, and not the Hollywood myth of “two soldiers per rifle,” is what accounted for the high Soviet:German casualty ratios. Even a cursory perusal of WW2 war production statistics, in which the USSR outproduced Germany in virtually all weapons categories, would confirm this. The Germans were just a lot better at fighting, while the Soviets were a lot worse – possibly because the 1940s USSR was still in many respects a Third World country).

As such, I gave Germany a 25% across the board advantage in combat effectiveness. (Is this still valid? Dupuy, after all, argues that the key factor that explained German overperformance was the quality of their General Staff, which they no longer really have. However, I don’t fully buy that argument. Many countries as early as the aftermath of the Prussian victories in the 1860s-70s adopted the General Staff structure, but failed to recreate German-style military efficiency. So I suspect this is more of a permanent cultural or even sociobiological factor).

I also gave a 25% across the board advantage to a few other countries that have displayed unusually impressive military “feats” in their history, such as Finland (Winter War), Israel (the Arab Wars), Mongolia (that Ghengis guy), Switzerland (Swiss pikemen), etc.

I took 25% off countries that I deemed to be “Southern” (the Latin, African, Arab, and Indian subcontinent peoples) to account for the traditional stereotype of them being generally inferior soldiers to “northerners.” However, I did not extend this to Turks, Greeks, and Armenians/Israelis, who have somewhat better military reputations. I also took another 25% off from countries that I perceived to have excessive levels of clannishness in their societies, since clannishness is – as I discussed at length previously – antithetical to being a good soldier as part of the army of a nation-state. The net effect of this is to reduce the default combat effectiveness of Arabs to 50%, which is in fact somewhat similar to the ratios they displayed in their wars with Israel. There is no such clannishness “hit” as concerns Arabs who fight for clan (e.g. the Syrian National Defense Forces) or for God (e.g. Al Nusra, Islamic State) but these types of military structures are not any good at conventionally fighting actually competent militaries who know how to wage combined arms warfare.

Putting it All Together

The result is the Comprehensive Military Power index. It is of course a largely theoretical figure, so further specific adjustments will be necessary to take into account aspects like geography, the land/sea division, etc. Nonetheless, at least in the sense that militaries aim to expend their resources in a way that maximizes their power – a sort of military version of the efficient markets hypothesis – Comprehensive Military Power should be at least a useful proxy of their results.

Here are the top 15 militaries of 2015 according to the Comprehensive Military Power index (you may find the full list at the bottom of this post).

In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.

Rank Country CMP 2015 CMP 2015 (US=100)
1 United States 197.35 100.00
2 China, P. R. 83.45 42.28
3 Russia 65.96 33.42
4 India 30.71 15.56
5 Germany 23.87 12.09
6 France 23.31 11.81
7 United Kingdom 19.38 9.82
8 Japan 18.65 9.45
9 Korea, South 16.50 8.36
10 Saudi Arabia 13.68 6.93
11 Turkey 12.44 6.30
12 Italy 11.95 6.06
13 Brazil 11.91 6.04
14 Iran 10.40 5.27
15 Israel 9.65 4.89

A Few Comments on How CMP Will Translate into Real Battle Results

lanchesters-laws Conventional modern combat follows the classic Lanchester model, in which the damage your army inflicts over time is a function of the size of your army (see graphic illustration right, via Wiki). Likewise for the enemy.

As such, assuming equal damage rates (as proxied by combat effectiveness), even a small initial advantage can soon translate into crushing victories and defeats – see the first diagram on the right. It is these considerations that underlie Clausewitzian concepts such as the principles of The Offensive, Maneuver, Mass, and Economy of Forces. These principles were intuited by the Great Captains of yore (Alexander, Napoleon, etc) and have been formalized in Military Theory 101 in modern days.

The method for quick but generally reliable predictions of failure or success in prospective military operations, which can be performed by the layman, is a consideration of the share of the national CMP and the gross size of that CMP that the respective combatants can realistically allocate to the sphere of combat operations.

Let us consider a few examples:

The Gulf War

According to my database, the US had a CMP of 92.2 versus 2.1 for the Iraq of Saddam Hussein in 1990. This includes the standard -50% adjustment for Muslim Arabs, which as per usual was justified for this war.

The US concentrated something like 25% of its global military power to this campaign. In tandem with its coalition allies, that made for a regional CMP concentration of up to 30, that is – for all his tanks – a multiple of almost 15:1 relative to Saddam’s forces.

Saddam wouldn’t have stood a chance, even had he been a talented military leader, which he was not. He failed to do anything to disrupt the US buildup, and exercised a rigid, paranoid style of control that quelled lower-level military initiative.

The Syrian Conflict

The Syrian state and the Islamic State both have around 1.7 points on the CMP. I suspect FSA/Al Nusra is a bit lower, maybe around 1. No wonder it’s been a long stalemate… until, perhaps, the Russian airstrikes.

Timely reminder of what I wrote about them:

This is where the Russian Air Force can hopefully make a big difference. Even the fighters already in place will allow the Syrians to effectively double their number of sorties, and Russian fighter pilots are much more skilled and have more modern armaments than their Syrian counterparts. Effectively, this translates to a tripling or quadrupling of Syrian air power that can be concentrated in support of SAA ground operations. Air power can seriously degrade the combat power of enemy formations that do not have adequate AA counters to it (that describes both the FSA/Al Nusra and ISIS). Whereas a front might have once been in equilibrium, due to roughly matching combat power on either side, a sustained air campaign could begin to systemically swing the advantage over to the SAA and eventually enable the reconquista of Syrian territorities currently under renegade Islamist control.

The War in Donbass

In 2014, the fledgling Novorossiyan state as of the August fighting had a CMP of about 0.9, relative to Ukraine’s 6.9. This is a difference of almost 8:1. Thus, when the Ukrainian Army began to fight seriously – for all its manifold problems logistics, morale, and generalship problems – it made progress and would have almost certainly ended up strangling Novorossiya in its cradle. But thanks to the “Northern Wind” and the limited Russian intervention at Ilovaysk, this was not to be.

Both sides have continued to build up their forces, and as of mid-2015, the CMP of Novorossiya was approximately 2.1 to Ukraine’s 8.1 – now a ratio of less than 4:1. Considering that Ukraine cannot realistically commit a huge percentage of its forces to attacking Novorossiya, a military solution to the conflict is for the time being out of the question, as even Poroshenko has been forced to belatedly acknowledge. While Ukraine might be able to make gains, Russia would be able to bolster Novorossiya just as fast. That said, under current spending plans, Ukraine’s CMP should almost double by 2020 – assuming it doesnt’t go bankrupt and is able to maintain military spending at 5% of GDP – which would give it an almost tenfold advantage if Novorossiya stands still in the meantime. (Which, with Russia apparently losing attention, might well happen).

Finally, it also gives the lie to Ukrainian claims which are uncritically repeated in the Western press that they faced down and defeated the Russian Army inflicting thousands of casualties on the Muscovite aggressor. There was in fact just a single intervention at Ilovaysk; Russian military KIA is almost certainly below a hundred for the entire conflict; and unlike the Ukrainians, they were forced to engage while using only a fraction of their capabilities so as to maintain plausible deniability. In effect, they had to forego their vast military capital advantage, and instead rely on superior combat effectiveness. The fact that that they easily trounced Kiev’s forces regardless is incidental testament to Russia’s complete military superiority over Ukraine.

A Confrontation with NATO in the Baltics

Assume the crazier neocons take over the reins and smash Russia’s Latakia airbase to pieces (there’s nothing Russia will be able to do to stop that).

Now Brzezinski might not formally be a neocon, but frankly neocon ideas so dominate US interventionist discourse that we might as well call them all neocons. Here is what the neocon Brzezinsky had to say on this:

“In these rapidly unfolding circumstances the U.S. has only one real option if it is to protect its wider stakes in the region: to convey to Moscow the demand that it cease and desist from military actions that directly affect American assets,” he said.

“The Russian naval and air presences in Syria are vulnerable, isolated geographically from their homeland,” Brzezinski noted. “They could be ‘disarmed’ if they persist in provoking the US.”

Here is another, bona fide neocon, Noah Rothman, pretending to be in anguish over the threat of World War 3 while rationalizing and implicitly calling for the US to attack Russian forces in Syria who are there at the request of its legitimate government:

Washington is faced with a terrible choice: Withdraw unceremoniously and invite further Russian aggression or deter Moscow’s military activities abroad through the credible threat of force. The Pentagon is preparing for the latter course.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon was readying a set of options for the president should he choose to protect Washington-supported rebel groups on the ground in Syria from air attack by Russian forces. The details of such a plan remain a secret, but they would necessarily include putting U.S. air assets in close proximity to Russian forces, triggering an international incident with the expectation – or perhaps the hope – that Russia would climb down from the crisis it has ignited. “At worst, if Russia bombs rebels trained by the U.S. and American fighter jets intercede to protect the Syrians, the exchange could trigger an all-out confrontation with Russia — a potential disaster the administration would like to avoid,” Fox News reported.

Both suggestions if carried through would actually be straightforward acts of war.

Assume that Putin doesn’t back down and try to make amends with his “partners,” which is not entirely impossible, but instead decides to up the ante by confronting NATO in the Baltics. What happens?

I would imagine the conventional answer is that Putin gets smashed and the Russian hordes get sent back fleeing to Eurasia.

The CMP concept, however – not to mention Pentagon war games – suggest NATO wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Russia’s CMP is a third of that of the US, and a fifth of NATO’s. However, a great percentage of it is already concentrated at its western borders. The Balts themselves collectively have less than 1 in CMP, compared to Russia’s 66. There is no way that NATO will be able to mass in sufficient force to have any short at defending the Baltics. Should they attempt to do so anyway, they will merely be destroyed piecemeal with minimal damage on Russian forces. The only hope of reversal would be either fullscale mobilization across NATO (not going to happen no matter how shrill the neocons get), or draconian economic sanctions (which is what will happen).

However, I don’t expect any of the neocons to pay any particular attention to such matters, because they have an idee fixe – e.g., American triumphalism, Israel firstism, Russophobia – and have no interest, desire, or incentive to deviate an iota away from it.

The Future Global Military Balance

In tandem with various assumptions about future economic growth and the share of spending that will be devoted to the military, we can make rough projections of future military power.

But first…

Cold War History


In short, a CMP analysis shows:

  • US superiority in the 1950-1975 period, Soviet superiority thereafter until its collapse. (Yes, the US was roughly twice as powerful as the USSR in 1945. However, it went below the Soviet lower following postwar demobilization. During the Korean War it sprang back up again and the permanent military-industrial complex was there to stay).
  • NATO vs. Warsaw Pact approximate parity on land, and continuous NATO dominance on the high seas. Of course the Warsaw Pact did have a preponderate in forces stationed in Europe proper. This was why Cold War military strategy was mainly about keeping the Warsaw Pact at bay long enough for American reinforcements to make their way to West Germany.
  • A clear period of US military supremacy from 1992 until today. But China is gaining fast.

All this has face validity.

Future Superpower CMP

As concerns the Chinese-US military balance, the purely naval component is more important than the aggregate one, since the likeliest clash will be over some Pacific island or other.

Calculating separate CMPS for land and sea is unrealistic. However, one can make reasonable estimates of the share of national CMP that is land based vs naval based. In the US, for instance, I would estimate that the Navy and Marines (sea), and the Army and Air Force (land), each account for about half of its CMP. In the USSR, this split was more like 25%:75%. China during the Cold War was even more exclusively land-based, not possessing a blue water fleet at all. However, this is now changing fast. The Army is getting downsized, while as early as 2020 the PLAN will begin to resemble a smaller version of the USN.

Naval Power

Assuming that:

  • The Chinese naval share of CMP grows steadily from about 30% in 2010 to 50% by 2050.
  • The US naval share of CMP grows from 55% in 2010 and 2020, to 60% by 2020 and thereafter.
  • Chinese military spending increases by 10% during the rest of the 2010s (as before), by 7% in the 2020s, by 5% in the 2030s, and by 3% in the 2040s.
  • US military spending remains constant until 2020, then resumes growing at 3% a year.
  • China will move from a 10 year technological lag in 2010 to a 5 year technological lag by 2020, and remain there until 2050 (i.e. will not become technologically leading edge).

Here is what the US/China naval comparison will look like in the years ahead under these non too demanding assumptions, which involve China continuing to converge rapidly with developed world living standards (like South Korea with a lag period of 20 years) and maintaining military spending at about ~2-2.5% of GDP, while the US grows at around 3% and keeps military spending at around 3% of GDP.


Under these conditions, China will overtake the US in overall military terms in land military power during the early 2020s, in overall military power in the early 2030s, and in naval military power by the early 2040s.

I view that as being historically plausible. Germany committed to major naval buildup at 1888, when its total GDP was still considerably smaller than Britain’s. Twenty five years later, the Imperial German Navy had emerged from obscurity to become half the strength of the Royal Navy. But Germany also had to maintain an Army capable of fighting a two front war, and its GDP never far outpaced Britain’s because their total populations were so close (65 million to 47 million in 1913). In contrast, China has a relatively secure rear with Russia, which it is slowly overshadowing in land military power anyway; its GDP is already bigger than the US in purchasing power parity adjusted terms; and its population is more than four times as large as America’s. Should it merely converge to Korea’s level of GDP per capita relative to the US, its aggregate economic size will be three time greater than America’s.

As such, China’s naval ascendancy by the mid-21st century is entirely plausible.

George Friedman of Stratfor claims that carrier operations are so complex that only Americans can really understand them (I am not even simplying his arguments all that much), but he also claims that China will break apart in the 2020s and Poland and Mexico will be superpowers this century, so take his forecasts with a grain of salt.

Comprehensive Military Power

In global terms, there will be four military powers, with Russia and a rising India coming in behind the American and Chinese behemoths.


The article is becoming too long for stating the assumptions behind Russia’s and India’s trajectory in any great detail; perhaps I will leave that for a later post (more on that below).

There will also continue to be a number of middling powers, such as France, the UK, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, but none of them are likely to go far beyond 10% of the US CMP. This is, of course, all assuming no major wars, mobilizations, unexpectedly sharp increases in military spending, superintelligence takeoffs, etc.

Further Applications of CMP

I spent quite a bit of time developing the CMP and intend to milk it for all it’s worth in future blog posts. So please feel free to suggest:

  • Further “grand strategic” future scenarios with differing assumptions about military spending as share of GDP and GDP growth for different countries and potential alliances.
  • Individual conflict analysis based on the CMP (e.g. India vs. Pakistan, the two Koreas, Azerbaijan vs. Armenia), as well as CMP based analyses of regional military balances e.g. Europe, Middle East, etc.
  • Historical what-if and sci-fi scenarios, such as, Could the Warsaw Pact have conquered Western Europe? Could 1940 Nazi Germany take on 2015 Poland? Would a global UN military of 2015 be able to defeat the Wolfenstein: New World Order of 1960, or would Wilhem Strasse’s Panzerhunds rip us all apart with Teutonic ease??? Feel free to make them as wacky as you like!

Make these suggestions here and/or at my account.

Comprehensive Military Power 2015

In the default CMP, i.e. the second column, the US score in 2000 = 100. In the third column, the US score in 2015 has been normed to 100.

Rank Country CMP 2015 CMP 2015 (US=100)
1 United States 197.35 100.00
2 China, P. R. 83.45 42.28
3 Russia 65.96 33.42
4 India 30.71 15.56
5 Germany 23.87 12.09
6 France 23.31 11.81
7 United Kingdom 19.38 9.82
8 Japan 18.65 9.45
9 Korea, South 16.50 8.36
10 Saudi Arabia 13.68 6.93
11 Turkey 12.44 6.30
12 Italy 11.95 6.06
13 Brazil 11.91 6.04
14 Iran 10.40 5.27
15 Israel 9.65 4.89
16 Ukraine 8.10 4.10
17 Taiwan 7.36 3.73
18 Pakistan 6.76 3.43
19 Australia 6.74 3.42
20 Canada 6.68 3.38
21 Poland 6.37 3.23
22 Colombia 4.86 2.46
23 Spain 4.81 2.44
24 Indonesia 4.69 2.38
25 Singapore 4.41 2.23
26 Vietnam 4.28 2.17
27 Korea, North 4.18 2.12
28 Thailand 3.75 1.90
29 Egypt 3.73 1.89
30 Greece 3.69 1.87
31 Netherlands 3.51 1.78
32 Myanmar 3.16 1.60
33 United Arab Emirates 3.11 1.58
34 Algeria 2.98 1.51
35 Mexico 2.72 1.38
36 Romania 2.45 1.24
37 Azerbaijan 2.42 1.23
38 Malaysia 2.36 1.20
39 Iraq 2.27 1.15
40 South Africa 2.26 1.15
41 Kazakhstan 2.25 1.14
42 Novorossiya 2.08 1.06
43 Belarus 2.05 1.04
44 Oman 2.02 1.02
45 Belgium 2.02 1.02
46 Argentina 1.98 1.00
47 Philippines 1.88 0.95
48 Czech Rep. 1.83 0.93
49 Switzerland 1.78 0.90
50 Portugal 1.74 0.88
51 Sweden 1.72 0.87
52 Chile 1.72 0.87
53 Syria 1.69 0.86
54 Islamic State 1.67 0.84
55 Norway 1.62 0.82
56 Venezuela 1.57 0.79
57 Angola 1.56 0.79
58 Kuwait 1.54 0.78
59 Sri Lanka 1.48 0.75
60 Austria 1.42 0.72
61 Lebanon 1.32 0.67
62 Uzbekistan 1.32 0.67
63 Hungary 1.31 0.66
64 Finland 1.28 0.65
65 Nigeria 1.25 0.64
66 Denmark 1.17 0.59
67 Morocco 1.17 0.59
68 Bulgaria 1.16 0.59
69 Serbia 1.08 0.55
70 Peru 1.03 0.52
71 Bangladesh 1.03 0.52
72 Croatia 0.89 0.45
73 Ecuador 0.86 0.43
74 Armenia 0.81 0.41
75 New Zealand 0.80 0.40
76 Sudan 0.80 0.40
77 Yemen 0.79 0.40
78 Eritrea 0.78 0.39
79 Slovak Rep. 0.71 0.36
80 Georgia 0.64 0.32
81 Jordan 0.56 0.29
82 Afghanistan 0.53 0.27
83 Qatar 0.48 0.24
84 Libya 0.42 0.21
85 Ireland 0.41 0.21
86 Kenya 0.39 0.20
87 Lithuania 0.38 0.19
88 Kyrgyzstan 0.38 0.19
89 Ethiopia 0.36 0.18
90 Turkmenistan 0.36 0.18
91 Nepal 0.35 0.18
92 Bosnia-Herzegovina 0.33 0.16
93 Slovenia 0.31 0.16
94 Tunisia 0.29 0.15
95 Uruguay 0.29 0.14
96 Chad 0.28 0.14
97 Bahrain 0.27 0.14
98 Cyprus 0.27 0.14
99 Bolivia 0.26 0.13
100 Estonia 0.22 0.11
101 Latvia 0.21 0.11
102 Dominican Rep. 0.20 0.10
103 Uganda 0.19 0.10
104 Tanzania 0.19 0.10
105 Cambodia 0.19 0.10
106 Zambia 0.19 0.10
107 Côte d’Ivoire 0.19 0.09
108 Zimbabwe 0.18 0.09
109 Botswana 0.18 0.09
110 Namibia 0.17 0.09
111 Cameroon 0.17 0.09
112 Guatemala 0.17 0.09
113 Paraguay 0.17 0.09
114 El Salvador 0.17 0.09
115 Albania 0.17 0.08
116 Mongolia 0.16 0.08
117 Macedonia, FYR 0.16 0.08
118 Congo, Dem. Rep. 0.16 0.08
119 Congo 0.15 0.08
120 Brunei 0.15 0.08
121 Tajikistan 0.14 0.07
122 Cuba 0.13 0.07
123 Ghana 0.11 0.06
124 Senegal 0.11 0.05
125 Laos 0.10 0.05
126 Honduras 0.10 0.05
127 Moldova 0.09 0.05
128 Gabon 0.09 0.04
129 Rwanda 0.09 0.04
130 Luxembourg 0.08 0.04
131 Montenegro 0.08 0.04
132 Mali 0.08 0.04
133 Guinea 0.08 0.04
134 Somalia 0.08 0.04
135 Madagascar 0.08 0.04
136 Burkina Faso 0.07 0.04
137 Panama 0.07 0.04
138 Burundi 0.07 0.03
139 Mozambique 0.06 0.03
140 Equatorial Guinea 0.06 0.03
141 Nicaragua 0.06 0.03
142 Jamaica 0.05 0.03
143 Trinidad & Tobago 0.05 0.02
144 Benin 0.04 0.02
145 Togo 0.04 0.02
146 Niger 0.04 0.02
147 Swaziland 0.04 0.02
148 Malawi 0.04 0.02
149 Djibouti 0.03 0.01
150 Lesotho 0.03 0.01
151 Malta 0.03 0.01
152 Papua New Guinea 0.03 0.01
153 Fiji 0.02 0.01
154 Sierra Leone 0.02 0.01
155 Central African Rep. 0.02 0.01
156 Guyana 0.01 0.01
157 Guinea-Bissau 0.01 0.01
158 Mauritius 0.01 0.01
159 Liberia 0.01 0.00
160 Gambia 0.01 0.00
161 Iceland 0.01 0.00
162 Belize 0.01 0.00
163 Seychelles 0.01 0.00
164 Cape Verde 0.00 0.00
165 Haiti 0.00 0.00

They can, just not for nation-states.

(The Arabs are an extreme case, but really, it applies to virtually all Muslims).

Latest case in point: Taliban Fighters Capture Kunduz City as Afghan Forces Retreat

No matter how many gazillions of dollars the US pours into training them, no matter how many shiny toys they get from Uncle Sam, no matter by how much they outnumber the enemy (at least on paper), both Iraqis and Afghans alike collapse under the onslaught of men who fight not for gold but for God.

It’s not a failing of their trainers. The Soviets couldn’t do much either. (In both 1967 and 1973, the Arab armies had more military capital than the Israelis, and their tech was not inferior. But they still got whooped).

There have been some very good socio-political analyses of why this is the case, but ultimately it likely comes down to HBD reasons. Muslim, and especially Arab, societies tend to be based around consanguineous, which results in ultra-high levels of clannishness. The clan becomes the first focal point of loyalty. The second focal point is the Ummah, the wider Islamic community under God. This leaves precious little room for any strong emotional attachments to the third focal point, the nation-state that Europeans and East Asians are both intimately familiar, but which is quite novel, strange, and foreign to most Muslims.

Muslims who fight for states, to be of any use, have to be either amply compensated with gold (which tends to get stolen anyway), or be driven to do so by the fear of punishment from a dictator. This is why both Saddam’s Iraq and Assad’s Syria, for all their problems, made vastly better showings against their enemies than the militaries of semi-democratic modern Iraq and Afghanistan.

With a few exceptions like Trevor Dupuy, US analysts’ predictions of their own casualties during the Gulf War veered into the tens of thousands, whereas in actual fact they ended up being less than 300. In contrast, they systemically underestimated the difficulty of pacifying the conquered territories in both Afghanistan after 2001 and Iraq after 2003.

One explanation for this is well known to military theorists: In 4GW warfare, insurgents have the ability to fade into the general population, which means that the US (or the USSR in Afghanistan) is practically unable to make use of its gargantuan superiority in military capital. What use is a B-2 bomber against an IED? Effectively, it mostly comes down to the combat effectiveness ratios of US soldiers vs. insurgents, and the latter tend to additionally have the advantage of surprise in any engagement.

But all this should in principle be accounted for. What they might not necessarily account for, however, is the fact that insurgents – being far more driven, fighting for clan or God – have much higher combat effectiveness than the sorts of poor demoralized grunts they’d have steamrolled during the initial invasion. And from which they might have logically extrapolated to any insurgents, on the logic that these societies resemble the European ones that they would be most intimately familiar with (most recently in Serbia!).

When you have national Iraqi and Afghan armies fighting insurgents, you get not a double, not even a triple, but a quadruple whammy. A negative modifier due to the usual advantage insurgents have in surprise and concealment. Another negative modifier due to their status as soldiers in a national army suffering from all the typical problems of Muslim state armies, fighting insurgents who fight for God. And a final negative modifier due to them being democracies, if somewhat half-assed ones. I recall the Iraqi PM promising to execute officers who abandoned their stations to flee the Islamic State, but nothing came of it so far as I’m aware. Assad would have just gone ahead and done it.

The universalist American impulse to disregard human cultural and socio-biological differences not only makes it easy for the neocons to manipulate them into idiotic and irresponsible military adventures abroad. It also ensures that as soon as they leave, any political structures they leave behind soon get swept away as well by the irresistable tides of Anon (Nature or Nature’s Allah, to steal from the NRx lexicon) and the black flags of the Islamic resurgence.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, Clannishness, Military, Muslims 


Source: Wikipedia. Click to enlarge.

I admit to not having been following the Syrian Civil War anywhere near as closely the war in the Donbass.

But with recent rumors of stepped up Russian involvement now being confirmed by videos – and even talk of China possibly sending troops (crazy, but a year ago you’d have said the same of Russians) – it is well past time to remedy this.

The first thing I like to do when it comes to getting up to speed on some conflict or other is studying maps. Just looking at them for an hour or two. Wikipedia has a very impressive data gathering operation that gets updated in real time. In combination with this article listing the military histories for all the major cities and towns you can get a very good idea of the ebb and flow of the conflict through time. Arguably, this is far more useful than reading any number of editorials on the subject.

Some patterns immediately jump out.


Source: Washington Post.

(1) The pattern of regime, FSA/Al-Nusra and ISIS control correlate exceedingly well with the ethnic and religious composition of the geographic areas in question. The coastal Alawite heartlands of Tartus and Latakia, corresponding to the old borders of the eponymous state, are near totally secure. Shi’ite and Christian minorities, such as the Druze, Assyrians, and Armenians, correlate with pockets of regime support – even the Armenian pocket around Deir es-Zor in the desert each of the country, still holding out despite being completely surrounded by the Islamic State. In contrast, Palmyra fell to ISIS this year despite being more than 150km from the nearest area of ISIS control at Kabajeb. Suweida, populated by Dzuze and other minorities, is under Assad’s control in the far south, while neighboring Daraa – entirely Arab Sunni – is held by the FSA.

All this just goes to show the extent to which this is an ethnic, tribalistic war, where the “normal” rules of military theory – where force concentrations are king, and surrounded pockets get liquidated fast – don’t apply as they do even in the Donbass War. I suspect and nothing I’ve read about Syria contradicts this that this is ultimately due to the very low combat effectiveness of Arab armies. Unlike Europeans or East Asians, who have a long tradition of nation-statehood and conscript armies, the Arabs as a people only fight well for clan and God. A dictator like Saddam Hussein or Assad can force them to fight, but not very well or enthusiastically, while a democracy can barely do anything at all – see how ISIS once steamrolled their way to the outskirts of Baghdad, even though the Iraqi forces are armed with modern US equipment that the Syrian Arab Army can only dream about). This has the effect of depressing the value of conventional military power, with the result that warfare becomes a lot like urban gang warfare, just with much fancier military toys and more rape and ethnic cleansing. In this kind of “4GW” confrontrations, the fact that rebel groups and ISIS are much more enthusiastic, more combat effective (due to fighting for clan and/or God instead of a country whose lines were drawn by the French and British), and have the option of blending in with the civilian population in areas where they enjoy support allows them to level out the military capital (tanks, artillery, etc.) superiority of the SAA. Even the SAA has over the past few years bowed to these realities and become much more of a homogenous (primarily Alawite) force and come to rely less on unmotivated conscripts and more on the locally-rooted National Defense Forces.


ORB International poll, Syria, July 2015.

(2) The pattern of control also tallies very well with support for Assad in opinion polls (to a large extent this will of course be an ethnic/religious confound). No area in which Assad has more than 60% support is there a very serious rebel threat. In areas where he has less than 40% support, there is either very intensive fighting or the area is entirely ruled by an opposing faction. Aleppo, the “Stalingrad” of the conflict, registers 39% support for Assad; Idleb, in between Aleppo and Alawite Latakia – and the scene of major rebel successes this year, with just a small regime garrison continuing to hold out in the Shi’ite villages around Fu’ah – registers just 9% support for Assad. Nowin fairness, opinion polls have to be treated with some caution in Syria, because none of the warring factions is exactly very nice to visible dissenters. Still, the fact that Assad registers 27% support in ISIS ruled territories, while the FSA registers 15% in areas held by the government – as opposed to near 0% in both cases – does imply that the fear of speaking one’s mind at least privately is far from total throughout Syria.

(3) More generally, many Western media propaganda/neocon talking points immediately become hollow through this simply map-viewing exercise.

For instance, the idea that Assad isn’t interested in fighting ISIS, or even that he is in some sort of alliance with them. Where the areas under Assad’s control and ISIS border each other, there is intense fighting, e.g. an entire frontline on the approach to Al Salamiyah behind which lie Homs and Hama, and the struggle to relieve the surrounded Kweiris airbase. But by far the biggest challenges the legitimate Syrian government faces right now lies in the areas of Idlib and Aleppo, which apart from being large territories under JaN and FSA control also splinter SAA forces and constitute a conduit for Turkish arms supplies to other rebel formations throughout the country. Focusing attention on this area is just military common sense – and its not like there is any cardinal moral difference between Al Nusra and ISIS anyway (Al Nusra just doesn’t act axe-crazy for the cameras).

Another common talking point that has been raised especially since Russia stepped up its involvement is the claim that Assad’s forces have killed far more Syrians than ISIS. The aim is quite transparent: Since ISIS has so ably demonized itself, associating Assad with them by way of quantitative comparison should be pretty easy to do. And I think it mostly works. I see a lot of people in comments sections raising this point in in that really smarmy, pretentious way that the more intelligent American imperialists adopt to come off as “smart” and “balanced.” Entirely absent of course is context:

  • That the SAA is fighting long, grinding campaigns primarily in the heavily built up, urbanized areas of the North-West, while ISIS specialized more in blitzes, typically moving in when its adversaries become mutually exhausted. The latter type of warfare will inevitably produce fewer civilian casualties, regardless of the mass executions and slave markets that ISIS sets up afterwards. But its certainly not account of any greater moral superiority or legitimacy; quite the contrary, in fact.
  • That there is no chance of the SAA getting “smart weapons.” Meanwhile, its relative preponderance in military capital – artillery, tanks, helicopter gunships, etc. – is the one thing it has going for it. Since the average SAA soldier is far less motivated and combat effective than his Al Nusra or ISIS counterpart (see above) and since they cannot blend into the civilian population as the various rebels can, of course the SAA has no choice but to make use of its superior firepower so as to least keep up with if not overwhelm the enemy. Not doing so would not only be criminal towards its own soldiers, many more of whom would otherwise die. The question would also quickly become entirely moot since if the SAA was to go soft it would also be quickly defeated, with tragic consequences for the Shi’ite and Christian minorities it is still heroically protecting.
  • The not completely irrelevant point that ISIS openly and proudly commits all sort of atrocities harkening in spirit all the way back to the methods of the Assyrian Empire. In contrast, the great bulk of SAA “casualties” are collateral damage from military actions, and even when it comes to the dirty but necessary task of rooting out Islamist sympathizers – who would otherwise tell SAA coordinates to ISIS or Al Nusra, or suicide bomb themselves to ease their advance – it is something that the Syrian regime does in shadowy basements, where any such actions properly belong. For those who still want to play the numbers game, in what way in particular is this different from, say, US methods in Vietnam? (With the exception that it was a voluntary intervention, whereas Assad is merely defending his own country0.

Now in fairness I do know that the neocons have a narrative to keep up and so do their shills in the media, like Michael Weiss who is constantly agitating for aggressive actions to overthrow both Putin and Assad and enjoys huge influence in the media despite having zero knowledge of either Russian or Arabic. Same goes for their dupes and bots on the comments sections. But anyone else seriously arguing that Assad is on a level with ISIS has all of this to address first.


Source: Google Maps.

(4) A single, 153km road separates Palmyra from Kabajeb, the nearest ISIS-controlled area to Palmyra prior to the month-long offensive in July 2015 that led to its capture and other tragic consequences. This area looks like it could be used to film a Mad Max sequel. It should also be exceedingly easy for anyone with a competent airforce with air superiority to make mincemeat of any attack along this route. To the contrary, the kind of out-in-the-open, logistically challenging, and lengthy ISIS operation that should have been one of the easiest to forestall went on right ahead, successfully.

So why didn’t the US with its vaunted air campaign against ISIS do anything?

Because ultimately it is entirely fine with ISIS making advances when it is at the expense of the regime. This is not too surprising, since ISIS is after America’s baby and destabilizing Assad is its entire raison d’etre – as declassified Pentagon documents, Wikileaks, and the intuitions of Syrians themselves have proved over the past few months.

Plus, ISIS is better than Assad anyway. Look at all the hundreds of articles making this point they can’t all be wrong.

The US has an air campaign that is supposedly fast “degrading” ISIS, but there is no evidence of it making any kind of dent in its military capabilities. From its unconditional demands to have Assad step down to its attempts to pressure its NATO allies to block airspace to Russian planes carrying military aid to Syria (Bulgaria obliged, Greece didn’t) the US cannot be considered a sincere partner in wishing peace upon Syria. And that will remain the case so long as the US continues to be ruled by the neocon agenda, even if the actual neocons are now mostly out of power.


In recent days, some Armenians have been up in arms over increases in electricity tariffs by the evil Russian-owned electricity monopoly that will bring them up to… well, a level slightly higher than in Russia and about 2-3x lower than in most EU countries (don’t you love comparative context?). Discourse in both Russia and the West has now shifted to the familiar template of color revolution. Cookie girl Victoria Nuland was in Armenia last February in a closed meeting with NGOs, which is never a good sign, and the Maidanist Ukrainian elites are salivating over the prospect of a color revolution in Yerevan, with Interior Minister (and ethnic Armenian) Arsen Avakov going so far as to express his support for the “Electromaidan” couched in a bizarre anecdote about his adventures with a thermos in (Ukraine’s) Euromaidan.

Does this presage the overthrow of Russia’s colonial “puppet” in Armenia and its inevitable transition to the promised land of freedom, prosperity, and end-of-history that all such revolutions inevitably entail? At first, one might have cause to be skeptical. The numbers of protesters has been few so far: No more than 1% of Yerevan’s one million strong population. And while they do include the usual young pro-Western and anti-Russian types, there’s also plenty of older leftists and apoliticals, so for the most part it could be said to be a domestic political affair with no particular connection to questions such as Armenia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union or its hosting of a Russian military base in Gyumri. In opinion polls, Armenians are highly positive towards Russia. On the other hand, pretty much of all of this could also have been said of Ukraine’s Euromaidan before November 2013.

There is however one very critical difference between Ukraine and Armenia and it is summarized in the following chart (figures are from SIPRI):


Azerbaijan does not much like Armenia. The two fought a war in the early 1990s soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was officially Azeri but populated by Armenians (thanks to Georgia’s Stalin). Occupying favorable defensive positions and enjoying high morale and funds from the diaspora, the Armenians got by far the better of the exchange, and Nagorno-Karabakh has since been de facto theirs, albeit that is hotly disputed by the Azeris and unrecognized by the world community. Azerbaijan is fully committed to revanche, and relations between the two countries are poisonous to an almost slapstick degree. This is mostly amply demonstrated by the case of an Azeri military officer who murdered an Armenian counterpart while on a NATO exchange program in Hungary. Upon being sent back to Azerbaijan to serve the rest of his life sentence, he was immediately set free by Presidential decree, named a national hero, and given a free flat. Azerbaijan is backed to the hilt by Turkey, but is constrained by uncertainty over Russia’s possible response to overt aggression.

The two countries maintained a rough parity in military spending until the mid-2000s, with Armenia also benefitting from below market cost Russian weapon supplies. Since then, however, Azerbaijan has surged massively ahead, and its oil-fueled military spending is now higher than Armenia’s entire state budget. It now enjoys an approximately threefold preponderance in air and armor, and its equipment is on average more modern. Once relatively isolated, Azerbaijan now enjoys good relations with Turkey, Israel, the US (especially its neocon/corporatist nexus), and even Russia. A new war between them – absent Russian support – will almost certainly no longer be a repeat of the early 1990s when the Azeris suffered debacle after military debacle.

As a result, any even minimally sane Armenian administration will take great pains not to alienate Russia, even if they should come to power as a result of a color revolution. For a country surrounded by two avowed enemies (Azerbaijan and Turkey), a neutral (Georgia), and one lukewarm friend (Iran), alienating Russia would be so phenomenally stupid and counterproductive that it would be functionally close to treason. The discomfiting thing, though, is that said stupidity and chiliastic fanaticism is a feature of all Maidan-like movements in Eurasia. If the Washington Obkom commands them to sacrifice their national interests just to spite and undercut Russia, they will generally do so with pleasure – as happened in Saakashvili’s Georgia and (twice) in Maidanist Ukraine – since if worst comes to worst ,they can always retire to a comfortable position at Columbia University, while it is the ordinary people who are left to pick up the pieces.


Alternate link.

• Category: Ideology • Tags: Military, Russia 


The Victory Parade on May 9th in Moscow to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2 will be accompanied by the display of an impressive amount of new military hardware. The centerpiece will be the Armata combat chassis, which will form the basis not just for what is likely to be the world’s most advanced tank, the T-14, but a whole family of other armored vehicles. This cross-platform utilization is a hallmark of Soviet military design philosophy which stressed efficiencies of scale and interoperability in the chaos and rapid wear and tear of the modern battlefield.

After many months of waiting, the tanks have been finally fully exposed, including the unmanned and fully remotely controlled turret equipped with autoloader, 125mm smoothbore gun that can fire both shells with a muzzle velocity higher than the 120mm Rheinmetall gun used in Leopards and Kornet-D anti-tank/helicopter missiles, a smaller 30mm cannon, a machine gun capable of taking out incoming projectiles such as anti-tank missiles, and the latest in AESA-based radar, information control systems, and remote sensing technologies. It also has the capability to go fully robotic in the future. It runs on a 1500hp diesel engine and the crew is housed in an internal armored capsule that should greatly improve their survivability.

Here are some photos published on the Russian Defense Ministry website with details of other projects based on the Armata chassis:


Medium tank “Armata”


“Coalition-SV” self-propelled artillery system


BMP “Armata”

The parade will also feature vehicles with the Bumerang wheeled chassis, which will form the base for a new APC, and the Kurganets-25 tracked chassis, which will form the basis for a new infantry fighting vehicle and APC, and the Kornet-D1 anti-tank guided missile mounted on a modified chassis of the all terrain infantry vehicle the GAZ Tigr.

The manufacturer, Uralvagonzavod, plans to produce around 2,300 of Armata T-14s by 2020, which if successful would replace around 70% of Russia’s modern armor based on the T-72 and T-90 systems. At around $5 million per unit, it will also be twice cheaper than modern Western tanks. This forms part of a vast $700 billion rearmament program which will see Russian military spending rise to 4-5% of GDP for at least the next five years, even as the government cuts back on many other social programs. Because of Russia’s lower costs (one dollar buys more there), the greater share of the budget that is devoted to procurement and research relative to the US (because it has few bases and no wars abroad, and conscripts still make up around 40% of its total forces), and declines in US military spending, it actually appears that Russia will soon be spending more than the US on procuring new equipment.

Does this represent some radically new militarization? It depends on how you look at it. Relative to European countries that now spend 1-2% of their GDP on the military, sure. Relative to the USSR, which spent anywhere from 12%-25% of GDP on the military, certainly not. It is however understandable in the context of an increasingly dangerous international situation as well as the massive depreciation of Russian military capital stock during the crisis years of the 1990s and the recovery-orientated years of the 2000s. In 1990, the Soviet and American total stocks of military equipment were approximately equivalent in real terms; today, Russia’s is only a quarter or a third as big. After this rearmament, this gap will significantly narrow – a fact that will be reflected on the ground in a modernized armored force, a whole bunch of modernized boomer (Borey), nuclear attack (Yasen), and quiet diesel (Kilo, Lada) submarines, over a thousand new helicopters, modest increases in the surface fleet, and some fairly limited quantity of the fifth generation PAK FA fighters (due to a combination of program delays and cost overruns). The current recession and decline in oil prices, even if they are prolonged, are unlike to critically torpedo these plans.

Will this be “good” or “bad” for peace and international relations? The intuitive answer is the latter, but that is not at all that evident on closer examination. First, Russian military weakness during the 1990s and 2000s probably at least somewhat explain why the West was so cavalier about expanding into its sphere of influence, who possibly even went as far as funding the Chechen militants. Surely the perception of Russian military weakness at least partially explained why the US gave tacit approval to Saakashvili’s assault on South Ossetia in 2008. Second, in an inverse of the situation during the Cold War, it is now official Russian military doctrine to use limited nuclear strikes to “deescalate” a conventional confrontation with other nuclear powers (read: NATO) that they are losing. A restoration of the military balance is perhaps the better outcome even for the West than the increased chance of nuclear war with a conventionally weak Russia.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Military, Military Porn, Russian Military 

It might happen this June or later, reports RT citing Israeli media. Obama and Netanyahu are at least discussing the prospect.

In previous years I was sure that it would happen eventually, probably before year end 2012. That is because that was the most convenient window between the fielding of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (early 2012) and the completion of most of Iranian hardening efforts (about now). But this hasn’t happened yet, so I think the chances are diminishing fast that it ever will – because the returns to it (in terms of significantly setting back the Iranian nuclear program) are also diminishing fast in tandem.

FWIW, the gamblers who put their money where their mouths are think there is a 10% chance it will happen before June 2012, and a 25% chance it will happen before the end of this year. Those are not odds I would take, however.

If it does happen, however… I think the effects will be rather muted. Iran probably doesn’t have the capability to block the Straits of Hormuz for any significant amount of time and it will probably refrain from even trying (because then the US will have to intervene in a big way). In a just world, types like the BRICS bloc would bank together to punish the US/Israel for acting like rogue states, but I am almost certain that will not happen either. And not because they particularly need trade with the US (even in China’s case – see Myth 3). But because they don’t have any particularly interest in Iran becoming too big for its boots.

Oh they’ll huff and puff alright. But Iran really isn’t a reliable partner to anyone, including to ostensible-allies-but-not-really-or-at-all-actually like Russia. And no nuclear power has an interest in other countries obtaining the capability, because even if their relations aren’t hostile, it still serves to diminish their nuclear power in relative terms. After all having an American Airlines at a poker table doesn’t do you much good if all the others have it too. Furthermore, a nuclear armed Iran would be geopolitically much stronger. Russia doesn’t want that because it will then be less dependent on it. Ideally, Russia wants an Iran that is quite hostile to the West, but not independently strong. The same goes for China. Furthermore, if Russia and China express too much support for Iran, the Iranians may be emboldened to try and close the Strait of Hormuz after all as a fuck-you to the West, delusionally counting on more than rhetorical support from China and Russia. As China and Russia definitely won’t intervene in that one, what will happen in the end is Iran’s total military nullification and perhaps the installation of a pro-Western puppet in Tehran. And that isn’t in their interests at all.

So there will not be any significant reaction from China or Russia to an imperialist attack on Iran.

(Reprinted from by permission of author or representative)

I always thought it weird China had the smallest arsenal of the world’s five NPT nuclear-weapons states. In broad strategic terms, this would make it very vulnerable to the US, especially given the latter’s development of ABM technologies, which would potentially give it the choice of an annihilating first strike.

In late 2009, China went public with the news that it has a 5,000km system of tunnels, known as the Underground Great Wall (地下长城). This did not get much attention in the West apart from a small article at Jamestown, until a student group at Georgetown University compiled a long report on the 2nd Artillery Division’s tunnels which got wide coverage in the MSM. One of the most critical implications is that the PLA’s nuclear arsenal may well be underestimated by an order of magnitude, numbering about 3,500, with profound consequences for US – Russia disarmament talks. You can read about it, look at photos, or you can watch the video below which has the added bonus of featuring inspiring Chinese patriotic music.


The skeptics such as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and FAS* argue that such estimates are alarmist, hurt the case of disarmament, and implausible. China doesn’t have enough highly enriched uranium, and indeed, China’s tunnel system reflects its strategic weakness i.e. the lack of a proper nuclear triad and vulnerability of its land-based forces to an American first strike, hence the need to dig in deep. Project head Karber addresses most of these criticisms, noting that plutonium from civilian reactors hasn’t been converted and remains unaccounted for, and that in any case the Chinese constructed an underground reactor during the Third Front period. As for delivery, missile production isn’t all that technically complex and it is certainly feasible to build them underground far away from prying satellite cameras.

To me the idea that China would have 3,000 as opposed to 300 nuclear weapons sounds far more intuitive. I mean why else would you build so, so many tunnels? Besides, there’s the elementary issue of guaranteeing strategic security, and truly establishing itself as a superpower in nuclear terms, in addition to its already existing prominence in economics and international politics.

Even if one were to disregard this Sino Triumphalist perspective however the photos below will surely be of interest to many China watchers and military buffs.

Digging tunnels.

Beginning to look well-formed.

The workers look very disciplined.

Imagine having a civilization like this at your disposal!

Oh snap what have we here?

The Underground Great Wall, shining bright like a subterranean milky way!

The rail junctures will come in handy if hostile action severs one of the tunnels, in which case the rail car carrying the missile will take another route.

The heroes of the 2nd Artillery division, admiring their work… or more likely wargaming thermonuclear war?

Missile truck emerging from a tunnel portal onto an outdoors launch pad.

* It should also be noted that FAS / The Bulletin have a vested interest in opposing the idea that China has many more nuclear weapons than it admits to, as (1) it would mean they were very wrong for a long time; and (2) it would torpedo disarmament talks with Russia, as doing so would just mean ceding nuclear primacy to China. That said, also note that on its own website, FAS writes: “due to the emphasis that China has placed on concealment of its special weapons capabilities, it is doubtful whether any other country, perhaps even including the United States, has identified all of China’s special weapons related facilities.”

(Reprinted from by permission of author or representative)

In the wake of Putin’s article on national security for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, there has been renewed interest in Russia’s ambitious military modernization plans for the next decade. I am not a specialist in this (unlike Dmitry Gorenberg and Mark Galeotti, whom I highly recommend), but I do think I can bring much-needed facts and good sources to the discussion.

1. This is not a new development. In fact, the massive rearmament program was revealed back in 2010 (I wrote about it then). Russia’s armed forces were neglected in during the 1990′s and early 2000′s, and enjoyed only modest funding until now; relative to Soviet levels, they are now far degraded. The main goal is to create a mobile, professional army equipped with modern, high-tech gear by 2020.

2. To recap. With oil prices high and Russia’s fiscal situation secure, it IS affordable; it’s not like the old USSR (or today’s US for that matter) spending money it doesn’t have. I also don’t necessarily buy the argument that most of the additional funds will be swallowed up by corruption or inefficiency. Massive new procurement can create temporary bottlenecks, which raises prices, but on the other hand it also allows for economies of scale. The real question is whether Russia absolutely needs to retain the hallowed One Million Man Army, which would appear far too big for the modest anti-insurgency or local wars it may be called to fight in the Caucasus or Central Asia. (There is no possibility of matching NATO or Chinese conventional strength in principle, so that consideration is a moot point).

3. Putin argues for 700,000 professional soldiers by 2017, with the numbers of conscripts reduced to 145,000. This is a huge change, as today – with the failure of the attempt to attract more contract soldiers under Medvedev – conscripts still make up the bulk of the Russian Armed Forces. Many are ill-trained; even things like dedovschina aside, it is impossible to create a good soldier capable of fighting in modern wars in one year’s time. So if successful this will undoubtedly be a change for the better.

4. Will this effort be successful? Based on the results of the previous attempt, Streetwise Professor argues not. I disagree. The previous attempt was marred by the inconvenient fact that salaries were ridiculously low; few reasonably bright and successful people would want to make a career of the military. But since January 1, 2012 military salaries have been radically increased, so that whereas before they were below the average national wage, they are now about twice as big. According to this article this is how the new salaries look like in international comparison.

Lieutenant salaries (pre-bonus)
Russia (2011) $500
NATO East-Central Europe $800-$1400
Russia (post-2011) $1600
France $2300
US $2800
Germany $3000
UK $3500

When one also bears in mind that living expenses in Russia tend to be lower than in most developed countries, it emerges that the new pay scale is only slightly below West European standards. Furthermore, whereas the West European rates are similar to their prevailing national average salaries, the average salary of the Russian lieutenant will be twice higher than the average national salary, which was $800 as of 2011. Remarkable as it may seem based on current culture*, but it’s quite possible that the military will come to be seen as an attractive career choice in Russia.

Below is an infographic from Vzglyad which gives you some idea of the extent of the increases. There are three rows of figures for each rank. The third one represents the average salary (including bonuses). The dark column represents 2011, the lighter column represents post-Jan 1st, 2012.

5. The total cost of the program to 2022 is 23 trillion rubles: 20 trillion for modernization, 3 trillion for defense plants.

According to Vesti, 1.7 trillion rubles will accrue to the additional costs of higher salaries and military pensions in 2012-14 alone. Extending this to 2022 gives a figure of 4.2 trillion rubles. However, we can expect the costs after 2014 to increase further, because of the growing share of contract soldiers and probable further increases in military salaries. So in practice that would probably be something like 7-10 trillion rubles on personnel costs.

So while the rearmament program which focuses on “hardware” is gargantuan, the increases in spending on “software” are very substantial as well.

6. Another myth is that the increased military spending will bite hard into social spending, education, and healthcare. After all, the projected federal budgets show declines in the share of education and healthcare spending, while military spending increases. I bought into it, until I found this article by Sergey Zhuravlev, a noted Russian economist.

This is because of the changing structure of government spending. First, under Medvedev there was a big increase in spending on anti-crisis measures (which are temporary and have now ebbed away), then on big increases on social spending in the run-up to the elections. So naturally, as revenues grow, there will develop room to increase military spending without decreasing social spending, e.g. on pensions. The sum total of the increase in military (and general security, police) spending is not going to be more than 1.5% points of GDP.

In practice, most of the increased spending will accrue at the expense of declines in spending on the national economy and (a very modest) amount of new debt. The former is substantially associated with the end of spending on the Sochi Olympics. So the picture, as Zhuravlev argues, isn’t so much “guns instead of butter”, as “guns instead of Sochi.” As for the debt, it will only constitute an additional 3.5% points of GDP to 2014, which is an insubstantial sum, especially considering Russia’s minimal aggregate levels of sovereign debt.

It is true that as a share of GDP, spending on education and healthcare will fall; this isn’t too desirable, since – especially on the latter sector – they aren’t high in the first place. But it is important to note that this refers to the federal budget, and that the total GDP is projected to increase substantially to 2014; in practical terms, federal spending on education and healthcare will remain flat. But most healthcare and education spending occurs at the regional level. Regional spending in turn will not be under the constraints imposed on the federal budget by rearmament, so in real terms aggregate total education and healthcare spending will continue increasing.**

* Even here I need to make a caveat. Whereas the Army is very unpopular in intelligentsia, Moscow, and emigre circles (of which I am, admittedly, a part) this isn’t quite the case at the all-Russia level where opinions are on balance ambiguous, NOT negative. A majority consistently approves of the Army, and as shown in this Levada poll, even opinion on conscription is typically split 50/50. Only 21% think that Army service is “a waste of time.” The lesson is not to make general extrapolations from unrepresentative samples.

** This is assuming that the whole military spending thing isn’t just pre-elections braggadocio that will be quietly dropped in favor of boring, useful stuff like transport, education, and healthcare as argued in a recent Vedomosti article citing anonymous government sources. I guess that’s a possibility, but I doubt it will happen; the big military spending rises have been in the works far too long to be just dismissed this May.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

Though I originally meant to write my own analysis of what the Wikileaks cables have contributed to our understanding of the 2008 South Ossetia War, I realized that I would essentially be trying to duplicate the excellent efforts of Patrick Armstrong. (See also the New York Times article Embracing Georgia, U.S. Misread Signs of Rifts). Patrick’s article for Russia Other Points Of View is reprinted below:

I have been a diplomat: I have written reports like the ones leaked and I have read many. And my conclusion is that some report writers are better informed than others. So it is with a strange sense of déjà vu that I have read the Wikileaks on US reports.

My sources for the following are the reports presented at this Website (passed to me by Metin Sonmez – thank you): (Direct quotations are bolded; I will not give detailed references – search the site). The reports published there are a small sample of all the communications that would have passed from the posts to Washington in August 2008. They are, in fact, low-grade reporting tels with low security classifications and only a partial set at that. Nonetheless they give the flavour of what Washington was receiving from its missions abroad. (It is inconceivable that the US Embassy in Tbilisi was reporting everything Saakashvili told it without comment in one set of reports while another said that he was lying; that’s not how it works).

One of the jobs of embassies is to inform their headquarters; in many cases, this involves passing on what they are told without comment. But passive transmission does not justify the fabulous expense of an Embassy – official statements are easy to find on the Net – informed judgement is what you are paying for. We don’t see a lot of that in these reports. What struck me immediately upon reading the reports from Tbilisi was how reliant they were on Official Tbilisi. Had they never talked to Okruashvili, or Kitsmarishvili? They could have told them that the conquest of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was always on the agenda. They actually did speak to Kitsmarishvili: he says he met with Ambassador Tefft to ask whether Washington had given Tbilisi “U.S. support to carry out the military operation” as he said the Tbilisi leadership believed it had. He says Tefft “categorically denied that”. How about former close associates of Saakashvili like Burjanadze or Zurabishvili who could have told them how trustworthy he was? (The last’s French connections may have helped insulate Paris from swallowing Saakashvili’s version whole).

The first report from Tbilisi, on 6 August, deals with Georgian reports of fighting in South Ossetia. This doesn’t mean anything in particular – sporadic outbursts have been common on the border since the war ended in 1992 – they are generally a response to the other side’s activities. What’s important about this particular outburst is that it formed the base of Saakashvili’s Justification 1.0 for his attack. We now must remind readers of his initial statement to the Georgian people when he thought it was almost over: “Georgian government troops had gone ‘on the offensive’ after South Ossetian militias responded to his peace initiative on August 7 by shelling Georgian villages.” His justification changed as what he had to explain grew more catastrophic. The US Embassy in Tbilisi comments (ie not reporting what they were told:comments are the Embassy speaking) “From evidence available to us it appears the South Ossetians started today’s fighting. The Georgians are now reacting by calling up more forces and assessing their next move. It is unclear to the Georgians, and to us, what the Russian angle is and whether they are supporting the South Ossetians or actively trying to help control the situation”. The comment sets the stage: the Ossetians started it and Moscow may be involved. There appears to be no realisation that the Ossetians are responding to some Georgian activity (itself a reaction to an Ossetian activity and so on back to 1991, when the Georgians attacked). Shouldn’t Tefft have wondered at this point why Kitsmarishvili had asked him that question a few months earlier? (Parenthetically I might observe that there is never, in any of the reports that I have seen, any consideration, however fleeting, of the Ossetian point of view. But that is the Original Sin of all of this: Stalin’s borders are sacrosanct and Ossetians are nothing but Russian proxies).

On 8 August comes what is probably the most important message that the US Embassy in Tbilisi sent to its masters in Washington: “Saakashvili has said that Georgia had no intention of getting into this fight, but was provoked by the South Ossetians and had to respond to protect Georgian citizens and territory.” The comment is: “All the evidence available to the country team supports Saakashvili’s statement that this fight was not Georgia’s original intention. Key Georgian officials who would have had responsibility for an attack on South Ossetia have been on leave, and the Georgians only began mobilizing August 7 once the attack was well underway. As late as 2230 last night Georgian MOD and MFA officials were still hopeful that the unilateral cease-fire announced by President Saakashvili would hold. Only when the South Ossetians opened up with artillery on Georgian villages, did the offensive to take Tskhinvali begin. Post has eyes on the ground at the Ministry of Interior command post in Tbilisi and will continue to provide updates..,. If the Georgians are right, and the fighting is mainly over, the real unknown is what the Russian role will be and whether there is potential for the conflict to expand.” The Embassy also reported “We understand that at this point the Georgians control 75 percent of Tskhinvali and 11 villages around it. Journalists report that Georgian forces are moving toward the Roki tunnel”. How wrong can you be? The Georgians did not control 75% of Tskhinval and they were not approaching Roki; at this time their attack had already run out of steam, stopped by the Ossetian militia.

Saakashvili and the Georgian leadership now believe that this entire Russian military operation is all part of a grand design by Putin to take Georgia and change the regime.” Already we see that Tbilisi is preparing the ground for Justification 2.0. I refer the reader to Saakashvili’s “victory speech” made on Day 1. As I have written elsewhere, when Saakashvili saw that his war was not turning out as he expected, he changed his story. The Embassy reports the beginnings of Justification 2.0 without comment: “Saakashvili, who told the Ambassador that he was in Gori when a Russian bomb fell in the city center, confirmed that the Georgians had not decided to move ahead until the shelling intensified and the Russians were seen to be amassing forces on the northern side of the Roki Tunnel.” From the US NATO delegation we get the final version of Justification 2.0: “Crucially, part of their calculus had been information that Russian forces were already moving through the Roki tunnel into South Ossetia. Tkeshelashvili underlined that the Russian incursion could not have been a response to the Georgian thrust into South Ossetia because the Russians had begun their movements before the Georgians.” But, really – think about it – would Georgia have invaded in the hope that its forces could beat the Russians on a 60 kilometre road race into Tskhinval that the Russians had already started?

But at last we begin to see some scepticism: “It is increasingly difficult to get an accurate analysis of the military situation because of the fog of war and the fact that the Georgian command and control system has broken down.” By the 12th Georgian reports are accompanied by some caution: “Note: Post is attempting to obtain independent confirmation of these events. End note.” At last it is comparing the different stories: “Merabishvili said that 600 of his MOIA special forces, with their Kobra vehicles (armored Humvees with 40-mm guns), took Tskhinvali in six hours, against 2,000 defenders. He claimed that in the future they will use the attack to teach tactics. He returned again to the subject, noting that ‘we held Tskhinvali for four days despite the Russians’ bombing. Half of our men were wounded, but none died. These guys are heroes.’ (Comment: Post understands MOIA control of Tskhinvali was actually closer to 24 hours. End Comment.)”

Nonetheless the Embassy passively transmits: “bombed hospitals”; “Russian Cossacks are shooting local Georgians and raping women/girls”; “The Georgians suffered terrible losses (estimated in the thousands) overnight”; “Russian helicopters were dropping flares on the Borjomi national forest to start fires”; “Russia targeted civilians in Gori and Tskhinvali”; “the Backfires targeted 95 percent civilian targets”; “raping women and shooting resisters”; “stripped Georgian installations they have occupied of anything valuable, right down to the toilet seats”.

However, enough of this: it’s clear that the US Embassy in Tbilisi believed what it was told, had not in the past questioned what it was told and, for the most part, uncritically passed on what it had been told. The US Embassy reports shaped the narrative in key areas:

1. Ossetians (and maybe Moscow) started it;

2. The Russian forces were doing tremendous and indiscriminate damage;

3. Possibly the Russians wanted to take over Georgia altogether.

Many reports deal with attempts to produce a unified statement of condemnation from NATO and show differences among the members. On the one hand, “Latvia, echoed by Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland highlighted their Presidents’ joint statement on the crisis and invited Allies to support that declaration. Each of these Allies expressed that Russian violence should ‘not serve the aggressor’s purpose’ and that NATO should respond by suspending all NRC activity with the exception of any discussion aimed at bringing an end to the conflict. Bulgaria liked the idea immediately”. But not everyone bought into Washington’s contention that Ossetia or Moscow had started it: “Hungary and Slovakia called for NATO to take into account the role Georgia played at the beginning of this recent conflict, suggesting that Georgia invaded South Ossetia without provocation.” Germany is even described as “parroting Russian points on Georgian culpability for the crisis” and described as “the standard bearer for pro-Russia camp”. Would Berlin’s scepticism have any connection with the fact that Der Spiegel was the only Western media outlet that got it right: “Saakashvili lied 100 percent to all of us, the Europeans and the Americans.”? Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, there is agreement that Moscow’s response was “disproportionate”. (But how much was that judgement affected by Tbilisi’s hysterical reports of indiscriminate bombardment, casualties in the thousands and the exaggerated reports about the destruction of Gori? To say nothing of meretricious reporting by Western media.)

The Western media – with the exception of Der Spiegel – was no better. Perhaps the best example of its slanted and incompetent coverage was passing off pictures of Tskhinval as pictures from Gori: one newspaper even tried to pass off a Georgian soldier – wearing a visible Georgian flag patch – as a Russian in “blazing” Gori. It was months before the New York Times or the BBC, for example, began to climb off their Tbilisi-fed reporting.

During the war I was interviewed by Russia Today and I said that, sitting at my computer in my basement in Ottawa, far from the centre of the world, I had a better take on what was happening than Washington did. I see nothing in these reports to change my opinion. I also said that the war would be a reality check for the West when it was understood that Moscow’s version of events was a much better fit with reality than Tbilisi’s. And so it has proved to be.

Why did I do better? Assumptions. The American diplomats assumed that Tbilisi was telling the truth (despite the strong hint from Kitmarishvili). People in Warsaw, Riga and other places assumed that Russia wanted to conquer Georgia. On the other hand, my assumption was that Tbilisi hardly ever told the truth – I had followed all the back and forth about jihadists in Pankisi or Ruslan Gelayev’s attack on Abkhazia. I knew about Saakashvili’s takeover of Imedi TV. I knew that Ossetians had reasons to fear Tbilisi years ago and more recently. I knew that they were only in Georgia because Stalin-Jughashvili had put them there and that they wanted out. I remembered the Gamsakhurdia years when all this began. I was not pre-disposed to believe Tbilisi on this, or, truth to tell, anything else. Assumptions are everything and that is what we see in these reports. Russia is assumed to be evil, Georgia assumed to be good.

But, what a change in only two years: today NATO courts Russia and Saakashvili courts Iran.

Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and started working for the Canadian government as a defence scientist in 1977. He began a 22-year specialisation on the USSR and then Russia in 1984, and was Political Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)

Another Wikileaks cable – a secret one, not merely confidential – from our Caucasus ethnologist and bestest bud at the State Department, William Burns. Dated October 2007, it describes America’s perception of Russia’s global arms trade and emphasizes its concerns that many of its partners are “rogue” or “anti-American” states like Syria, Iran and Venezuela. However, Burns is intelligent enough to acknowledge that the Russians have their own economic, political and cultural reasons for doing things they way. Though obliged to provide suggestions on how to make Russian politicians see eye to eye with the US on the matter, it is likely a quixotic endevour.

Russia is expanding arms exports, seeking ties beyond its traditional partners India and China. (Burns correctly predicted that the Russia – China arms relationship will wane due to Chinese reengineering, copying and reproduction of Russian military products). The capture of most NATO and former Soviet markets by US and European military companies is the primary economic agent behind Russia’s courting of states that Washington has bad relations with. In reply to Western objections, Russia tends to reference “multilateral arms controls regimes (e.g. Wassenaar Group, MTCR, etc.), UN resolutions, or Russian law” in justification; and US protests against its entertainment of “Chavez’s grandiose regional visions” are believed, by the RF Foreign Ministry and Russian defense experts, to spring from “a “Monroe doctrine” mentality, and not real concerns over regional stability.” Finally, a lack of economic diversification actively PUSHES Russia into the arms trade: as Anatoly Kulikov pithily notes, “Russia makes very bad cars, but very good weapons.”

Burns then notes that the Russian MIC is an “important trough at which senior officials feed”, citing as an example “Russia’s decision to sell weapons that the Venezuelan military objectively did not need.” If true, isn’t this just Venezuelan stupidity or corruption? But according to Burns, this is because it’s in the “interest of both Venezuelan and Russian government officials in skimming money off the top.” Color me skeptical. According to Burns’ own sources, the 2006 arms trade between Russia and Venezuela totaled more than $1.2bn, and included “24 Su-30MK2 fighter-bombers and 34 helicopters”; more recently, the two countries began to negotiate the “sale of three Amur class submarines” in a prospective deal worth $1bn. This implies price tags of c.$50mn per fighter and c.$350mn per sub. However, according to my calculations, despite having unit production costs similar to Russia’s, the prices of US gear sold to Arab states are several times higher – c.$170mn per F-16 fighter to Iraq and a cool $360mn per F-15 fighter to Saudi Arabia. This implies that the US sells fighter jets of 1970′s vintage to at least one country AT A HIGHER UNIT PRICE than at which Russia sells its most modern diesel SUBMARINES to Venezuela! So not much spare room at Russia’s side of the “feeding trough”, at any rate…

Then it’s argued there is also a cultural element to Russia’s arms trade policy, namely, an “inferiority complex” with respect to the US that translates into a kind of overcompensating need to prove itself as an independent Great Power in the eyes of the world and its own citizens. This is meant to explain its desire for the “thrill of causing the US discomfort by selling weapons to anti-American governments in Caracas and Damascus.” These arguments are mostly sociological truthiness that I think don’t merit detailed rejoinders.

The analytical decline towards the end is reflected in toothless recommendations, such as a more concerted policy by European, Sunni Arab and Latin American governments, as well as the US itself, to pressure and cajole Moscow into easing back on its weapons sales to “rogue” and US-unfriendly states. Whether or not the recommendation was followed, it is evident that it’d be destined for failure, and I think Burns himself acknowledged this in the cable (“American concerns are interpreted cynically, as the disgruntled complaints of a competitor, and viewed through the prism of a 1990′s story line in which the West seeks to keep Russia down”).

Ultimately, with today’s Russia, it is geopolitics and quid pro quo deals that influence its conduct. To take one germane and ongoing example: The US made concessions during the Reset, e.g. easing back on US companies getting involves with Russia’s modernization and even mooting selling Russia some of its military techs; in return, Russia formally declined to sell the S-300 air defense system to Iran, thus (ostensibly) losing a major lever against Washington. But with the recent Republican victory and rumors of covert US rearming of Georgia, there appeared countervailing rumors of S-300 radar parts making their way to Iran via Russia’s proxy states. The lesson is one that Burns no doubt understands, but cannot state forthright: one rarely gets a free geopolitical lunch.

Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
07MOSCOW5154 2007-10-26 02:02 2010-12-01 23:11 SECRET Embassy Moscow
DE RUEHMO #5154/01 2990225
P 260225Z OCT 07

S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 MOSCOW 005154



EO 12958 DECL: 10/09/2017
REF: A. STATE 137954 B. MOSCOW 3207 C. MOSCOW 3139 D. MOSCOW 3023 E. MOSCOW 557 F. MOSCOW 402

Classified By: Ambassador William J. Burns. Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: FM Lavrov’s disinterest in establishing an expert level dialogue on arms sales begs the question of how best to address our concerns over Russia’s arms export policy. Russian officials are deeply cynical about our motives in seeking to curtail Russian arms exports to countries of concern and the threatened imposition of U.S. sanctions has not proven successful so far in modifying Russian behavior. Russia attaches importance to the volume of the arms export trade, to the diplomatic doors that weapon sales open, to the ill-gotten gains that these sales reap for corrupt senior officials, and to the lever it provides the Russian government in stymieing American interests. While Russia will reject out of hand arguments based on the extraterritorial application of American sanctions, Russian officials may be more receptive to a message couched in the context of Russian international obligations and domestic legislation, the reality of American casualties, and the backlash to Russian strategic interests among moderate Sunni governments. In making our argument, we should remember that Russian officialdom and the public have little, if any, moral compunction about the arms trade, seeing it instead as a welcome symbol of Russia’s resurgent power and strength in the world. End Summary

Russian Arms Sales Matter

2. (C) Russian arms sales are consequential, totaling approximately USD 6.7 billion in 2006, according to official figures. This amount reflects a 12 percent increase over 2005, and a 56 percent increase since 2003. Russian arms sales are expected to total at least USD 8 billion in 2007. Russia has made a conscious effort to improve after-sales customer service and warranties, which has added to the attractiveness of its weapons. As a result, Russian weapons command higher prices than previously. Russia is ranked second only to the United States in arms sales to the developing world, and a sizeable portion of its arms trade is with countries of concern to us.

3. (C) While no sales were reported in 2006 to Iran, Syria, or Sudan, in 2007 Iran reportedly paid Russia USD 700 million for TOR-M1 air defense missile systems. While Syrian economic conditions are a natural brake on trade with the Russians, as a matter of principle the GOR is prepared to sell “defensive” equipment such as anti-tank missiles and Strelets (SA-18) surface-to-air missiles, as well as upgrade MiG-23 fighters. The GOR barred the sale of Iskander-E tactical missiles to Syria only after intense international pressure. Venezuela remains a growth market, with arms transfers in 2006 totaling more than USD 1.2 billion, including 24 Su-30MK2 fighter-bombers and 34 helicopters. Russia has an “open arms” approach to Venezuela, and whether it’s the transfer of more than 72,000 AK-103 assault rifles or negotiations for the prospective sale of three Amur class submarines (valued at USD 1 billion), Russia is prepared to entertain Chavez’s grandiose regional visions.

4. (C) Defense experts emphasize that the American and European domination of traditional NATO markets and capture of new entrants (and old Soviet customers) from Central and Eastern Europe means that Russia must court buyers that fall outside the U.S. orbit. By definition, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela are good markets for Russia because we don’t compete there.

5. (C) While concrete numbers are hard to come by, our best figures indicate that Russian arms sales to its traditional big-ticket customers — China and India — are growing. Russian experts, however, predict a declining trajectory in the medium term. In 2006, Russia completed approximately USD 1.4 billion in sales to China, including eight diesel submarines and 88 MI-171’s, which means the PRC only narrowly edged out Chavez as Russia’s most important customer. Russian defense experts underscore that as China’s technological sufficiency and political influence grow, the PRC will develop increasing military self-sufficiency and greater ability to challenge Russia as a supplier. At the same time, sales to India totaled only USD 360 million. Russia and India, in fact, have signed arms deals worth USD 2.6 billion, but not all deliveries and payments have been made. While Russian experts still downplay the ability of the U.S. to displace Russia in the Indian arms market, for reasons of cost and the legacy of decades’ old dependence, they recognize increasing American inroads and growing influence. Other notable Russian markets include Algeria, Czech Republic, Vietnam, South Korea and Belarus.

A Legalistic World View

6. (S) As the recent 2 2 consultations confirmed, Russian officials defend arms sales to countries of concern in narrow legal terms. In answering our demarches, MFA officials always identify whether the transfer is regulated by one of the multilateral arms controls regimes (e.g. Wassenaar Group, MTCR, etc.), UN resolutions, or Russian law. Senior officials maintain that Russia does take into account the impact on the stability of the region in determining whether to sell weapons and shares our concern about weapons falling into terrorists’ hands. This Russian decision-making process has led to a defacto embargo on weapons transfers to Iraq, where Russia is concerned over leakages to Iraqi insurgents and Al-Qaida; to a hands-off policy towards Pakistan, the country Russia views as the greatest potential threat to regional stability (with then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov ruling out weapons sales to Pakistan as far back as 2003); and to a moratorium on “offensive” systems to Iran and Syria. Concern over leakage has prompted Russia to tighten its export controls, with the recent institution of new provisions in arms sale contracts for Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) that require end-user certificates and provide Russia the right to inspect stockpiles of weapons sold.

7. (S) What Russia has not done is accept our strategic calculus and rule out the possibility of sales to Iran, Syria, Sudan, or Venezuela. The arguments made are broadly similar:

– With Iran, we are told that that Russia will not sell any weapon that violates a multilateral or domestic regime, nor transfer any item that could enhance Iranian WMD capabilities. Sales, such as the TOR-M1 air defense missile system, are justified as being defensive only, and limited by their range of 12 kilometers. While DFM Kislyak told us October 18 that he was unaware of any plans to sell Iran the S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile system, MFA officials previously told us that such sales, while under review, would not violate any Russian laws or international regimes.

– With Syria, Russia also argues that its transfers are defensive in nature, and points to its decision to halt the sale of MANPADS. The MFA maintains that Russian weapons used by Hizballah in 2006 were not a deliberate transfer by the Syrian government, but involved weapons left behind when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon. Russia argues that tightened end-user controls will prevent any future transfers.

– With Sudan, the GOR denies any current arms trade with the regime, and maintains that Russia has not violated UN sanctions or Putin-initiated decrees. However, based on our demarches, it is clear that — in contrast to Syria — Russia has adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Sudan’s adherence to its end-use requirements for its existing inventory of Russian/Soviet weapons.

– With Venezuela, both MFA officials and Russian experts believe that a “Monroe doctrine” mentality, and not real concerns over regional stability, is behind U.S. demarches.

What Is Behind the Russian Calculus

8. (C) A variety of factors drive Russian arms sales, but a compelling motivation is profit – both licit and illicit. As former Deputy Prime Minister and senior member of the Duma Defense Committee Anatoliy Kulikov told us, “Russia makes very bad cars, but very good weapons,” and he was among the majority of Russian defense experts who argued that the laws of comparative advantage would continue to propel an aggressive arms export policy. While Russian defense budgets have been increasing 25-30 per cent for the last three years, defense experts tell us that export earnings still matter. The recent creation of RosTechnologiya State Corporation, headed by Putin intimate Sergey Chemezov, which consolidates under state control RosOboronExport (arms exports), Oboronprom (defense systems), RusSpetsStal (specialized steel production), VSMPO (titanium producer), and Russian helicopter production, is further proof of the importance the Putin government places on the industry.

9. (C) Likewise, it is an open secret that the Russian defense industry is an important trough at which senior officials feed, and weapons sales continue to enrich many. Defense analysts attribute Russia’s decision to sell weapons that the Venezuelan military objectively did not need due to the interest of both Venezuelan and Russian government officials in skimming money off the top. The sale of Su-30MK2 fighter-bombers was cited as a specific example where corruption on both ends facilitated the off-loading of moth-balled planes that were inadequate for the Venezuelan Air Force’s needs.

10. (C) A second factor driving the Russian arms export policy is the desire to enhance Russia’s standing as a “player” in areas where Russia has a strategic interest, like the Middle East. Russian officials believe that building a defense relationship provides ingress and influence, and their terms are not constrained by conditionality. Exports to Syria and Iran are part of a broader strategy of distinguishing Russian policy from that of the United States, and strengthening Russian influence in international fora such as the Quartet or within the Security Council. With respect to Syria, Russian experts believe that Bashar’s regime is better than the perceived alternative of instability or an Islamist government, and argue against a U.S. policy of isolation. Russia has concluded that its arms sales are too insignificant to threaten Israel, or to disturb growing Israeli-Russian diplomatic engagement, but sufficient to maintain “special” relations with Damascus. Likewise, arms sales to Iran are part of a deep and multilayered bilateral relationship that serves to distinguish Moscow from Washington, and to provide Russian officials with a bargaining chip, both with the Ahmedinejad regime and its P5 1 partners. While, as a matter of practice, Russian arms sales have declined as international frustration has mounted over the Iranian regime, as a matter of policy, Russia does not support what it perceives as U.S. efforts to build an anti-Iranian coalition.

11. (C) A third and related factor lurking under the surface of these weapons sales is Russia’s inferiority complex with respect to the United States, and its quest to be taken seriously as a global partner. It is deeply satisfying to some Russian policy-makers to defy America, in the name of a multipolar world order, and to engage in zero-sum calculations. As U.S. relations with Georgia have strengthened, so too have nostalgic calls for Russian basing in Latin America (which Russian officials, including Putin, have swat down). While profit is still seen by experts as Russia’s primary goal, all note the secondary thrill of causing the U.S. discomfort by selling weapons to anti-American governments in Caracas and Damascus.

Taking Another Run At Russia

12. (C) As FM Lavrov made clear during the 2 2 consultations, Russia will not engage systematically at the expert level on its arms export regime. While the prospect of Russia changing its arms export policy in response to our concerns alone is slim, we can take steps to toughen our message and raise the costs for Russian strategic decisions:

– Although U.S. sanctions are broad brush, the more we can prioritize our concerns over weapons sales that pose the biggest threat to U.S. interests, the more persuasive our message will be. Demarches that iterate all transactions, including ammunitions sales, are less credible. Since Lavrov has rejected an experts-level dialogue on arms transfers, it is important to register our concerns at the highest level, and to ensure that messages delivered in Moscow are reiterated in Washington with visiting senior GOR officials.

– In the context of potential violations of international regimes and UNSCR resolutions, Russia needs to hear the concerns of key European partners, such as France and Germany. (In the wake of the Litvinenko murder and subsequent recriminations, UK influence is limited.) EU reinforcement is important for consistency (although Russia tends to downplay the “bad news” that European nations prefer to deliver in EU channels, rather than bilaterally).

– Regional actors should reinforce our message. Russian weapon sales that destabilize the Middle East should be protested by the Sunni Arab governments that have the most to lose. Given Russia’s competing interest in expanding sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, the protests of our moderate Arab partners could also carry a price tag for Russian defiance. The same is true for Latin America, whose leaders to date have not made sales to Chavez an issue on their bilateral agenda with the Russians.

– The appearance of Russian weapons in Iraq, presumably transferred by Syria, and the prospect of American and coalition casualties as a result could change the calculus of Russian sales to Damascus. The more evidence that we can provide, the more Russia may take steps to restrict the Asad regime. At the same time, we need to be prepared for the Russian countercharge that significant numbers of weapons delivered by the U.S. have fallen into insurgent hands.

– Finally, providing the Russians with better releasable intelligence when arguing against weapons transfers to rogue states is essential. Our Russian interlocutors are not always impressed by the evidence we use to prove that their arms are ending up in the wrong hands. While we doubt Russia will terminate all its problematic sales for the reasons described above, more compelling evidence could lead the GOR to reduce the scope of its arms transfers or tighten export controls.

Final Caveat

13. (C) There are few voices in Russia who protest the sale of weapons to countries of concern and no domestic political constraints that tie the hands of Russian policymakers on this score. The pride that Russian officialdom takes in the arms industry as a symbol of Russia’s resurgence is largely shared by average Russians. American concerns are interpreted cynically, as the disgruntled complaints of a competitor, and viewed through the prism of a 1990’s story line in which the West seeks to keep Russia down, including by depriving it of arms markets.


(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.