Friday News Roundup—April 2, 2021
The Infrastructure Plan; Three Angles on Russia: Ukraine Border Build-Up, Arctic SSBNs, & Navalny Hunger Strike; Pacific Defense Cooperation
Happy Friday from Washington, DC where it is April, apparently. There is an old saying that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, but the situation this week remains much more tenuous. The cherry blossoms are out, which is a good thing. It is a less good thing that this is the earliest that the cherry blossoms have bloomed in Kyoto in the last 1,200 years. Yesterday was opening day for Major League Baseball, one of the Policy Team’s favorite holidays, but that excitement is marred by the fact that the Washington Nationals had their game postponed because of a positive COVID test. This morning, signs of economic recovery continued with 916,000 jobs added, though the participation rate remained relatively unchanged. The country is vaccinating nearly 3 million people per day, but case counts remain high in many states. The next piece of weather wisdom is that April showers bring May flowers, so we still remain hopeful for the weeks ahead.
This week, Joshua reviewed The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley by Wesley Morgan in Diplomatic Courier. We also hosted Elliot Ackerman and Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis (USN, ret.) to talk about their novel 2034: A Novel of the Next World War and where they see the competition between the United States and China going over the next decade.
In this week’s Roundup, Michael offers some early analysis of President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Joshua looks at three different situations currently developing in Russia: a military buildup in Crimea; three ballistic missile submarines operating in the Arctic; and a hunger strike by jailed dissident Alexei Navalny. Ethan covers how allies and partners in the Pacific are strengthening their own defense cooperation. As always, we end with some news you might have missed.
White House Rolls Out Infrastructure Plan
President Biden in the Oval Office (Photo Credit, Adam Schultz, Official White House Photo)
On Wednesday, President Biden travelled to Pittsburgh, PA to announce the details of his administration’s infrastructure plan. When President Trump came to office four years ago, there was hope in some quarters for a bipartisan grand bargain on infrastructure and there were frequent rumors of impending infrastructure proposals from the White House, but they never materialized. “Infrastructure week” became a joke in Washington, a shorthand for the difficulty that the Trump administration had creating concrete legislative proposals and staying on message.
While “infrastructure week” has been replaced with an actual infrastructure week, one thing that was bequeathed to the Biden administration was a certain directness of language. The Biden administration is calling their infrastructure plan the “American Jobs Plan”. While many people mocked President Trump in 2017 for calling his tax reform plan the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”, it had the distinct advantage of saying exactly what it intends to do (with the important caveat that “jobs” is a pretty amorphous idea in both categories).
We, unfortunately, live in a low-trust society. That makes having a plan that makes intuitive sense valuable — Matt Yglesias calls this the “it does exactly what it says on the tin” principle, after a famous ad from the 90s in the UK for quick-drying woodstain — if your taxes go up or the “jobs” situation fails to improve, you know who or what to blame. This is a welcome change from a prior generation of legislative linguistics that saw politicians dramatically overuse acronyms to mask or obscure the actual point of their bills.
Someone might ask: how could you oppose the Patriot Act? Are you not a patriot? That bit of Orwellian branding was designed to ease its passage, but USA PATRIOT Act actually stood for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. A major amendment to the Patriot Act was called the USA FREEDOM Act (because Freedom!), which stood for Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ensuring Effective Discipline over Monitoring Act of 2015. The STOCK Act, which tried to prevent Members of Congress from making stock market trades based on knowledge they acquired in the course of the Congressional duties stood for the Stop Trading On Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012.
These acronyms, while debatably clever, were fundamentally an exercise in obfuscation, and the demise of this practice should be lauded. The only possible exception to this is the bill that allows unemployed workers to continue to pay for their former employer-based health insurance. You might know this as the “Cobra Plan”, but it actually stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1985. COBRA gets waived in because “Cobra” is just an awesome name and it gives me a great segue into talking about budget reconciliation.
This plan will almost certainly need to pass through the reconciliation process in order to prevent a legislative filibuster in the Senate — there may be a moment when Senate Democrats are willing to get rid of the filibuster, but it almost certainly will not be for this package. Budget reconciliation acts can pass with a simple majority as long as they deal exclusively with federal spending or taxes and do not increase the deficit more than 10 years into the future.
Historically, the Senate has only used the reconciliation process once per fiscal year, and the Senate “used” the FY2021 budget reconciliation process to pass the COVID relief package last month. In order to use this process for the FY2022 budget, Congress would have to consolidate this package and the one expected in a few weeks that will also contain changes to personal income and capital gains taxes. Then the real horse trading begins.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), however, has been touting a new theory that would give Democrats two more opportunities to use the reconciliation process: once for the FY2022 budget and once to “revise” the FY2021 budget. This revision idea is somewhat novel, so it remains to be seen whether the Senate parliamentarian, who is empowered to adjudicate procedural questions like this, is open to it. There still might be reasons to have only a single reconciliation bill, since both proposals will involve some tax increases.
Within the plan, there are things to like, things to dislike, and a bunch of tax law changes that are completely inscrutable to me. Creating an incentive program to deploy electric vehicle charging stations is the former. Refilling a gas tank is easy; gas stations are everywhere. EV charging stations are far less so and consumers may underinvest in EVs because charging them on the go is difficult. Because there are fewer electric vehicles, there is less incentive for people to invest in charging stations, creating a vicious circle. Federal resources can make this a virtuous cycle instead. Getting rid of lead pipes is another positive. Lead is super bad for you. Grants for rural broadband access is also probably a good idea, because broadband investments are normally a function of population density.
On the other side of the ledger, the plan that Amtrak released about what they would do with the funding described in the infrastructure plan is a mixed bag at best. Intercity passenger rail in the United States suffers from the fact that the country is really big and not very densely populated outside the Northeast Corridor, so flying is often a significantly faster mode of transit. The country also has relatively underdeveloped intra-city public transportation outside of a few big cities, which makes intercity rail less desirable relative to cars. President Biden’s plan also lays out investments for bus rapid transit programs, but this is a longer-term challenge.
The plan also includes a grant program to try and change the calculus around land use. State and local governments deploy various tactics like exclusionary zoning and parking requirements to make building new buildings difficult and expensive. Land use restrictions have been used for decades to keep out the “wrong sort of people”, but they also function as a form of rent-seeking behavior: people who currently own land benefit from that land being artificially scarce. We are working on a new program about housing and land use here at CSPC, so watch this space.
Right out the gate, the narrow window to pass this bill has made itself clear. The left wing of the Democratic party would like bigger tax increases on corporations and more spending. The Chamber of Commerce would like less corporate tax increases and more use taxes like a vehicle miles travelled tax or airport usage fees, which will put pressure on the centrist wing of the party. A group of Democrats from high-tax jurisdictions would like the cap on the state and local tax deduction repealed. And also there is an opposition party! All of these issues will need to be ironed out before this first draft of an infrastructure plan can become law.
Russian Build Up on Ukraine’s Border
Joshua C. Huminski
In the last 72-hours a notable increase of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border and Crimea was noticed, prompting Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to express “concern about the security situation in eastern Ukraine”. Secretary Blinken also reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine “in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression”. The Russian Ministry of Defense also released a statement that, at the request of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, a call was held in which “Issues of mutual interest were discussed.”
The concern is not surprising. Social media is replete with photos and videos of Russian tanks, artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, and other equipment in transit both on rail and on the road. Some reports suggest that the movement is sufficiently large that it is disrupting cargo and other rail movements. Russian forces from the Southern Military District are taking part in an exercise from mid-March through to the end of April near the area, and could well stay in the area after its conclusion.
Reports suggest roughly 4,000 troops are involved in the movements, but Ukraine’s chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ruslan Khomchak, said the number was considerably higher. According to Khomchak, Russia is augmenting the 25 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) — which possess roughly 700–900 troops — with an additional 28, but it is unclear how he arrived at that number. Khomchak, warned that Russia was “carrying out a gradual build-up of troops near the state border of Ukraine.”
Unsurprisingly, President Putin put the onus of the situation on Kiev. In a call with French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel, he blamed Ukrainian forces for the escalation of the conflict, expressing “serious concern about the escalation of armed confrontation on the contact line being provoked by Ukraine.” For his part, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned that any attempts to start a new conflict in Donbass could end up destroying Ukraine. While these remarks would be not surprising from a local commander or separatist militia head, the bellicosity from Lavrov is notable.
Moscow and Kiev are locked in a frozen conflict in Eastern Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Neither the United States nor NATO recognize the annexation, and has supplied increasing military and non-military aid since the outbreak of hostilities. The conflict has undergone a number of iterations with frequent temporary cease-fires, while the Line of Contact in the Donetsk Region has periodically shifted, the conflict itself is far from resolved. While the current cease-fire remains in place, Moscow declined a suggestion by Kiev to issue a joint statement reaffirming the fact.
The maintenance of the frozen conflict with Kiev is not a function of insufficient military power on the part of Moscow. Were Russia to truly want to invade Ukraine and seize more territory, it is likely it would be able to do so with little resistance, despite the aid. Yet, doing so would expose it to considerable international condemnation, and likely provoke a much more robust response from the United States, NATO, and other European nations. Rather, the open wound of Donbass allows Russia to increase tensions when necessary, signal to Kiev and the West, and reduce hostilities when desired. A destabilized Ukraine is a Ukraine that is not a threat to Russian interests in the region and maintaining a frozen conflict allows it to continue that instability.
What does the increased troop presence signal? It is too early to tell. It appears, according to some analysts, that the troops and units involved in the movement are outside of the normal rotation and atypical for an exercise. Does this mean it is a prelude to the escalation of hostilities? Not necessarily, but it cannot be ruled out entirely. If the forces do stay close to the border, that would represent a considerable formation present that could threaten a future incursion with little to no warning. Mr. Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA, noted that an announcement of a Southern Military District exercise was issued after the movement began, and did not actually encompass the activity in question.
There is a tendency in Washington to make everything about Washington, but in this case it should not be omitted out of hand. Despite all the bluster before the election from then candidate Joe Biden, the new administration has yet to unveil a full or robust policy on Russia. This reflects the fact that the administration does have other priorities, not the least of which is responding to Covid, the infrastructure bill, North Korean missile tests, and a bolshie Beijing. Despite those pressing issues, the administration did agree to New START and implemented sanctions against Moscow for the poisoning of Navalny and the SolarWinds breach. Moscow could be ratcheting up tensions for legitimate on-the-ground reasons vis-à-vis Kiev, but testing the Biden administration’s handling of the escalation would certainly be an added benefit.
There is certainly little Washington could do should Moscow wish to exert immediate or surge pressure on Kiev, which is almost certainly the main target of Russia’s current activities. Rather, by raising tensions and increasing its troop presence along the border, Moscow likely hopes to pressure Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to make concessions in ongoing negotiations.
In any case, as Mr. Kofman, said: “cautiously watch this space.”
Three Russian Submarines Surface in the Arctic
Joshua C. Huminski
At the end of March, the Russian Navy released images and details of an exercise near the North Pole, in which three submarines broke through the ice. Believed to be two Delta IV and possibly a Borei, the latter being Russia’s most advanced ballistic submarine, the three ships were likely part of Moscow’s Umka-2021 exercise. The exercise involved Russian fighters, aerial refuelers, and ground troops.
According to Navy Commander-in-Chief Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, “As part of the Arctic expedition, three nuclear-powered submarines surfaced from under the ice in a limited space with a radius of 300 meters for the first time in the history of the Russian Navy.” He added “For the first time, a set of combat training, scientific research and practical diverse measures in underway under the single design and plan in subpolar regions.”
The surfacing of the submarines is interesting (and quite cool, if one is honest), but not surprising. The United States conducts annual ICEX operations in which Navy submarines breach the ice — but these typically do not involve ballistic submarines. Operating below the ice pack is operationally attractive as it is exceedingly hard to track the already stealthy submarines, thereby enhancing their deterrent values. In that, Russia’s operations in the arctic are not out of the ordinary.
What is interesting about the operation is less what happened, and more its publicity, which both demonstrates Russian military capabilities and performance, but also what it means for Russian intentions in the arctic. In the case of the former the Ministry of Defense released a video about the exercise and took a much more forward leaning approach to public engagement on the submarines’ surfacing. It signals to the West that Russia retains its nuclear deterrent capability and that its military modernization efforts — well underway for some time — are bearing fruit. Indeed, this operation is a far cry from the sinking of the Kursk in 2000.
On the latter, Russian intentions in the arctic are abundantly clear. Moscow, as does Washington, sees the arctic as a zone of increasing competition and as such is conducting more frequent and diverse exercises in the region. As reported in an earlier round-up, the United States recently sent B-1 bombers to Norway, and has recently undertaken an increased operational tempo around the arctic region.
Alexei Navalny, Russian Dissident, Goes on a Hunger Strike
Joshua C. Huminski
On Wednesday, Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition figure poisoned and later imprisoned by the Kremlin, announced he was going on a hunger strike to protest his deteriorating medical conditions.
“I have the right to invite a doctor and to get medicine. I have been denied both. My back pain has now moved to my leg. Parts of my right leg and now my left leg are becoming numb. Jokes aside, it is getting worrisome,” wrote Navalny in a post on Instagram. He added, “Instead of medical help, I am being tortured with a lack of sleep (they wake me up eight times per night). So what else can I do?” “Instead of medical assistance, I am tortured with sleep deprivation (they wake me up 8 times a night), and the administration persuading the activist convicts (aka “goats”) to intimidate ordinary convicts so that they do not clean around my bed,” Navalny wrote.
While Navalny appears, thus far, to have received the medical aid he requested, RT — state-sponsored propaganda — did, according to Navalny, dispatch Marina Butina, arrested as an unregistered foreign agent in the United States, to film a segment at the prison.
In March, Navalny was transferred from a Moscow jail to a penal colony about 50 miles outside of Moscow, called IK-2, where he is serving (for now) at least a two-and-a-half-year sentence for parole violations. Initially, Navalny described the prison as a “friendly concentration camp”, but one in which he had, at the time, not seen “even a hint of violence”.
The Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) denied that Navalny was being ill-treated, saying, “The procedure for organizing the supervision of convicts, including that of A. Navalny, is carried out in accordance with the requirements of the current legislation and applies to all convicts without exception.” It added, “We also inform that convict A. Navalny is being provided with all the necessary medical assistance in accordance with his current medical recommendations.”
Moving Navalny to IK-2 removes him from Moscow, but keeps him with in arms reach, should additional charges — however spurious — be applied to him. The penal colony also allows the Kremlin to control Navalny’s access to the public and his supporters, thereby limiting his influence. Yet, the Kremlin can ill-afford to allow Navalny to die in the Russian prison system. Doing so would make him a martyr and serve to lightning rod for international condemnation.
Navalny’s reach within Russia is notable, but not as significant as it would appear from the West. By way of example, as of a December 2020 poll, less than half of Russians surveyed thought he was poisoned, and only 15% thought it was carried out by the state to rid itself of an opponent. A poll carried out by the Levada Center earlier this year found that 56% of Russians surveyed disapproved of Navalny.
If Navalny were to die in custody either by neglect, by state action, or by his own actions, this would almost certainly change to some degree, but he is far from the galvanizing figure within Russia that he is to outside observers.
Winds of Change blow in the Pacific
Another week, another look at the Pacific region and its increasingly influential role in the balance of global power. While recent weeks at this section of the column have been exclusively military thematic, this week shifts to the geopolitical winds of change and for once, it’s not all about the U.S. defense department.
Japan and Indonesia have agreed to terms and erstwhile signed an arms trade agreement that will see Japanese defense technology and equipment acquired and sent to Jakarta, in light of the ever-growing Chinese Communist party ambitions in the South China Sea, not to mention other regional unrest and changing norms of political and social orders. Those other tensions include the crisis in Myanmars military coup (to say nothing of that country’s parallels to China’s human rights atrocities, and there are never too many opportunities to highlight things like the Uighur genocide), those seemingly forever-ago border clashes in the Galwan valley, and of course, the ongoing Afghanistan-Pakistan-India dynamic that directly influences stability in the Indian ocean/South China Sea.
For one thing, these developments are notable in that they have occurred not at the behest, urging, or even suggestion of the United States, but appear to have arisen holistically. The inevitable disinformation and propaganda domains continue to steadily escalate tensions and rhetoric, regardless of who occupies the White House. China’s communist party would have everyone believe that America, a paper tiger, is exclusively to blame for the unrest in the region. The recent 70th anniversary of China’s entry into the Korean war was a big-ticket propaganda item used by the CCP to make light of American strength, although that issues relevance and accuracy don’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny…like most propaganda fails to do. Other hot-button issues, U.S.-Taiwan relations, for example, are decried as “playing with fire” and run the risk of inducing Chinese ire. “Wolf warrior” diplomacy is an increasingly ad nauseum label that the puppet media of the CCP touts in recent geopolitical discussions, especially in the wake of the Alaska meeting between U.S. and CCP diplomats, in an attempt to bolster its position on the world stage.
Fair arguments have been offered that, rhetoric or not, if push came to shove, President Xi Jinping would have no choice but to follow-through with some form of open conflict if for no better reason than the propaganda train has been a runaway since leaving the station years ago. Few things would damage China’s reputation like publicly wilting if an actual incident occurred, like a collision or warning row in the Taiwan strait between PLA and U.S. naval vessels, for example. Conflict isn’t the manner in which the CCP seeks to manifest itself as the new global superpower, which is why we have seen so much competitive aggression below the level of confrontation, as well as the aggressive diplomacy and disinformation campaigns.
So no matter what tacky expressions like #wolfwarrior are used in the information domain by liberal democracy adversaries and rivals, or despite the increasing presence of PLA exercises in neutral waters, partners in the region collaborating without the United States first initiating the brokerage of security cooperation deals demonstrates two key shifts in the political and power brokering winds of the Pacific. First, it shows that other states are finding the willpower to stand up to expansionism and Chinese aggression, a feat not often found in recent decades. That Japan is one of those independently rising leaders is not a surprise, they have been long-established as a critical partner and leader in transpacifica. Indonesia, for their part, do not often make geopolitical waves, but those less influential nations seeking partnerships that are not part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (which began in 2013, as if none of us wake up feeling old already) shows that more vulnerable parties are not falling for the tempting trappings of the BRI’s short term developmental advantages (at the cost of subsequent long-term obligatory debts to Beijing). Therein lies the second change wind — eyes are seemingly opening to the CCP and its deceptively lucrative initial trappings, and partnerships with less authoritarian models of economic and political conduct remain preferable.
The rise of Chinese influence continues barely abated, and undoubtedly this development is a mere drop in the bucket of Pacific water, but Beijing has taken this into account just as surely as those of us in the west have and it reverberates strategically. The collaboration between Japan and Indonesia still wouldn’t stand a chance against the arrayed People’s Liberation Army and its assorted functions (what we would call service branches); Japan’s military strength is rated 5th out of 140 per the Global Firepower Index, while Indonesia sits all the way down at 16. China owns 3rd place outright per the GFI, but the PLA also lays claim to the distinct advantage of having the biggest army in the world at 2.3 million soldiers.
Symbolic victories are not worth much in geopolitical currency either, but these first steps in building supplemental ties to U.S.-led transpacific partnerships are worthy of praise. While it is unknown (at least not yet open-source reported) what exactly is the defense technology that Japan will be sending to Jakarta, the irony of a anti-communist bloc of collaborative states should not be lost on strategists. The Philippines, Malaysia, and daresay, Taiwan could (should) be next in these holistic webs of security partners?
News You Might Have Missed
In response to the BBC’s coverage of Xinjiang’s Uighur “reeducation” camps, China has used threats and intimidation to force journalist John Sudworth out of the country. “John’s work has exposed truth the Chinese authorities did not want the world to know,” according to the BBC’s statement. Sudworth was a notable target because of his extensive reporting on the conditions of Xinjiang’s camps, including an eleven-minute video tour of one such facility. Through his work, he has also accused the government of using Uighur detainees as forced laborers. Broadly, tensions between the Chinese government and the BBC arrived at a “breaking point” in February; officials responded to the BBC’s reporting on rape, assault, and torture in the camps by banning the network from Chinese airwaves. Marking a disturbing trend, Sudworth is not the first journalist forced out of the country — last September, the two remaining Australian reporters located in China returned home. Sudworth stayed nearby and has relocated to Taiwan, where he plans to continue covering China.
On Tuesday evening, an Italian Navy Captain, Walter Biot, was apprehended by Italian military police handing over classified information to an unnamed Russian intelligence operative who worked at the Russian Embassy in Rome. Both men were “caught immediately after the transfer of a document in exchange for” $5,900 in cash. An Italian news outlet reports that the material seized in the naval officer’s home indicates that he may have passed on NATO secrets relating to military communications. Biot is being held by the Italian police under crimes of espionage however the status of the Russian intelligence is unknown but it is expected he may be expelled. Italy’s foreign ministry has summoned Russian Ambassador Sergei Razov and has already expelled two Russian officials in response to this incident. This will continue to “add concerns that Italy has become somewhat of a back door for illicit Russian activity in the EU.” There has been a myriad of recent espionage cases of arrests and expulsions involving NATO members. Since January 2019, European intelligence agencies have made arrests in Austria, Norway, France, Austria, Estonia, and Italy. What is surprising is the diversity of the targets of these operations. They are not just intelligence officers or military personnel but also scientists and computer engineers. This recent arrest and others beg questions like is it poor tradecraft or more attuned security and law enforcement services in the target nations, or is it the governments’ looking to exploit the opportunity and put Moscow and Beijing in a precarious situation? Nevertheless, spying is the “world’s second-oldest profession” and as Russia and China continue to engage in global intelligence operations NATO countries will remain vulnerable targets.
The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.