Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Spoiling Termination: Renewed US-Russian Rivalry and Rivalry Termination

Spoiling Termination: Renewed US-Russian Rivalry and Rivalry Termination
by Konstantinos Travlos


Russian direct intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of the government of President Assad is just the newest in a series of military and diplomatic moves by President Vladimir Putin in his pursuit of “strategic security” against the USA and the liberal democratic ideal they stand for in the world. While it is an open question how much these moves can really be called a new Cold War, or how much they actually challenge the predominance of the US in material capabilities or US interests (see here and here), I feel few would question that we are seeing a resurgence of the US-USSR positional strategic rivalry. May-haps at a smaller scale, but still one that covers large areas of the globe (Middle East, Eastern Europe, potential East Asia).

Some have welcomed this Russian challenge to the US as a corrective counter-balance to the aggressive foreign policy of the administration of President G.W. Bush. They see it as a potential force for peace. This narrative of course ignores the multiple qualitative and quantitative findings that balance of power systems foster conflict and war, as opposed to inhibiting them. It also does not fit the timeline.
Vladimir Putin more robust foreign policy began in the waning years of the Bush presidency, and took full flight during the administration of President Barack Obama. And yet few would say that American aggressiveness was higher in the Obama compared to the Bush years. As Bear Braumoeller points out major power adjustments of the status-quo tend to be a form of delayed response, which in turn creates delayed response. President Putin is trying to adjust a status-quo that moved too far from what he sees as Russian interests in the Bush years, but his actions done during a more restrained American presidency, will probably just feed later American activities to adjust back to a position closer to American interests.

What I wish to point out here is a potentially disastrous consequence of this renewed antagonism. Together with my coauthors, Paul Diehl and Gennady Rudkevich we explored the conditions under which interstate rivalries come to a definite end, or renew after a period of peace. Interstate rivalries are relations between states characterized by the frequent use of military force in a short amount of time.

 Research has shown their pernicious effect on peace, and most wars between states do take place in a situation of rivalry. What we found, in general terms is that terminated rivalries, those that truly end, tended to be characterized by congruent military outcomes and settlements. In another name the final settlement of the rivalry issues matched the out-come of the military conflict. Rivalries in which the winner of the military contest was the loser of the peace settlement tended to become interrupted, and reoccur after a period between 15 and 40 years. We also found that rivalry intensity (measured in number of military confrontations, operationalized using military interstate disputes) also affected the chances of termination or interruption.

The danger is this. The renewed US-Russian rivalry has the potential to “spoil” the potentially pacific consequences of congruent results that may had led to a happy result many rivalries hat were on the path to termination.  Instead many rivalries that became pacified, especially because of the end of the Cold War, may become interrupted rather than terminated as the Russian and US antagonism leads both powers to help domestic parties unhappy with the settlement of rivalries.  Hard liners sidelined by the lack of external support may now find willing ears as they position their countries and the rivalries of those countries within the calculations of the two feuding major powers.  We thus might see potential peaceful international outcomes become replaced by conflict situations.

How big is this threat? Of 331 interstate rivalries in the 1816-2001 period, 164 are still either ongoing (48) or we are not sure about the status of the use of military force in them. On the other hand 167 saw an end of military conflict. 9 of those saw their last military conflict at least 40 years ago, and thus are considered terminated even if in a later date the two states engaged in rivalry. 27 on the other hand saw their last military confrontation at most 40 years ago, and could potentially see a renewal of violence. Two of those, the Saudi-Yemeni and the Congo-Angolan one ended up becoming interrupted when violence flared up in the mid-90s. Whether the other 25 shall truly be terminated or become interrupted seeing a renewal of violence is an open question. What is important is that 15 of them were rivalries of the Cold War era. Will the resurgence of US-Russian antagonism lead to a renewal of conflict in them?

For some of them this is unlikely due to the smaller scale of the current US-Russian antagonism. Five of these are located in sub-saharan Africa where Russia cannot project influence any more. Closer Sino-Russian relationships might lead to Russian activity there, but this is debatable and unlikely. The other ten though are in areas of the world that are within the potential area of activity of the two powers.

In Europe, the Russian-German Cold War rivalry saw its last military conflict in the 1980s. However Russian policy in Eastern Europe might see a renewal of violence. Indeed the recent issues with Russian submarines in the Baltic and air-space violations in Scandinavia are indicative of increased military activity.

In South America, the rivalry between the US and Ecuador saw its last military conflict in 1981. The recent political conflict though with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, added to the connections of Ecuador with Venezuela, a country whose government has military relationships with Russia, may see this rivalry flare up once more. The Argentinian-UK, Chilean-Peruvian, and Argentinian-Chilean rivalries all saw their last military conflict in the late 70s, mid 80s. And in some of the cases the underlying issues may have been resolved decisively. And yet the ongoing conflict between Argentina and the UK over the Falklands, and the question of the Chilean territorial gains from the 19th century War of Pacific, kept alive by Bolivian governments, might provide fertile ground for feuding major powers that may lead to violence recurring.

In East Asia, the last time the Russian and Republic of Korean militaries exchanged fire in anger was in the 1980s. And there is no question that the interests of the People Republic of China in the area might preclude Russian activity in the Far East. However the potential for some military mishap is not impossible. Especially, considering the potential of the US-China issues over the South Asia waters becoming linked to the US-Russian conflict.

Understandably though the most dangerous region is the broader Middle East. Ten of the rivalries of interest are located there. At least one, the Syrian-Jordanian rivalry that saw its last military conflict in 1982, may see recurrence due to the rising Sunni-Shia broader conflict in the region. Three of the rivalries were the result of the Qaddafi regime in Libya. Depending on the possibility of a US-Russian clash over the future government of Libya, these might become rekindled; especially if Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain connected with the US and a new Libyan government becomes connected with Russia and its allies.  A similar dynamic might take place in the Yemen-Saudi and Yemen-Omani case, were violence has already flared up.

Finally a renewed US-Russia antagonism might increase the intensity of the 48 ongoing rivalries. 29 of those 48 see the US or Russia as direct participants and a good number of them can become linked to the US and Russia. Not only would intensification make those rivalries less likely to see the end of the use of force, but even if that happens it is more likely that they will be simply interrupted, with violence renewing within 40 years, rather than truly terminated.


We can see that potentially at least in the case of 30 interstate rivalries the renewed US-Russian antagonism is more likely to be a condition for violence rather than for peace, as some adherent’s of the balance of power hope

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