Great Decisions 2015 Winter Updates


Russia and the near abroad

By Eugene Steinberg

In spite of a ceasefire agreement signed in September by pro-Russian separatists, Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), war has again broken out in Eastern Ukraine. The pause in fighting that the agreement briefly enabled seems to have only recharged both sides for further combat. With fresh supplies and reinforcements, the rebels captured over 200 square miles in six weeks, including the strategically placed, albeit defunct, Donetsk airport.  

The losses have been heavy for civilians and for those engaged in fighting. From Jan. 31 to Feb. 5, a United Nations report estimates that 263 civilians were killed. The official death toll of all casualties since April 2014 now stands at 5,486, though the actual number is likely higher.   

This dramatic escalation drove German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to attempt to negotiate a lasting peace with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Minsk, Belarus. The talks resulted in another ceasefire agreement, but it doesn’t appear any more stable than the last agreement.  

Ukraine has called for the disarmament of rebel forces, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the restoration of government authority. It has offered greater, but not total, autonomy for Eastern Ukraine. The rebels have demanded separate recognition of their “peoples’ republics,” no disarmament and amnesty for their leaders. Russia insisted on guaranteed rights for Russian-speakers in Eastern Ukraine and full autonomy for the Eastern regions.

There is one other outstanding disagreement. Despite charges by various Ukrainian and Western leaders, the conspicuous abundance of difficult-to-obtain heavy weaponry in rebel hands, and a growing list of Russian soldiers killed on alleged “business trips” and “vacations” abroad, Russia categorically denies that any of its troops are operating in Ukraine.

In the U.S., a number of leaders have pushed to send lethal aid to Ukraine. They argue that the Ukrainian military is in desperate need of assistance. Explicit support for the rebels could make Russia openly admit its role in the region too. Opponents argue that Russia’s greater commitment to the conflict means that it can outmatch any new provisions to Ukraine. Moreover, they worry that it could escalate the conflict out of control. The White House has so far refrained from committing itself to arming Ukraine, but there are signs that this idea is gaining traction.

Regardless of how the West acts, the Russian position is in many ways significantly weaker today than it was several months ago. As the price of oil—Russia’s most important export—has plummeted, so has the value of the ruble. As of early February 2015, it was worth about half of its September 2014 value. Western sanctions have played their part too and continue to pressure the Russian government. Yet there are also endemic weaknesses predating the Ukraine crisis that have slowed down the Russian economy, now expected by the World Bank to shrink by 2.9% in 2015. Although the escalation in Ukraine may have distracted from the problems crippling Russian prosperity in the long term, Russia will, sooner or later, have to face both of these problems head-on.

Eugene Steinberg is former contributing editor at the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow him on Twitter @EugSteinberg.

Recommended Readings

Dimiter Kenarov, “Putin’s Peninsula is a Lonely Island,” Foreign Policy (Feb. 6, 2015).

Matthew Luxmoore, “Call to arm Ukraine misreads Russia’s response,” Foreign Policy Blogs (Feb. 11, 2015).

Alex Pantich, “A Street-Level View of Russia’s Economic Crisis,” Balkanist (Jan. 29, 2015).

Stephanie Saul and Louise Story, “At the Time Warner Center, an Enclave of Powerful Russians,” The New York Times (Feb. 11, 2015)


Privacy in the digital age

By Hannah Gais

New year’s celebrations usually come with resolutions to fix last year’s mistakes. But if comments made by Leslie Caldwell, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, at the 2015 State of the Net Conference are any indication, the department has no interest in moving away from its dire warnings about the dangers encryption poses for law enforcement.

“We understand the value of encryption. We understand the importance of security,” noted Caldwell at the conference in late January. “But we’re also very concerned…[about] the creation of what I would call a ‘zone of lawlessness,’ where there’s evidence that we could have lawful access to through a court order that we’re prohibited from getting because of company’s technological choices.”

Caldwell’s comments echo those of a number of federal officials, including Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, who has complained on numerous occasions about the proliferation of easy-to-use and/or built-in encryption technology. (Apple’s newest operating system, Yosemite, offers encryption by default, as does iOS 8.) Encryption, Comey and others claim, will let criminals go free and make it impossible for law enforcement to do its job well. “Zones of lawlessness”—such as those that allowed Silk Road, an online black market, to exist unimpeded for some time — will become the norm.

That argument has faced significant blowback in the technology and policy communities. While some have debunked cases, Comey and others have cited as examples of instances where encryption would be a thorn in law enforcement’s side, others have pointed out that it may not be worth arguing with the government in the first place.

Clashing priorities among law enforcement, private companies and the public over who-wants-what privacy protections is to be expected. In fact, it’s happened before — back in the 1990s, the federal government denoted strong cryptography as “munition,” and set regulations on civilian use of cryptography tools. These regulations were ultimately deemed unconstitutional by the Ninth Court of Appeals in the case of Bernstein v. United States. Nevertheless, some have noted today’s arguments are oddly reminiscent of this era — dubbed the “crypto wars” — particularly in the emphasis on the threats encryption poses to law enforcement throughout the country, as well as to ordinary citizens.

How today’s “crypto wars” will end has yet to be decided. And perhaps to the chagrin of technologists and policymakers alike, they are unlikely to end any time soon.

Hannah Gais is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association and managing editor of You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais.

Recommended Readings

Kashmir Hill, “The guy standing between Facebook and its next privacy disaster,” Fusion (Feb. 5, 2015).

Kevin Poulsen, “Why the US Government Is Terrified of Hobbyist Drones,” Wired (Feb. 5, 2015).

“The Trust Engineers,” (podcast) Radiolab, (Feb. 9, 2015)

Ian Urbina, “The Secret Life of Passwords,” The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 19, 2014)


Sectarianism in the Middle East

By Paul Mutter

The Iran-Saudi Arabia cold war carries a dimension for both countries that raises particular security concerns: minority communities in both powers’ backyards showing sympathy to the other as a result of domestic repression. But it is worth remembering that for every claimed act of subversion, there is substantial local context that official overreactions overlook, and even greater hypocrisy that feeds the flames of mistrust.  

The Houthis in Yemen are perhaps the most obvious example. They are increasingly regarded as an Iranian proxy, yet their struggle is couched in terms of their particular Yemeni regionalism. The Houthis’ alliance politics over the past two years have even seen them commit to coalitions in governments backed by Riyadh against common enemies, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). They have fought both for and against the Saudi- and American-backed government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Shi‘a himself, like the Houthis. Unfortunately, their recent triumph, which may yet result in Saleh’s rehabilitation, has led them to take the same discriminatory actions against other Yemenis that were taken against them.  

These dynamics play themselves out in other parts of the Saudis’ near abroad, though with relatively less violence and tumult. In Bahrain, the opposition continues to be demonized with a wide brush as agents of Iran. Most recently, an episode involving a new Saudi-owned television network, Al Arab, illustrated the limits of “debate” allowed over rights and reform in the Saudis’ backyard. Al Arab was taken off the air after it ran an interview with a Bahraini activist critical of his government’s sentencing policies against demonstrators.  

That Al Arab had to be opened in Bahrain and not in Saudi Arabia itself is also revealing—it is not allowed to broadcast from inside the Kingdom, no matter who owns it. (In this case, the owner is one of the richest Saudi princes to date.) The Saudi government simply refuses to take the risk of loosening controls on the press, especially in light of the discontent that grips the country’s Eastern Province.  

As in Bahrain, Iran has made few inroads but has made quite clear its designs on the Eastern Province, a relatively underdeveloped region that happens to hold more oil and Shi‘as than anywhere else in the Kingdom. Restive anti-government sentiments are not permitted, and people have been “disappeared” for protesting.

Iran, of course, presents itself as the friend of people such as Nimr al-Nimr, a Shi‘a cleric from the Eastern Province sentenced to death for his critical comments on the House of Saud last October. Al-Nimr once said that he saw Iranian “sympathies” as mere self-serving opportunism despite his sympathies for the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists” that the Islamic Republic claims to exemplify.  

In a mirror image of how the Wahhabi establishment treats Shi‘a and Christians in Saudi Arabia, Iran regards expressions of Sunni identity inside its borders as acts of subversion stage-managed by Israel and the United States. The legitimate grievances of the Sunni ethnic minorities in southeastern Iran are swept under the rug by painting them as manifestations of militant separatism. Ethnic Arabs and Kurds in western Iran are treated as second-class citizens much like Saudi Shi‘as are in the Eastern Province. A January 2015 unity summit in Tehran showcased the double standard. While a prominent Sunni cleric from southeastern Iran stood alongside the Supreme Leader, Iranian police limited public prayer meetings that Friday to head off possible demonstrations. Such moves remind Sunnis of their lesser “special status” within the Islamic Republic.   

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at NYU pursuing an MA in International Affairs. He is a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association, and also writes for War Is Boring, The Arabist and Souciant Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @pdmastersnyu.

Recommended Readings

Mohamad Bazzi, “King Salman’s War,” Politico (Jan. 25, 2015).

Paul Mutter, “Two Brigadier Generals in Death,” Foreign Policy Blogs (Jan. 12, 2015)

Phillip Smyth, “The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Feb. 2015)

Adam Weinstein, “What the Hell Is Happening in Yemen, Explained,” Gawker (Jan. 23, 2015)


India changes course

By Jordan Stutts

During Barack Obama’s Jan. 25–27 visit to India, the extremely high levels of air pollution raised concern for the president’s health while spending time outside, watching the Republic Day parade. India’s PM2.5 levels—the amount of fine-air particles that get lodged in the lungs—were measured over the last three years at five times the World Health Organization’s safety standards, and eight times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard. The poor air quality is a visible symbol of India’s continued reliance on coal to supply power to its growing, industrializing economy.

Obama has been trying to rally international support for a potential climate deal in advance of a United Nations conference on the matter in Paris at the end of the year. Last October, during a visit to China, Obama was able to convince China’s president, Xi Jinping, to commit to major reductions in that country’s carbon emissions and to pledge to get 20% of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030. As part of the much-publicized deal, the U.S. agreed in turn to cut emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025. The U.S. and China are the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. India, the third largest emitter, lags far behind.

Although there wasn’t as dramatic an agreement with India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did agree to increase investment in solar energy. Some analysts have said it’s unfair to expect India, which lags behind China in development, to match that country’s more ambitious clean-energy goals. Managing Director of the World Resources Institute Manish Bapna told ThinkProgress, “often in broader discourse China and India get lumped together, but India is in a very different space.”

India’s problem is how to supply energy for its rapidly industrializing population. Its first priority is lifting its millions of citizens out of poverty; investing in cleaner, more expensive, alternatives comes later. Solar energy costs 50% more to produce in India than coal, which is heavily mined in the north where the majority of its worst-polluted cities are.

Jordan Stutts is a contributing editor at the Foreign Policy Association and blogs for You can follow him on Twitter @jwstuttered.

Recommended Readings

“Breathe uneasy,” The Economist (Feb. 5, 2015)

“Fact Sheet: U.S. and India Climate and Clean Energy Cooperation,” White House (Jan. 25, 2015)

Gary Sands, “Obama’s High-Profile Visit to India Irks Beijing,” Foreign Policy Blogs (Jan. 30, 2015)

Syria’s refugee crisis

By Sarah Elzeini

There has yet to be a political solution in Syria. The United States is on the fence as to whether it should hold a sustained diplomatic relationship with Bashar Al Assad or to support moderate rebels to oust him. Increasingly, finding a solution to the growing refugee crisis has been overlooked in favor of “big picture” solutions.

According to a 2015 UN and International Relief and Development report on the Syrian Refugee Crisis “Living in Shadows,” Jordan has absorbed about 620,000 refugees, and the region has registered a total of 3.7 million Syrian refugees. With the number of refugees increasing by the day, it is near impossible to incorporate them into the economy and society of countries already suffering from complex youth bulges and high unemployment. Proposals have been made to begin a cease-fire in Aleppo in order to allow humanitarian assistance; however, these have not gained much traction. Most decision-makers do not see this threat because refugees by nature are usually unarmed, homeless and unassociated with violence. For them, the financial commitment seems far too high to tackle the dangers they think they know.

Unfortunately, the international community’s apathy has left refugees with few choices. Some have turned to extremist groups to survive; others have opted to emigrate. It is much better—and in the long run, safer and cheaper—to record, document and integrate refugees into a country. Refugees must be admitted legally so they can be re-engaged into a system. Alienating such an already fragile community risks perpetuating the same scenario that has led new terrorist and extremist groups to pop up in the Middle East every few months; they are all looking for answers, participation in a system, and the need for security. As ISIS grows and lives of refugees worsen, those marginalized will increasingly turn to this extremist group, as they also share an attractive common mission—vengeance against Bashar al Assad. If President Obama’s counterterrorism strategy is to “degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIS],” as he said in his address to the nation in September 2014, then solving the refugee crisis is paramount.

The international community cannot stand still. For now, the humanitarian crisis in Syria may be just a regional threat. However, if not attended to immediately, it will undoubtedly affect the stability and security of the Persian Gulf, North Africa, Israel, America and Europe.

Sarah Elzeini is a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahElzeini.

Recommended Readings

Amnesty International, “Hardship, Hope and Resettlement: Refugees from Syria tell their stories,” Amnesty International (Feb. 5, 2015)

Mona Mahmood, “Double-layered veils and despair … women describe life under Isis,” The Guardian (Feb. 17, 2015)

Nicholas Schmidle, “Lost in Syria,” New Yorker (Feb. 16, 2015)

Jonathan Tepperman, “Syria’s President Speaks: A Conversation with Bashar al-Assad,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2015)

UNCHR, “Living in the Shadows: Jordan Home Visits Report 2014,” UNCHR (Jan. 2015)