Shadow Government

Ukraine's Implications for Asia

The conflict in Ukraine is not simply a regional crisis. Asian nations are watching to see whether a revanchist great power can launch a military attack against a pro-Western neighbor with impunity. There are nine lessons Asians will be looking to learn from the biggest security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

First, economic interdependence is no safeguard against military conflict. Europe is Russia's largest trading partner and the primary market for Russia's energy exports, which provide 50 percent of government revenue. Moscow craves a trade and investment agreement with the United States. These facts have not deterred Russia from invading Crimea -- just as Japan-China interdependence has not moderated Chinese revisionism in the Senkaku Islands.

Second, autocracies overestimate their power and leverage, while democracies underestimate theirs. Russia is a declining power with horrific social indicators kept afloat by oil and gas revenue. Its "allies" -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia -- do not form the coalition of the future. China has much more going for it. But the hype around its rise has inflated Beijing's sense of itself, while diminishing Western and Japanese confidence. Yet the big democracies have far more internal political resilience than China's regime, whose greatest fear is of its own people.

Third, globalization creates acute economic vulnerabilities for authoritarian states. The Russian central bank itself has suggested that two-thirds of the $56 billion net capital outflow from Russia in 2012 may have derived from illegal activities. This creates ample scope for Western governments to target the foundation of President Vladimir Putin's regime: his associates' ability to use state power to accumulate private wealth. As the world's largest trading nation, China is exceptionally vulnerable to the economic disruption that would naturally accompany any conflict in Asia.

Fourth, the foreign policy of an authoritarian state is bound up with the nature of its domestic regime. Putin is not merely trying to reconstitute the Russian empire. He is also playing defense against the risk that a Ukrainian-style people's revolution could one day topple a similarly corrupt and kleptocratic regime in Moscow. And he is flagrantly violating a series of agreements with the West on the post-Cold War settlement in Europe. Asian nations facing territorial disputes with Beijing understand that Chinese assertiveness abroad is an extension of a regime unconstrained by law or accountability at home.

Fifth, status quo democracies suffer from competitors' first-mover advantage if they merely react to provocations, rather than actively shaping the security environment. The West had no plans in place to counteract Moscow's move against Ukraine -- even though Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 to "protect" Russian-speaking minorities wrote the playbook for the current intervention. In East Asia, China has created new facts on the ground, air, and sea with its missile buildup opposite Taiwan, its armed takeover of Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, and its unilateral air defense identification zone over Japanese-administered islands -- at little cost.

Sixth, allies must guard against divisions sown by adversaries to secure a strategic advantage. In Ukraine, Putin banked on a NATO alliance in disarray. He clearly does not fear or respect U.S. President Barack Obama and is contemptuous of Europe, whose banks and affluent neighborhoods welcome with open arms Russian tycoons and their money. China has used market leverage to force European retreats on issues such as human rights and Tibet. In both cases, deterrence is diminished when allies appear mercantilistic and irresolute.

Seventh, there is no substitute for American leadership -- in its absence, competitors will move to fill the vacuum. The West's limp response to the Russian army's march into Georgia signalled to Putin that armed revisionism against non-NATO members carried little cost -- as proven when former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smilingly announced a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations only months later. Obama's successive drawing of lines in the sand on Syria, which Bashar Assad stepped right over, demonstrated to his Russian ally that American warnings (like U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice's that Russian intervention in Ukraine would be a "grave mistake") mean little. No wonder Japan and other U.S. allies are worried.

Eighth, it is a mistake for Washington to engage regional competitors -- whether China, Russia, or Iran -- at the expense of regional allies. Obama's rollback of missile defenses in Europe to please Putin upset NATO partners. Similarly, Tokyo and New Delhi remain anxious about a U.S.-China consortium that might make decisions at their expense. America's Middle Eastern allies have similar fears about Obama's bid for a political settlement with Tehran. In fact, Washington has greater leverage against challengers when its alliances are strong than when they are neglected.

Finally, domestically driven political liberalization can shift the balance of power. We see this in Ukraine, where the new government tilts west, not east. In Myanmar, political reform has reoriented the country out of China's orbit. Both Moscow and Beijing viewed these political openings as strategic setbacks. This is one reason why Tokyo, New Delhi, Jakarta, and Washington should continue to strengthen democratic institutions in neighboring countries.

Most Ukrainians want to move closer to Europe, just as most Asians want to live in open societies not subordinated to a new Sinosphere. In both Europe and Asia, it would be morally and strategically irresponsible not to stand with them.

A version of this essay originally appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Mikhail Kireev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Shadow Government

No Ordinary Election in El Salvador

Tumult in Ukraine and Venezuela in recent weeks has overshadowed a consequential regional election taking place this Sunday, March 9. Voters in El Salvador will go to the polls in a second round to choose from between two starkly different candidates. The result could shape Central American politics for the next several years -- and not necessarily for the better.

The election pits veteran hard-liner and current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the former guerrilla FMLN against San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the opposition ARENA party.

The polls favor an FMLN victory on Sunday (Sánchez Cerén defeated Quijano 49 percent to 39 percent in the first round on Feb. 2), which can be attributed to the party's masterful political ads that managed to convert a battle-hardened ideologue into a kindly, old grandfather who wants to spend his twilight years building a better future for the country.

The FMLN's control of government institutions also helped, as the party was able to repeatedly use trumped-up legal threats against ARENA officials to keep the latter off balance. (Former President Antonio Saca, formerly of ARENA, also played an unhelpful role, running as a third candidate and splitting the opposition vote.)

What an FMLN victory means for El Salvador and the region under a Sánchez Cerén presidency is particularly worrisome. Unlike current President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, with Sánchez Cerén there is no pretense to moderation. Beneath the democratic mask, he still adheres to the hard-line agenda of the FMLN, honed during the dirty war against the Salvadoran state in the 1980s.

That Sánchez Cerén has not drifted very far from his ideological origins was first flagged in a Washington Post op-ed by former Reagan and George W. Bush official Elliott Abrams, who exposed Sánchez Cerén's close association with longtime FMLN operative José Luis Merino, aka Comandante Ramiro. Today, the secretive Merino manages the millions of dollars in Venezuelan aid to the FMLN, but his activities go beyond that. Merino is also known as the Colombian narcoterrorist FARC's "man in El Salvador" for his history of brokering arms and drug deals for the guerrilla-cum-criminal organization.

Abrams writes: "The likely impact of a Sánchez Cerén victory on U.S.-Salvadoran security and counter-narcotics cooperation is dangerous." Indeed, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) has written a recent letter to the State and Treasury departments on Merino's questionable activities.

Then, in a subsequent disturbing development, official documents leaked to the Salvadoran press just prior to the election's first round revealed that the FMLN has had a secret agreement with the violent Mara Salvatrucha street gangs to trade lenient police behavior and other perks in exchange for their supporting the FMLN in the polls.

According to former Washington Post investigative reporter Douglas Farah, the FMLN certainly kept up its end of the bargain during the first-round vote, telling an interviewer, "There is an abundance of reliable information showing that the Salvadoran gangs intimidated people to vote a certain way or that they stopped them from voting altogether by confiscating their identification cards before the elections. Therefore, I would say the gangs have acquired a political role and that they aspire to hold an important place in the country's political life by offering to sell the votes they control to the highest bidder."

With street gangs -- and Merino -- involved in the drug trade up to their eyeballs, obviously, the ramifications of such irresponsible policies and associations are alarming, not only for the Salvadoran people but for U.S. security interests in the region. According to the State Department's 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, El Salvador is "a major transit country for illegal drugs headed to the United States." That a new FMLN government under Sánchez Cerén would be committed to reversing that situation certainly raises doubts. All we can hope for at this point is that come Sunday, the Salvadoran people have their doubts as well.