Spheres of Waning Influence

Whenever a new non-Western alliance is formed somewhere in the world, Western commentators are quick to regard it as a threat to Western interests and security. Whereas the economic integration of the European Union and the military cooperation within NATO are considered to have significantly advanced peace and stability on both sides of the Atlantic, similar arrangements made independently of Western interference are regarded warily.

This is shortsighted and ignores how much the West stands to benefit from the copycat behavior of the Rest.

EU imitators

Oftentimes, international cooperation outside Europe and North America is pursued in defiance of perceived Western pressure. The South American Mercosur and Southeast Asia’s ASEAN are both free-trade blocks structured on the European model, founded in part to strengthen their members’ ability to resist the demands of the IMF and the World Bank which for decades have dictated economic policy to these nations.

The irony is that once freed from the Washington Consensus, these same countries embraced free-market capitalism, be it with some “softening” measures to fight poverty as happens, very successfully, in Brazil, for example.

Other EU imitators are less resistant to the West. The Gulf Cooperative Council, led by Saudi Arabia, is designed to counterbalance Iran and relies heavily on American support — and on Westerners buying its oil.

Sino-Russian competition

Until recently, the most potent of anti-Western alliances appeared to be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in which both China and Russia take part while India settled for an observer status.

In spite of its stated goals, the SCO has failed to achieve much regional cooperation in the last few years. China has been able to use the platform to project its influence across the region while Russia is reluctant to deepen its participation, writes Alexander Cooley in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Subtle but key differences in the regional security priorities of the two countries have started to play out,” he argues.

Russia regards Central Asia as its “zone of privileged interests.” For the past two decades, Moscow has sought to embed the states of Central Asia in a system of Russia-controlled institutions — the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mutual defense alliance; the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), a customs union; and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose federation of former Soviet countries. At the same time, it has actively worked to block Western actors such as NATO. China, in contrast, has been focused not so much on countering the West as on stabilizing its own western territory: the autonomous province of Xinjiang, which borders the Central Asian states.

At the time when color revolutions swept across Eastern Europe, Beijing and Moscow found their agendas aligned: both feared Western-backed democratization in Central Asia. Russia showed its teeth to prevent further foreign involvement in its former satellite states while China pressed down hard on calls for reform in its hinterland.

But a Sino-Russian split became apparent when the latter invaded Georgia in 2008. Days after a EU-brokered ceasefire went into effect, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev asked the SCO to support the independence of the breakaway Georgian provinces which Russia claimed to defend. China and the other members refused.

“After this diplomatic rebuke,” writes Cooley, “Moscow redoubled its efforts to promote the CSTO, an organization that includes the same Central Asian states but is safely in Russia’s pocket.”

Wary of China’s economic predominance, Russia subsequently sought to block many of its neighbor’s efforts to use the SCO to its own advantage. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s proposal to create a SCO free-trade area was met with Russian disapproval. Rather, Moscow champions the existing EurAsEC, which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan — but not China.

Paper tiger

The SCO then is weak and far from the aggressively anti-Western pact is appeared to be a few years ago.

“As such,” writes Cooley, “it makes sense for the United States to work with the SCO to engage China and the Central Asian states on select Afghanistan issues.”

Moreover, Western engagement with the SCO could undercut Russia’s ambitions to dominate the region once again.

As the world moves toward more multilateral cooperation, the West should not stand in its way. The United States will probably lose some of its status and influence, as Western Europe has, but it will remain the uncontested superpower for decades to come.

More importantly, as the Latin American and Southeast Asian states have demonstrated, direct involvement in their development does not encourage them to do as the West did. Rather, allowing these nations to discover the advantages of free markets and shared security on their own is much more effective — and therefore more in the West’s own interest.

The Kremlin Two-Step

“Westerners often see Russian politics in terms of a high-level struggle between liberals and conservatives,” observes Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writing for The Moscow Times. For instance, under President Boris Yeltsin, reformers fought nationalists while under Vladimir Putin, economic liberals opposed the siloviki — a class of politicians that originally served the security services and stresses national interests.

That view, argues Trenin, is a simplification of Russian politics and it fails to properly account for the Putin-Medvedev relationship.

To dismiss Medvedev as a mere Putin puppet — a constitutional bridge between Putin’s second and third presidential terms — would be both unfair and wrong. […] Conversely, portraying Putin as “a man from the past” and Medvedev as “a hope for the future” exaggerates the differences between them and omits the more important factors that unite them.

Dmitri Medvedev does appear to be more of a reformer, noting last November that the “country’s prestige and national prosperity cannot rest forever on past achievements.” Medvedev proposed modernization. Democracy, transparency, and a clean and healthy service economy were supposed to do away with a past of authoritarianism and heavy industry. All this is “borrowing massively from Putin’s vocabulary of 2000,” according to Trenin.

Medvedev was installed in the Kremlin as part of “Putin’s plan,” the substantive part of which was known as the “Strategy 2020,” a blueprint for renewed economic growth and diversification. Although last year’s financial meltdown hit Russia hard, it has only made Moscow modify and sharpen its scheme. “Medvedev is a key agent in its execution” and Putin chose him carefully — not only for his loyalty, “vitally important as that is.” The former president truly intends to move Russia forward. He “wants Russia to succeed in a world of competing powers.”

He has both money — the government’s budget and the oligarchs’ fortunes — and the coercive power of the state firmly in his hand. He is the arbiter at the top and the troubleshooter in social conflicts below. His most precious resource is his personal popularity, which adds a flavor of consent to his authoritarian regime.

That isn’t good enough though. An overwhelming majority of Russians support Putin but those are largely the people reminiscing about the Stalin era, longing for what Trenin calls “the preservation of a paternalistic state.” The best and the brightest aren’t among them.

Enter Medvedev. His Internet surfing, compassionate and generally liberal image helps recruit a key constituency — those beyond the reach of Putin himself — to Putin’s plan.

But in order to fully modernize Russia, the Putin-Medvedev twosome has not only to appeal to young urban professionals; they need to offer them actual modernization as well. They “must break the stranglehold of corruption, establish accountability and free the media.” At some point, argues Trenin, the Kremlin will have to decide between steady marginalization and opening up the system, putting the established order at risk. “Given the weight of geopolitical factors in Russian decisionmaking, it is difficult to foretell which path they will choose.”

Future Arctic Battleground

Global warming is rapidly changing the Arctic landscape. In the summer of 2008, for the first time in recorded history, the polar icecap retreated far enough to allow shipping north of Eurasia and North America; by 2013, these sea routes are expected to be completely ice free during the summer.

The region promises more than shortcuts for international shipping however. The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80 percent of these resources lie offshore. No wonder then that nearby countries are only too eager to make the high jump into the cold.

There are some complications: energy prices need to be high enough to make production in such an extreme environment economically viable. To make matters worse, some Arctic coastal states have not settled on the regulatory standards for development yet which is especially hampering Norway.

It isn’t stopping the Russians from more or less trying to annex the Pole for themselves of course. Gazprom has partnered with the Norwegian company StatoilHydro in the Russian Arctic and hopes to bring the enormous Shtokman field in the Barents Sea on stream by 2013. The field holds enough gas to provide the whole of the United States with electricity for six years!

Russia made its designs on the Arctic abundantly clear in August 2007 when it planted its flag on the seafloor of the North Pole. In good Cold War fashion, it subsequently began patrolling the Arctic once again with bombers and warships while Moscow invested more than a billion dollars in the expansion of the port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

Whence all the fuss? As former Director of the FSB and current secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev stated last year: “The Arctic must become Russia’s main strategic resource base.” This, perhaps, to compensate for waning influence in Central Asia.

Russia isn’t the only interested Arctic state. In 2008 Canada held its greatest military exercise ever conducted in the region and the country is spending $40 million on scientific research that is meant to bolster its Arctic claims. Together with Denmark, Norway and the United States, Canada in part contests the Russian pretenses but Russia doesn’t shred from threatening with war over ownership of the giant untapped oil and gasfields. Indeed, it has already shown itself quite willing to violate Canadian airspace just to make a point.

The United States remains strangely silent when it comes to the Pole. Earlier this year, in Foreign Policy, Scott G. Borgerson called upon Washington to take on a more active stance in the Arctic but only recently did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speak on the issue.

With Canadian-Russian aminosity flaring up, the Pole “is an area that we have to pay real attention to,” said to Clinton, “but it’s not an area that I get called about by reporters or have to answer questions about at the White House yet.” Most opinion- and policymakers do not seem to be aware yet of the great possibilities, and the great dangers, that the melting of the Arctic will provide. It’s about time the United States get involved nevertheless, if only to prevent the Arctic from indeed becoming a future battleground.

Russian Bear Still Roaring

“The bear still has teeth,” notes Robert D. Kaplan, writing for The Atlantic. The Obama Administration’s decision to scrap the Eastern European missile defense system has left some former Soviet satellite states at the mercy of Moscow once again — or at least, that’s how they see it.

Understandably, some Poles and Czechs reacted to Obama’s announcement with outrage. They’ve backed the United States in most of the wars and deployments of the past decade. Now their reward turns out to be continued exposure to the designs of Russia.

Moreover, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 “still sends shivers down the spines of Poles,” according to Kaplan, because they fear an economically powerful but energy-dependent Germany joining forces with the military powerful Russia. Poland has no geographical barrier to protect itself against such an unholy alliance while it is exactly for the sake of having barriers that Russia is resistant to the pro-Western course of many Eastern European governments.

There is little threat of actual invasion, that much Kaplan admits, but Russia has other methods at its disposal: “organized crime networks, intelligence operations, and constant intimidation.” Besides, no matter how Westernized countries as Poland and the Czech Republican may have become, “Russians will always be able to operate there more easily than most Westerners, because of their related Slavic languages.”

So why is the United States letting this happen? Because it needs Russia’s help — “to put pressure on Iran, to help us with supply routes into Afghanistan, and, perhaps, to balance against China.” But Russia is far from a reliable partner. It maintains its own agenda with regard to Iran which it does not want to upset and enflame Islamic extremism on Russia’s fringes. And with China, Russia sits in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and in the informal BRIC alliance along with Brazil and India. It seems unlikely that Russia will ever definitively pick the American side in its struggle against either, present and future, antagonist.

Is it worth to risk the allegiance of Eastern Europe in order to please Russia then? Yes. Because as much as losing that allegiance would hurt Washington, making an enemy out of Russia once again would be all the more devastating.

The Potential of European Might

War, said Clausewitz is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse, with the mixture of other means. If your politics or those of some other propel you to military action, then that is what must be done.

The recent appointment (not election) of a European president unifies the European Union, politically more than has been seen before, with the addition of a “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” providing the bloc with a mouthpiece on strategic affairs which one presumes will include out of area operations of a military nature and a unified approach to the strategic defense of the EU as a whole. Read more “The Potential of European Might”

A New START

Pressing the “restart” button — that is how the Obama Administration, literally, initiated its policy toward Russia after the cool Bush and Putin years. Now, in an interview with Fox News, National Security Advisor Jim Jones suggests that the president might win another foreign policy success on one of the very issues dear to him: nuclear proliferation.

“All of the dialogue is encouraging, they’re positive,” said Jones about the negotiations that are going on in Geneva, Switzerland these days. Russia and the United States are attempting to draft an arms control deal to replace the existing START agreement that expires new Saturday. “We’re down to the last few paragraphs and sentences.”

That is good news for Obama who hopes to have a new treaty signed by the time he heads for Oslo, Norway next week to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize. The reduction of nuclear weapons is said to be the subject of his acceptance speech.

The current START and SORT treaties limit both the number of nuclear and conventional weapons that Russia and the United States may possess. Still each maintains nuclear arsenals of thousands of warheads. The United States is estimated to have about 10,000 warheads of which 2,623 are operational. The Russian number more ambiguous: it said to have 4237 warheads operational in 2007 but this might be an exaggeration. There is no doubt however that the country has between 8- and 10,000 of such weapons in storage. (For comparison, the world’s third nuclear state, France, maintains about 300 warheads operational.)

The Geneva negotiations focus only on the operational warheads but its goal is more ambitious than any agreement signed between the former Cold War adversaries so far: both intend to cut their arsenals of operational warheads to between 1,500 and 1,675 within the next seven years. Should such an agreement come about, President Obama can boast an enormous step forward in the fight against proliferation.

Medvedev’s New Russia

After last year’s infamous power shift it seems that President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia is more and more able or willing to distance himself from his precedessor and mentor Vladimir Putin. Although Medvedev is just as happy as Putin to maintain close ties with rogue states as Iran and Venezuela he has also launched efforts to ally with rising powers as Brazil, India and China within the so-called “BRIC” and nearby Central Asian states within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With the other BRIC-states, Russia seeks to greaten its diplomatic and financial leverage on the world stage while within the SCO, it maintains relations with its neighbors. On top of that, Medvedev welcomed a reconciliatory President Obama in Moscow this summer to talk about reducing nuclear warheads.

All in all, the Russian president appears to do well abroad. Internally however he must struggle with an economy that performs poorly and a war machine that is hopelessly outdated. The other three BRIC-states have been able to climb out of their recession already but Russia probably has to wait until 2012. The Economist called it “the price Russia is paying for failing to develop its own financial markets and to tame inflation.” The two are inextricably linked because of the averge Russian citizen who deems life too uncertain to put some of his money in the bank, let alone contemplate an insurance of any kind. Rather he likes to spend every ruble he earns as quickly as possible. Read more “Medvedev’s New Russia”