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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Geopolitics- The Great Game In Eastern Europe

Iraq and Iran are just one part of the bigger picture.

Russia is in retreat:The gas blockade fiasco highlighted the march of the west into eastern Europe and beyond
Mark Almond, The Guardian, Saturday January 21, 2006

What did you do during the new cold war? Blink and you missed it. On New Year's Day, Russia was an energy superpower with its icy grip around western Europe's gas pipes. Alarmist strategists reported that Moscow was on the march. Estonia or Poland may be in Nato and the EU, but they were perilously vulnerable to energy blackmail. The Russian president was portrayed as a judo blackbelt with a chess grandmaster's geostrategic grasp.

The murky Swiss-based arrangements for divvying up the compromise price agreed between Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas company, and its Ukrainian partners cannot disguise the reality that Russia lost out in the quarrel. The EU rallied against its major energy partner, and behind Washington.

Despite Vladimir Putin's climbdown, inveterate cold warriors warn that every step back by the Kremlin is a prelude to a lunge for the west's throat. Once it was Stalinists who saw every western action as sinister. Sixty years ago, Averell Harriman, the US ambassador to Moscow, asked the diplomat Maxim Litvinov what the American government could do to reassure the Soviets of its intentions and got the reply: "Nothing."

Today, victorious cold warriors refuse to accept the Soviet Union collapsed under Gorbachev. By portraying Putin as a terrifying spook, they have elevated a minor KGB operative into Karla with nobs on. The real reason for Putin's rise was his diligent service with the corrupt mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and then Boris Yeltsin's "family".

Many Russians hoped for something better after the years of decline under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But, though Putin has paid pensioners and teachers on time, Russia has continued its geopolitical shrinkage under his rule. Every time there is a crisis in the former Soviet Union, we hear dark warnings of Brezhnev-style interventions - and each time the anti-Russian side wins. Think back to the Rose revolution in Georgia in 2003, or to Ukraine in 2004, or to Kyrgyzstan last year.

A Russian friend joked ruefully that in the 90s Russians had got used to Yeltsin blustering against western double standards after a few doubles. But at least he was a drunken clown. To be ruled by a sober clown such as Putin is beyond a joke. Many ordinary Russians had hoped to see in Putin what western neocons claim to fear: a cold-eyed defender of Russia's national interest, playing the Great Game for his country rather than his cronies' bank accounts.

The fiasco of Russia's gas blockade of Ukraine suggest he is no poker player. If he thought possession of gas and oil reserves would give Russia the whip hand, he miscalculated basic realities.

Iraq's bitter experience before and since 2003 shows that fossil fuels are no use if you cannot export them. Export or die is the watchword of energy-rich states. Insurgent attacks on pipelines in Iraq reminded America that Kiev, not the Kremlin, controls the bottleneck of Russian energy exports.

Ukraine's Orange revolutionaries repaid their western sponsors by switching the direction of the Odessa-Brody pipeline to suit US strategy last year. Around the same time, America and Britain were gloating over the completion of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that cut Russia out of Caspian oil exports. Next they announced a trans-Caspian pipeline to suck central Asia's gas westwards without passing through Russia, let alone paying Putin transit fees. The west is making the running in global pipeline politics, not the Russians. In reality, the west advances as Russian troops retreat from the Caucasus and central Asia. Gazprom is upping prices to ex-Soviet republics to compensate for Moscow's loss of geopolitical clout.

The new Russian elite craves acceptance by the west, which is why hosting the G8 summit in his native St Petersburg is so important to Putin. He visibly preens himself when he is with George Bush. Scarcely veiled threats from America to cancel Russia's G8 status over the gas dispute sent the Kremlin into a tizzy. That a prestige project such as the G8 chairmanship should trump other priorities shows Putin is no grandmaster of realpolitik. In the run-up to G8, Russia can be kept in line by threats of a boycott, for instance if it protests at western intervention in the March elections in Belarus, almost Moscow's last ally, and Ukraine.

Putin's own position weakens as Russia's global role wanes. His bitter enemies, such as the London-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, are preparing a few embarrassing stunts and surprises for Putin before he stands at the head of the receiving line in St Petersburg. Russia may have invented agitprop, but the western sponsors of people power know that an international summit is the perfect media window for trouble; tarnishing Vladimir's big day out won't be difficult.

Someone is still fighting the cold war, but it isn't Russia. The chill wind that has been blowing towards the Kremlin for decades is still coming from the west.

Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford


Blogger mynewsbot said...

How come mullahs are provoking a war

1:12 am  
Blogger Anglonoel said...

Good question. I think the Iranians (or at least the leadership faction around loonie tune President Ahmadinejad) believe that they can win a war with the USA. Their logic appears to be that the US can't get to them via a land war. Worldwide the US hasn't got enough troops to invade Iran (see the story on today's website- I'm reminded of Marshal Ney's words to Napoleon during a critical stage of the Battle of Waterloo:"Troops! Do you want me to make them?") and as for those in invasion of Iran would not go down well with the Iran-aligned Shia forces in the south of Iraq. The US can't count on much support from its allies when it comes to an invasion of Iran. The only one which could help much is Turkey, but sending Turkish forces into Iran would antagonise Kurds throughout the region and the Iran-Turkey border is highly mountainous.

In addition Iran is a big country, both in terms of geographical area and population. Even if it could gather together a viable invasion force, the US would not find a drive to Tehran easy. Plus, however much ordinary Iranians hate the current regime, I doubt whether many would welcome the USA as libertators. In times of war people tend to rally around their government, however awful it is (and Iran is down there with the worst).

So if a land invasion of Iran is out, what about air strikes or similar (special forces raids) on Iran's nuclear sites?(& let's be honest, an oil & gas rich country like Iran does not need nuclear power!). The Iranian leadership has heard all about "friendly fire" and the USA's frequent inability to hit the right targets. You can see the propaganda coup when innocent people die on tv. Furthermore, if you look at recent (post-1979 revolution) Iranian history, US military activities vis-a-vis Iran hardly cover themselves in glory. For example, the abortive attempt to rescue the US Embassy hostages in 1980, and the 1988 US Navy shooting down of an Iranian civilian Airbus (the real causus belli for the Lockerbie bombing later that year?). Iran's hardliners probably feel that the US military would make a complete hash of any attack. Of course, it might be Israel which launches attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities (like they did on Iraq's in 1981) but even though they would probably make a better go of it than the US, the political fallout (and let's hope its not nuclear) for the US and the West in general is potentially severe.

So I think Ahmadinejad & his cronies in Tehran probably think they would get the better of any military confrontation with the USA. However, as von Moltke commented, all battle plans go awry after the shooting starts.

I hope that sort of answers your query!

9:34 pm  

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