Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 August 2008

Geography is Destiny

If you want to hear the smartest person in our top national leadership today, listen to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. While our president was mouthing his usual inane and impotent platitudes—increasingly sounding like Mr. Magoo—Gates was announcing our policy vis-à-vis Russia as world history rebooted. His words had perfect pitch, and his deeds made perfect sense.

Gates assuaged global fear of a new hot war by denying “any prospect” of a military response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia. At the same time, he revealed his “personal view” that “there needs to be some consequences for the actions that Russia has taken against a sovereign state.” He immediately canceled two joint military exercises with Russia, returned Georgia’s troops from Iraq to Tbilisi on American military airplanes, and tested Russia’s assurances of noninterference with humanitarian aid by flying it into Tbilisi, again on U.S. military aircraft.

Under present circumstances, it would be hard to imagine a firmer, more precise, more measured or more effective immediate response to the Russian invasion.

What Gates left unsaid was equally important. He left the term “military response” undefined, leaving room for covert military supply à la Charlie Wilson’s war, which drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Given the global realities today, Gates’ words and actions were perfect realpolitik.

If there were any doubt about his approach, he dispelled it himself. A reporter asked him whether the U.S. could still “trust” Russia “anymore,” after the invasion. “‘Anymore,’” Gates replied, “is an interesting add. I have never believed that one should make national security policy on the basis of trust. I think you make national security policy based on interests and on realities.”

If Gates had been Secdef (or president) these last seven years, we wouldn’t have bet so giddily on what Dubya thought he saw in Putin’s “soul.” But other things Gates said made less sense. In an interview on the Lehrer News Hour, he accepted the conventional wisdom that Russia’s goal in invading Georgia was to intimidate the countries of its “near abroad” and ultimately to re-establish the old Soviet empire in a softer form. He and others even resurrected an old early-twentieth-century term, “sphere of influence.”

Undoubtedly expanding its sphere of influence is part of what Russia is after. But why and for what purpose? For the last seven years it has been our own leader, not Vladimir Putin, who based national policy on fuzzy abstractions like that. While Dubya was ranting about “freedom,” “democracy,” and the glories of “free markets,” Putin was coldly and methodically collecting all of Russia’s vast oil, gas, and extractive resources and putting them under the direct or indirect control of the Kremlin. That consolidation is still in progress, as the British head of British Petroleum’s oil joint venture in Russia was recently forced into exile.

In the Malthusian world of the twenty-first century, wealth and power will come from increasingly scarce and valuable natural resources—including fossil fuels and minerals. Putin recognized that truth years ahead of even our best commodities traders.

With that point in mind, we come to the key unanswered question about Russia’s invasion. Why Georgia? It’s a tiny, mountainous country with less than five million people. Its chief exports were tourism (Black Sea beaches) and wine. It has little heavy industry. It has a few mines, but they are a drop in Russia’s already vast bucket. Did Russia go to all this trouble, risking worldwide fear, enmity and revulsion, plus its relationship with us, just to expand its sphere of influence and regain control of Georgia’s Black Sea resorts?

Whether or not Russia occupies all of Georgia now, its invasion was a dress rehearsal for doing exactly that. It coldly and methodically wrecked Georgia’s pitiful Black Sea fleet, took over the key Black Sea port (Poti), controlled the country’s road and rail hub (Gori, also Stalin’s birthplace), and began to move toward Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, a mere sixty miles away. With Georgian forces in abject retreat, all that remained was to sweep south a hundred kilometers and finish the job. Now that Russian troops have blown up most of Georgia’s ordnance and many of its tanks, the task will be much easier than before.

Two destroyed and burning tanks shown early in the conflict suggest that Georgian equipment is no match for Russia’s. Maybe the Georgian soldiers were just realistic in refusing to be cremated in situ in their tanks. But whatever the reason, they abandoned their positions and much of their equipment to Russian destruction. Then they fled southward for a presumed defense of the capital.

What this dress rehearsal showed is that, whether they do it now or later, the Russians could take all of Georgia in a week or two. But again, why bother?

The answer is geography. Georgia is, or could be, Russia’s gateway to the Middle East, with all its oil and power.

Together Georgia and Armenia (to its south) form a channel through which Russian technology and manufactures (including weapons and nuclear materials) could flow south to Iran, and Iran’s and others’ oil could flow north to Russia. Both are weak former Soviet satellites. Both are Christian like Russia. Armenia lies between Turkey and Azerbaijan, both Islamic nations that historically have been sharp thorns in Russia’s underbelly. If Georgia fell, Armenia would (or could) offer little resistance, and Russia would have its window to biggest part of the world’s oil that it doesn’t already control.

As a traditionally Christian country (although largely secular after 70 years of Soviet atheism) Russia is almost as culturally incompatible with Iran as we are. But a moment’s thought reveals strong interests in common with Iran. It’s not just Russia’s existing investment in Iran’s infrastructure, including the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr. It’s much more than that.

Iran has a simple but scary energy policy. It wants to develop nuclear power for its own use, then sell its oil abroad and use the proceeds to build up its economy and regional economic influence. In other words, Iran wants to do exactly what Russia has been doing under Putin.

Yet that policy (coupled with Ahmadinejad’s ravings) scares the hell out of Israel and the rest of the world because Iran might develop nuclear weapons in addition to power plants. So Russia has offered to assist Iran’s energy policy by providing nuclear fuel under international controls. But Iran refuses to leave another country, however friendly now, in control of its energy infrastructure.

Iran has another problem. It is a Shiite Persian country right next to a culturally incompatible and generally hostile Sunni Arabic world. That world controls most of the Mideast’s oil and consequently has fabulous wealth and access to the West’s trade and best weapons. These facts of life limit Iran’s ambitions to restore its own economic “sphere of influence” in the Middle East.

Although even now a dominant power in the Middle East, Iran is a runt on the world stage. It needs a partner like Russia. It needs a partner to plead and support its energy case and trade with it despite Western economic sanctions. That partner is Russia.

What does Russia get out of the relationship? Plenty. It gets a close relationship with the Middle East’s biggest (in population), most powerful and potentially most economically advanced nation (besides tiny Israel and the Emirates). It gets access to Iran’s oil. If the West attacks Iran, Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, and Russia opens an overland trade channel through Armenia and Georgia, Russia will have its hand on the valve that controls the world’s economy. Finally, Russia gets a powerful Persian Shiite friend that can act as a rear guard against hostility from Turkey and Central Asia.

If you don’t think the latter is important to Russia, look at Chechnya today. Then take a stroll around Moscow and see the innumerable monuments to nineteenth and early-twentieth century Russian battles with Turkey and the “Stans” of Central Asia.

No doubt it will be an uneasy relationship. Russia must think twice about allowing Iran to become a nuclear power, lest Iran foment world war or turn against Russia as a Christian nation and regional rival. Yet Iran is unlikely ever to attack its partner. Closeness with Iran will consolidate Russia’s growing global control over energy and other natural resources and help Russia protect its restless Islamic southern flank.

This affair may not be a match made in heaven, but it certainly is a sensible marriage of convenience. A direct rail and road link from Russia to Iran, through Georgia, Armenia—plus a small, narrow easily captured slice of Azerbaijan—could serve as the dowry. With air transport increasingly vulnerable to hand-held missiles like the Stinger (which can be supplied covertly through third parties, as we did in Charlie Wilson’s war), heavy ground transport by rail, with an alternate partial link over the Black Sea, would make the dowry relatively secure. Although beset by suspicion, it could be a successful marriage.

As for Putin himself, he is a clever man. He fought his way through the decaying Soviet bureaucracy and came out on top of one of the most turbulent times in Russian history. During his brief democratic period, he once gave a rousing, idealistic speech in fluent German before the Bundestag, dreaming of a huge space of peaceful trade from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Since then he’s become more cynical and much more practical. He’s got a good pretext for his “dress rehearsal”—“protecting” innocent Russia-leaning citivilians of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And he’s got a good red herring to throw us Westerners off the scent: a presumed “personal feud” with Georgian President Saakashvili. What else would you expect from a man who had his postgraduate training at the KGB?

From the Russians’ point of view, Putin is already their best leader since Peter the Great. In less than a decade, he has restored their shattered economy, rebuilt Russia’s global influence and made a huge dent in the nation’s poverty that he, unlike the Soviets, admitted and made a top priority. Now Putin may be emulating Peter the Great in another respect. Peter wanted a “window to the West” in the Baltic. But the Baltic is passé. Putin wants a window to the Middle East, where world’s wealth and power now reside.

In the medium and the long terms, we can respond best by adopting an effective energy policy, making the Middle East’s oil less vital to our and the global economy. In the short term, we had best forsake fuzzy abstractions and pay attention to intelligent, hard-headed realists like Secretary Gates.


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