Archive for March, 2014
Ukraine lies along the northern edge of the Black Sea, and the Crimean peninsula, with its naval bases, dominates that portion of the sea. Turkey, however, controls the entire southern rim of the Black Sea along with the Bosphorous and Dardenelles straits that control the egress from the Black Sea to the wider world. Russia’s Black Sea fleet, today as in centuries past, must contend with Turkey if it seeks to project power beyond that inland sea. So, as tensions rise with Russian annexation of Crimea and massing of troops on Ukrainian borders, the Turkish Navy has set sail . . . for Africa.
In the days of the Cold War, Turkey was seen as the formidable anchor of NATO’s southern flank; in recent years, Prime Minister Erdogan has embarked on a mission of “neo-Ottomanism,” which seeks to reclaim Turkey’s role as the predominant regional and sometime world power. Erdogan may see these ambitions more closely aligned with current Russian practices than with the West. Meeting directly with Putin early in the crisis, Erdogan reportedly received serious concessions about the treatment of Turkic Tartars in the region, possibly in exchange for Turkish closure of the straits to Western warships. Perhaps, then, the continuation of the African mission is yet another signal that Turkey has no inclination to aide the West in any campaign against Russia.
Qatar is in schism with its erstwhile Gulf Cooperation Council allies, having linked up with Turkey in the three-way geopolitical struggle for the region that has emerged in the vacuum left by America’s virtual abdication of leadership. The three competing groups are led by the Saudis (with the rest of the GCC and Egypt), Iran (with Syria and the formal government of Iraq) and Turkey (with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood). Israel and a rapidly coalescing Greater Kurdistan represent two other players. The Middle East has always been a complex mix of allies and enemies, and it is even more so with the US leaving the field.
This editorial from the UAE’s National gives a local perspective on the simmering competition and shifting alliances.
Konstantinos Zarras has published an analysis (link opens pdf file) of the efforts of al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate to expand its operations into Syria and create a de facto Islamic State along the middle regions of the Euphrates River valley. Calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), they declared statehood in January of this year and are at once the most active insurgent group against the government of Bashir al Assad and the greatest cause of disunity among the would-be coalition of anti-government forces. ISIS is in open warfare with the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and is even suspected of assassinating the personal envoy of global al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawihiri.
Success by ISIS in creating their Caliphate on the Euphrates would not be an altogether bad thing for the US, at least not in the near term. Our failure in Iraq has created a weak state there which does not aid in containing Iran. ISIS, however, would be a Sunni dominated state opposed to Shi’a Iran. Combined with the emerging Greater Kurdistan to the north and the coalition of rich Gulf Arab states to the south, this would effectively do the work of the “Sunni Wall” that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq represented.
In the longer term, of course, a Salafist state would be a constant and ongoing threat to initiate state-supported terror operations against Western targets, but in the moment, Iran looms as the larger threat in the region.
That is the conclusion of a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The researchers used tree ring data to determine that, following an extended period of drought that likely caused social and political upheaval, an unprecedented period of persistent rainfall led to bumper crop of grass and hay across the Eurasian steppe. The upheaval created the political conditions that enabled Genghis Khan’s rise to power, and the flowering of the steppe provided the fuel for his mounted armies and their conquests.
I am still considering how this fits into classical geopolitical theories – particularly Mackinder and Spykman, who were so influenced by the historical repetition of Central Asian armies of conquest. It is compelling evidence, however, for profound short term political impact of climactic events, even on a decade-level scale.
Russia’s energy weapon is the presumed ability of Russia to bully European governments into acquiescing to its policies by threatening to withhold natural gas deliveries, on which most of Europe is heavily dependent. Some people argue that the ongoing American boom in natural gas production gives the US the ability to blunt Russia’s weapon by offering to ship natural gas to any and all European countries. Seems simple and straightforward, but the reality is that it is not true.
As Michael Levi explains, there are several factors that limit the influence American gas can have in Europe. First is the fact that natural gas production and sale is a private, commercial enterprise. The US government has no gas to sale, and the European governments are not purchasers. Second, there is a lack of infrastructure to support any large scale gas transfers to Europe. Finally, the prices in the Asian market are much higher and that is the direction in which US sellers have pointed their infrastructure.
Now, it is true that a change in government policies could change the situation. For instance, the US could adopt a policy which loosens LNG export restrictions. And the EU could subsidize North American gas purchases so that the European market is as financially attractive to sellers as the Asian market. But Russia has never actually used their weapon against EU nations, so there is no will for the latter. As long as the energy weapon remains nothing but an implied threat, it will not motivate European leaders to take extraordinary steps to diversify their supply.
In the end, the North American energy boom is a source of security for North America, but it cannot serve as an energy shield for anyone else.
China remains heavily dependent on grain imports to feed its population. Chinese leaders often complain about being at the mercy of international commodities traders and worry about price manipulation and gouging. The official monopoly China National Cereals, Oil and Foodstuffs Corp (Cofco) is now making moves to take control of the nation’s access to food imports. The Financial Times reports (registration required) that Cofco has purchased a near-century old trading house as the first objective in a 5 year plan of mergers, joint ventures and acquisitions to create a global commodity broker to rival the largest in the West. Cofco, however, will not arbitrage price differences to earn profits – it will focus on securing a food supply for its home territory.
For all of its advantages at the beginning of the 20th century, China has a few key disadvantages. It is short on both energy and food, and must import vast quantities of both from distant locations. It has long and vulnerable sea lines of communication, and it does not have the navy to secure them. For all the basic power games that China (and Russia) like to play in recent years, the US remains the only nation that commands the seas and China, in particular, is highly vulnerable there.