Home Opinion The Black Sea crisis: More than what it seems.

The Black Sea crisis: More than what it seems.

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History, insecurity and brinkmanship reveal an unsettling global future.

The Black sea crisis is likely to be more than simply a resurgent Russia flexing its might or a local ethnic divide in Ukraine. Its origins and motivations rest in the age old historical chess match between great powers and the growing energy and mineral resource shortages the worlds nations face in the intermediate future.

Currently the US is engaged in some relatively token troop and F16 fighter movements into Poland to salvage face and distract us from the real game underlying the recent round of sabre rattling. With NATO looking less committed to the protection of its more recent eastern members, especially after Georgia was invaded by Russia with no NATO intervention, Crimea may well be a litmus test for its continued international validity.

It could well be that this is in part US public relations to convince Baltic NATO members that it will not throw them under the Russian bus, while it also counter tests the rigour of Russian commitment and intentions. Sending a US carrier battle group to the Black sea is likely to ensure the Russians know they will face opposition if they attempt to annex all of Ukraine and to bolster the flagging confidence of its NATO allies. But its very unlikely the US has any intention of grabbing Crimea back or starting a war over this issue unless the R.F overreaches. The Russians have Crimea back for good and the US and EU have almost certainly accepted that while taking steps to draw their own line in the sand vis a vis the rest of Ukraine.

The US with its own ‘Munroe doctrine’ preventing rival power intrusions near both North and South America is capable of seeing how Prime minister Putin is now declaring his own version of that same long standing US national security and foreign policy practice. Apart from NATO and the US’ complete inability to prevent Russia seizing any nation on its borders, if the Munroe doctrine, reliant on buffer nations and control of a powers sphere of influence is good enough for the US over the last 100 years, then certainly the R.F is entitled to use it as well.

In recent years since the fall of the Berlin wall the current era has been termed the ‘End of history‘ signifying the passing of the old ‘real politik’ hemispheric relations, spheres of influence and buffer nations that had bound geopolitics’ for over 150 years. A claim that is a patent falsity when one looks at US interventionism in the Middle east and now mirroring actions repeated closer to home by Russia. This tacit, almost naive acceptance by the EU and the US that geopolitical conditions had changed permanently draws our attention to just how convoluted this dangerous game of geopolitical brinkmanship has become. And it starts with a question.

Why did NATO and the EU/US court new member nations all the way up to Russia’s borders and risk a potential war with Russian Federation?

The answer is clear. They didn’t expect to ever have to ‘actually defend those nations’. They may well have actually bought their own grandiose claims that this era of Perestroika and Glasnost had ushered in the ‘end of history’ as we know it and fundamentally altered the rules of the ‘game’. Maybe they felt they had a ‘blank check’ to envelope small nation after nation till Russia had eventually no choice but to itself become rolled into the greater ‘NATO franchise’.

And in line with the failing Russia hobbled by economic stagnation, crippling debt and a western favouring Yeltsin government this view may have made sense 15 years before Russia’s economic resurgence on the back of its mineral wealth and global arms sales. In that light its easy to understand PM Putins recent willingness to court peril and reassert Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, at least in part, is most likely bolstered by domestic pressure and the popularity such ‘strong man tactics are garnering for the Prime minister on the domestic front. Conversely, that very same court of public opinion in the US is heavily predicated against risking nuclear war or even a return to cold war hostility over the interests and sovereignty of distant Baltic states. Pragmatically speaking, the U.S has far less ‘skin’ in this particular game than Russia and cannot easily sell to its public and political backers such great risks taken so far from home. Particularly if it will hurt the business and profit margins of the US ‘ corporate community.

Another exacerbant and factor in the regions political tension are missile defence facilities and US/NATO military assets being built and expanded in Poland. The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, will include SM-3 Block IIA interceptors to be strategically positioned in Poland around 2018. NATO Anti missile development in Poland has been strongly opposed by Russia , though some mediation between NATO and Russia was achieved when the original much larger GBI missile program was replaced with lower range SM-3 deployment. However the planned extension of the SM-3 program to Romania has increased remaining tensions between the US/EU and the Russian Federation. Further more cables released by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed that Polish diplomats felt more threatened by Russia than by Iran which was the original justification for the new missile interceptor program in Poland. Of course it doesn’t hurt from a US perspective that American weapons manufacturing corporations like Raytheon stand to make enormous sums from the expanding anti ballistic European missile programs for which the SM-3 is one of their flagship products. Which may be another motivation for US engagement in the region as its weapons corporations look to expand their customer base into eastern European nations becoming nervous of the Russian bear at their door.

“The (leaked) responses from the Pentagon shows that Alexander Vershbow sought to assuage that the missile shield, including the SM-3 alternative, was adaptable to “hypothetical” threats.” Most likely that ‘hypothetical threat‘ is Russia which has a history going back centuries for invading Polish territories, and to be fair, being invaded in return. In March last year the decision by the Polish Deputy Minister of Defence Robert Kupiecki that Poland intends to build its own missile defence system in conjunction with US led SM-3 program can only have helped shape current R.F foreign policy in the face of what has been termed by the R.F and its adherents as the US and EU’s soft imperialism.’

SM-3 anti ballistic missile launch. Photo Credit: US Navy
SM-3 anti ballistic missile launch. Photo Credit: US Navy

And of course it doesn’t help that meanwhile the EU has been busy recruiting former soviet republics right up to R.F borders and rolling them into its military arm , NATO, supported by the US own intercontinental forces. Russia has certainly not forgotten that NATO’s single military action in Europe was against a traditional ally of Russia and fellow Slavic nation, Serbia. From a Russian perspective the combination of such EU/NATO policies could look very threatening indeed. And to a nation which has been a hegemonic power for most of the last 500 years and currently has a strongly nationalist leader, this could easily be an unacceptable state of affairs.

In return the R.F in turn holds the E.U by the throat via fuel supply and eyes perhaps more than speculatively any border areas with decent Russian populations and a propensity for joining NATO, like the Ukraine. This is something ominously reminiscent of the 1963 missile crisis over the US installing Jupiter missiles in Turkey (and Italy). Well before Soviet Premier Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba, the US had put Jupiter medium-range ballistic missiles into Turkey right on the Soviet Unions border instigating the now famous crisis that drove us to the edge of nuclear annihilation.

Coming back to the present its hard not to see the rather stark parallels. It would seem likely that the Russian Prime minister Putin is aiming to assert his own Munroe doctrine and regain at least some of the former Soviet Unions geographical buffer zone for the R.F. Motivated by deep concern over the ubiquitous effect of US foreign policy via NATO pushing right up to its borders. But if that were the only issue this situation would have less dire implications for world peace.

It also seems that the R.F may well be doing exactly what China has done in the South China sea recently and probably for similar reasons. China claims that the South China Sea, its islands and potential mineral wealth belong to it, and has increasingly developed civilian and military outposts there and used its coast guard to confront the ships of other nations that also claim parts of the sea. In response the U.S far east regional military presence has grown with two additional carrier battle groups stationed in the Asian region and a massive U.S marine base being built in Australia’s north. Ostensibly in response to some pretty big claims made by China over the China sea region and its rich combination of air and trade routes and largely untapped mineral wealth.

Both the R.F and the PRC appear to be trying to gauge how much resistance they will face in potential future grabs of valuable strategic sites, trade routes and fresh resources still left. The real conflicts between the U.S, E.U and R.F may actually eventuate in the northern ocean as the northern sea ice recedes permanently opening up vast resources usually locked up under the vanishing ice cap. This also gives Russia the prospect of having year round blue water ports in the north and the ability to control the very valuable emerging sea trade routes that will open up off its northern coastline. It would seem that this Black sea crisis and the current South China sea stand-off are test cases for even larger and more dangerous manoeuvring in the near to intermediate future. Crimea may well be a practice run for a real showdown in the future as the R.F tests the resolve of its neighbours and the US to this kind of land/resource grabbing.

This also highlights a potential solution to these emerging problems and the issues raised by vast alliances and the risk of nuclear confrontation between them. It also may alleviate the border tensions between EU/NATO/US and the R.F and create just what these powers need to operate more smoothly. A strong buffer region independent of both R.F and NATO – a Baltic league made up of perhaps Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine and even Scandinavia. They would no longer be members of NATO but instead form a Baltic defence league which would resist incursion from both its western and eastern neighbours. They would of course have limited nuclear capability to offset their weaker conventional forces and they would pose a significant problem even conventionally for R.F aggression as they span much of Russia’s long western and south western borders. Unless Russia were willing and able to invade every nation of the Baltic league on its border it could easily face multiple retaliatory incursions along its border from Baltic league members responding to naked aggression. But such a league would also form a buffer between the R.F and Poland and NATO both of which have a long history of antipathy with Russia. This mechanism would enable regional defence capacity to be maintained for both NATO and the R.F without the vastly increased liability of direct conflict between nuclear superpowers.

Strong local leagues of invested nations may be better options for world peace than today’s vast continent spanning alliances inherited from the ‘Cold War’ era. They would do this by not only building buffer zones between the great powers, but also by becoming in their own right fish too big to swallow. Neighbours sharing fallout zones means the chance of nuclear exchange is less likely and any conflict or even nuclear exchange that does occurs is less likely to become an ‘existential’ one involving a full scale nuclear exchange.

To give an example, imagine a worst case scenario with a Baltic league witnessing the invasion of its members, Lithuania and Latvia which are invaded and annexed by the R.F with heavy fighting on the Fin border and more R.F armoured columns crossing the Russian border. Conventional forces were delaying some of the advancing R.F forces but the Russian armoured spearheads and air superiority soon leave the league with only one option. (The same option NATO would likely face as well) With two members gone and a third one under attack, the Baltic league members would authorise two tactical nuclear strikes on Advancing Russian forces. The R.F’s major theatre forces would be virtually annihilated and support forces still moving in would almost certainly withdraw from Finland and possibly back to their borders to the R.F’s own protective missile shield. Baltic league conventional forces would have time in the interrum to be able to mobilise and secure lost borders and face off against any future incursions. Hours later Helsinki would be immolated in nuclear flames from a single retaliatory Russian MIRV launch and within minutes both sides would have diplomats in contact before the nuclear exchange escalated.

The loss of life and damage to the environment on both sides would be horrendous but it would not be an exchange between geographically distant super powers with thousands of nuclear weapons each. It would not threaten human or even European civilisation and its potential alone would be an effective deterrent to aggression in the region – but without the risk of global nuclear war. Similarly a South East Asian alliance could be bolstered to stymie Chinese aggression in the region without risking direct conflict between Super powers where a resulting war almost certainly becomes an existential threat to humanity. By diminishing the scale of conflict and building strong enough local capacity to resist larger powers, the world could ensure global nuclear war became much less likely.

In the end these crises need to be managed as locally as possible to eliminate the odds of super power conflict. Smaller regional powers and leagues need to be built and supported to function as tension and scale diminishing cogs in the global geopolitical machine. Using the mechanical metaphor, large cogs generate and contain more power/tension and when they accumulate too much tension and break the damage to the global machine is catastrophic. Adding in smaller less volatile cogs will contain the tension and limit both the amount of power/tension contained in any single zone and its spread to other regions.

How likely such a benighted development is likely to happen is uncertain as this would certainly involve the PRC, US and NATO as well as the R.F showing a higher degree of compromise than we are perhaps familiar with. Certainly accepting more interference in their current ‘foreign policies and filtered roles in some geopolitical affairs as these new smaller alliances became truly independent might not be so palatable to the superpowers. Yet in a world of unprecedented rapid technological change and increasingly resource hungry nations, the global community may have little choice lest we all risk a proliferating cascade of events that catapult us all into mutual annihilation.

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