On being the right shape

Obsessing over strategic geography has a rather… twentieth century feel to it. Few now worry about the control of the Suez Canal, or the rights of warships to traverse the Bosphorus; far-flung scraps of land once valued as coaling stations and choke points are now important chiefly as tax havens and political distractions, and the various growths of Railway Imperialism have largely decayed back into the soil on which they were imposed. But there are a couple of areas that still pursue this approach to life. One, of course, is the subject of pipeline politics, amply discussed by m’colleagues, for example, here. Or here. Or here.

The other doesn’t get quite so much attention: Continue reading

Picturing the Siege of Leningrad

Over at English Russia, Sergei Larenkov has merged historic photos form the siege of Leningrad with contemporary pictures taken from the same vantage point. Flak balloons, protective scaffolding, ruins and dead bodies juxtaposed with SUVs, modern busses, restored facades. Fascinating work.

Don’t miss his links to other photo projects down at the bottom of the post. Russian North Truckers. Ain’t No Russian City. Another Abandoned Theater.

The Fury of Gustav

It’s been a while since I mentioned it here, but I grew up in the southern part of Louisiana. Not terribly near the coast, but still way down south. Most folks have left the coastal areas now, and that’s a good thing. The next 12 to 24 hours are going to be very rough, as hurricane Gustav makes landfall somewhere near Houma, Louisiana. It’s not all that far from where Katrina made landfall three years ago this week. Though for levees, settlements, floods and homeowners, a small change can mean a decisive difference.

Hurricane Gustav at 1am Eastern Time on Sept 1, 2008.

Hurricane Gustav at 1am Eastern Time on Sept 1, 2008.

For our readers who don’t have an immediate mental geography of the southern United States, the diameter of the red area (this a radar image, so the red indicates very bad weather conditions indeed) is about 200km. The top sustained wind speeds will be over 190 kph (about the speed that Mercedes was going when it made your car shake as it whooshed past on the autobahn), with gusts up toward 240 kph (good cruising speed for a TGV). Katrina is fresh enough in people’s minds that compliance with the evacuation call was very good, but this could still be a devastating storm.

How Frozen is Your Conflict?

At their meeting in Sochi — planned home of the 2014 Winter Olympics and just a hop, skip and APC ride from Abkhazia — Russia’s president Dmitri Medvedev warned Moldova’s president not to repeat the “Georgian mistake.”

Moldova, of course, claims Transnistria as part of its internationally recognized territory, but has never exercised actual control since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A Soviet Army, the 14th iirc, commanded at the time by Alexander Lebed, helped the Transnistrians enforce their counter-secession from Moldova. Since then, it’s continued its odd trajectory, something of a black hole in international legal term, reputed to be a haven for all manner of criminality and, not incidentally, an irritant to both Moldova and Ukraine.

“After the Georgian leadership lost their marbles, as they say, all the problems got worse and a military conflict erupted,” Medvedev told Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin.

“This is a serious warning, a warning to all,” he added. “And I believe we should handle other existing conflicts in this context.”

Which context? Issuing Russian passports to anyone who asks and then claiming the right to intervene to protect “Russian citizens”?

Message received:

“Frozen conflicts are a real volcano which can blow up anytime,” Voronin added. “That is why taking into account what had happened elsewhere it would be useful if we exercised again such wisdom not to allow such things to repeat in our country.”

The ripples from Georgia are just starting to spread.

Mentality gap

I hadn’t paid much attention to this Reuters report from yesterday: it says that mobile rocket launchers are being ‘given priority’ in the queue of armor moving from Russia into South Ossetia / Georgia. These are Soviet-era weapons which are said to have a range of 35 km. There may be a propaganda angle to this news item, of course.

While I still think we have to make an effort to incorporate the situation into a larger view of things – and I’ll admit that this effort can lead to some fairly strange-sounding statements – it’s dawning on me that there is an appalling local precedent: the 1999-2000 siege of Grozny, in which the city was more or less levelled through use of artillery, including rocket artillery. This has to be seen as a worst case outcome for Tbilisi and Georgia. However, there’s not much doubt that the players involved have form.

One of the least pleasant things about this episode is the lack of any honest attempt on the part of the Russian leadership to give a clear account of its aims and intent.

How many disputed territories have you annexed this week?

James Sherr writes in today’s Telegraph:

… Russia is exasperated with the West and also contemptuous of it. In the Georgian conflict, as in the more subtle variants of energy diplomacy, Russians have shown a harshly utilitarian asperity in connecting means and ends. In exchange, we appear to present an unfocused commitment to values and process. Our democracy agenda has earned the resentment not only of Russia’s elite but of the ordinary people who are delighted to see Georgia being taught a lesson. Our divisions arouse derision.

I suspect that this kind of writing will seem alarmist in hindsight. For a while now, I’ve had the view that it’s probably better not to talk up Russia and Russian strength. From the playground perspective, that kind of talk only encourages the bully. More importantly, it gets things out of proportion, and lack of proportion surely belongs to the psychology of escalation.

There’s a distinct retrograde character to this week’s events. This makes following the news exciting, but nonetheless I don’t think we’re seeing the beginning of a return to the state of affairs pre-1989. For a start, with communism, for decades, there was the fear that maybe, just maybe, the reds might be outproducing us. In other words, whether or not communism was ethically sound, it worked. (And there’s more than a hint of this mentality with respect to China today.) I tend to believe that if you follow this road assiduously you get to a situation where – through reference to some sort of biological analogy – ‘strength’ or ‘fitness’ is given as the highest purpose of a nation. This bad.

Luckily, we don’t need to go there: communism (at least, communism as practised by the Russians) turned out not to work. The consequences are still with Russia today, and can be seen at various levels and in various applications, including military applications. For example, shells fired from a Leopard 2 will likely pass clean through the hull of a T-80, but not vice versa. (Korolev’s rocket designs were good, admittedly.) It’s only because military investment was such a high priority in the USSR that we see today’s Russia in possession of a variety of functional materiel.

Now that we can measure it,* we find that Russia’s GDP is approximately equal to that of Portugal Brazil (which is not to knock Brazil). Much of Russia’s wealth comes from resource extraction: in other words, Russia is not making stuff. Is it thinking stuff instead? Well, is there a nascent biotech or semiconductor industry in Russia today? (Or is there maybe some other, more esoteric kind of activity that hasn’t yet permeated popular consciousness?) How are Russian universities doing?

Russia is fairly populous, although no one would call it densely populated. However, its population is shrinking; in part, because it is not a healthy country.

So we’re left with territory – Russia borders a lot of places – and with its military, which still has some potency. Put those two together, and maybe it’s not surprising that some Russian tanks will pop across the border from time to time. Or at least, they’ll want to.

One thing I found hard to understand about the last few days was the BTC pipeline bombing. I don’t think that anyone doubts that the Russian air force could hit it eventually, if they chose, but what would be the point? There’s no short term strategic consequence: nothing exclusively depends on that particular piece of infrastructure. So unless the Russians bombed it every day – which in itself would delay a profitable peace – they’d only see the thing rebuilt. If on the other hand, they wanted the pipeline – preciousss – for themselves, they’d have to invade (and take any further consequences). This possibility must be on people’s minds, but it seems less likely today than it did yesterday. My suspicion is that the Russians simply missed the pipeline, and then, having thought things through, decided not to have another go.

My geostrategic recommendation, for what little it’s worth: have strong words with the Ukrainians so that the Russians are allowed to take their boats home unmolested. Negotiate the introduction of a UN monitoring force to be stationed somewhere in the vicinity of South Ossetia. Continue to reduce dependency on oil and gas. And wait. Looking back, one lesson is this: if the Georgians had been militarily competent, they could have made this particular excursion punishingly difficult. The terrain favours defence. Whatever training and equipping may have been going on, it was obviously not up to scratch: we’ve just seen a failure of basic, local deterrence.

*Probably not a straightforward job

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Belgian Politics

is updated in this post from Ingrid Robeyns.

America’s founding fathers didn’t want the capital to be in New York or Virginia, so they invented Washington, DC. The EU’s founders didn’t their headquarters in France or Germany and chose Brussels. Whether there’s a lesson in there is hard to say.