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

18 thoughts on “How many disputed territories have you annexed this week?

  1. >Russia’s GDP is approximately equal to that of Portugal

    Russia’s GDP – 1,289,582 mln $
    Portugal’s – 223,303 mln $

  2. Calling Russia a bully while advocating western policy is nothing but hypocritical (remember Kosovo). This type of thinking will do nothing toward making Central and Eastern Europe stable. It’s time that the EU dump NATO expansion eastward and respect Russia as a part of Europe.

    They better do it fast or its energy will go East rather than west (the East Stream).

    Europe will be forced into energy conservation at any rate.

  3. With regard to the pipeline, I recall reading (WRT Saudi Arabia) that while damage to pipelines themselves is easily repaired, damage to pumping stations can take much longer to fix. Almost surely some of the BTK pipeline’s pumping stations are on Georgian territory and vulnerable to air attack.

  4. The Russians missed the pipeline on purpose.

    The Russians do not want this war to go on for long. They know it would be a drain on their resources that will soon be needed elsewhere.

    The strikes at the pipeline were a warning to Georgia and her Western allies, saying “Stop this, or else we can take out the pipeline.”

    The Russians aren’t about to let UN forces, monitoring or otherwise, anywhere near South Ossetia or Abkhazia; they saw what happened with Kosovo. The West would have just let the Georgians walk right in and take the city. The Russians aren’t going to be fooled twice on that…

  5. Flypaper for counter-blogging?

    Perhaps. However, it could also be called truth-testing. The West should look in the mirror more often.

    It may be a cold, Cold winter.

  6. @Todd Thompson

    The European Union and NATO are completely separate entities. For example, Ireland, Austria, Sweden and Finland are all EU but not NATO, and all but one of those nations is constitutionally bound to be neutral.

    The EU is not the one expanding NATO eastwards, NATO is. And NATO is not exactly a military occupation force; it’s a voluntary alliance. Eastern European nations wouldn’t join unless they felt threatened by Russia and trusted the West more than Russia.

    I don’t think the West is a paragon of morality, but that’s not the point. Just because neither side is perfect does not mean they’re both equal. Do I prefer my nation’s alliance with America to a putative one with Russia? Hell yes.

  7. I was looking forward to some hard and detailed bashing of this article, but then I thought to myself “What is the point of this little rant? Is it to inform the reader that R. has some weakness that should be exploited at all costs and start over with Cold War v2.0(which is likely on already)? Well, this just further proves imperialist, greedy-ass intentions of US that should be fought with utmost intensity. This suggests that whatever “Democracy” BS that US is feeding Europe and Asia is just that – BS, and R. is free to choose its methods, as you were free to choose yours for so long.

  8. @ Jabithew

    NATO operates through EU hegemony. Just because the membership roster is exactly the same doesn’t mean they operate independently. In fact all those members you list work with NATO in the Partnership for Peace Program and actively operate in Afghanistan under ISAF. If you look beyond the roster, the differences in them and their policy blur to the same bloody color.

    It’s strange that you argue there’s a difference and say the EU and NATO haven’t grown eastward together. Poland, the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, etc., have all joined NATO and the EU. Given the facts, your comment is in error.

    I am happy you enjoy spending money on your aggressive military alliance. Unfortunately, they have killed civillians to obtain EU goals (e.g. a regime change in Serbia, longterm military bases in Kosovo, and a longterm military presence in Asia (Afghanistan)).

    Best Wishes,

    A Foe Fly
    (as deemed by FOE Staff)

  9. Not a very good blogpost.

    For the russians, three clear advantages.

    1) Manifestation of russian nationalist strength, showing that russia is able to project its interests and defend its population no matter what the west says.

    2) Showing that there is might behind the rhetoric concerning Kosovo.

    3) A livefire exercise of the new and improved military might that has been the talk of Russia for the last two years. Exercise of land-sea-air doctrine, test of shock and awe.

    The pipelinebombing is a clear shot across the bow for the EU/USA. What would the effect be on energyprices? Show of might.

    The big question is whatever the georgians (and the US and Israel by extension) thought they could gain from doing this during the olympic opening. Especially when seen in context of the US open insult of China at the same time, it seems downright idiotic.


  10. @ Todd Thompson

    Correlation does not equal causation. To note that both the EU and NATO are expanding eastwards at the same time (i.e. as soon as was actually possible) and then conclude that they must be the same is facile (see the pirates-prevent-global-warming correlation).

    NATO pre-dates the European Union, so if anything it would be more accurate to say that the EU is expanding behind NATO. But membership of one club or the other does not imply membership of both. Incidentally, I didn’t actually say that they weren’t expanding eastwards, I was pointing out that each was doing so independently.

    While it is true that Ireland and Austria operate under the ISAF, which is UN-established, I should point out (the Irish wouldn’t be able to take part otherwise), their combined personnel presence is…erm…nine. Presumably they’re non-combat, as christ only knows what they plan to do with nine troops between them. Finland and Sweden have put in more, but have been out-donated by the UAE and Jordan respectively, those well-known pawns of western imperialist hegemony. Even Serbia has contributed 5 personnel, and I can’t see the Serbs being huge fans of NATO.

    Portraying an attempt to end genocide as a simple case of regime change was dishonest, and I don’t believe there is any appetite in NATO for long-term occupation of Kosovo(!? Half the neighbouring countries are in NATO, what would be the point?) or Afghanistan (been there, done that, got the body-bags). Looking at the facts on the ground, NATO has more or less failed in Afghanistan because only the anglophones have contributed significant numbers of troops, and non-anglophonic troops have been kept safely out of harm’s way by government mandate.

    My point is that to portray the EU or NATO as vast, unified conspiracies is just plain wrong *even within each entity*, let alone acting in unison.

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  12. @ Jabithew

    An exact match is necessary to show the work together hand and glove. Their positions and actions clearly show they do.

    The genocide claim of EU countries and NATO was a farse in the case of Kosovo. It is probably a farse for S. Ossetia too, although indiscriminant shelling describe of the capitol is questionable, iff that happened.

    In Kosovo, EU countries simply used the genocide claim as an excuse to perform illegal acts of war against Serbia with the goal of regime change and, possibly for a free NATO base in the Balkans. All claims used as an excuse to attack proved to be fabricated and just plain wrong. You may beleive that those in charge have bad intelligence gathering, but I do not.

    Afghanistan is also an example of where the US attacked a sovereign nation for the purpose of regime change and EU and NATO are supporting that effort. The excuse – terrorism against two buildings using airplanes by a group with ties to the regime. That terrorism group was also in the UN and EU countries, just not welcome. It is questionable.

    We now see the fruits of NATO/EU policies like these – South Ossetia. Like the others, it could have been negotiated out without the use of war. Based on you beliefs, it appears that you would agree with the Russian position.

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  17. Russia’s GDP is not very high in current dollars (still big though) but it is quite high in terms of PPP dollars. And they are growing really fast for 9 years in a raw. Very much like China.

    Energy sector is vital for Russia, no doubt about it. In terms of GDP, it constitutes some 11%-13% (incl. electricity generation and distribition) so Russia is not overly dependent on it. It holds a lion’s share in export, some 45% for oil and gas, but then their trade surplus is some 45%.They in fact can live without selling oil and gas outside the country. Or sell it in the Far East if they would prefer.

    Russia is still #8 in scientific papers, not very bad for their underfunded universities. Russia continue to produce some truly sophisticated things from nuclear plants and sattelites to soil improvement technology.

    A role of BTC pipeline is most probably exaggerated a bit. It’s a good route, it goes through loyal countries, etc. It just turned out to be that there’s much less oil in the Caspian sea basin then was previously projected. And this oil is contracted already, it goes either to China or to Russia.

    Russia’s population is shrinking. And yet it attracts so many immigrants from the neigboring countries due to its increasing wealth that it seems there is actually a growth albeit very moderate.

    I know I sound a bit pro-Russian and this is not actually the case. We all need to get real. Russia has all the resources it needs. From fossil fuel to a proven educational system. They have a very good record of recovering after major crises from the Civil war to the WWII. They are able to defend their country. We need to talk rather then trying to isolate it.

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