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Obama enters the great game

"Obama enters the great game" Continued...

The Russians cut off natural gas to Ukraine for a short period in January 2006, and for three weeks in 2009. Apart from leaving Ukraine desperate, the cutoff immediately affected the rest of Europe, because the natural gas that goes to Europe flows through Ukraine. This put the rest of Europe in a dangerous position, particularly in the face of bitterly cold weather in 2008-2009.

The Russians achieved several goals with this. First, they pressured Ukraine directly. Second, they forced many European states to deal with Moscow directly rather than through the European Union. Third, they created a situation in which European countries had to choose between supporting Ukraine and heating their own homes. And last, they drew Berlin in particular-since Germany is the most dependent of the major European states on Russian natural gas-into the position of working with the Russians to get Ukraine to agree to their terms. (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Germany last week to discuss this directly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.)

The Germans already have made clear their opposition to expanding NATO to Ukraine and Georgia. Given their dependency on the Russians, the Germans are not going to be supporting the United States if Washington decides to challenge Russia over the supply route issue. In fact, the Germans-and many of the Europeans-are in no position to challenge Russia on anything, least of all on Afghanistan. Overall, the Europeans see themselves as having limited interests in the Afghan war, and many already are planning to reduce or withdraw troops for budgetary reasons.

It is therefore very difficult to see Obama recruiting the Europeans in any useful manner for a confrontation with Russia over access for American supplies to Afghanistan. Yet this is an issue he will have to address immediately.

The price of Russian cooperation

The Russians are prepared to help the Americans, however-and it is clear what they will want in return.

At minimum, Moscow will want a declaration that Washington will not press for the expansion of NATO to Georgia or Ukraine, or for the deployment of military forces in non-NATO states on the Russian periphery-specifically, Ukraine and Georgia. At this point, such a declaration would be symbolic, since Germany and other European countries would block expansion anyway.

The Russians might also demand some sort of guarantee that NATO and the United States not place any large military formations or build any major military facilities in the former Soviet republics (now NATO member states) of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (A small rotating squadron of NATO fighters already patrols the skies over the Baltic states.) Given that there were intense anti-government riots in Latvia and Lithuania last week, the stability of these countries is in question. The Russians would certainly want to topple the pro-Western Baltic governments. And anything approaching a formal agreement between Russia and the United States on the matter could quickly destabilize the Baltics, in addition to very much weakening the NATO alliance.

Another demand the Russians probably will make-because they have in the past-is that the United States guarantee eventual withdrawal from any bases in Central Asia in return for Russian support for using those bases for the current Afghan campaign. (At present, the United States runs air logistics operations out of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan.) The Russians do not want to see Central Asia become a U.S. sphere of influence as the result of an American military presence.

Other demands might relate to the proposed U.S. ballistic missile defense installations in the Czech Republic and Poland.

We expect the Russians to make variations on all these demands in exchange for cooperation in creating a supply line to Afghanistan. Simply put, the Russians will demand that the United States acknowledge a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. The Americans will not want to concede this-or at least will want to make it implicit rather than explicit. But the Russians will want this explicit, because an explicit guarantee will create a crisis of confidence over U.S. guarantees in the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union, serving as a lever to draw these countries into the Russian orbit. U.S. acquiescence on the point potentially would have ripple effects in the rest of Europe, too.

Therefore, regardless of the global financial crisis, Obama has an immediate problem on his hands in Afghanistan. He has troops fighting there, and they must be supplied. The Pakistani supply line is no longer a sure thing. The only other options either directly challenge Russia (and ineffectively at that) or require Russian help. Russia's price will be high, particularly because Washington's European allies will not back a challenge to Russia in Georgia, and all options require Russian cooperation anyway. Obama's plan to recruit the Europeans on behalf of American initiatives won't work in this case. Obama does not want to start his administration with making a massive concession to Russia, but he cannot afford to leave U.S. forces in Afghanistan without supplies. He can hope that nothing happens in Pakistan, but that is up to the Taliban and other Islamist groups more than anyone else-and betting on their goodwill is not a good idea.

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