Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Russia v NATO: Ukraine, Crimea and the new Cold War.

   Admit it, the second you saw that vid of Russian attack choppers pouring into Crimea, somewhere in the back of your brain you started thinking of nuclear winter, fallout, the best routes out of major population centers and how up-to-date the contents of your bug-out-bag are. Maybe you've got to be a '70s kid and have grown up under the threat of a Warsaw Pact air burst over your local mall to be really jarred by those images, but either way, I sure hit the popcorn pretty hard. Some deep repressed memories perked up when I saw those choppers. It's not often you get to see the Russian Army on the move and the resulting shit storm all over US and European media made for some pretty entertaining TV, especially if you enjoy your talking heads not connected to the reality of the situation in any meaningful way.

   Doesn't anyone on CNN read a history book? If there were truth in news reporting these days someone might admit that Russia pulled a 'smart' maneuver here just like the West did when they secured Iraqi oil, deposed Gaddafi or bombed the rebels in Mali. Russia just joined the club! With nukes in play nobody in the West is going to become embroiled in a Slavic civil war for Ukraine. Right? Let's face it, we just love our post modern self actualizing Twittery, i-Phoney, corporatocracy too damn much to risk our comfort for a bunch of cantankerous Steppe dwellers. 

   The Euros are locked into a co dependent, abusive relationship with Russian oil and gas and the US is way over extended for either to do anything significant about Crimea so Russia gets to keep its new real estate. When you look at it with the cold eyes of realpolitik, Putin pulled off a pretty shrewd maneuver here and the West, despite the outrage on your TV screen, is pissed not because they give a shit about democracy and territorial borders; but because they got outplayed here by Putin and their inability to apply pressure has begun to reveal some frays at the edges of 21st century Western hegemony.

   To see why Putin pulled this rather ballsy gambit into Crimea, all you have to do is consider Russia's strategic position. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian bear has watched NATO expand eastwards into its backyard bringing Poland, Latvia and Lithuania into the western fold. Worryingly for Moscow, Ukraine has seen its fair share of Western NGOs, (really just an acronym for foreign political action committees operating inside your border), and slowly pour $5 billion into the system with the aim of tilting the vast bread basket west. 

   You don't hear much about Russian motivation in Western media though.

   For instance, when Western media ran the Nuland leak tape they did so in a way so divorced from the reality on the tape that I had to check the mirror to make sure I was living in the same universe and it all wasn't an acid flashback to the '90s. Here we have two American diplomats, one of them the US ambassador in Kiev, the other the top US diplomat to the EU (and presumably voicing the strategy of Obama's tech nerds) basically plotting a coup d'état against the democratically elected leader of Ukraine. But all of this got ignored when the the story ran and somehow morphed instead into a titilating snippet about how an Obama official said 'fuck the EU'. Meanwhile, the 'news' stayed tightly focused on the armed "democratic protesters" chucking petrol bombs at the cops. Turns out a whole bunch of them are hardcore Nazis and they've already started bullying members of the Ukrainian parliament and people on the streets.

   But this is democracy, right?

   And let's face it, if Occupy Wall Street protesters started lobbing molotovs at the NYPD, they'd have been gunned down with M4s before their idealistic little fingers made it to their Zippo lighters while Fox News ran a donation drive to buy more ammo for the cops. Yet here we have a mass of armed protesters advancing on the Ukrainian equivalent of The White House and word out of Washington and Brussels was more cheering from the sidelines like they're witnessing freedom and democracy on the march. It reminded me of that time during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 when looters in Baghdad ran off with priceless Mesopotamian treasure from the national museum and Rumsfeld was pushed in front of the TV cameras to inform us that that's what 'free people do'.

   On both occasions, I nearly threw up in my beer.

   Am I saying Russia had justification for invading Crimea?

   Nope. I'm just saying it was a shrewd move. 

   When the West does it, it's sex, when Russia does it, it's rape. The Russians under Putin have been itching for a chance to rebuild some semblance of the Soviet Empire and bring as many energy rich states into a Eurasian Union to counterbalance the Euros. Seeing Ukraine join the EU and NATO would be far too risky for Putin. The Russians know from history that buffer states and winter are useful allies whenever foreign powers try diplomacy by other means and head for Moscow.

   That's why nabbing back Crimea was a natural play, correcting the 'mistake' Khruschev made in 1954 over vodka when he gave it to Ukraine. Of course, back then this was merely an administrative shuffle because in the heady days of Sputnik, no one ever thought the Soviet Union would collapse and Russia might find itself on the wrong end of the deal. When Russians think of Crimea today they think of cheap holidays in the sun and Sevastapol, home of the Black Sea Fleet. And that fleet is pretty critical to Russian geopolitical ambitions. The naval base there allows Moscow an ice free port to exert influence over the Eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East.

   Although full of aging vessels, the fleet has been earmarked for upgrades, including six new diesel Kilo class subs and some amphibious assault ships with which to press home diplomacy when a little hard pressure is required with uppity neighbors like Georgia. It's also only a few days sailing to Syria where NATO ambitions were stymied in 2013 not least because of Russian machinations.

   Putin grabbed it and let's face it, it's nothing the US wouldn't do. Watching Kerry remark on the Crimean situation last week was a further exercise in the absurd theater of reality. Who writes this shit?  The needle on the hypocrisy meter broke when it tried to push past max level.

   So what are the West going to do about all this?

   This is where it gets interesting. Realpolitik is back and the US is going to have to adjust. The instability in Ukraine exacerbated by a tanked economy allowed Putin to pull this deft move without firing a shot. A remarkable gain considering its two million population and powerful position in the Black Sea. The US initially responded with a call for across the board sanctions which Germany instantly rejected because their economy needs all that sweet Russian energy. The trouble is, unlike China, Russia exports raw materials and energy and advanced Eurozone economies mold that into machines. So for the EU at least, which does ten times more trade with Russia than the US, sanctions are a non starter.

   The new idea this week is 'travel bans' on Russian officials which is kind of funny. Looks like those guys will have to go holidaying to the beach resorts of Crimea this summer. Also, there's talk of asset freezes on all that sleazy Russian money holed up in Western banks. Of course, Russian dirty money in the 'City of London' is exempt from these asset freezes because of some bullshit reason David Cameron's bankers created out of thin air; but really because those in London's financial center need liquidity and cash is always king, dirty or clean.

   In geopolitics and war, you measure how much you care in blood and treasure.

   And by this metric, the West doesn't care that much. Ukraine is cheap and Crimea is part of the Russian Federation now and it will stay that way. The upcoming referendum is a foregone conclusion, I'm gonna guess a 75% vote for Russia. Of course it's all theater but the Russians have learned from the West how to make invasions look legit.

The older generation celebrates the good ole days after the Crimea vote

   The real question is what happens in Eastern Ukraine and this is what I'm saving the popcorn for. For one thing, Britain, the US and Russia signed the Budapest memorandum in 1994 which guaranteed Ukrainian borders in exchange for them giving up all the nukes left over from the Soviet Union. That sure looks like a shitty deal right now doesn't it? 

  The hard lesson here is... never give up your nukes. 

   Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the interim Ukrainian prime minister, said "If you do not uphold these guarantees which you gave in the Budapest memorandum, then explain how you will convince Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear status." Note to Mr Yatsenyuk: North Korea has nukes, you don't, so tough shit on that analogy sir, you lost your nuke bargaining chip in the international casino 20 years ago. Also, Iran has the 4th largest oil deposits on the planet and gargantuan natural gas reserves where you have lots of empty fields for growing grass so I'm sorry to inform you sir, but nobody gives a shit. Wheat is cheap right now but oil is precious. Different rules apply.

   If Russia pulls a 'Sudetenland maneuver' and invades Eastern Ukraine to 'liberate' the Russian speakers from Ukrainian tyranny, it sure has the potential to enter the dreaded 'escalatory spiral' where we're talking  full on global confrontation. This is where I see nukes saving us. Like I've said before, nukes are the greatest peace keeping weapons ever invented because Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is the only logic us upright apes truly understand. In this case, the threat of confrontation will force leaders on all sides to the brokering table. That sure will be a complex deal.

    If Russia pours troops into Eastern Ukraine, it will force the West's hand. Proper economic sanctions, Poland will get their missile defense system and Russia will face growing isolation. If a shooting war starts on the ground (awesome multi spectrum air and land battles on mottled rolling green terrain) I sure would hit popcorn overdose. 

   Still, it's hard to see the Ukrainian Forces putting up a real fight. Sure, the figures above look decent on paper but war is never as simple as how many tanks you've got. The Ukrainian military is suffering very low morale due to the political situation, a low state of readiness and a military that is split between ethnic Ukrainians and Russian speakers. The Ukrainian military is unable to offer a credible deterrent right now.  It's also hard to see the forces on both sides engaging in a savage shooting war. After all, Slav historical ties run deep with Kiev itself being, in most Russians minds, a Russian city. That doesn't mean it can't happen but would Putin be prepared to fight for Ukraine killing fellow Slavs... like the Wehrmacht did?

   And yet still, 220,000 Russian troops, 1800 tanks and 400 attack choppers are engaged in "exercises" on the Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, Crimea just handed over it's navy to the Russian Federation while more troops and equipment arrive daily from the motherland. If the Russians invade they'll try not to fire a shot and annex Eastern Ukraine where the Russian speakers live, draw a line on a map and seek to de escalate. They'll have their buffer zone, the EU can have the bread basket, Poland gets a missile shield and the border becomes a Berlin Wall running along the new border with massive build ups of military forces on both sides.

   It's Cold War Part Deux.

   The beginning lines drawn in a multi polar 21st century.

   All those neoliberal economic ties and global interdependence is supposed to make the 21st century a century where war is impossible outside of the odd Third World resource grab or minor proxy war. Major wars are not supposed to happen say the architects of the new century because we will all buy tonnes of shit from each other and our need for more toys will mean our greed will save us from war.

   I must admit I'm pretty curious to see how that theory works out.

   Russia v Ukraine is surely its first major test.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Syrian Regional War: NATO on deck!

   Looks like NATO and Obama's tech geeks are going ahead with a 'limited' attack on Syria.

  [UPDATE 9/26] Obama's nerds realized the bad idea was bad..

  The US has four destroyers in the Mediterranean right now each packing 90 Tomahawks apiece plus the British have a Trafalgar class submarine offshore and a Rapid Reaction force setting up shop at Akrotiri in Cyprus. It's hard to figure the real justification here (outside of the details I gave in my previous post) but the international media play here seems to be: "Assad unleashed his chemical weaponry and wasted civilians so now it's time for the West to bring some kinetic blast energy into the mix to punish Assad for killing people in an unapproved way." Yep, it seems the reasoning behind the attack is going to be that retarded. You kill your people via asphyxiation so we'll kill more of your people via high explosive and that'll teach you a lesson for your "moral obscenity".

   Such is the madness of war.

   Of course, this can't be the only reason for the attack and the above reason is just the bullshit they're going to print in the newspapers. A recent poll indicated 60% of the American public are against any intervention in Syria (because they're smart) but modern proxy resource war is never a game of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" so there is no 'ask the audience' option. The corporate oligarchy are just gonna go ahead and blow shit up and continue with the wider plan of gobbling up the entire energy riches of the Middle East.

   Syria will be first on the permanently destabilized list, followed later by Iran.

   This attack, for the moment, is being advertised as merely a 'one off strike' to punish Assad for using chemical weapons (if he used them, more on that later). It's the "poke the hornets nest with a stick and see what happens" theory of war. If Assad reacts and does something stupid like launching missiles at Israel (highly unlikely) then NATO will pounce and bring on the real war, armed with the excuse to retaliate they can feed to their surveillance state nominal 'democracies' back home. If Assad is smart and he sure seems to be, then the correct reaction to the NATO attack will be to do nothing and instead offer up the usual parade of dead babies to world TV cameras.

    And this is where the story gets real shady for me.

   Assad by all accounts is not a stupid man. He attended Western universities. He's a trained eye doctor. This at least must mean he's not a total idiot, right? Why then would he use nerve gas at a time when the rebel factions aligned against him are fracturing, fighting amongst themselves and losing control of towns? Assad's forces seem to have gained a slight initiative in this war and now suddenly, just as he begins winning, he breaks out chemical weapons and hands NATO the golden invitation to walk into his country?

   It just doesn't make sense on the very fundamental level known as common sense.

   The things is, who these days is gonna trust the US or UK when they say WMDs are a legit reason to enter a war? It is a fact that chemical weapons exist in Syria but the real issue here is, who used them? It may be hard to believe Assad is that stupid but of course, that does not mean he isn't that stupid. War is not a logical environment and the common sense I mentioned above may not be applicable at all. Maybe Assad felt that by using a terror weapon and getting away with it, that act alone would be a morale shatterer for the rebels and allow his forces to go on the full offensive; knowing that pesky entrenched rebel holdouts could be gassed out of their positions with ease. Maybe Assad was testing the waters to bring about an offensive chemical game changer to end the war decisively? We just can't know and no side in any of this as of this writing seems inclined to deliver definitive proof of who is responsible. Still, none of it passes the smell test does it?

   Do not watch the video below if you would prefer to avoid the horrors of nerve gas (NSFL).

 Assad's actions after the chemical story broke are telling too. He immediately offered to let UN inspectors in to examine the sites where the chemicals were allegedly used. Obviously, he's studied the West's WMD playbook in Iraq and learned from Saddam that stalling on this issue provides the West with justification for an invasion. Sure, that could be a bluff too, designed to play well with a foreign anti war public; the logic being that he at least tried to prove his innocence but the damn rebels prevented the UN convoy from getting through to the chemical sites. Maybe, he's like the shark in Jaws, either very dumb or very smart... he's gone under the media.

  Even the mainstream media are asking these questions now but it is testimony to our times that the precedent for wars without Congressional approval, without UN approval, wars that are illegal under international law; all can happen anyway because of the precedents set in Iraq 2003. Even the will of the majority of the public can be set aside by those in power. Hope and Change was all just a slick marketing campaign. Now we see why Obama didn't go after the Bush Administration and instead made them all immune from prosecution. Another precedent was set... that of total freedom from liability for those who would run the empire and its global proxy resource wars. A freedom from liability the Noble Peace Prize winner himself will avail of when he himself presses the red button on Syria later this week. If he does because deep down I still don't get where victory lies here. Obama's defenders will say that the White House did warn that chemical usage was a "redline" moment and the US will look weak if they do not strike punitively as a matter of proving the US point. One thing is for sure though and that's that any overt foreign involvement in Syria just leads to more clusterfuck. Unfortunately, this is the only truth you will find in the Syrian Regional War.

   Meanwhile, yesterday in Syria, shit got even more shady. Suddenly, on their way to the nerve gas attack sites, the investigating UN convoy took incoming fire and was forced to retreat before inspecting anything.  Let's look at the possibilities here in the absence of cold hard facts.

  A) The snipers were Assad's forces trying to stop the UN from discovering the truth behind the usage of nerve gas. Assad invited the UN team in as a ruse, just to seem like an honest broker and then had his snipers shoot up the convoy knowing they would flee. He then blamed the shooting on the rebels and appealed to world anti war sentiment under the idea that he did all he could to try to prove his forces innocent of chemical weapons usage.

  B) The snipers were in fact rebel factions trying to prevent the UN from discovering that the rebels themselves were responsible for the gas attack either using stolen chemical artillery shells looted from Assad's arsenals or, worse still, chemical weapons supplied from outside Syria by a foreign menagerie of sleazy enemies with an interest in watching Syria burn.

  C) The snipers were foreign CIA/Mossad/Turkish agents running a covert mission to interdict the UN convoy to stop the inspectors from discovering that the chemical weapons came from foreign sources, were not part of Assad's arsenal and that the rebels perpetrated the attack themselves; all this with the added bonus of confirming the fact that Assad is a callous killer who would fire on unarmed UN inspectors.

  D) The snipers are just random assholes. It's a war zone after all. Some dick shot at the convoy because he hates white SUVs, hates his job, hates the war and the guy banging his wife drives a white car so he fired shots and it's all just random mad shit.

   One of the above is the truth. But which one is it?

   They say truth is the first casualty in any war so here we go again...

Those blast points, too accurate for sand people?

   The impending NATO strike is being presented as a sort of 'slap on the wrist' attack in world media.

   To know if this is true, all we will have to do is wait to see what the primary targets for the initial Tomahawk cruise missile strikes will be. The targets designated here will be crucial in figuring out where NATO is planning on taking this war. If most of the targets are X band strikes against Syria's air defense radars than we can be pretty sure this is just the opening salvo and NATO intends to take air superiority over Syria and fill the skies later on with ground support aircraft for the rebels, a Libya part II if you like. However, if the strikes are primarily against Assad himself, his house, his swimming pool, his Bentley, government buildings and some military bases and command and control centers then, that might fit the advertising as a "punitive measure" type attack. Obviously, limited strikes against all of the above will keep NATO intentions muddled for now and will be the probable course of action. But we will still learn a lot from the extent of strikes against Assad's air defense systems. And we'd be foolish to think that the US doesn't have a whole bunch of follow up contingency options waiting in the wings.

   Next up, what are the wider geopolitics of this crazy war. 

   And, by wider geopolitics, I am of course talking Russia and Iran here. I talked a lot about this last time but it's worth repeating. Russia currently has an undisclosed number of assets inside Syria. They have that Mediterranean base at Tartus which they would dearly like to hold. Losing it would be a serious blow to Russian prestige but I'm sure NATO have offered assurances that they have no designs here. The Russians have some Soviet era warships off the coast, some Spetsnaz and paratroopers in country and also an unknown number of technicians helping with the air defense systems. Has the S-300 SAM system been deployed yet? This is a huge question and we don't yet know. Some batteries could be operational and will be operated by Russian technicians. Obviously, the S-300 getting its first combat test v NATO would be popcorn overdose time but most likely the initial strike will involve cruise missiles and maybe, if the US goes exotic, some B2 stealth bombers from mainland US bases.

   How will Russia react?

   There'll be complaints at the UN and fist waving along with the Chinese. But at this stage of the 21st century everyone knows the Western modus operandi and the juggernaut that is US military power. The corporate empire cannot be deterred by conventional forces and nukes remain off the table because it's just not worth bringing on Armageddon. Yet.

   The real question here is what the NATO plan for Syria is.

   Is it perpetual chaos in the heart of the Arab world? Because if the West were truly interested in stability in Syria than the dirty little secret of this war might be that Assad would be the best option for that. Let the Arab strongman continue his authoritarian dictatorship not because it's expedient or moral or even right, but because the alternatives are far worse. Just look at Egypt in the aftermath of Mubarak as an object lesson on how things can go wrong without a bad guy on the payroll. The Arabs just don't do democracy and voting booths. In the wake of Assad's demise, what would a post war Syria look like? It would look like another Civil War but this time on bath salts with multiple factions fighting each other, Druze, Alawites, Christians, FSA, Al-Nusra Islamic radicals, Kurds, Al-Qaeda franchise elements, Hezbollah, Iranian militias, Sunni factions, ex Assad Syrian Army hold-ons all clawing each other's faces off for power. The civilian slaughter and genocide could go off the charts.

   But here's the dark side for Western war planners. Once you ditch the morality of fomenting a failed state you also by default neuter it. Its teeth are gone. Its ability to project power evaporates from its neighbor's borders. All this chaos would mean the end of Syria as a contiguous state and would remove it as a threat to Israel, Turkey and Jordan and end its alliance with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran to the East. It would knock Russian influence out of the Middle East. Hezbollah would find itself with a far more difficult supply chain for rocketry to aim at Israel and Iran would find itself fully isolated and surely the next domino to fall.

   So now perhaps the benefits of attack emerge however tenuously. Total destabilization. Chaos. A very scary course of action surely with many unforeseeable outcomes but obviously viewed as containable from Western war planner's madcap Dr Strangelove rooms.

  In fact, examined on these terms, NATO's impending intervention in Syria starts to make some kind of strategic sense when you take in the big picture... total Western hegemony of the last easily extractable oil on the planet. Lessening reliance on tar sands and its low EROEI numbers and high costs-to-refine, nothing but sweet crude sitting just under desert sands in Iraq and Iran and the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf. Syria barely has any oil but it is a linchpin state in the region. Damascus is the historic heart of Arabia. Maybe we've reached the stage where such chaos is desirable and that's a very scary place to be just 13 years into the new century. Hegemony via chaos is a risky game.

   This is a big war and it's happening live on your TV for reasons far removed from a whiff of nerve gas. If Assad takes his medicine and does not retaliate (his best move) we have the possibility of continued stalemate. The fire could all die down and be forgotten in a week or it could flare up and consume more forest. It's been a long hot summer. And the desert is dry and ripe for flames.

   If NATO are smart, they back down on this one. They already have all the chaos they need.

    Grab popcorn. And stay tuned.