Vladimir Putin is no wimp. When he was challenged at Sochi with repeated terror attacks – so that he would not be able to hold his dream winter Olympics there – he fought the threat with an almost complete shutdown of the entire region and an equally ferocious fight back by his forces, unwilling to be cowed into submission before those who hoped to see his enterprise fail.
Refusing to acquiesce to the notion that his is a power that ‘has-been’, he instead heralded the arrival of Russia, once again, with an exemplary show of success and pomp at the Olympics. Russia was back – and it was no wimp.
Putin’s years at the helm have not been easy. Conscious of the pounding his nation had taken as the world reordered itself into a newer hierarchy, it seems his only mission has been to restore Russia back to its glory. His priority has been the recovery of a dead economy, while still retaining significant military capability – the second most powerful in the world. To recover the economy he would leverage his vast reserves of oil and gas. And that has virtually been the story of Russia’s efforts at resurrection to a position of geopolitical significance.
Russia has made gradual inroads into the new world order. It saw Nato’s original 16-nation membership grow to the now 28 – many republics of the old Warsaw Pact, and many who broke away from under the old Soviet nomenclature making the number. Russia itself joined Nato’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme. One cannot be more comprehensively vanquished.
But even as the world grew more comfortable with a seemingly more acquiescent Russia, the country began a relationship of interdependencies that now haunts most of Europe and (especially) the US. As the largest producer of gas in the world, Russia supplies 30 percent of all of Europe’s needs. Italy and Germany import most of their gas from Russia; a separate pipeline carries Russian gas directly into Germany. For a Europe that is barely struggling out of a long recession, this is a lifeline that it would never like to see hampered.
But then Ukraine happened. The order there under Viktor Yanukovych, a perceived Russian ally, was replaced by the west-supported party of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s nemesis. This is assumed to be America’s response to Putin’s resurgent assertiveness. Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state, said as much when she suggested that $5 billion had been spent on supporting the democratic movement in Ukraine.
Ukraine is Russia’s ‘near abroad’ – a group of 14 nations that took birth from within the Soviet Union and now populate the Baltics, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin declared the region Russia’s “sphere of influence” and called it strategically vital for Russia. Between George Bush and him, it simply meant ‘hands-off’, and Bush largely respected that. To him, perhaps, finding consensus on START III was more important than to ruffle Russian feathers.
Under Obama, however, things have been different, though he too got his follow-up to Bush’s START by signing the New START with Russia’s Medvadev in 2010. What really changed, however ,was the discovery of gas by fracking shale rock which has excited a lot of imagination in the US.
One, the US declared itself sufficient in gas needs and cancelled its purchases from Qatar; plans to import oil from Canada, courtesy another breakthrough technology, extraction from oil sands, were also put on hold. At the same type, current plans envisage ‘liquification’ of shale gas for export purposes. The US Congress is currently reviewing laws that will enable the US to export their new find. Two things, therefore, needed to happen simultaneously; Europe was to be encouraged to give up on Russian gas, and instead source it from the US. Two, the US continues to entice Europe to also unbind their hidden reserves of gas from shale – Poland, a former Soviet client, is particularly under focus to import fracking from the US as the new technology tool for Europe.
Events in Ukraine have enabled such events. Russia was forced to secure its most important asset – its only access to a warm water port in Sevastopol, Crimea. It is popularly believed that Ukraine just might split down the middle into two halves, the Russian-speaking eastern half, and the western Ukrainian-speaking half that will become the newer addition to the western sphere of influence. Even more crucially, thee of the pipelines carrying Russia’s gas to Europe ply through Ukraine, while Ukraine itself owes billions to Russia for the gas that it has availed and used.
This has major geopolitical implications. Freed from any Russian encumbrances, Europe could now begin to regain its polar affiliation with the US. That will isolate Russia, not only denting its revenues but also denying it the favour of an important interdependency that diluted Europe’s anti-Russia leanings. Paradoxically, it will slow down any recovery, while making it difficult for the better performing economies to keep their momentum.
Europe remains wary of shale gas and will perhaps remain equally shy of importing from the US unsure of the real volumes in stock available with the US. This is a complication the Americans will still need to work through as they play their newest geopolitical hand.
Russia has also announced two 1100MW nuclear reactors each for Turkey and Iran. A pipeline from Russia to Europe is routed via Turkey. Russia has now begun to interact closely with Afghanistan. A new government with Northern Alliance origins will enable Russia to garner even greater influence with Afghanistan. Russia will secure its southern underbelly by a more aggressive and positive engagement with both Iran and Afghanistan in the weeks ahead.
Russian overtures to Pakistan to seek a broad-based rejuvenation in the relationship ties into a strongly developing notion of a stronger regional framework in political and economic domains. Russia is already working on a gas pipeline to China and whatever it may lose in Europe is likely to be compensated by China. The icing on this remaking of yet another global order is the removal of Russia from the G-8.
A new divide defines this newer global order. While the west consolidates it is forcing the east to coalesce. The ‘new world order’ is already obsolete, while the making of another cold war beckons. These are no ordinary tremors. And the bear is just about reawakening. Interesting times lie ahead but nations who keep their interests supreme will end up making the right choices.
The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff.