Obama's waltz with the Russian bear

This article was first published on the Stratfor website.  The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. 

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in on Tuesday as president of the United States. Candidate Obama said much about what he would do as president; now we will see what President Obama actually does. The most important issue Obama will face will be the economy,
something he did not anticipate through most of his campaign. The first
hundred days of his presidency thus will revolve around getting a
stimulus package passed. But Obama also is now in the great game of
global competition — and in that game, presidents rarely get to set the agenda.

The major challenge he faces is not Gaza; the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not one any U.S. president intervenes in unless he wants to
experience pain. As we have explained, that is an intractable conflict
to which there is no real solution. Certainly, Obama will fight being
drawn into mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during his first
hundred days in office. He undoubtedly will send the obligatory Middle
East envoy, who will spend time with all the parties, make suitable
speeches and extract meaningless concessions from all sides. This envoy
will establish some sort of process to which everyone will cynically
commit, knowing it will go nowhere. Such a mission is not involvement —
it is the alternative to involvement, and the reason presidents appoint
Middle East envoys. Obama can avoid the Gaza crisis, and he will do so.

Obama’s Two Unavoidable Crises

The two crises that cannot be avoided are Afghanistan and Russia. First, the situation in Afghanistan is tenuous for a number of reasons, and it is not a crisis that Obama can avoid
decisions on. Obama has said publicly that he will decrease his
commitments in Iraq and increase them in Afghanistan. He thus will have
more troops fighting in Afghanistan. The second crisis emerged from a
decision by Russia to cut off natural gas to Ukraine,
and the resulting decline in natural gas deliveries to Europe. This one
obviously does not affect the United States directly, but even after
flows are restored, it affects the Europeans greatly. Obama therefore
comes into office with three interlocking issues: Afghanistan, Russia
and Europe. In one sense, this is a single issue — and it is not one
that will wait.

Obama clearly intends to follow Gen. David Petraeus’ lead in Afghanistan. The intention is to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan,
thereby intensifying pressure on the Taliban and opening the door for
negotiations with the militant group or one of its factions.
Ultimately, this would see the inclusion of the Taliban or Taliban elements in a coalition government. Petraeus pursued this strategy in Iraq with Sunni insurgents, and it is the likely strategy in Afghanistan.

But the situation in Afghanistan has been complicated by the situation in Pakistan. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. and NATO supplies bound for Afghanistan are delivered to the Pakistani port of Karachi and trucked over the border to Afghanistan. Most fuel used by Western
forces in Afghanistan is refined in Pakistan and delivered via the same
route. There are two crossing points, one near Afghanistan’s Kandahar
province at Chaman, Pakistan, and the other through the Khyber Pass.
The Taliban have attacked Western supply depots and convoys, and
Pakistan itself closed the routes for several days, citing government
operations against radical Islamist forces.

Meanwhile, the situation in Pakistan has been complicated by
tensions with India. The Indians have said that the individuals who
carried out the Nov. 26 Mumbai attack were Pakistanis supported by
elements in the Pakistani government. After Mumbai, India made demands
of the Pakistanis. While the situation appears to have calmed, the future of Indo-Pakistani relations remains far from clear; anything from a change of policy in New Delhi
to new terrorist attacks could see the situation escalate. The
Pakistanis have made it clear that a heightened threat from India
requires them to shift troops away from the Afghan border and toward
the east; a small number of troops already has been shifted.

Apart from the direct impact this kind of Pakistani troop withdrawal
would have on cross-border operations by the Taliban, such a move also
would dramatically increase the vulnerability of NATO supply lines
through Pakistan. Some supplies could be shipped in by aircraft, but
the vast bulk of supplies — petroleum, ammunition, etc. — must come in
via surface transit, either by truck, rail or ship. Western operations
in Afghanistan simply cannot be supplied from the air alone. A cutoff
of the supply lines across Pakistan would thus leave U.S. troops in
Afghanistan in crisis. Because Washington can’t predict or control the
future actions of Pakistan, of India or of terrorists, the United
States must find an alternative to the routes through Pakistan.

When we look at a map, the two routes through Pakistan from Karachi
are clearly the most logical to use. If those were closed — or even
meaningfully degraded — the only other viable routes would be through the former Soviet Union.

  • One route, along which a light load of fuel is currently
    transported, crosses the Caspian Sea. Fuel refined in Armenia is
    ferried across the Caspian to Turkmenistan (where a small amount of
    fuel is also refined), then shipped across Turkmenistan directly to
    Afghanistan and through a small spit of land in Uzbekistan. This route
    could be expanded to reach either the Black Sea through Georgia or the
    Mediterranean through Georgia and Turkey (though the additional use of
    Turkey would require a rail gauge switch). It is also not clear that
    transports native to the Caspian have sufficient capacity for this.
  • Another route sidesteps the issues of both transport across the
    Caspian and the sensitivity of Georgia by crossing Russian territory
    above the Caspian. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan (and likely at least a small
    corner of Turkmenistan) would connect the route to Afghanistan. There
    are options of connecting to the Black Sea or transiting to Europe
    through either Ukraine or Belarus.
  • Iran could provide a potential alternative,
    but relations between Tehran and Washington would have to improve
    dramatically before such discussions could even begin — and time is

Many of the details still need to be worked out. But they are
largely variations on the two main themes of either crossing the
Caspian or transiting Russian territory above it.

Though the first route is already partially established for fuel, it
is not clear how much additional capacity exists. To complicate matters
further, Turkmen acquiescence is unlikely without Russian authorization,
and Armenia remains strongly loyal to Moscow as well. While the current
Georgian government might leap at the chance, the issue is obviously an
extremely sensitive one for Moscow. (And with Russian forces positioned
in Azerbaijan and the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, Moscow has troops looming over both sides of the vulnerable
route across Georgia.) The second option would require crossing Russian
territory itself, with a number of options — from connecting to the
Black Sea to transiting either Ukraine or Belarus to Europe, or
connecting to the Baltic states.

Both routes involve countries of importance to Russia where Moscow
has influence, regardless of whether those countries are friendly to
it. This would give Russia ample opportunity to scuttle any such supply
line at multiple points for reasons wholly unrelated to Afghanistan.

If the West were to opt for the first route, the Russians almost
certainly would pressure Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan not to cooperate,
and Turkey would find itself in a position it doesn’t want to be in —
namely, caught between the United States and Russia. The diplomatic
complexities of developing these routes not only involve the individual
countries included, they also inevitably lead to the question of
U.S.-Russian relations.

Even without crossing Russia, both of these two main options require
Russian cooperation. The United States must develop the option of an
alternative supply route to Pakistan, and in doing so, it must define
its relationship with Russia. Seeking to work without Russian approval
of a route crossing its “near abroad” will represent a challenge to
Russia. But getting Russian approval will require a U.S. accommodation
with the country.

The Russian Natural Gas Connection

One of Obama’s core arguments against the Bush administration was that it acted unilaterally rather than with allies.
Specifically, Obama meant that the Bush administration alienated the
Europeans, therefore failing to build a sustainable coalition for the
war. By this logic, it follows that one of Obama’s first steps should
be to reach out to Europe to help influence or pressure the Russians,
given that NATO has troops in Afghanistan and Obama has said he intends
to ask the Europeans for more help there.

The problem with this is that the Europeans are passing through a
serious crisis with Russia, and that Germany in particular is involved
in trying to manage that crisis. This problem relates to natural gas.
Ukraine is dependent on Russia for about two-thirds of the natural gas it uses. The Russians traditionally have provided natural gas at a deep
discount to former Soviet republics, primarily those countries Russia
sees as allies, such as Belarus or Armenia. Ukraine had received
discounted natural gas, too, until the 2004 Orange Revolution, when a
pro-Western government came to power in Kiev. At that point, the
Russians began demanding full payment. Given the subsequent rises in
global energy prices, that left Ukraine in a terrible situation — which
of course is exactly where Moscow wanted it.

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.

Whatever Obama is planning to do, he will have to deal with this
problem fast, before Afghanistan becomes a crisis. And there are no
good solutions. But unlike with the Israelis and Palestinians, Obama
can’t solve this by sending a special envoy who appears to be doing
something. He will have to make a very tough decision. Between the
economy and this crisis, we will find out what kind of president Obama

And we will find out very soon.


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