Month: December 2015

Russia: the unsustainable Enigma

Russian activities in Ukraine and Syria not only raise questions about Russia’s intentions in these conflict zones, but also about the country’s ability to sustain these interventions. Already suffering from the effects of economic sanctions, low oil prices, diplomatic isolation and a tarnished international image as a result of Putin’s imperial ventures, many wonder if the potential strategic gains are worth the cost.

Russia under Putin clearly has great power ambitions. Despite Putin’s efforts to promote Russia as a global power, which are mainly exercised at the UN through the fine skills of Mr. Lavrov, strategically, Russia remains primarily engaged throughout Eurasia, for obvious geopolitical reassons. The Russian Federation, with an economy smaller than California and a population lower than Pakistan, is continental power, not a global one, even though it stretches across 11 time zones and possesses an impressive military & armaments industry.

The country has immense hydrocarbon resources which Putin attempts to leverage for strategic and political gain – but this may not work in the long run as its main European market works towards energy diversification. Threatening to send gas East instead of West also rings hollow owing to the raw deals that China offers Russia. Putin may well sacrifice economic gain for strategic gain – as the cost vs. benefits of his Ukrainian and now Syrian operations reveal: the acquisition of Crimea, hybrid warfare in Donbass, and now military intervention in Syria have come at a cost seen as unacceptable, and unsustainable.

Of course, states pursue geopolitical strategies with the knowledge that the results may be economically detrimental – America’s wars in the Muslim world have cost trillions, producing arguably little in the way of strategic gain. What is Putin trying to achieve?

Expert consensus notes that Russian aims in Syria are

  • shore up the Allawite regime of Assad, Russia’s last remaining ally in the region
  • fight militants from the Caucasus on Syrian soil rather than on Russian soil later
  • to break out of western attempts to isolate Russia by proving its too important to ignore

In Ukraine, Russia aims to

  • discipline Kiev by demonstrating that its internal stability to hostage to Moscow
  • dissuade NATO expansion by showing that admission of the country poses too high a security risk
  • force a new security architecture upon Europe where Russian interests are taken seriously & reveal the limits of EU power

It is likely that Russia’s current geopolitical outlook will prove sustainable. The main reason is that the Russian economy has been crippled by the sharp fall in oil prices” and Western sanctions. In the long run, the country’s bleak demographic outlook – projected to decline to around 110 million by 2050 if fertility remained constant – means a decline in the number of males of military service age with the result that Russia will struggle to maintain large armed forces. This is compounded by a high mortality rate and high levels of immigration by the well educated.

The logical thing would be for Putin to seek a rapprochement with the west, to ease tensions and attract investment to offset economic woes which if continues will only exasperate demographic decline, further weakening the state. Putin’s thinking may well resonate with the words of the Poet Robert Browning who wrote that A man’s reach should extend his grasp, or else what’s a heaven for?

states pursue geopolitical strategies with the knowledge that the results may be economically detrimental

East Asian maritime tensions

One of the most contentious issues in SE Asia these past few years has been China’s island building projects in one of the region’s biggest flashpoints – the South China Sea, most of which Beijing claims as its own. Its claims to the waters are not going unchallenged – on October 27 the USS Lassen led the first freedom of navigation (FON) patrol to challenge China’s territorial claims. Tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines have been especially pronounced – China conquered the Paracels from Vietnam in the 1970’s and has claimed and seized numerous islands, reefs, and shoals in the Spratlys, claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. These waters may contain substantial hydrocarbon reserves, besides the vast fish stocks. Some of these reefs are being converted into artificial islands – in effect “unsinkable aircraft carriers” via the construction of runways, harbours, and probably hosting surveillance listening posts. Since the bulk of maritime trade between East Asia and Europe and the Middle East must pass through the South China Sea, it may be China’s response to a Malacca strait challenge since it would too be in a position to tighten the noose. Naval skirmishes between China and rival claimants to the water continue. The Philippines scored a small victory in October after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration agreed to hear claims made by the country against China’s attempts to justify almost complete sovereignty over the South China Sea via its “9 Dash Line” and claiming its artificial islands are eligible for a 200 nautical mile EEZ, contrary to UNCLOS.

Sino-US Rivalry In South East Asia

An increase in US- Chinese competition for SE Asia in the next decade is likely. U.S. strategic interest in the region declined with the end of the Cold War, its attention mainly diverted to crises in the Middle East and Europe, and later to a significant engagement with the Muslim world as part of its War on Terror. But a rising China has re-engaged America’s attention: in 2003 Thailand and the Philippines were named Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA) allowing closer defence cooperation with the U.S. In 2011 it announced an increase in military deployments in the region as part of it’s ‘Asia Pivot’. The U.S. has been able to take advantage of regional discontent with Chinese bellicosity to encourage an unofficial balance of power coalition formation including Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and extra-regional states such as Australia and India. Vietnam has been particularly irked by Chinese actions – the state has fought numerous skirmishes with the PRC since 1979, including a military defeat in the Paracels in 1974. The intensely independent state, which seems to enjoy nothing more than fighting great powers, has acquired a number of high-tech Kilo-class submarines from Russia, although this appears part of a generally upward trend in naval armaments in the region. The Philippines has reversed its anti-American position of the early 90’s – in April 2014 it signed a 10-year Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement granting the U.S. temporary access to Philippine military bases.

Sino-Japanese Rivalry In South East Asia

Japan has sought to counterbalance China’s expanding reach in the Asia Pacific realm by putting pressure on it in the South China Sea via security cooperation with some states in the region. This forms part of a balance of power logic but may also be a response to China’s pressure upon Japan in the East China Sea and claims on Japan’s Senkaku islands. Japan is also increasing its investment levels in SE Asia to balance Chinese investments, most recently China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiative which runs parallel to its Eurasian integration schemes. Japanese PM Abe has also pushed for military normalization via constitutional reform which would allow the removal of restrictions on its use of armed forces which many see as motivated by growing Chinese power.  Japan is also negotiating access to an airbase in the Philippines as well as donating military equipment and assisting the country with defence modernization. These developments may translate into increasing geopolitical risk going forward but have to be seen as the necessary workings out of regional geopolitics in a post-Cold War environment compounded by a rising China.

A quick talk with Joel Wing @ MusingsOnIraq

What are Sunni – Shia relations in the country like today?

Relations between the sects in Iraq are complicated as ever. The Sunni community has suffered from deep divisions ever since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Sunni provincial politicians are largely siding with the Shiite led government in Baghdad because they are on the frontline against the Islamic State. The main Sunni party Mutahidun in Baghdad is unwilling to compromise with the Shiite coalition the National Alliance on things like the National Guard bill even though it would help their constituency. The tribes are all over the place. Some have sided with the Islamic State, some are with Baghdad, and some are sitting on the fence. On the Shiite side there is a lot of suspicion about Sunnis being IS sympathizers. Populations in cities like Mosul have been written off, and the huge number of displaced from places like Anbar are seen as potential threats as well. Ironically, what the two communities have in common is that they both feel like they are victims. The difference is that they blame each other for their plight.

What is the extent of U.S. involvement in Iraq today?

The U.S. has a number of different programs going on in Iraq. Besides the much publicized air strikes it also has a training program going on which is focused upon both the Iraqi Security Forces and some tribal fighters in Anbar. It also has joint command centers to help strategize against the Islamic State. Finally, Washington is providing military material like anti-tank missiles, fighter jets, etc. There is talk that it might increase its involvement with more targeted raids as well. There is a lot of criticism of the U.S. commitment, but it is in line with the Obama administration’s plan to contain the insurgency.

What role does Iran play in the country?

Iran is doing a lot for Iraq. Its pilots are flying Iraqi attack jets, it’s provided a huge amount of equipment from rockets to tanks to guns and ammunition. It has deployed frontline advisers and has its own joint command center with the Iraqi forces. It is funding the pro-Tehran Hashd groups. When the Islamic State first took Mosul Iran offered Baghdad a blank check because Iraq was an ally and the militants were a threat to Tehran as well. At the same time, Iran is trying to copy its Syrian policy in Iraq, which is based upon building up its allied forces in the Hashd which are loosely connected to the state, dominate strategy, and promote itself as the protector of the Shiite. They have been very successful so far as seen by the ubiquitous presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force Commander Gen. Suleimani at major battles and in social media.


How representative of all major groups is the government in Baghdad today?

Every government in Iraq since 2003 has been a national unity one, meaning every party that wins a seat in parliament is given a position in the administration. This is codified in an ethnosectarian quota system that dolls out all the top spots to the various communities and political parties. That’s a huge source of weakness as parties that both support and oppose the government are all in office leading to general deadlock on most major issues.

  is the author of the excellent Musings On Iraq ( which was started in 2008 to explain the political, economic, security and cultural situation in Iraq via original articles and interviews. He has written for the Jamestown Foundation, Tom Ricks’ Best Defense at Foreign Policy and the Daily Beast, and was responsible for a chapter in the book Volatile Landscape: Iraq And Its Insurgent Movements. His work has been published in Iraq via AK News, Al-Mada, Sotaliraq, All Iraq News, and Ur News. He was interviewed on CCTV, and have appeared in CNN, the Christian Science Monitor, The National, Columbia Journalism Review, Mother Jones, PBS’ Frontline, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Institute for the Study of War, Radio Free Iraq, and others and has also been cited in Iraq From war To A New Authoritarianism by Toby Dodge, Imagining the Nation Nationalism, Sectarianism and Socio-Political Conflict in Iraq by Harith al-Qarawee, ISIS Inside the Army of Terror by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassahn, The Rise of the Islamic State by Patrick Cocburn, and others.

2050: Urbanization, Conflict and the Great Powers

According to the Economist, by 2030 the globes three largest economies will be the United States, India and China. Furthermore, by 2050, China and India will each be larger than the next five largest economies combined – Indonesia, Germany, Japan, Brazil and the UK. In time these two Asian giants will naturally play a “bigger role in addressing global issues such as climate change, international security and global economic governance” which means the US should let them “play a greater role on the world stage and adapt international institutions to allow them to exert greater influence.”

Beyond the sphere of international influence however, lies a more profound dynamic which could make or break these monoliths if they fail to adapt. The ever present spectre of domestic pressures as an enabler or disabler of foreign ambitions means that the nature of what it means to be a Great Power is itself changing.


Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen explains that 4 Megatrends are influencing state order in the 21st century. These are:

  • Population pressure – in the next few decades “the world’s cities are about to be swamped by a human tide that will force them to absorb—in just one generation—the same population growth that occurred across the entire planet in all recorded history up to 1960” (in 1960 global population stood at around 3 billion)
  • Urbanization – by 2050 about 75% of the worlds population will be urbanized.
  • Littoralization – by 2050 about 75 per cent of the world’s population will be living in coastal areas by the middle of the 21st century, with the vast majority concentrated in cities and urban areas.
  • Connectivity – with livelihoods increasingly dependent upon connection to the global economy via internet and logistical access often minimally available in the countryside especially in third world zones, being a part of a metropolis is becoming increasingly important. In the case of a Somali receiving remittances via a bank in Mogadishu, physical presence in the war torn littoral city is crucial.

He notes that as interstate conflict decreases, an advent accelerated by the great power possession of nuclear arsenals (where the link between victory and survival is cut, according to Martin van Creveld), intra-state conflicts are only going to increase. Civil wars, the most common form of warfare since the decolonisation period, are likely to be more common, sparked in many cases by intense resource competition amongst urban dwellers.

Assad’s Syria provides a macabre example of one potential response to urban insurgencies- the wholesale levelling of cities, reducing them to rubble through the genocidal application of barrel bombs, missiles, artillery bombardment, and other terrible means. This is of course, not a viable solution, unless one has an Allawite homeland to retreat to protected by Iranian militia and Russian armaments as time may tell.

Looking ahead, it appears that as these trends continue, the pressures on states to maintain order may come at the expense of their capacities to influence regional, or indeed global order.

Consider China today: with protests and riots breaking out in multiple cities across the country on a daily basis, it is no wonder that the Chinese elites have been accused of amateurism in their dealings with other states in the region. Allowing their immensely powerful coastguard navies to initiate crises on the high seas by challenging Vietnamese fishing boats for example, and allowing the provincial elites who authorised these conflagrations to go largely unpunished, is one example of a powerful states too self absorbed in domestic management to properly play the delicate game of geopolitics.  Russia, on the other hand – with a population smaller than Bangladesh, is far more adept at foreign affairs, as the managed crisis in eastern Ukraine and Syria demonstrate.

The strategic implication moving forwards is that absent severe domestic unrest in the United States, the relative stability of the U.S. means it could have a profound advantage over its potential Asian rivals, geography and resource advantages considered. Putin maintains that democracy promotion is means of destabilizing foreign countries and unseating governments. In states with severe infrastructural challenges and ethnic tensions, the liberalization of the economy and political establishment may well lead to instability as various groups clamour for autonomy by challenging the central authority. It is no wonder then that Russia and China maintain such a heavy hand in domestic affairs. For those states particularly susceptible to these megatrends, long term and intelligent policies need to be devised to maintain order and prevent social disintegration.