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Category Archives: NATO

By Kamran Bokhari, Peter Zeihan and Nathan Hughes
On Feb. 13, some 6,000 U.S. Marines, soldiers and Afghan National Army (ANA) troops launched a sustained assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand province. Until this latest offensive, the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan had been constrained by other considerations, most notably Iraq. Western forces viewed the Afghan conflict as a matter of holding the line or pursuing targets of opportunity. But now, armed with larger forces and a new strategy, the war — the real war — has begun. The most recent offensive — dubbed Operation Moshtarak (“Moshtarak” is Dari for “together”) — is the largest joint U.S.-NATO-Afghan operation in history. It also is the first major offensive conducted by the first units deployed as part of the surge of 30,000 troops promised by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The United States originally entered Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. In those days of fear and fury, American goals could be simply stated: A non-state actor — al Qaeda — had attacked the American homeland and needed to be destroyed. Al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan at the invitation of a near-state actor — the Taliban, which at the time were Afghanistan’s de facto governing force. Since the Taliban were unwilling to hand al Qaeda over, the United States attacked. By the end of the year, al Qaeda had relocated to neighboring Pakistan and the Taliban retreated into the arid, mountainous countryside in their southern heartland and began waging a guerrilla conflict. In time, American attention became split between searching for al Qaeda and clashing with the Taliban over control of Afghanistan.

But from the earliest days following 9/11, the White House was eyeing Iraq, and with the Taliban having largely declined combat in the initial invasion, the path seemed clear. The U.S. military and diplomatic focus was shifted, and as the years wore on, the conflict absorbed more and more U.S. troops, even as other issues — a resurgent Russia and a defiant Iran — began to demand American attention. All of this and more consumed American bandwidth, and the Afghan conflict melted into the background. The United States maintained its Afghan force in what could accurately be described as a holding action as the bulk of its forces operated elsewhere. That has more or less been the state of affairs for eight years.

That has changed with the series of offensive operations that most recently culminated at Marjah.

Marjah Map

Why Marjah? The key is the geography of Afghanistan and the nature of the conflict itself. Most of Afghanistan is custom-made for a guerrilla war. Much of the country is mountainous, encouraging local identities and militias, as well as complicating the task of any foreign military force. The country’s aridity discourages dense population centers, making it very easy for irregular combatants to melt into the countryside. Afghanistan lacks navigable rivers or ports, drastically reducing the region’s likelihood of developing commerce. No commerce to tax means fewer resources to fund a meaningful government or military and encourages the smuggling of every good imaginable — and that smuggling provides the perfect funding for guerrillas.
Rooting out insurgents is no simple task. It requires three things:

  1. Massively superior numbers so that occupiers can limit the zones to which the insurgents have easy access.
  2. The support of the locals in order to limit the places that the guerillas can disappear into.
  3. Superior intelligence so that the fight can be consistently taken to the insurgents rather than vice versa.

Without those three things — and American-led forces in Afghanistan lack all three — the insurgents can simply take the fight to the occupiers, retreat to rearm and regroup and return again shortly thereafter.  But the insurgents hardly hold all the cards. Guerrilla forces are by their very nature irregular. Their capacity to organize and strike is quite limited, and while they can turn a region into a hellish morass for an opponent, they have great difficulty holding territory — particularly territory that a regular force chooses to contest. Should they mass into a force that could achieve a major battlefield victory, a regular force — which is by definition better-funded, -trained, -organized and -armed — will almost always smash the irregulars. As such, the default guerrilla tactic is to attrit and harass the occupier into giving up and going home. The guerrillas always decline combat in the face of a superior military force only to come back and fight at a time and place of their choosing. Time is always on the guerrilla’s side if the regular force is not a local one.

But while the guerrillas don’t require basing locations that are as large or as formalized as those required by regular forces, they are still bound by basic economics. They need resources — money, men and weapons — to operate. The larger these locations are, the better economies of scale they can achieve and the more effectively they can fight their war.

Marjah is perhaps the quintessential example of a good location from which to base. It is in a region sympathetic to the Taliban; Helmand province is part of the Taliban’s heartland. Marjah is very close to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, the religious center of the local brand of Islam, the birthplace of the Taliban, and due to the presence of American forces, an excellent target. Helmand alone produces more heroin than any country on the planet, and Marjah is at the center of that trade. By some estimates, this center alone supplies the Taliban with a monthly income of $200,000. And it is defensible: The farmland is crisscrossed with irrigation canals and dotted with mud-brick compounds — and, given time to prepare, a veritable plague of IEDs. Simply put, regardless of the Taliban’s strategic or tactical goals, Marjah is a critical node in their operations.

The American Strategy

Though operations have approached Marjah in the past, it has not been something NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ever has tried to hold. The British, Canadian and Danish troops holding the line in the country’s restive south had their hands full enough. Despite Marjah’s importance to the Taliban, ISAF forces were too few to engage the Taliban everywhere (and they remain as such). But American priorities started changing about two years ago. The surge of forces into Iraq changed the position of many a player in the country. Those changes allowed a reshaping of the Iraq conflict that laid the groundwork for the current “stability” and American withdrawal. At the same time, the Taliban began to resurge in a big way. Since then the Bush and then Obama administrations inched toward applying a similar strategy to Afghanistan, a strategy that focuses less on battlefield success and more on altering the parameters of the country itself.

As the Obama administration’s strategy has begun to take shape, it has started thinking about endgames. A decades-long occupation and pacification of Afghanistan is simply not in the cards. A withdrawal is, but only a withdrawal where the security free-for-all that allowed al Qaeda to thrive will not return. And this is where Marjah comes in.  Denying the Taliban control of poppy farming communities like Marjah and the key population centers along the Helmand River Valley — and areas like them around the country — is the first goal of the American strategy. The fewer key population centers the Taliban can count on, the more dispersed — and militarily inefficient — their forces will be. This will hardly destroy the Taliban, but destruction isn’t the goal. The Taliban are not simply a militant Islamist force. At times they are a flag of convenience for businessmen or thugs; they can even be, simply, the least-bad alternative for villagers desperate for basic security and civil services. In many parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban are not only pervasive but also the sole option for governance and civil authority.

So destruction of what is in essence part of the local cultural and political fabric is not an American goal. Instead, the goal is to prevent the Taliban from mounting large-scale operations that could overwhelm any particular location. Remember, the Americans do not wish to pacify Afghanistan; the Americans wish to leave Afghanistan in a form that will not cause the United States severe problems down the road. In effect, achieving the first goal simply aims to shape the ground for a shot at achieving the second.

That second goal is to establish a domestic authority that can stand up to the Taliban in the long run. Most of the surge of forces into Afghanistan is not designed to battle the Taliban now but to secure the population and train the Afghan security forces to battle the Taliban later. To do this, the Taliban must be weak enough in a formal military sense to be unable to launch massive or coordinated attacks. Capturing key population centers along the Helmand River Valley is the first step in a strategy designed to create the breathing room necessary to create a replacement force, preferably a replacement force that provides Afghans with a viable alternative to the Taliban.

That is no small task. In recent years, in places where the official government has been corrupt, inept or defunct, the Taliban have in many cases stepped in to provide basic governance and civil authority. And this is why even the Americans are publicly flirting with holding talks with certain factions of the Taliban in hopes that at least some of the fighters can be dissuaded from battling the Americans (assisting with the first goal) and perhaps even joining the nascent Afghan government (assisting with the second).

The bottom line is that this battle does not mark the turning of the tide of the war. Instead, it is part of the application of a new strategy that accurately takes into account Afghanistan’s geography and all the weaknesses and challenges that geography poses. Marjah marks the first time the United States has applied a plan not to hold the line, but actually to reshape the country. We are not saying that the strategy will bear fruit. Afghanistan is a corrupt mess populated by citizens who are far more comfortable thinking and acting locally and tribally than nationally. In such a place indigenous guerrillas will always hold the advantage. No one has ever attempted this sort of national restructuring in Afghanistan, and the Americans are attempting to do so in a short period on a shoestring budget.

At the time of this writing, this first step appears to be going well for American-NATO-Afghan forces. Casualties have been light and most of Marjah already has been secured. But do not read this as a massive battlefield success. The assault required weeks of obvious preparation, and very few Taliban fighters chose to remain and contest the territory against the more numerous and better armed attackers. The American challenge lies not so much in assaulting or capturing Marjah but in continuing to deny it to the Taliban. If the Americans cannot actually hold places like Marjah, then they are simply engaging in an exhausting and reactive strategy of chasing a dispersed and mobile target.

A “government-in-a-box” of civilian administrators is already poised to move into Marjah to step into the vacuum left by the Taliban. We obviously have major doubts about how effective this box government can be at building up civil authority in a town that has been governed by the Taliban for most of the last decade. Yet what happens in Marjah and places like it in the coming months will be the foundation upon which the success or failure of this effort will be built. But assessing that process is simply impossible, because the only measure that matters cannot be judged until the Afghans are left to themselves.

“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR


Russian President Dmitri Medvedev reportedly will travel to Turkey in the near future to follow up a recent four-day visit by his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, to Moscow. The Turks and the Russians certainly have much to discuss.

Russia is moving aggressively to extend its influence throughout the former Soviet empire, while Turkey is rousing itself from 90 years of post-Ottoman isolation. Both are clearly ascendant powers, and it would seem logical that the more the two bump up against one other, the more likely they will gird for yet another round in their centuries-old conflict. But while that may be true down the line, the two Eurasian powers have sufficient strategic incentives to work together for now.

Russia’s World

Russia is among the world’s most strategically vulnerable states. Its core, the Moscow region, boasts no geographic barriers to invasion. Russia must thus expand its borders to create the largest possible buffer for its core, which requires forcibly incorporating legions of minorities who do not see themselves as Russian. The Russian government estimates that about 80 percent of Russia’s approximately 140 million people are actually ethnically Russian, but this number is somewhat suspect, as many minorities define themselves based on their use of the Russian language, just as many Hispanics in the United States define themselves by their use of English as their primary language. Thus, ironically, attaining security by creating a strategic buffer creates a new chronic security problem in the form of new populations hostile t o Moscow’s rule. The need to deal with the latter problem explains the development of Russia’s elite intelligence services, which are primarily designed for and tasked with monitoring the country’s multiethnic population.

Russia’s primary challenge, however, is time. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, the bottom fell out of the Russian birthrate, with fewer than half the number of babies born in the 1990s than were born in the 1980s. These post-Cold War children are now coming of age; in a few years, their small numbers are going to have a catastrophic impact on the size of the Russian population. By contrast, most non-Russian minorities — in particular those such as Chechens and Dagestanis, who are of Muslim faith — did not suffer from the 1990s birthrate plunge, so their numbers are rapidly increasing even as the number of ethnic Russians is rapidly decreasing. Add in deep-rooted, demographic-impacting problems such as HIV, tuberculosis and heroin abuse — concentrated not just among ethnic Russians but a lso among those of childbearing age — and Russia faces a hard-wired demographic time bomb. Put simply, Russia is an ascending power in the short run, but it is a declining power in the long run.

The Russian leadership is well aware of this coming crisis, and knows it is going to need every scrap of strength it can muster just to continue the struggle to keep Russia in one piece. To this end, Moscow must do everything it can now to secure buffers against external intrusion in the not-so-distant future. For the most part, this means rolling back Western influence wherever and whenever possible, and impressing upon states that would prefer integration into the West that their fates lie with Russia instead. Moscow’s natural gas crisis with Ukraine, August 2008 war with Georgia, efforts to eject American forces from Central Asia and constant pressure on the Baltic states all represent efforts to buy Russia more space — and with that space, more time for survival.

Expanding its buffer against such a diverse and potentially hostile collection of states is no small order, but Russia does have one major advantage: The security guarantor for nearly all of these countries is the United States, and the United States is currently very busy elsewhere. So long as U.S. ground forces are occupied with the Iraqi and Afghan wars, the Americans will not be riding to the rescue of the states on Russia’s periphery. Given this window of opportunity, the Russians have a fair chance to regain the relative security they seek. In light of the impending demographic catastrophe and the present window of opportunity, the Russians are in quite a hurry to act.

Turkey’s World

Turkey is in many ways the polar opposite of Russia. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Turkey was pared down to its core, Asia Minor. Within this refuge, Turkey is nearly unassailable. It is surrounded by water on three sides, commands the only maritime connection between the Black and Mediterranean seas and sits astride a plateau surrounded by mountains. This is a very difficult chunk of territory to conquer. Indeed, beginning in the Seljuk Age in the 11th century, the ancestors of the modern Turks took the better part of three centuries to seize this territory from its previous occupant, the Byzantine Empire.

The Turks have used much of the time since then to consolidate their position such that, as an ethnicity, they reign supreme in their realm. The Persians and Arabs have long since lost their footholds in Anatolia, while the Armenians were finally expelled in the dying days of World War I. Only the Kurds remain, and they do not pose a demographic challenge to the Turks. While Turkey exhibits many of the same demographic tendencies as other advanced developing states — namely, slowing birthrates and a steadily aging population — there is no major discrepancy between Turk and Kurdish birthrates, so the Turks should continue to comprise more than 80 percent of the country’s population for some time to come. Thus, while the Kurds will continue to be a source of nationalistic friction, they do not constitute a fundamental challenge to the power or operations of the Turkish state, like minorities in Russia are destined to do in the years ahead.

Turkey’s security is not limited to its core lands. Once one moves beyond the borders of modern Turkey, the existential threats the state faced in years past have largely melted away. During the Cold War, Turkey was locked into the NATO structure to protect itself from Soviet power. But now the Soviet Union is gone, and the Balkans and Caucasus — both former Ottoman provinces — are again available for manipulation. The Arabs have not posed a threat to Anatolia in nearly a millennium, and any contest between Turkey and Iran is clearly a battle of unequals in which the Turks hold most of the cards. If anything, the Arabs — who view Iran as a hostile power with not only a heretical religion but also with a revolutionary foreign policy calling for the overthrow of most of the Arab regimes — are practically welcoming the Turks back. Despite both its imperial past and its close security association with the Americans, the Arabs see Turkey as a trusted mediator, and even an exemplar.

With the disappearance of the threats of yesteryear, many of the things that once held Turkey’s undivided attention have become less important to Ankara. With the Soviet threat gone, NATO is no longer critical. With new markets opening up in the former Soviet Union, Turkey’s obsession with seeking EU membership has faded to a mere passing interest. Turkey has become a free agent, bound by very few relationships or restrictions, but dabbling in events throughout its entire periphery. Unlike Russia, which feels it needs an empire to survive, Turkey is flirting with the idea of an empire simply because it can — and the costs of exploring the option are negl igible.

Whereas Russia is a state facing a clear series of threats in a very short time frame, Turkey is a state facing a veritable smorgasbord of strategic options under no time pressure whatsoever. Within that disconnect lies the road forward for the two states — and it is a road with surprisingly few clashes ahead in the near term.

The Field of Competition

There are four zones of overlapping interest for the Turks and Russians.

First, the end of the Soviet empire opened up a wealth of economic opportunities, but very few states have proven adept at penetrating the consumer markets of Ukraine and Russia. Somewhat surprisingly, Turkey is one of those few states. Thanks to the legacy of Soviet central planning, Russian and Ukrainian industry have found it difficult to retool away from heavy industry to produce the consumer goods much in demand in their markets. Because most Ukrainians and Russians cannot afford Western goods, Turkey has carved out a robust and lasting niche with its lower-cost exports; it is now the largest supplier of imports to the Russian market. While this is no exercise in hard power, this Turkish penetration nevertheless is cause for much concern among Russian authorities.

So far, Turkey has been scrupulous about not politicizing these useful trade links beyond some intelligence-gathering efforts (particularly in Ukraine). Considering Russia’s current financial problems, having a stable source of consumer goods — especially one that is not China — is actually seen as a positive. At least for now, the Russian government would rather see its trade relationship with Turkey stay strong. There will certainly be a clash later — either as Russia weakens or as Turkey becomes more ambitious — but for now, the Russians are content with the trade relationship.

Second, the Russian retreat in the post-Cold War era has opened up the Balkans to Turkish influence. Romania, Bulgaria and the lands of the former Yugoslavia are all former Ottoman possessions, and in their day they formed the most advanced portion of the Ottoman economy. During the Cold War, they were all part of the Communist world, with Romania and Bulgaria formally incorporated into the Soviet bloc. While most of these lands are now absorbed into the European Union, Russia’s ties to its fellow Slavs — most notably the Serbs and Bulgarians — have allowed it a degree of influence that most Europeans choose to ignore. Additionally, Russia has long held a friendly relationship with Greece and Cyprus, both to complicate American policy in Europe and to provide a flank against Turkey. Still, thanks to proximity and trading links, Turkey clearly holds the upper hand in this theater of competition.

But this particular region is unlikely to generate much Turkish-Russian animosity, simply because both countries are in the process of giving up.

Most of the Balkan states are already members of an organization that is unlikely to ever admit Russia or Turkey: the European Union. Russia simply cannot meet the membership criteria, and Cyprus’ membership in essence strikes the possibility of Turkish inclusion. (Any EU member can veto the admission of would-be members.) The EU-led splitting of Kosovo from Serbia over Russian objections was a body blow to Russian power in the region, and the subsequent EU running of Kosovo as a protectorate greatly limited Turkish influence as well. Continuing EU expansion means that Turkish influence in the Balkans will shrivel just as Russian influence already has. Trouble this way lies, but not between Turkey and Russia. If anything, their joint exclusion might provide some room for the two to agree on something.

The third area for Russian-Turkish competition is in energy, and this is where things get particularly sticky. Russia is Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, with energy accounting for the bulk of the trade volume between the two countries. Turkey depends on Russia for 65 percent of its natural gas and 40 percent of its oil imports. Though Turkey has steadily grown its trade relationship with Russia, it does not exactly approve of Moscow’s penchant for using its energy relations with Europe as a political weapon. Russia has never gone so far as to cut supplies to Turkey directly, but Turkey has been indirectly affected more than once when Russia decided to cut supplies to Ukraine because Moscow felt the need to reassert its writ in Kiev.

Sharing the Turks’ energy anxiety, the Europeans have been more than eager to use Turkey as an energy transit hub for routes that would bypass the Russians altogether in supplying the European market. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline is one such route, and others, like Nabucco, are still stuck in the planning stages. The Russians have every reason to pressure the Turks into staying far away from any more energy diversification schemes that could cost Russia one of its biggest energy clients — and deny Moscow much of the political leverage it currently holds over the Europeans who are dependent on the Russian energy network.

There are only two options for the Turks in diversifying away from the Russians. The first lies to Turkey’s south in Iraq and Iran. Turkey has big plans for Iraq’s oil industry, but it will still take considerable time to upgrade and restore the oil fields and pipelines that have been persistently sabotaged and ransacked by insurgents during the fighting that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Iranians offer another large source of energy for the Turks to tap into, but the political complications attached to dealing with Iran are still too prickly for the Turks to move ahead with concrete energy deals at this time. Complications remain for now, but Turkey wi ll be keeping an eye on its Middle Eastern neighbors for robust energy partnerships in the future.

The second potential source of energy for the Turks lies in Central Asia, a region that Russia must keep in its grip at all costs if it hopes to survive in the long run. In many ways this theater is the reverse of the Balkans, where the Russians hold the ethnic links and the Turks the economic advantage. Here, four of the five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan — are Turkic. But as a consequence of the Soviet years, the infrastructure and economies of all four are so hardwired into the Russian sphere of influence that it would take some major surgery to liberate them. But the prize is a rich one: Central Asia possesses the world& #8217;s largest concentration of untapped energy reserves. And as the term “central” implies, whoever controls the region can project power into the former Soviet Union, China and South Asia. If the Russians and Turks are going to fight over something, this is it.

Here Turkey faces a problem, however — it does not directly abut the region. If the Turks are even going to attempt to shift the Central Asian balance of power, they will need a lever. This brings us to the final — and most dynamic — realm of competition: the Caucasus.

Turkey here faces the best and worst in terms of influence projection. The Azerbaijanis do not consider themselves simply Turkic, like the Central Asians, but actually Turkish. If there is a country in the former Soviet Union that would consider not only allying with but actually joining with another state to escape Russia’s orbit, it would be Azerbaijan with Turkey. Azerbaijan has its own significant energy supplies, but its real value is in serving as a willing springboard for Turkish influence into Central Asia.

However, the core of Azerbaijan does not border Turkey. Instead, it is on the other side of Armenia, a country that thrashed Azerbaijan in a war over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and still has lingering animosities toward Ankara because of the 1915 Armenian “genocide.” Armenia has sold itself to the Russians to keep its Turkish foes at bay.

This means Turkish designs on Central Asia all boil down to the former Soviet state of Georgia. If Turkey can bring Georgia fully under its wing, Turkey can then set about to integrate with Azerbaijan and project influence into Central Asia. But without Georgia, Turkey is hamstrung before it can even begin to reach for the real prize in Central Asia.

In this, the Turks do not see the Georgians as much help. The Georgians do not have much in the way of a functional economy or military, and they have consistently overplayed their hand with the Russians in the hopes that the West would come to their aid. Such miscalculations contributed to the August 2008 Georgian-Russian war, in which Russia smashed what military capacity the Georgians did possess. So while Ankara sees the Georgians as reliably anti-Russian, it does not see them as reliably competent or capable.

This means that Turkish-Russian competition may have been short-circuited before it even began. Meanwhile, the Americans and Russians are beginning to outline the rudiments of a deal. Various items on the table include Russia allowing the Americans to ship military supplies to Afghanistan via Russia’s sphere of influence, changes to the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) program, and a halt to NATO expansion. The last prong is a critical piece of Russian-Turkish competition. Should the Americans and Europeans put their weight behind NATO expansion, Georgia would be a logical candidate — meaning most of the heavy lifting in terms of Turkey projecting power eastward would already be done. But if the Americans and Europeans do not put their weight behind NATO expansion, Georgia would fall by the wayside and Turkey would have to do all the work of projecting power eastward — and facing the Russians — alone.

A Temporary Meeting of Minds?

There is clearly no shortage of friction points between the Turks and the Russians. With the two powers on a resurgent path, it was only a matter of time before they started bumping into one another. The most notable clash occurred when the Russians decided to invade Georgia last August, knowing full well that neither the Americans nor the Europeans would have the will or capability to intervene on behalf of the small Caucasian state. NATO’s strongest response was a symbolic show of force that relied on Turkey, as the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, to allow a buildup of NATO vessels near the Georgian coast and threaten the underbelly of Russia’s former Soviet peri phery.

Turkey disapproved of the idea of Russian troops bearing down in the Caucasus near the Turkish border, and Ankara was also angered by having its energy revenues cut off during the war when the BTC pipeline was taken offline.

The Russians promptly responded to Turkey’s NATO maneuvers in the Black Sea by holding up a large amount of Turkish goods at various Russian border checkpoints to put the squeeze on Turkish exports. But the standoff was short-lived; soon enough, the Turks and Russians came to the negotiating table to end the trade spat and sort out their respective spheres of influence. The Russian-Turkish negotiations have progressed over the past several months, with Russian and Turkish leaders now meeting fairly regularly to sort out the issues where both can find some mutual benefit.

The first area of cooperation is Europe, where both Russia and Turkey have an interest in applying political pressure. Despite Europe’s objections and rejections, the Turks are persistent in their ambitions to become a member of the European Union. At the same time, the Russians need to keep Europe linked into the Russian energy network and divided over any plans for BMD, NATO expansion or any other Western plan that threatens Russian national security. As long as Turkey stalls on any European energy diversification projects, the more it can demand Europe’s attention on the issue of EU membership. In fact, the Turks already threatened as much at the start of the year, when they said outright that if Europe doesn’t need Turkey as an EU member, then Turkey doesn’t need to sign off on any more energy diversification projects that transit Turkish territory. Ankara’s threats against Europe dovetailed nicely with Russia’s natural gas cutoff to Ukraine in January, when the Europeans once again were reminded of Moscow’s energy wrath.

The Turks and the Russians also can find common ground in the Middle East. Turkey is again expanding its influence deep into its Middle Eastern backyard, and Ankara expects to take the lead in handling the thorny issues of Iran, Iraq and Syria as the United States draws down its presence in the region and shifts its focus to Afghanistan. What the Turks want right now is stability on their southern flank. That means keeping Russia out of mischief in places like Iran, where Moscow has threatened to sell strategic S-300 air defense systems and to boost the Iranian nuclear program in order to grab Washington’s attention on other issues deemed vital to Moscow’s national security interests. The United States is already leaning on Russia to pressure Iran in return for other strategic concessions, and the Turks are just as interested as the Americans in taming Russia’s actions in the Middle East.

Armenia is another issue where Russia and Turkey may be having a temporary meeting of minds. Russia unofficially occupies Armenia and has been building up a substantial military presence in the small Caucasian state. Turkey can either sit back, continue to isolate Armenia and leave it for the Russians to dominate through and through, or it can move toward normalizing relations with Yerevan and dealing with Russia on more equal footing in the Caucasus. With rumors flying of a deal on the horizon between Yerevan and Ankara (likely with Russia’s blessing), it appears more and more that the Turks and the Russians are making progress in sorting out their respective spheres of influence.

Ultimately, both Russia and Turkey know that this relationship is likely temporary at best. The two Eurasian powers still distrust each other and have divergent long-term goals, even if in the short term there is a small window of opportunity for Turkish and Russian interests to overlap. The law of geopolitics dictates that the two ascendant powers are doomed to clash — just not today.

By George Friedman ~ Honorary Political Season Contributor

While the Munich Security Conference brought together senior leaders from most major countries and many minor ones last weekend, none was more significant than U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. This is because Biden provided the first glimpse of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama. Most conference attendees were looking forward to a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration. What was interesting about Biden’s speech was how little change there has been in the U.S. position and how much the attendees and the media were cheered by it.

After Biden’s speech, there was much talk about a change in the tone of U.S. policy. But it is not clear to us whether this was because the tone has changed, or because the attendees’ hearing has. They seemed delighted to be addressed by Biden rather than by former Vice President Dick Cheney — delighted to the extent that this itself represented a change in policy. Thus, in everything Biden said, the conference attendees saw rays of a new policy.

Policy Continuity: Iran and Russia

Consider Iran. The Obama administration’s position, as staked out by Biden, is that the United States is prepared to speak directly to Iran provided that the Iranians do two things. First, Tehran must end its nuclear weapons program. Second, Tehran must stop supporting terrorists, by which Biden meant Hamas and Hezbollah. Once the Iranians do that, the Americans will talk to them. The Bush administration was equally prepared to talk to Iran given those preconditions. The Iranians make the point that such concessions come after talks, not before, and that the United States must change its attitude toward Iran before there can be talks, something Iranian Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani emphasized after the meeting. Apart from the emphasis on a willingness to talk, the terms Biden laid out for such talks are identical to the terms under the Bush administration.

Now consider Russia. Officially, the Russians were delighted to hear that the United States was prepared to hit the “reset button” on U.S.-Russian relations. But Moscow cannot have been pleased when it turned out that hitting the reset button did not involve ruling out NATO expansion, ending American missile defense system efforts in Central Europe or publicly acknowledging the existence of a Russian sphere of influence. Biden said, “It will remain our view that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances.” In translation, this means the United States has the right to enter any relationship it wants with independent states, and that independent states have the right to enter any relationship they want. In other words, the Bush administratio n’s commitment to the principle of NATO expansion has not changed.

Nor could the Russians have been pleased with the announcement just prior to the conference that the United States would continue developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The BMD program has been an issue of tremendous importance for Russians, and it is something Obama indicated he would end, or change in some way that might please the Russians. But not only was there no commitment to end the program, there also was no backing away from long-standing U.S. interest in it, or even any indication of the terms under which it might end.

Given that the United States has asked Russia for a supply route through the former Soviet Union to Afghanistan, and that the Russians have agreed to this in principle, it would seem that that there might be an opening for a deal with the Russians. But just before the Munich conference opened, Kyrgyzstan announced that Manas Air Base, the last air base open to the United States in Central Asia, would no longer be available to American aircraft. This was a tidy little victory for the Russians, who had used political and financial levers to pressure Kyrgyzstan to eject the Americans. The Russians, of course, deny that any such pressure was ever brought to be ar, and that the closure of the base one day before Munich could have been anything more than coincidence.

But the message to the United States was clear: While Russia agrees in principle to the U.S. supply line, the Americans will have to pay a price for it. In case Washington was under the impression it could get other countries in the former Soviet Union to provide passage, the Russians let the Americans know how much leverage Moscow has in these situations. The U.S. assertion of a right to bilateral relations won’t happen in Russia’s near abroad without Russian help, and that help won’t come without strategic concessions from the United States. In short, the American position on Russia hasn’t changed, and neither has the Russian position.

The Europeans

The most interesting — and for us, the most anticipated — part of Biden’s speech had to do with the Europeans, of whom the French and Germans were the most enthusiastic about Bush’s departure and Obama’s arrival. Biden’s speech addressed the core question of the U.S.-European relationship.

If the Europeans were not prepared to increase their participation in American foreign policy initiatives during the Bush administration, it was assumed that they would be during the Obama administration. The first issue on the table under the new U.S. administration is the plan to increase forces in Afghanistan. Biden called for more NATO involvement in that conflict, which would mean an increase in European forces deployed to Afghanistan. Some countries, along with the head of NATO, support this. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that Germany is not prepared to send more troops.

Over the past year or so, Germany has become somewhat estranged from the United States. Dependent on Russian energy, Germany has been unwilling to confront Russia on issues of concern to Washington. Merkel has made it particularly clear that while she does not oppose NATO expansion in principle, she certainly opposes expansion to states that Russian considers deeply within its sphere of influence (primarily Georgia and Ukraine). The Germans have made it abundantly clear that they do not want to see European-Russian relations deteriorate under U.S. prodding. Moreover, Germany has no appetite for continuing its presence in Afghanistan, let alone increasing it.

NATO faces a substantial split, conditioned partly by Germany’s dependence on Russian energy, but also by deep German unease about any possible resumption of a Cold War with Russia, however mild. The foundation of NATO during the Cold War was the U.S.-German-British relationship. With the Germans unwilling to align with the United States and other NATO members over Russia or Afghanistan, it is unclear whether NATO can continue to function. (Certainly, Merkel cannot be pleased that the United States has not laid the BMD issue in Poland and the Czech Republic to rest.)

The More Things Change …

Most interesting here is the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations in regard to foreign policy. It is certainly reasonable to argue that after only three weeks in office, no major initiatives should be expected of the new president. But major initiatives were implied — such as ending the BMD deployment to Poland and the Czech Republic — and declaring the intention to withdraw BMD would not have required much preparation. But Biden offered no new initiatives beyond expressing a willingness to talk, without indicating any policy shifts regarding the things that have blocked talks. Willingness to talk with the Iranians, the Russians, the Europeans and others shifts the atmospherics — allowing the listener to think things have changed — but does not address the question of what is to be discussed and what is to be offered and accepted.

Ultimately, the issues dividing the world are not, in our view, subject to personalities, nor does goodwill (or bad will, for that matter) address the fundamental questions. Iran has strategic and ideological reasons for behaving the way it does. So does Russia. So does Germany, and so on. The tensions that exist between those countries and the United States might be mildly exacerbated by personalities, but nations are driven by interest, not personality.

Biden’s position did not materially shift the Obama administration away from Bush’s foreign policy, because Bush was the prisoner of that policy, not its creator. The Iranians will not make concessions on nuclear weapons prior to holding talks, and they do not regard their support for Hamas or Hezbollah as aiding terrorism. Being willing to talk to the Iranians provided they abandon these things is the same as being unwilling to talk to them.

There has been no misunderstanding between the United States and Russia that more open dialogue will cure. The Russians see no reason for NATO expansion unless NATO is planning to encircle Russia. It is possible for the West to have relations with Ukraine and Georgia without expanding NATO; Moscow sees the insistence on expansion as implying sinister motives. For its part, the United States refuses to concede that Russia has any interest in the decisions of the former Soviet Union states, something Biden reiterated. Therefore, either the Russians must accept NATO expansion, or the Americans must accept that Russia has an overriding interest in limiting American relations in the former Soviet Union. This is a fundamental issue that any U.S. administration would have to deal with — particularly an administr ation seeking Russian cooperation in Afghanistan.

As for Germany, NATO was an instrument of rehabilitation and stability after World War II. But Germany now has a complex relationship with Russia, as well as internal issues. It does not want NATO drawing it into adventures that are not in Germany’s primary interest, much less into a confrontation with Russia. No amount of charm, openness or dialogue is going to change this fundamental reality.

Dialogue does offer certain possibilities. The United States could choose to talk to Iran without preconditions. It could abandon NATO expansion and quietly reduce its influence in the former Soviet Union, or perhaps convince the Russians that they could benefit from this influence. The United States could abandon the BMD system (though this has been complicated by Iran’s recent successful satellite launch), or perhaps get the Russians to participate in the program. The United States could certainly get the Germans to send a small force to Afghanistan above and beyond the present German contingent. All of this is possible.

What can’t be achieved is a fundamental transformation of the geopolitical realities of the world. No matter how Obama campaigned, it is clear he knows that. Apart from his preoccupation with economic matters, Obama understands that foreign policy is governed by impersonal forces and is not amenable to rhetoric, although rhetoric might make things somewhat easier. No nation gives up its fundamental interests because someone is willing to talk.

Willingness to talk is important, but what is said is much more important. Obama’s first foray into foreign policy via Biden indicates that, generally speaking, he understands the constraints and pressures that drive American foreign policy, and he understands the limits of presidential power. Atmospherics aside, Biden’s positions — as opposed to his rhetoric — were strikingly similar to Cheney’s foreign policy positions.

We argued long ago that presidents don’t make history, but that history makes presidents. We see Biden’s speech as a classic example of this principle.

by George Friedman – Honorary Political Season Contributor

The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of power in Eurasia. It simply announced that the balance of power had already shifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and a destabilizing situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forces in reserve and is in no position to intervene on the Russian periphery. This, as we have argued, has opened a window of opportunity for the Russians to reassert their influence in the former Soviet sphere. Moscow did not have to concern itself with the potential response of the United States or Europe; hence, the invasion did not shift the balance of power. The balance of power had already shifted, and it was up to the Russians when to make this public. They did that Aug. 8.

Let’s begin simply by reviewing the last few days.

On the night of Thursday, Aug. 7, forces of the Republic of Georgia drove across the border of South Ossetia, a secessionist region of Georgia that has functioned as an independent entity since the fall of the Soviet Union. The forces drove on to the capital, Tskhinvali, which is close to the border. Georgian forces got bogged down while trying to take the city. In spite of heavy fighting, they never fully secured the city, nor the rest of South Ossetia.

On the morning of Aug. 8, Russian forces entered South Ossetia, using armored and motorized infantry forces along with air power. South Ossetia was informally aligned with Russia, and Russia acted to prevent the region’s absorption by Georgia. Given the speed with which the Russians responded — within hours of the Georgian attack — the Russians were expecting the Georgian attack and were themselves at their jumping-off points. The counterattack was carefully planned and competently executed, and over the next 48 hours, the Russians succeeded in defeating the main Georgian force and forcing a retreat. By Sunday, Aug. 10, the Russians had consolidated their position in South Ossetia.

The Conflict in Georgia
(click image to enlarge)

On Monday, the Russians extended their offensive into Georgia proper, attacking on two axes. One was south from South Ossetia to the Georgian city of Gori. The other drive was from Abkhazia, another secessionist region of Georgia aligned with the Russians. This drive was designed to cut the road between the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and its ports. By this point, the Russians had bombed the military airfields at Marneuli and Vaziani and appeared to have disabled radars at the international airport in Tbilisi. These moves brought Russian forces to within 40 miles of the Georgian capital, while making outside reinforcement and resupply of Georgian forces extremely difficult should anyone wish to undertake it.

The Mystery Behind the Georgian Invasion

In this simple chronicle, there is something quite mysterious: Why did the Georgians choose to invade South Ossetia on Thursday night? There had been a great deal of shelling by the South Ossetians of Georgian villages for the previous three nights, but while possibly more intense than usual, artillery exchanges were routine. The Georgians might not have fought well, but they committed fairly substantial forces that must have taken at the very least several days to deploy and supply. Georgia’s move was deliberate.

The United States is Georgia’s closest ally. It maintained about 130 military advisers in Georgia, along with civilian advisers, contractors involved in all aspects of the Georgian government and people doing business in Georgia. It is inconceivable that the Americans were unaware of Georgia’s mobilization and intentions. It is also inconceivable that the Americans were unaware that the Russians had deployed substantial forces on the South Ossetian frontier. U.S. technical intelligence, from satellite imagery and signals intelligence to unmanned aerial vehicles, could not miss the fact that thousands of Russian troops were moving to forward positions. The Russians clearly knew the Georgians were ready to move. How could the United States not be aware of the Russians? Indeed, given the posture of Russian troops, how could intelligence analysts have missed the possibility that t he Russians had laid a trap, hoping for a Georgian invasion to justify its own counterattack?

It is very difficult to imagine that the Georgians launched their attack against U.S. wishes. The Georgians rely on the United States, and they were in no position to defy it. This leaves two possibilities. The first is a massive breakdown in intelligence, in which the United States either was unaware of the existence of Russian forces, or knew of the Russian forces but — along with the Georgians — miscalculated Russia’s intentions. The United States, along with other countries, has viewed Russia through the prism of the 1990s, when the Russian military was in shambles and the Russian government was paralyzed. The United States has not seen Russia make a decisive military move beyond its borders since the Afghan war of the 1970s-1980s. The Russians had systematically avoided such moves for years. The United States had assumed that the Russians would not risk the consequences of an invasion.

If this was the case, then it points to the central reality of this situation: The Russians had changed dramatically, along with the balance of power in the region. They welcomed the opportunity to drive home the new reality, which was that they could invade Georgia and the United States and Europe could not respond. As for risk, they did not view the invasion as risky. Militarily, there was no counter. Economically, Russia is an energy exporter doing quite well — indeed, the Europeans need Russian energy even more than the Russians need to sell it to them. Politically, as we shall see, the Americans needed the Russians more than the Russians needed the Americans. Moscow’s calculus was that this was the moment to strike. The Russians had been building up to it for months, as we have discussed, and they struck.

The Western Encirclement of Russia

To understand Russian thinking, we need to look at two events. The first is the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. From the U.S. and European point of view, the Orange Revolution represented a triumph of democracy and Western influence. From the Russian point of view, as Moscow made clear, the Orange Revolution was a CIA-funded intrusion into the internal affairs of Ukraine, designed to draw Ukraine into NATO and add to the encirclement of Russia. U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had promised the Russians that NATO would not expand into the former Soviet Union empire.

That promise had already been broken in 1998 by NATO’s expansion to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic — and again in the 2004 expansion, which absorbed not only the rest of the former Soviet satellites in what is now Central Europe, but also the three Baltic states, which had been components of the Soviet Union.

The Russian Periphery

The Russians had tolerated all that, but the discussion of including Ukraine in NATO represented a fundamental threat to Russia’s national security. It would have rendered Russia indefensible and threatened to destabilize the Russian Federation itself. When the United States went so far as to suggest that Georgia be included as well, bringing NATO deeper into the Caucasus, the Russian conclusion — publicly stated — was that the United States in particular intended to encircle and break Russia.

The second and lesser event was the decision by Europe and the United States to back Kosovo’s separation from Serbia. The Russians were friendly with Serbia, but the deeper issue for Russia was this: The principle of Europe since World War II was that, to prevent conflict, national borders would not be changed. If that principle were violated in Kosovo, other border shifts — including demands by various regions for independence from Russia — might follow. The Russians publicly and privately asked that Kosovo not be given formal independence, but instead continue its informal autonomy, which was the same thing in practical terms. Russia’s requests were ignored.

From the Ukrainian experience, the Russians became convinced that the United States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement and strangulation of Russia. From the Kosovo experience, they concluded that the United States and Europe were not prepared to consider Russian wishes even in fairly minor affairs. That was the breaking point. If Russian desires could not be accommodated even in a minor matter like this, then clearly Russia and the West were in conflict. For the Russians, as we said, the question was how to respond. Having declined to respond in Kosovo, the Russians decided to respond where they had all the cards: in South Ossetia.

Moscow had two motives, the lesser of which was as a tit-for-tat over Kosovo. If Kosovo could be declared independent under Western sponsorship, then South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway regions of Georgia, could be declared independent under Russian sponsorship. Any objections from the United States and Europe would simply confirm their hypocrisy. This was important for internal Russian political reasons, but the second motive was far more important.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin once said that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster. This didn’t mean that he wanted to retain the Soviet state; rather, it meant that the disintegration of the Soviet Union had created a situation in which Russian national security was threatened by Western interests. As an example, consider that during the Cold War, St. Petersburg was about 1,200 miles away from a NATO country. Today it is about 60 miles away from Estonia, a NATO member. The disintegration of the Soviet Union had left Russia surrounded by a group of countries hostile to Russian interests in various degrees and heavily influenced by the United States, Europe and, in some cases, China.

Resurrecting the Russian Sphere

Putin did not want to re-establish the Soviet Union, but he did want to re-establish the Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union region. To accomplish that, he had to do two things. First, he had to re-establish the credibility of the Russian army as a fighting force, at least in the context of its region. Second, he had to establish that Western guarantees, including NATO membership, meant nothing in the face of Russian power. He did not want to confront NATO directly, but he did want to confront and defeat a power that was closely aligned with the United States, had U.S. support, aid and advisers and was widely seen as being under American protection. Georgia was the perfect choice.

By invading Georgia as Russia did (competently if not brilliantly), Putin re-established the credibility of the Russian army. But far more importantly, by doing this Putin revealed an open secret: While the United States is tied down in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value. This lesson is not for American consumption. It is something that, from the Russian point of view, the Ukrainians, the Balts and the Central Asians need to digest. Indeed, it is a lesson Putin wants to transmit to Poland and the Czech Republic as well. The United States wants to place ballistic missile defense installations in those countries, and the Russians want them to understand that allowing this to happen increases their risk, not their security.

The Russians knew the United States would denounce their attack. This actually plays into Russian hands. The more vocal senior leaders are, the greater the contrast with their inaction, and the Russians wanted to drive home the idea that American guarantees are empty talk.

The Russians also know something else that is of vital importance: For the United States, the Middle East is far more important than the Caucasus, and Iran is particularly important. The United States wants the Russians to participate in sanctions against Iran. Even more importantly, they do not want the Russians to sell weapons to Iran, particularly the highly effective S-300 air defense system. Georgia is a marginal issue to the United States; Iran is a central issue. The Russians are in a position to pose serious problems for the United States not only in Iran, but also with weapons sales to other countries, like Syria.

Therefore, the United States has a problem — it either must reorient its strategy away from the Middle East and toward the Caucasus, or it has to seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran. Even if the United States had an appetite for another war in Georgia at this time, it would have to calculate the Russian response in Iran — and possibly in Afghanistan (even though Moscow’s interests there are currently aligned with those of Washington).

In other words, the Russians have backed the Americans into a corner. The Europeans, who for the most part lack expeditionary militaries and are dependent upon Russian energy exports, have even fewer options. If nothing else happens, the Russians will have demonstrated that they have resumed their role as a regional power. Russia is not a global power by any means, but a significant regional power with lots of nuclear weapons and an economy that isn’t all too shabby at the moment. It has also compelled every state on the Russian periphery to re-evaluate its position relative to Moscow. As for Georgia, the Russians appear ready to demand the resignation of President Mikhail Saakashvili. Militarily, that is their option. That is all they wanted to demonstrate, and they have demonstrated it.

The war in Georgia, therefore, is Russia’s public return to great power status. This is not something that just happened — it has been unfolding ever since Putin took power, and with growing intensity in the past five years. Part of it has to do with the increase of Russian power, but a great deal of it has to do with the fact that the Middle Eastern wars have left the United States off-balance and short on resources. As we have written, this conflict created a window of opportunity. The Russian goal is to use that window to assert a new reality throughout the region while the Americans are tied down elsewhere and dependent on the Russians. The war was far from a surprise; it has been building for months. But the geopolitical foundations of the war have been building since 1992. Russia has been an empire for centuries. The last 15 years or so were not the new reality, but simply an aberration that would be rectified. And now it is being rectified.