Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama enters the great game

Sorry for the long post, but it is worth reading, courtesy of Stratfor.
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 a gainst
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

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 short.

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 is.

And we will find out very soon.

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