Sunday, 30 October 2011

Nuclear powers plan weapons spending spree, report finds

The Guardian has the story:
The world's nuclear powers are planning to spend hundreds of billions of pounds modernising and upgrading weapons warheads and delivery systems over the next decade, according to an authoritative report published on Monday.

Despite government budget pressures and international rhetoric about disarmament, evidence points to a new and dangerous "era of nuclear weapons", the report for the British American Security Information Council (Basic) warns. It says the US will spend $700bn (£434bn) on the nuclear weapons industry over the next decade, while Russia will spend at least $70bn on delivery systems alone. Other countries including China, India, Israel, France and Pakistan are expected to devote formidable sums on tactical and strategic missile systems.

For several countries, including Russia, Pakistan, Israel and France, nuclear weapons are being assigned roles that go well beyond deterrence, says the report. In Russia and Pakistan, it warns, nuclear weapons are assigned "war-fighting roles in military planning".

The report is the first in a series of papers for the Trident Commission, an independent cross-party initiative set up by Basic. Its leading members include former Conservative defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Liberal Democrat leader and defence spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell and former Labour defence secretary Lord Browne.

There is a strong case, they say, for a fundamental review of UK nuclear weapons policy. The Conservatives in Britain's coalition government say they want to maintain a Trident-based nuclear weapons system. However, they have agreed to a "value for money" audit into a Trident replacement as four new nuclear missiles submarines are alone estimated to cost £25bn at the latest official estimate. The Lib Dems want to look at other options. The paper, by security analyst Ian Kearns, is entitled Beyond the United Kingdom: Trends in the Other Nuclear Armed States.

Pakistan and India, it warns, appear to be seeking smaller, lighter nuclear warheads so they have a greater range or can be deployed over shorter distances for tactical or "non-strategic" roles. "In the case of Israel, the size of its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet is being increased and the country seems to be on course, on the back of its satellite launch rocket programme, for future development of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM)," the report notes.

A common justification for the new nuclear weapons programmes is perceived vulnerability in the face of nuclear and conventional force development elsewhere. For example, Russia has expressed concern over the US missile defence and Conventional Prompt Global Strike programmes. China has expressed similar concerns about the US as well as India, while India's programmes are driven by fear of China and Pakistan.

Pakistan justifies its nuclear weapons programme by referring to India's conventional force superiority, the report observes.

In a country-by-country analysis, the report says:
  • The US is planning to spend $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. A further $92bn will be spent on new nuclear warheads and the US also plans to build 12 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, air-launched nuclear cruise missiles and bombs.
  • Russia plans to spend $70bn on improving its strategic nuclear triad (land, sea and air delivery systems) by 2020. It is introducing mobile ICBMs with multiple warheads, and a new generation of nuclear weapons submarines to carry cruise as well as ballistic missiles. There are reports that Russia is also planning a nuclear-capable short-range missile for 10 army brigades over the next decade.
  • China is rapidly building up its medium and long-range "road mobile" missile arsenal equipped with multiple warheads. Up to five submarines are under construction capable of launching 36-60 sea-launched ballistic missiles, which could provide a continuous at-sea capability.
  • France has just completed deployment of four new submarines equipped with longer-range missiles with a "more robust warhead". It is also modernising its nuclear bomber fleet.
  • Pakistan is extending the range of its Shaheen II missiles, developing nuclear cruise missiles, improving its nuclear weapons design as well as smaller, lighter, warheads. It is also building new plutonium production reactors.
  • India is developing new versions of its Agni land-based missiles sufficient to target the whole of Pakistan and large parts of China, including Beijing. It has developed a nuclear ship-launched cruise missile and plans to build five submarines carrying ballistic nuclear missiles.
  • Israel is extending its Jericho III missile's range, and is developing an ICBM capability, expanding its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet.
  • North Korea unveiled a new Musudan missile in 2010 with a range of up to 2,500 miles and capable of reaching targets in Japan. It successfully tested the Taepodong-2 with a possible range of more than 6,000 miles sufficient to hit half the US mainland. However, the report, says, "it is unclear whether North Korea has yet developed the capability to manufacture nuclear warheads small enough to sit on top of these missiles".
Iran's nuclear aspirations are not covered by the report.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Michael Totten: Did We Lose in Iraq? No, and Here’s Why

Michael J. Totten, writing today in The New Republic, discusses the veracity of American victory in Mesopotamia in the light of President Obama's announcement of US withdrawal by the year's end. The article also makes interesting reading with regard to regional power plays, past, present—and future:
President Barack Obama has announced that nearly all American soldiers will be home from Iraq by the end of the year. Despite the fact that Iran, as the Middle East’s most serious would-be hegemon, will benefit more than any other country from our regional drawdown, the American and Iraqi governments wish to go their own separate ways.

The president has a campaign promise to keep. Most Americans are tired of sending their money, their sons, and even their daughters to Iraq, and most who haven’t spend money or blood are tired of hearing about it. The Iraqis have been trying to elbow us out for years and hope to regain a measure of sovereignty and respect when we’re finally gone.

It’s risky. In a worst-case scenario, Washington could end up evacuating its embassy a few years from now as we did in Saigon nearly four decades ago. But there’s a big difference between withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1973: The war in Iraq is over.

That's not to say that Iraq is a model of stability. “Iran is laying low right now and is riding us out,” U.S. Army sergeant Nick Franklin told me in Baghdad two years ago. “When we pull out, though, and they know we're almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq.” By aiding and abetting violent Shia militias and terrorist organizations, Iran has indeed been doing its worst to export its sectarian grievances and repressive political system to Iraq ever since coalition forces chased Saddam Hussein out of his palaces. Tehran is still striving for dominance—not only in Iraq, but everywhere else in the region, as well—and that job will surely be easier without the United States in the way.

The Obama administration knows this perfectly well. “To countries in the region,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week in Tajikistan, “especially Iraq’s neighbors, we want to emphasize that America will stand with our allies and friends, including Iraq, in defense of our common security and interests.” Obviously she was referring to Iraq’s Iranian neighbor. No one worries that Jordan will nefariously interfere in Iraq any time soon. But Clinton’s assurances are less credible given the imminence of America’s withdrawal. Promoting our interests in Iraq will be a lot harder when our closest military forces are in Kuwait rather than Baghdad.

Even so, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime won’t benefit nearly as much from our withdrawal today as it would have five years ago. Iraq was an absolute disaster in 2006. Before General David Petraeus “surged” thousands of additional counterinsurgency troops to the country, a hurricane of car- and suicide-bombers turned Iraq into the most terrorized place on the face of the earth. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq lorded over Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and points beyond. Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia had its own Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state with its capital in Sadr City, a vast slum in Baghdad that’s home to millions of people.

If the United States had withdrawn its forces then, as many commentators and policymakers demanded, the Iraqi government almost certainly would have disintegrated. Iraq might not even exist as a state anymore. Al Qaeda could have claimed it beat the United States Marine Corps in a shooting war—a feat far more impressive for the purposes of propaganda than even the killing of thousands of civilians in New York and Washington. Iran, meanwhile, could have successfully replicated the quasi-imperial foreign policy it all but perfected in Lebanon where it acquired its own private army—Hezbollah—during a chaotic time of sectarian civil war and foreign occupation.

Iraq is a completely different country today. Al Qaeda in Iraq scarcely even exists anymore. No militia, either Sunni or Shia, controls territory or has its own “capital” anywhere. Baghdad’s government is not going to fall, no matter how much Tehran tries to undermine it. No one will be able to claim even implausibly that Americans were driven out of Iraq under fire. Nor can anyone plausibly say the United States lost. The enemies of the United States and Iraq’s elected government have either been vanquished, forced to give up the gun, or driven into the shadows.

“In all societies there is an acceptable level of violence,” U.S. Army captain A.J. Boyes said to me in Sadr City in 2009, suggesting that Iraq was reaching that point. Baghdad was no longer the war zone it used to be, and it’s even less violent now that it was then. No society in the world can be completely free of violence, but the “acceptable” level, given factors like history and political grievance, is higher in some countries than in others. It’s higher in the United States than it is in Japan. It’s higher in Mexico than it is in the United States. And it’s higher in Iraq than it is in Mexico. But Iraq today is less violent than Mexico, one of the most heavily touristed countries in the world.

That’s not to say there are no reasons to stay. “If there is one constant of American military history,” Max Boot wrote in Commentary, “it is that the longer our troops stay in a country the better the prospects of a successful outcome. Think of Germany, Italy, Japan or South Korea. Conversely when U.S. troops rush for the exits hard-won wartime gains can quickly evaporate. Think of the post-Civil War South, post-World War I Germany, post-1933 (and post-1995) Haiti, post-1972 Vietnam, or, more recently, post-1983 Lebanon and post-1993 Somalia.”

Boot is right about that. President Obama’s decision to withdraw may well end badly. But if it does turn out to be a mistake, it will be a much smaller mistake than a pre-surge withdrawal would have been. We are no longer staring down the possibility of a military or grand strategic defeat on the battlefield.

Iraq just isn’t as dangerous anymore, not to itself and not to others. If Iran tries to destabilize it with terror militias again, Iraq will fight back. And the Iraqis know how to fight back effectively now after so many years of American training. If Iran actually tries to invade with conventional forces—a spectacularly unlikely event, but one never knows in that part of the world—odds are excellent that the American military would respond to the breach of international law and sovereignty by again joining the fight alongside the Iraqi military.

Iraq has been gearing up to stand on its own for years. President Obama merely decided the time would come sooner rather than later. A Republican president would have eventually made the same decision even if it might have taken a little bit longer. Few Americans are in the mood for any more nation-building or babysitting. Iraqis, for their part, are tired of being built-up and babysat by Americans. Some kind of withdrawal and disengagement has been a long time coming for those reasons alone. A substantial number of American officials were persuaded that sticking around in Iraq to prevent a catastrophe was probably wise as long as we’d leave when a howling abyss no longer yawned at everyone’s feet. For better or for worse, that time has arrived.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Map reveals stark divide in who caused climate change and who's being hit

The Guardian's environment blog, edited by Damian Carrington, features an article today highlighting a new map drawn to reveal the differential effects of projected climate change around the globe. The nutshell version?: The global north is at lower risk of global warming impacts and is better placed to cope than the global south, but globalisation means we are all affected...
When the world's nations convene in Durban in November in the latest attempt to inch towards a global deal to tackle climate change, one fundamental principle will, as ever, underlie the negotiations.

Is is the contention that while rich, industrialised nations caused climate change through past carbon emissions, it is the developing world that is bearing the brunt. It follows from that, developing nations say, that the rich nations must therefore pay to enable the developing nations to both develop cleanly and adapt to the impacts of global warming.
The point is starkly illustrated in a new map of climate vulnerability (above): the rich global north has low vulnerability, the poor global south has high vulnerability. The map is produced by risk analysts Maplecroft by combining measures of the risk of climate change impacts, such as storms, floods, and droughts, with the social and financial ability of both communities and governments to cope. The top three most vulnerable nations reflect all these factors: Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe.

But it is not until you go all the way down 103 on the list, out of 193 nations, that you encounter the first major developed nation: Greece. The first 102 nations are all developing ones. Italy is next, at 124, and like Greece ranks relatively highly due to the risk of drought. The UK is at 178 and the country on Earth least vulnerable to climate change, according to Maplecroft, is Iceland.

"Large areas of north America and northern Europe are not so exposed to actual climate risk, and are very well placed to deal with it," explains Charlie Beldon, principal analyst at Maplecroft.

The vulnerability index has been calculated down to a resolution of 25km2 and Beldon says at this scale the vulnerability of the developing world's fast growing cities becomes clear. "A lot of big cities have developed in exposed areas such as flood plains, such as in south east Asia, and in developing economies they so don't have the capacity to adapt."

Of the world's 20 fastest growing cities, six are classified as 'extreme risk' by Maplecroft, including Calcutta in India, Manila in the Philippines, Jakarta in Indonesia and Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Addis Ababa in Ethiopia also features. A further 10 are rated as 'high risk' including Guangdong, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Karachi and Lagos.

"Cities such as Manila, Jakarta and Calcutta are vital centres of economic growth in key emerging markets, but heat waves, flooding, water shortages and increasingly severe and frequent storm events may well increase as climate changes takes hold," says Beldon.

With the world on the verge of a population of seven billion people, the rapid urbanisation of many developing countries remains one of the major demographic trends, but piles on risk because of the higher pressure on resources, such as water, and city infrastructure, like roads and hospitals.

Helen Hodge, head of maps and indices at Maplecroft, says it is not only local populations at risk from climate change impacts, serious though that is. The breaking of international supply chains for businesses working in a globalised world is also a big risk, she says.

"The recent flooding in Bangkok shows how very large multinationals can have long supply chains put at risk," she says, noting that Thailand is the world's largest producer of hard-disk computer drives.

China, the world's workshop, sits almost exactly halfway in the vulnerability index at 98 out of 193. That's appropriate, as China now sits awkwardly between the nations getting rich on carbon emissions and those suffering from its effects. And that's the other major contention that will underpin the UN climate talks in Durban.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Foreign interventions - When to hold and when to fold

The Economist has a useful review of a recent publication focusing on the issue of intervention - perfect for our consideration of human rights. The book in question is Can Intervention Work? by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, published by W.W. Norton, 2011 (236 pages):
CAN we intervene in foreign countries and do good? Can we stop wars and genocides and get rid of evil dictators? Can we then build modern, democratic states that thrive in our wake? The answer depends on who you ask. An anti-Qaddafi Libyan will have nice things to say about NATO’s role there right now. But you will get very different views from an Afghan, an Iraqi, a Bosnian or a Kosovar.
Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus are well placed to pose and answer these questions. Before Mr Stewart became a Conservative MP, he was a deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces. He also walked across Afghanistan and wrote a bestseller about the experience. Mr Knaus, a political economist, runs the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank founded in Sarajevo in 1999, which has been particularly influential in the Balkans.
The book is structured as two essays with a lengthy joint introduction. Mr Stewart has written a colourful account of his time in Afghanistan and his failed attempts to stop what he sees as a self- defeating build-up of ambitions, troops and plans. He skewers gobbledygook notions of bringing Afghans accountable governance and Western-style rule of law. It is not that he is against such things, but that he doubts the ability of foreigners to impose it all. He cites a pragmatic admonition from English Mountain Rescue: “Be prepared to turn back if conditions turn against you.”
Writing about Bosnia, Mr Knaus deploys heavy artillery in arguments that he has made before. Intervention there has been a stunning success, he says, given the state of Bosnia at the end of its devastating war in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned, not a single intervening soldier was killed (after the war), and today’s problems are of the conventional political sort, not the kind that herald another war. Not only does Bosnia enjoy free and fair elections, but also it has relatively little crime. Mr Knaus argues that the only missteps came from assumptions held by those like Lord Ashdown, when he was de facto governor of Bosnia, that well-meaning envoys could behave like imperial viceroys, sacking elected yet obstructive leaders at will.
From rather successful interventions, defined as Bosnia and Kosovo, the authors convey an important lesson: that is, the experience garnered in one place is generally not much use elsewhere. Bosnia was a success because the intervention came as part of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the war and which all the exhausted sides committed themselves to. In Kosovo the vast majority of its people—ethnic Albanians, nearly all of them Muslims—were very grateful for what they saw as their America-led liberation from the Serbs. Mr Knaus also argues that the United Nations war-crimes tribunal was vital as a form of closure and for removing from the political scene characters such as Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general now on trial for genocide in The Hague.
So, does intervention work? As any Bosnian peasant may tell you, “maybe yes, maybe no.” It depends on the circumstances and requires modest ambitions. Muddle through with a sense of purpose, says Mr Knaus. Do what you can, where you can and no more, agrees Mr Stewart. In policy terms that sounds a bit like “yes” to Libya, “no” to Syria and so on.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Economist: Human rights - A tigress and her tormentors

The Economist reviews the changing guard at the United Nations Human Rights Council, with mixed approval and approbation (full article follows):
A long-despised watchdog wakes up, barks and even bites
In its five years of life the United Nations Human Rights Council has been more pilloried than praised. The pious posturing of countries renowned for beastliness to their citizens incenses critics. So does the triumph of politics over humanitarian principle, the knee-jerk condemnation of Israel and a blind eye turned to most other countries’ abuses. Yet in this unpromising setting, some positive signs are visible.

Next week a Haitian official will deliver the final report in the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, a unique (for the UN) four-year process in which every government must submit an account of its human rights to the scrutiny of its peers. Few believe that this will change behaviour in Iran, Myanmar or North Korea. Even in milder cases, the practical gain will be clear only in the second four-year cycle when the council hears how governments have responded to the 20,000-odd recommendations from the first round.

But human-rights lobbyists say it has helped to highlight their cause, not least by giving local campaigners new opportunities to berate their rulers. Many governments spend a lot of time and resources polishing their act before they come to Geneva. A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch bestows rare praise on the council in its response to emergencies. In the year to June 2011 it launched international investigations in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria; it appointed an investigator to monitor developments in Iran; and it extended the mandates of rapporteurs for Myanmar, Cambodia, Somalia and Sudan.

Much of the credit for all this goes to Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, along with Zambia and even tiny Maldives. The United States is newly engaged too, having returned to an active role in the council under the Obama administration. Earlier this year it brokered a successful cross-regional initiative promoting freedom of assembly and association.

The question now is whether new members who joined the Council in September, which include India, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Peru, will play the same activist role as their predecessors. The early signs are not promising. In October one group, under the politically correct rubric of promoting transparency and accountability, sought (so far unsuccessfully) to nobble the budget, and thus the independence, of the Office of the High Commissioner, Navi Pillay. The main instigators were Cuba, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all of which strongly oppose an interventionist approach to human rights. Ms Pillay, a South African of Tamil extraction, had outraged the Sri Lankan government by calling for an independent investigation of alleged atrocities and war crimes by both sides in the war against the Tamil Tigers. The pro-government media there vilified her as a bullying, racist “Tamil Tigress”. In the world of UN human rights, such insults may count as compliments.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Economist: Flight of the Drones

The Economist looks at why the future of air power belongs to unmanned systems (edited version follows)....
On September 30th Anwar al-Awlaki and several of his al-Qaeda colleagues stopped their pickup truck on a remote, dusty road deep inside Yemen’s interior. He can have had only a split second to realise what was about to happen. But the missile strike that killed al-Qaeda’s most effective propagandist was no real surprise. It was just the latest example of the way America’s armed Predator and Reaper drones are changing the terms of combat with the country’s enemies, leaving them able to run but with nowhere to hide.

American officers, with their passion for acronyms, prefer not to call the machine that killed al-Awlaki a drone. They have a point. In nature, drone bees are poor, useless things that produce no honey and have no sting. That hardly describes the remotely-piloted Predator MQ-1 or Reaper MQ-9 aircraft. Laden with sophisticated sensors and carrying Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, they patrol the skies above Afghanistan, launch lethally accurate strikes against terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and have helped NATO turn the tide against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. Even calling them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is slightly misleading. There may not be a man in the cockpit, but each Reaper, a bigger, deadlier version of the Predator, requires more than 180 people to keep it flying. A pilot is always at the controls (albeit from a base that might be 7,500 miles, or 12,000km, away); and another officer operates its sensors and cameras.

Over the past decade UAS have become the counter-terrorism weapon of choice. Since 2005 there has been a 1,200% increase in combat air patrols by UAVs. Hardly a month passes without claims that another al-Qaeda or Taliban leader has been taken out by drone-launched missiles. There are now more hours flown by America’s UAS than by its manned strike aircraft and more pilots are being trained to fly them than their manned equivalents. While taking a knife to other cherished defence programmes last year, the defence secretary, Robert Gates, went out of his way to exempt drones from future cuts.

Under Barack Obama, the frequency of drone strikes on terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas has risen tenfold, from one every 40 days during George Bush’s presidency to one every four. John Brennan, Mr Obama’s counter-terrorism chief, has made it clear that as America draws down its forces in Afghanistan over the next three years, there will be no let up in drone strikes, which, he claims, are partly responsible for al-Qaeda being “on the ropes”. The grim Reaper’s ability to loiter for up to 24 hours, minutely observe human activity from five miles above while transmitting “full motion video” to its controllers and strike with pinpoint accuracy has made it the essential weapon in America’s “long war”.

But does this mean that the future belongs to UAS? As military thoughts turn to the threat posed by more powerful potential adversaries than jihadist militants—a fast-emerging China, say, or a nuclear-tipped Iran—will their enthusiasm for unmanned aircraft continue unabated? Or will having a pilot in the cockpit making life and death decisions remain the least risky option for the majority of missions, as proponents of the late and wildly over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, due to enter service in 2016, claim? If the answer favours the drones, then the world may be just at the beginning of a genuine revolution in warfare. It would be a revolution dominated, at least at the start, by America, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of UAS. Other countries, though, such as Britain and Italy, have also been quick to deploy armed drones and Israel, in particular, has a thriving UAS industry, using drones in a wide variety of roles.
The balance of this lengthy but informative article explores the current crop of drones, before examining the burgeoning phenomenon of UAS in the US and beyond.... Speculation also is given to the ethics of UAS and the possibilities for future development, including almost complete automation. Definitely worth a read—take a look!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Guardian: Is Vladimir Putin's Eurasian dream worth the effort?

Reacting to Russian news announced a few days back, Mark Mazower in an article published in today's Guardian suggests that "The Russian prime minister's union plan is not meant as a return to the Soviet past, but he would do well to check precedent"...
In Eric Ambler's masterly interwar thriller, The Mask of Dimitrios, the puppet master pulling the strings as a seedy Europe slides hopelessly into war is the shadowy Eurasian Credit Trust. The name was deliberately chosen. For most of the last century, Eurasia was scarcely a neutral term: it evoked the whiff of racial degeneration, the prospect of civilisation overrun by eastern hordes.

But now comes the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, perhaps looking to lift the attention of a restive public at home to something more elevated than a peremptorily staged presidential succession, supporting the idea of creating a Eurasian union of former Soviet-bloc nations that could become "one of the poles of the modern world, serving as an efficient link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region".

Putin explicitly denies that this is about rebuilding the USSR. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of talk of Eurasia since the collapse of the USSR and there is a close connection between the Eurasia concept and Soviet history. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already embarked on commercial integration and the new union will hope to take that further, perhaps attracting other former Soviet republics into its orbit: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are mentioned. And in a world where EU membership is effectively barred to Russia, and where the EU is promoting its own eastern partnership, led by Poland and Sweden to intensify European links with other former Soviet republics – including both Belarus and the Ukraine – one can see the logic in Russian efforts to extend internal markets, remove barriers to labour mobility and at the same time win the fight for the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of its western gateways, above all in Ukraine.

Politicians like the occasional grand vision, especially one with historical resonance. Yet will all this be worth the effort? The precedents are not reassuring. If the EU's eastern partnership smacks of an effort to reshape the region in the image of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth – a time of Polish and Swedish regional power when merchants and ideas travelled easily between the Baltic and the Black Sea – Putin's Eurasian union seems stuck in the Soviet era. Of course, Soviet ambitions went far beyond Eurasia; they wanted influence in the Middle East, Africa and south-east Asia. And this became clear after 1945, when Stalin's Russia really did become a world power thanks to its defeat of Nazis and the Kremlin got its chance to build a second world of socialism around the globe that united eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Soviet republics with other socialist partners further afield. Ideas and technology – above all, ideas about technology and the modernisation of peasant societies – circulated across the borders of the countries in this second world, as far away as Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia and North Korea. Today some historians remind us that the "third world" was so called precisely because of the sustained tussle for its allegiances in the 1950s and 1960s between the first and second worlds. Yet all of this can be exaggerated. The second world was concentrated on eastern Europe, and other member states came and went. The rise of China weakened the ideological prestige of Moscow. And none of it was ever a match in purely economic terms for the astonishingly powerful global alliance system put together by Washington, linking the powerhouse economies of western Europe and east Asia with the oil-producing states of the Middle East.

The first world definitely won that particular struggle and globalisation – by which I mean the extraordinary combination of industrial productivity growth in American partners such as Japan and South Korea with the financial flows that reshaped finance after the 1970s – ultimately brought the Soviet second world to its knees, both because it simply could not compete internationally and because much of eastern Europe had become addicted to western debt. Overall, the effort of sustaining this vast sphere of influence probably cost the USSR far more in purely economic terms than it got back. It had one great achievement to its credit – the industrialisation along late 19th-century lines of its own backward periphery, but by the late 20th century, that was not enough.

There is a lesson here to be learned, surely, from an earlier foray into a kind of Eurasianism by Turkey. In the early 1990s, the then president Turgut Özal imagined a coming "Turkish century" based on a new union among the Turkic-speaking states of the Eurasian heartlands. After his death, it became abundantly clear that the choice between orienting the Turkish economy east or west was no kind of choice at all. Having learned that lesson, the Erdogan government is pursuing a sort of post-imperial foreign policy of its own. But what makes it much more powerful than the earlier Özal model is not only that it is oriented to the former Ottoman lands in the Balkans and the Middle East rather than to the post-Soviet Black Sea and Caspian republics, but more importantly that it is intended as a complement rather than an alternative to the increasingly European and global orientation of the Turkish economy.

In short, it is no wonder Putin stresses his new vision of deeper integration is not meant as a return to the Soviet past. The question is whether there is any alternative model that makes sense for his proposed union. If the coupling of the Russian economy to the southern Stans brings with it a decoupling from the more powerful regional dynamos to its west and east, it will end up as a drag, not a spur, to growth and Russia will pay a heavy price for an old-fashioned dream of imperial glory.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Putin's grand vision: a new Eurasian bloc with old Soviet neighbours

The Guardian, alongside many other media outlets, brings news of Vladimir Putin's expressed ambitions to (re)create a new power bloc within Eurasia:
Russian prime minister proposes 'ambitious' union across republics based on economic interests
One week after announcing that he will return to the presidency next year Vladimir Putin has laid out a grand vision to bring Russia's former Soviet neighbours back into the fold.

Putin proposes the formation of a "Eurasian union", a bloc that could boost Russia's influence on the global stage. The proposal – from the man who once dubbed the Soviet Union's collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" – raises the spectre of the Russian prime minister's imperial designs.

The Eurasian union would be based on a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Putin suggests in an article published in Izvestiya newspaper on Tuesday.

"We are not going to stop there, and are setting an ambitious goal before ourselves – to get to the next, even higher, level of integration – to a Eurasian union," he has written. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also expected to join, he says.

Expecting critics to say he is trying to re-form the Soviet Union, Putin says: "We are not talking about recreating the USSR in one form or another. It would be naive to try to restore or copy that which remains in the past, but close integration based on new values and a political and economic foundation is imperative."

He adds: "We received a big legacy from the Soviet Union – infrastructure, current industrial specialisation, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space. To use this resource together for our development is in our common interest."

Putin has formed countless Moscow-led groupings aiming to maintain the power that Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years he has focused on economic integration and has pushed for former Soviet states to adopt the rouble as a regional currency.

In 2009 Russia formed a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan which is due to become a "unified economic zone" next year, bringing down barriers to the movement of labour and capital.

The Eurasian union would take that one step further, Putin says.

"We propose a model of powerful, supranational union, capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world," he writes in the article.

It will be an uphill battle. The combined GDP of the EU stood at $16 trillion last year, while the Commonwealth of Independent States, an informal grouping of former Soviet states minus the Baltics, was just $1.9tn, according to the International Monetary Fund. Putin has been at pains to describe the union as an open project into which no one would be "pushed or rushed".

He has issued, however, a thinly veiled criticism aimed at Ukraine, which has continued to seek integration with the EU rather than renew ties with Russia.

"Some of our neighbours explain their reluctance to participate in advanced integration projects in the post-Soviet space by saying it allegedly contradicts their European choice," Putin writes.

"This is a false divide. The Eurasian union will be built on universal principles of integration as an integral part of greater Europe, united by common values of freedom, democracy and market laws."

The other two members of the customs union, on which the Eurasian union would be based, have been criticised for their lack of democracy, with Belarus dubbed "the last dictatorship in Europe".

The article is Putin's first foreign policy pronouncement since he announced he would return to the presidency next year, potentially getting another 12 years in power.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, said: "It's quite remarkable Putin would start with this.

"The logic behind it is primarily economic, and in this sense it is different from previous attempts, which were political or just decorative, to show Russian leadership."

The move could also be a sign of frustration with Russia's 18-year-long effort to join the World Trade Organisation, Lukyanov said. "The customs union was to a certain extent Putin's response to years and years of fruitless negotiations on the WTO – if global integration is not available let's turn to a regional one."