The Intellectual Wilderness There is nothing more useless than doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

2016.01.20 16:59

Messaging: What Will It Do?

[Part 2 of a short series on messaging systems. (Part 1)]

Having implemented messaging systems of various sizes and scopes in all sorts of environments, I’ve come up with a few guidelines for myself:

  1. If messaging is not the core service, make it an orthogonal network service.
  2. If possible make the messages ephemeral.
  3. If the messages must persist use the lightest storage solution possible and store as little as possible.
  4. Accept that huge message traffic will mean partitioning, partitions will be eventually consistent, and this is OK.
  5. You don’t need full text search.
  6. If you really do need full text search then use a DB that is built for this — its a major time-sink to hack it in later and get it right.
  7. If the messages are threaded annotations over other existing relational data, swallow your pride and consult your DBA.
  9. If anything about messages over existing data records feels hacky, awkward, or like it might put pressure on the existing DB, separate message storage and accept that some data integrity may be delayed or lost from time to time.
  10. Messaging is likely more important to your users than you (or they) think it is.
  11. The messages themselves are likely less important to your users than you (or they) think they are.
  12. If you can skip a feature, DO.
  13. YAGNI.
  14. You don’t need [AdvancedMessagingProtocol] (aka XMPP).
  15. If you *really* need XMPP it will be painfully obvious (and if you do chances are you certainly don’t need the extensions).
  16. [insert more things about avoiding feature creep]

Adding messaging to an existing system can get a little messy if you’re not really sure why you are doing it. If you know that your users really do have a need for messaging within your system, but you don’t know what features or type of messaging it should be, then think carefully about how you would want to use it as a user yourself.

Do users work together within your system to accomplish immediate goals? A concurrent multiuser system (multiplayer game, concurrent design tool, pair programming environment, etc.) benefits most from an ephemeral, instant chat system that centers around the immediate task. When the task is over the messages become meaningless and should be allowed to decay. It may be nice to give users an easy way to export or save significant messages, but that is really a client-side issue and is orthogonal to how the messaging system itself works.

Is the system used to coordinate real-world tasks or events? A real-world coordination system benefits most from a threaded comment/discussion system that centers around those tasks, and must only enhance but not replace the existing task-assignment and tracking features of the system. Threaded annotation is powerful here, but the threads need only persist as long as the task records do and messaging should never be mistaken for a task assignment tool (it can be leveraged as a part of task notification but never assignment or tracking). Remember ON DELETE CASCADE? This is where it is super helpful.

Do users self-organize into groups whose sole purpose is communication? Social group systems benefit most from mail systems implemented directly within the system they use to organize themselves. Such systems may also benefit from some form of ephemeral immediate chat, but it is critical that we keep in mind that that indicates a need for two different messaging systems, not One Message System To Rule Them All.

Many different flavors of message systems exist between the extremes of “persistent point-to-point mail” and “ephemeral, instant, channelized (group) chat”. Consider:

  • Persistent chat (Campfire, SocialObstructionist StackOverflow chat, etc.))
  • Message boards (“forums” — though this term is far broader in actual meaning…)
  • Usenet-style newsgroups
  • Mailing list systems
  • Email bridges
  • IRC + bridges + bots
  • Anything else you can imagine…

Some other things to think about are the nature of the users relationship to one another. That’s not just about communication channels and point-to-point delivery issues, it is also about what concept of identity exists within the system. Is the system one with strong authentication, total or partial anonymity, or a hybrid? This will dictate everything about your approach to permissions — from moderation, channel creation and administrative control to whether private messages are permissible and have a huge impact on what the implementation of a messaging system will require in terms of access to the original host system it is intended to support.

The issues of identity, authentication and public visibility are largely orthogonal to questions of persistence duration, storage and message-to-record relationship, but they can become intertwined issues without you realizing it whenever it comes time to design the storage schema, the serialization format(s), or the protocol(s). Of course these are three flavors of basically the same issue — though the modern trend is shy away from thinking about this either by hiding behind HTTP (like, uh, who even knows how to program sockets anymore? zomg!) and sticking your fingers in your ears when someone says that “schemaless JSON is the schema” or that XML can do the job of all three because it is the pinnacle of data representations. Consider whether this may change in the future. Keep YAGNI in mind, but when it comes to schemas, serialization and protocols it is always good to design something that can be extended without requiring core modification.

Messaging: Why Would You Do This?

[Part 1 of a short series on messaging systems. (Part 2)]

Messaging is a feature that seems to wind up on the ZOMG MUST HAVE!!1! feature list long after initial system deployment quite a bit these days. I’ve been getting asked about this a lot lately, so I’ve written down my generic advice here for reference. (If you want more specific advice feel free to contact me, though — its interesting and fun to hear about all the different things people are working on.)

I’ve been implementing and deploying messaging systems in one form or another since I first got involved with computers as a kid in the very late 80’s and early 90’s. Back then most multiplayer games were basically text message dispatch and routing systems with thematic computation surrounding those messages, so this was an area quite a few people my age dealt with — without realizing that it would one day be considered an “enterprise” feature. (And to think, we used to do this in Pascal, and assembler, and C, and hilariously inadequate variants of BASIC… as children! That nonsense was only reasonable to us because they were the only tools we had, those were labors of love, and we didn’t know any better.)

The most important thing to recognize about messaging systems is that the term “messaging” is hopelessly broad. It doesn’t really mean anything by itself. Every over-the-wire protocol is a message system definition, for example. Every drop-it-in-a-spool system is also a messaging system. Every combat notification system in a game is a messaging system. Every websocket thing you’ve ever done is a messaging system. This list could go on for quite a while, but I assume you get the idea.

Messaging systems take on different characteristics depending on their context of use. Some messaging systems are persistent, some are ephemeral, some have selective decay, some are instant, some are asynch, some are channeled, some are global, some are private, some are selective-access, some are moderated, some include extra semantic data that can be interpreted in the message body, some run everything through a central data service (“ooooh, ahhhh, ‘the cloud'”), some are peered, some are anonymous, some are verified, some broadcast, some are point to point, some are free, some are paid in per-message increments, some are paid by aggregate use, etc. The list keeps going as long as you can think of things that can be said about any system, actually.

It is important to keep in mind that most of the adjectives in the last paragraph are not mutually exclusive. Here is the fun part, though: if you need two that are, then you need two messaging systems. (That’s why they make chocolate and vanilla, after all.)

That’s a lot of different aspects to something as conceptually simple as “messaging”. The obvious problem there is that messaging is actually not simple at all in practice. When you decide that you need a “messaging solution” you really must carefully consider what that means for your users and your system. Your users’ state of mind, user experience, utility value of messaging and desire to use messaging in the context of their use of your system are all folded together.

Consider this: Email is a messaging system and we’ve all already got that, why is this not sufficient for your use? If you can’t answer that question quickly then sit back and let it stew for a bit — you will learn something about your users in the process of answering this question because it forces you to think for a moment as a user of your system instead of as a builder of it.

Let’s consider some reasons you might want to add a killer messaging feature to your existing product or system.

  • You can’t figure out the difference between “organic pageviews” and traffic resulting from the robot invasion.
  • You want more pageviews and you don’t care how you get them — messaging, you think, can be a source of bajillions of clicks!
  • Your users deal with data objects about which they constantly converse, but can’t do so within your system.
  • Your users have things to express that are best represented in a way that captures the history of their thoughts in sequence.
  • Your native applications do exactly what they should, but breaking out of it to send a message is distracting.
  • Your system already passes data among users, but requires human annotation to be fully meaningful.
  • Your system deals in machine-to-machine messages already, but users still have to call each other on the phone.
  • You are looking for a way to attach your brand to one more thing users see every day to reinforce the hypnotic effect you wish your brand had on them.
  • You require an anonymous(ish) way for users to communicate out-of-band relative to other online services.

A conditional flow would look something like this:

stupid_reasons = [pageviews,
                  BULLSHIT_WEB_IDEAS(SEO && ALL_FLAGS),
                  ADS([ad_search, ad_rank, ad_tech, ad_{*}, ...]),

if (member(your_reason, stupid_reasons)) {
    if (idea_of(You) || you_are(TheManagement)) {
        assert cancer_killing_internet = You;
    } else if (idea_of(TheManagement)) {
        abort(current_job, GRACEFULLY);
        // It won't last much longer anyway.
    contact(me, IRL);
    // I've got way better ideas.
    // You should work with me instead of sticking with losers.
} else if (knee_jerk(messaging_feature)) {
} else {

    shock(hopeless_thing, DEAD);
    anger(cant_coerce([model, users, investors, world]),
    bargain([me, you, imaginary_entities, investors, users, world, HAL],
            perceived_value(hopeless_thing, PERSPECTIVE(MYOPIC)));


Did you find yourself at congratulations(), or somewhere else? Stop and think for a while if your reason belongs in the stupid_reasons list or not. How much will it actually enhance your users’ experience with the product or interaction with each other or you? Are you going to use it yourself, or are you going to continue to use email, IRC, whatever corporate chat service is popular this week, Twitter, etc? (And if you say “Well, I/we don’t use my/our product, so I don’t know…” then you are already rather far beyond admitting defeat, you just don’t know it yet.)

Be painfully honest with yourself here because messaging is one of those things that you can’t add in and then just take away later without consequences. Even if very few people use it and it turns out to be a technical burden to you someone will wind up using it no matter how shitty it turns out to actually be, a few of these people will come to depend on it, and to these people you will be an asshole if you ever remove it. Don’t be an asshole to customers. That’s how you wind up with a “[your_product]” — and the kind of users who come to depend on weird internal messaging systems that suck are exactly the kind of people who will register a domain like that and talk shit about you. That crap will stay on the web forever and the stink may stay on your product forever, even if you change your product and they come back loving it.

So let’s assume that your system will exist in a context where it really does add value to the user’s life in some way. goto congratulations()! Messaging will be a big win if done properly and unobtrusively. As a reward for being diligent and thoughtful you now you get to wade through a swamp of design issues. But don’t worry, I’ll give you the fanboat tour and point the way through the muck.

Next we’ll look at some common features of messaging systems, what they mean for your implementation and most importantly what they mean for your users within the context of your system. [Continue to Part 2]

2008.12.13 22:59

Obama’s: Appointments and Setting Up Political Maintenance

Filed under: Politics / Geopolitics,Special Series — zxq9 @ 22:59

Stratfor published an interesting article on 2008.11.12 which greatly compliments the Obama series I am currently writing (and bogged down on because of my job). This article focuses on the domestic political maintenance and control issues underlying Obama’s first political appointments but a careful read more than hints at several factors I am touching on in my series.

Obama’s First Moves
by George Friedman

Three weeks after the U.S. presidential election, we are getting the first signs of how President-elect Barack Obama will govern. That now goes well beyond the question of what is conventionally considered U.S. foreign policy — and thus beyond Stratfor’s domain. At this moment in history, however, in the face of the global financial crisis, U.S. domestic policy is intimately bound to foreign policy. How the United States deals with its own internal financial and economic problems will directly affect the rest of the world.

One thing the financial crisis has demonstrated is that the world is very much America-centric, in fact and not just in theory. When the United States runs into trouble, so does the rest of the globe. It follows then that the U.S. response to the problem affects the rest of the world as well. Therefore, Obama’s plans are in many ways more important to countries around the world than whatever their own governments might be planning.

Over the past two weeks, Obama has begun to reveal his appointments. It will be Hillary Clinton at State and Timothy Geithner at Treasury. According to persistent rumors, current Defense Secretary Robert Gates might be asked to stay on. The national security adviser has not been announced, but rumors have the post going to former Clinton administration appointees or to former military people. Interestingly and revealingly, it was made very public that Obama has met with Brent Scowcroft to discuss foreign policy. Scowcroft was national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, and while a critic of the younger Bush’s policies in Iraq from the beginning, he is very much part of the foreign policy establishment and on the non-neoconservative right. That Obama met with Scowcroft, and that this was deliberately publicized, is a signal — and Obama understands political signals — that he will be conducting foreign policy from the center.

Consider Clinton and Geithner. Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war — a major bone of contention between Obama and her during the primaries. She is also a committed free trade advocate, as was her husband, and strongly supports continuity in U.S. policy toward Israel and Iran. Geithner comes from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where he participated in crafting the strategies currently being implemented by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Everything Obama is doing with his appointments is signaling continuity in U.S. policy.

This does not surprise us. As we have written previously, when Obama’s precise statements and position papers were examined with care, the distance between his policies and John McCain’s actually was minimal. McCain tacked with the Bush administration’s position on Iraq — which had shifted, by the summer of this year, to withdrawal at the earliest possible moment but without a public guarantee of the date. Obama’s position was a complete withdrawal by the summer of 2010, with the proviso that unexpected changes in the situation on the ground could make that date flexible.

Obama supporters believed that Obama’s position on Iraq was profoundly at odds with the Bush administration’s. We could never clearly locate the difference. The brilliance of Obama’s presidential campaign was that he convinced his hard-core supporters that he intended to make a radical shift in policies across the board, without ever specifying what policies he was planning to shift, and never locking out the possibility of a flexible interpretation of his commitments. His supporters heard what they wanted to hear while a careful reading of the language, written and spoken, gave Obama extensive room for maneuver. Obama’s campaign was a master class on mobilizing support in an election without locking oneself into specific policies.

As soon as the election results were in, Obama understood that he was in a difficult political situation. Institutionally, the Democrats had won substantial victories, both in Congress and the presidency. Personally, Obama had won two very narrow victories. He had won the Democratic nomination by a very thin margin, and then won the general election by a fairly thin margin in the popular vote, despite a wide victory in the electoral college.

Many people have pointed out that Obama won more decisively than any president since George H.W. Bush in 1988. That is certainly true. Bill Clinton always had more people voting against him than for him, because of the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot in 1992 and 1996. George W. Bush actually lost the popular vote by a tiny margin in 2000; he won it in 2004 with nearly 51 percent of the vote but had more than 49 percent of the electorate voting against him. Obama did a little better than that, with about 53 percent of voters supporting him and 47 percent opposing, but he did not change the basic architecture of American politics. He still had won the presidency with a deeply divided electorate, with almost as many people opposed to him as for him.

Presidents are not as powerful as they are often imagined to be. Apart from institutional constraints, presidents must constantly deal with public opinion. Congress is watching the polls, as all of the representatives and a third of the senators will be running for re-election in two years. No matter how many Democrats are in Congress, their first loyalty is to their own careers, and collapsing public opinion polls for a Democratic president can destroy them. Knowing this, they have a strong incentive to oppose an unpopular president — even one from their own party — or they might be replaced with others who will oppose him. If Obama wants to be powerful, he must keep Congress on his side, and that means he must keep his numbers up. He is undoubtedly getting the honeymoon bounce now. He needs to hold that.

Obama appears to understand this problem clearly. It would take a very small shift in public opinion polls after the election to put him on the defensive, and any substantial mistakes could sink his approval rating into the low 40s. George W. Bush’s basic political mistake in 2004 was not understanding how thin his margin was. He took his election as vindication of his Iraq policy, without understanding how rapidly his mandate could transform itself in a profound reversal of public opinion. Having very little margin in his public opinion polls, Bush doubled down on his Iraq policy. When that failed to pay off, he ended up with a failed presidency.

Bush was not expecting that to happen, and Obama does not expect it for himself. Obama, however, has drawn the obvious conclusion that what he expects and what might happen are two different things. Therefore, unlike Bush, he appears to be trying to expand his approval ratings as his first priority, in order to give himself room for maneuver later. Everything we see in his first two weeks of shaping his presidency seems to be designed two do two things: increase his standing in the Democratic Party, and try to bring some of those who voted against him into his coalition.

In looking at Obama’s supporters, we can divide them into two blocs. The first and largest comprises those who were won over by his persona; they supported Obama because of who he was, rather than because of any particular policy position or because of his ideology in anything more than a general sense. There was then a smaller group of supporters who backed Obama for ideological reasons, built around specific policies they believed he advocated. Obama seems to think, reasonably in our view, that the first group will remain faithful for an extended period of time so long as he maintains the aura he cultivated during his campaign, regardless of his early policy moves. The second group, as is usually the case with the ideological/policy faction in a party, will stay with Obama because they have nowhere else to go — or if they turn away, they will not be able to form a faction that threatens his position.

What Obama needs to do politically, then, is protect and strengthen the right wing of his coalition: independents and republicans who voted for him because they had come to oppose Bush and, by extension, McCain. Second, he needs to persuade at least 5 percent of the electorate who voted for McCain that their fears of an Obama presidency were misplaced. Obama needs to build a positive rating at least into the mid-to-high 50s to give him a firm base for governing, and leave himself room to make the mistakes that all presidents make in due course.

With the example of Bush’s failure before him, as well as Bill Clinton’s disastrous experience in the 1994 mid-term election, Obama is under significant constraints in shaping his presidency. His selection of Hillary Clinton is meant to nail down the rightward wing of his supporters in general, and Clinton supporters in particular. His appointment of Geithner at the Treasury and the rumored re-appointment of Gates as secretary of defense are designed to reassure the leftward wing of McCain supporters that he is not going off on a radical tear. Obama’s gamble is that (to select some arbitrary numbers), for every alienated ideological liberal, he will win over two lukewarm McCain supporters.

To those who celebrate Obama as a conciliator, these appointments will resonate. For those supporters who saw him as a fellow ideologue, he can point to position papers far more moderate and nuanced than what those supporters believed they were hearing (and were meant to hear). One of the political uses of rhetoric is to persuade followers that you believe what they do without locking yourself down.

His appointments match the evolving realities. On the financial bailout, Obama has not at all challenged the general strategy of Paulson and Bernanke, and therefore of the Bush administration. Obama’s position on Iraq has fairly well merged with the pending Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq. On Afghanistan, Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus has suggested negotiations with the Taliban — while, in moves that would not have been made unless they were in accord with Bush administration policies, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has offered to talk with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and the Saudis reportedly have offered him asylum. Tensions with Iran have declined, and the Israelis have even said they would not object to negotiations with Tehran. What were radical positions in the opening days of Obama’s campaign have become consensus positions. That means he is not entering the White House in a combat posture, facing a disciplined opposition waiting to bring him down. Rather, his most important positions have become, if not noncontroversial, then certainly not as controversial as they once were.

Instead, the most important issue facing Obama is one on which he really had no position during his campaign: how to deal with the economic crisis. His solution, which has begun to emerge over the last two weeks, is a massive stimulus package as an addition — not an alternative — to the financial bailout the Bush administration crafted. This new stimulus package is not intended to deal with the financial crisis but with the recession, and it is a classic Democratic strategy designed to generate economic activity through federal programs. What is not clear is where this leaves Obama’s tax policy. We suspect, some recent suggestions by his aides not withstanding, that he will have a tax cut for middle- and lower-income individuals while increasing tax rates on higher income brackets in order to try to limit deficits.

What is fascinating to see is how the policies Obama advocated during the campaign have become relatively unimportant, while the issues he will have to deal with as president really were not discussed in the campaign until September, and then without any clear insight as to his intentions. One point we have made repeatedly is that a presidential candidate’s positions during a campaign matter relatively little, because there is only a minimal connection between the issues a president thinks he will face in office and the ones that he actually has to deal with. George W. Bush thought he would be dealing primarily with domestic politics, but his presidency turned out to be all about the U.S.-jihadist war, something he never anticipated. Obama began his campaign by strongly opposing the Iraq war — something that has now be come far less important than the financial crisis, which he didn’t anticipate dealing with at all.

So, regardless of what Obama might have thought his presidency would look like, it is being shaped not by his wishes, but by his response to external factors. He must increase his political base — and he will do that by reassuring skeptical Democrats that he can work with Hillary Clinton, and by showing soft McCain supporters that he is not as radical as they thought. Each of Obama’s appointments is designed to increase his base of political support, because he has little choice if he wants to accomplish anything else.

As for policies, they come and go. As George W. Bush demonstrated, an inflexible president is a failed president. He can call it principle, but if his principles result in failure, he will be judged by his failure and not by his principles. Obama has clearly learned this lesson. He understands that a president can’t pursue his principles if he has lost the ability to govern. To keep that ability, he must build his coalition. Then he must deal with the unexpected. And later, if he is lucky, he can return to his principles, if there is time for it, and if those principles have any relevance to what is going on around him. History makes presidents.

2008.11.16 02:51

The Defining Realities of Russia and Cold War II

Filed under: Politics / Geopolitics,Special Series — zxq9 @ 02:51

This is part 1 of an 18-part series on the geopolitical challenges which will confront the new American President, Barak Obama, and force definitions in his foreign policy.

To understand the geopolitical challenges the US faces from 2009 forward it is necessary to understand the major forces at play in the world and the conflicting interests that will drive them to work with or against one another. In this case “forces” can refer to national or State entities such as countries, sometimes extra-national groups such as al Qaeda or Hezbollah, and sometimes even significant events or circumstances such as a World War, global depression or even a plague can take on a life of their own and be considered independent forces themselves.

To understand the way these forces interact we must have an understanding of the biggest players in the geopolitical game first and then work our way down to the details. That means we need to start with Russia. Aside from the US, Russia is the only other country in the world that has been a superpower within living memory and knows both how the game is played and has the tools to play it. To understand what a nation is likely to do in any given circumstance we must understand what that nation considers to be its vital interests. To understand its interests we must understand how it arrived at its current condition. Several ingredients go into baking a Great Nation Pie and our understanding hinges on three primary elements: History, Society and Geography. These elements will, to a large degree, dictate everything from that nation’s economic potential to identifying its fundamental competitors to determining how likely a country is to respond in an intelligent or downright stupid manner when presented with any specific situation.

The study of history and society when taken together with an eye to the cold-blooded pursuit of power defines the discipline of politics. Adding an element of geography to frame that study gives us geopolitics. Pure political science imagines that politics exists in a vacuum and therefore does not accurately model the world for us. Pure, traditional geopolitical and studies tend to ignore the social element and how historically screwed up or squared-away a particular group of people are – with writers often omitting this element in an effort to sound fair and balanced and assumes that all nations make sound decisions at all times. (So I wonder if I should not call my approach “sociogeopolitics.”) History will generally tell us whether a group of people has the wherewithal, presence of mind and social poise to deal with new situations well or not. History is full of nations which were wiped out because they either descended from a screwy history full of internal turmoil and cultural ineptitude (such as Uganda), suffered from rotten and unsurmountable accidents of geography (such as Bolivia), or simply did not grasp the concept that attaining and maintaining power is a ruthless business (these would be the nations which suffered from becoming too nice or trusting such as a few of the quickly absorbed and forgotten Greek city-states).

Russia’s Geography

Russia is the largest country in the world by a fair margin. It stretches across the entire north half the Eurasian supercontinent from Lithuania to the Bering Strait. The focus of Russian culture, history and political power, however, are focused in the far west of the country around Moscow.

Russia is the wealthiest country in the world in terms of natural resources such as metal ores, oil, natural gas, coal and timber. Its mineral wealth is focused in the Kursk region near Ukraine and in the Ural mountains which split the country between east and west. Its currently developed oil and gas reserves are generally located east of Moscow in the ethnically non-Russian republics – many of which are potentially secessionist (such as Tatarstan), while much of its undeveloped oil and gas reserves are located in the harsh arctic regions across the far north and in the Arctic Sea.

The Muscovite region is located on the largest plain in the world and has no natural barriers to block invaders from the east, west or south. In fact, the only barrier to invasion from the north is the severe weather and treacherous Arctic Ocean. The west has very limited access to the sea and very few natural waterways which lend themselves to inland trade, while getting to the sea by heading east forces a cross-continental trek. The only  regular access to the sea is through the Ukrainian/Crimean or Georgian coastal areas which give access to the Black Sea, leaving the Bosporus Straight which is squarely controlled by the Turks as a potential obstacle to the open oceans (note that access from these areas requires the possession or cooperation of Ukraine or Georgia – by no means an issue of historical guarantee).

This geography dictates four things about Russian history and perspective:

  • That it is first and foremost a land power (as opposed to a naval one like England).
  • Its borders are far too large to defend in actuality, so Russia has always sought to create buffer zones to keep its battlespaces as distant from Moscow itself as possible and force an invader to stretch his supply lines across thousands of miles.
  • That its history is marked by constant existinal security threats such as invasions, insurgencies, civil wars, and other types of turmoil to which any country so spread out, ethnically diverse and lacking in natural barriers is exposed.
  • That it has never fully industrialized due to the difficulties and prohibitive inefficiencies involved in transport across the nation. This forces Russia to remain a raw material exporter and finished-goods importer as opposed to being an industrialized export economy like China or a domestic consumption model like the United States. Russia’s infrastructural investment have been focused almost exclusively in the west around Moscow and Kiev (whenever what is now Ukraine is controlled by Russia, that is – i.e. during the days of Kievan Rus’ or USSR).

The Russians maintain a strong sense of cultural and institutional paranoia about reliving the incessant invasions of the past. This drives them to be highly proactive (read as: “be offensive”) in maintaining their own external security and invade or pressure neighboring territories into vassal unions which are strictly for the benefit of Russia. These “coalition” neighbors are used by Russia as buffer zones to slow invaders down and to serve as the battleground for Russia’s defensive wars. These neighboring states do not benefit from this arrangement the same way an adjacent American ally such as Mexico benefits from agreements such as NAFTA or policies such as the Monroe Doctrine. This has lent a distinctly dark and commanding tone to the way Russia conducts diplomacy with its neighbors.

Geography of Russia’s Energy Holdings and Infrastructure

Nearly all of the oil and gas fields in Russia which are easy to access and exploit have already been developed, are maturing and may have already hit peak production. Most of these are located around Moscow or farther east in areas which are ethnically non-Russian such as Tartarstan and Dagestan. Several of the energy-rich republics are somewhat secessionist and many harbor Islamic elements which have the potential to radicalize if encouraged. When viewed in this context it is not difficult to understand why Moscow chose to conduct both Chechen Wars in a strong-handed way or deal with the recent assassination of one Chechen faction leader by another as swiftly and at such a high level. Holding these energy-rich regions and buffer zones is something Russia views as crucial to its security and long-term interests.

The inward location of these regions gives Russia freedom to act out of the Western eye and with near impunity on internal security issues and severely reduces the chances that any single interior republic can successfully secede. Any separatist nation would be immediately subjected to crippling blockade and eventually starved out or economically bled dry. The problem with this inward location is that it pushes the distance to market for oil and natural gas very far overland. This has several effects:

  • It makes Russia pay close attention to where and when pipelines are going to be built and who controls the territories they pass through. Moreover, it gives Russia an incentive to control the territories the pipelines run through, whether they are Russian possessions or not.
  • It generally limits Russia’s energy export market to Europe, which has effects of its own:
    • It reduces the effect Russia can have on global energy markets by cutting or increasing output of crude and natural gas.
    • It makes Europe highly dependent on Russia for its energy needs which enhances the effect Russia’s production levels have in Europe to the point that Russia can dictate prices as a matter of policy to bully or grant favors. This is particularly true for Eastern Europe where there are currently no real alternatives to Russian energy.
  • The climate restricts Russia’s ability to shut down and re-open crude production the way Saudi Arabia can. Most of the developed oil fields and all of the ones needing development cannot have the flow of oil halted without freezing the boreholes shut which then must be re-drilled. Drilling can only be conducted in the winter when the marshy ground is frozen, and then only at great cost.

In other words, Russia exists in a different strategic reality than OPEC and is therefore not in competition with them. So while OPEC plays energy politics within its member states, with the Americas and in East Asia, Russia plays energy politics in Europe.

Russia has a long history of playing hardball with energy politics, particularly in the severe European winters. The Russia-Ukraine-Belarus gas dispute in 2006 was the public highlight of Russia’s use of energy exports to muscle European States, but that is merely because it is the only case ever where a Russian energy ultimatum was not met. Moreover, the 2008 invasion of Georgia demonstrated to Turkey the vulnerability of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline to Russian control. This had a lot to do with the sudden recent Turkish initiative to patch up relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan and other big moves in the region. Energy politics also are the motivating force in the rift between Germany and the rest of the EU (meaning, really, France and Great Britain) on how to approach the Russian problem after the Georgian War, at least in the short to mid term.

The energy industry is both a vehicle for Russian revenue (the state owns and controls every Russian energy firm, and taxes them into near oblivion at the same time) as well as a geopolitical weapon which appears less bellicose than a nuclear missile or a tank battalion. The realities of this hefty tool, both its utility and its unwieldiness, are driving the consideration of new, massively expensive projects such as eastern pipeline construction, new shipping facilities that can handle oil tankers, and a national strategic oil reserve (such a reserve would allow them to halt oil flow to play energy games without the expensive cost of halting the pumping and having wells freeze shut). These initiatives are shaping the current Russian policy moves in East Asia such as the recent handover of disputed river islands to China, discussions about Chinese investment in a Russia-China pipeline, and a new initiative to settle the Kuril Islands dispute with Japan.

The settling of the Kuril Islands dispute is particularly telling. Though barren, tiny, uninhabitable spires of rock jutting from the ocean they may be, Russia needs them to justify their claim to territorial waters which touch the Pacific Ocean and thereby give the Russians a single year-round access point to blue water (the Gulf of Finland freezes over in winter). Ocean access and paranoia about their historically landlocked position is what has made this initially ridiculous seeming dispute so contentious. Without the Kurils they are boxed in by Japan, and with Japan having the second most powerful navy in the world and the American navy sitting right behind it in the Pacific, being boxed in is something the Russians have had to accept. The only concession the Japanese could give the Russians in exchange for return of the islands would be guaranteed unmolested passage to the Pacific. Whether this plays out or not, it is an interesting possibility.

Basic Historical Socio-Political Themes

History needs to be understood at a low resolution to give us insight into how a country functions as an entity over time. While an examination of different specific events and leaders can give us some background from which to comprehend how the Russians may view themselves, focusing too much on details will lead us to begin drawing broad conclusions based on isolated occurrences. This leads to selective study which only satisfies an immature desire to perceive the world in a way that matches our concept of ideal, and we will focus on what fits our ideal model and ignore whatever does not. This politicizes the study and is the origin of most disputes among real historians and bloggers alike. My goal is to study the politics themselves, not to taint my study with politics. Unfortunately, Niccolo Machiavelli’s observation that the realities of a nation are usually very different from the way people imagine them to be is true, and this means we must fight our fantasies and pet concepts in order to arrive at an interpretation of history which will be usefully, if not actually correct. We seek to understand the way Russia’s future affects the world, so we must take as unbiased an approach as possible and not get too wrapped up in specifics lest we miss the forest for the trees. This examination of Russian history will only explain what is pertinent to contemporary geopolitics. Russian history is the subject of many huge books – I leave the writing of that history to other authors and the detailed study of it as an exercise for the reader.

Russian history is best described at a low resolution as pair of inverse waves. One wave represents the central power and authority of an autocratic ruler who drives Russia to assert itself on the international stage at the expense of social freedoms, the other represents the power and authority of the oligarchs who drive Russia to meet domestic needs and eventually into social and economic repression and chaos. This social chaos gives rise to a new autocratic ruler who must appear, and in fact be, strong enough to crush the power of the oligarchs and reign them in for the benefit and security of the State. This eventually leads to a tense, oppressed social condition, which gives rise to more socially liberal appearing oligarchs who once again wrest control from the State and the cycle repeats.

Note that the power of the people is never mentioned anywhere in this cycle. Political mandate from the masses, which the Communists spoke of so often, has always been arrived at in the same manner whether by an autocrat or a diverse oligarchic power structure: fear. When oligarchs are running the show they orchestrate public panics through the use of propaganda and maintain it through a system of patronage which eventually threatens national unity. When an autocrat is in charge he will centralize power, subjugate or totally crush (one way or another) the power of the oligarchs and rule through fear violence against uprisings. Nowhere in this process is the proper education of the public necessary or even desired. Decisions and national movements are always driven from above, from the acting dictator (Czar, Emperor, Great Party Leader, President, or puppet-master, depending on the period) or from the oligarchy (boyars, city-state nobles, Party seniors, oligarchs, or mafia kingpins, depending on the period). This is a key theme in Russian societal history and has worked its way deep into the Russian psyche. The Russian people develop, shift and express their political support based on negative stimuli. Fear, not hope, is the driving sociopolitical factor and this influences the way Russia and Russians view the world.

This sort of social and political history has shaped everything from Russian military and productivity tactics to the typical grim outlook so many Russians hold. These elements lead to a sense of public powerlessness and hopelessness. It is this feeling of powerlessness that has driven the people to expect – and get – either a powerful autocratic dictator or regionally powerful oligarchs depending on the times.

When the oligarchs are driving the country to chaos through the pursuit of personal gain at the abandonment of national interest people become fearful of living in a weak, easily divided Russia and desire a return to an iron-fisted dictatorial rule that will stand up for and unify the country. When the prime autocrat of the period (or dynasty in some cases, if the situation outlasts a single person’s life) becomes too all-controlling and begins to appear tyrannical the oligarchs appeal to the lower classes to support a liberalizing social revolution. The Russian people have never been very far above the status of peasantry at any point in their history and for most of it have been very close to the status of slaves – minus the formality of ownership documents (which effectively existed during the period of official serfdom: runaway serfs were reported to the government and hunted as state fugitives and returned to their manors or executed).

It is important to note that where I use the modern term “oligarch” historians tend to use either “boyar” or “noble” depending on the period being discussed. When reading Russian history it is useful to keep in mind that when a reference to the boyars or nobles such as Stepan Kuchka is made, it is effectively the same as referencing a modern-day oligarch such as Boris Berezovsky or Oleg Deripaska. They serve the exact same social function and whether or not this or that specific modern-day oligarch descends from a boyar ancestry or not is equally irrelevant as whether or not the peasantry is technically “liberated” according to the newspapers or even the constitution in this or that period in the face of social realities.

This same social dynamic existed from the time Vladimir I of Kiev consolidated control of Kievan Rus’ up until the current re-centralization of power being conducted by Vladimir Putin, the current Russian Prime Minister (and soon to likely once again be President and already prime autocrat). This represents over 1100 years of uninterrupted sociopolitical cycling which has seen Russia expand its power, influence and territory under a strong leader, then weaken and divide during oligarchic infighting, and eventually reform under a new single ruler numerous times. To think that TV and holding elections has changed anything is ridiculous.

The media and governments of the West often confuse the holding of elections with having democracy. The more recent European totalitarian states such as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the USSR generally made a deliberate go at confusing the issue themselves by using the language of social liberation to describe the way their political regimes mobilized and saddled their populations.

Currently we are seeing Russia return to a period of autocratic dictatorship as it emerges from the social chaos of a period of oligarchy.

As the Soviet split into pieces and a market economy driven by private ownership took hold, the new oligarchs took whatever state property they could mobilize private forces to defend. Things get very confusing and the opportunities for corruption and criminal seizure of State assets is very high at the heart of a failed empire where private ownership documents did not even exist (as everything was naturally the property of the collective) and Moscow had regarded the other republics in the USSR as such a natural possession of Russia itself that there was no Russian republican government to which it could revert. Russia was starting from scratch as a nation, but individuals were not – this was the classic initiation of a Russian oligarchic period of rule. The lines between mafia boss, government official and senior businessman become very quickly blurred and there was often no real distinction anyway.

Vladimir Putin has shown an amazing capacity for Russian autocratic rule and has crushed the power of the oligarchs, established total control of the government under himself, and re-established total governmental control of the economy. Every major oligarch has either been arrested (often through false or true claims of tax evasion), brought into the government to serve under Putin as one of his chiefs, or died over the last decade. Putin chose a loyal and intelligent agent, Dmitry Medvedev, to succeed him as President while he moved back to be the real puppet master in the office of the Prime Minister. Recently (2008/11) Medvedev announced that he may be stepping down as President to make way for Putin during the Russian state-of-the-nation address, and almost in the same breath announced that Presidential term limits may be extended soon. Putin has also resurrected the Party, though in this case it is not the Communist Party, and marginalized the legal basis under which any other party can exercise political power.

This is not at all unlike moves made in recent history to justify other dictatorships by legal standards (Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, etc.). The propaganda and dogma have changed within the country as they are no longer technically Communist, and now Russia no longer is self-compelled to follow an irrational social doctrine in a rational way. This expands Russia’s ideological foundation as a great nation sponsor to weaker potential allies (such as Argentina) without alienating their old Soviet ones (such as Cuba). The realities of Russia and its primary geopolitical interests and strategic focus have not changed much since the time of Vladimir I and will not end now that Russia is now effectively in the days of Vladimir IV.

Current Russian Initiatives

Russia’s strategic interests have been neglected during the most recent two decade of oligarchic rule. The primary focus of Russian policy can be summarized in two points: safeguard the Motherland and develop a sustainable capacity to project Russian power globally. This predicts several Russian initiatives which we can identify by watching the media with an eye to Russian affairs as well as a few others we have to pay careful attention to catch on to. As Moscow’s key interest is to secure itself the closer to Moscow an issue is geographically the more emphasis it receives. I will list them roughly according to that value system:

  • Centralize power
  • Establish regional hegemony
  • Safeguard the weaponization of energy policy
  • Divide and undermine the Western alliances
  • Establish non-interdictable blue-water ports
  • Prevent America and China from developing a capacity for space-blockade
  • Establish a sustainable nuclear balance favorable to Russia
  • Destabilize and establish presence in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia

If one looks carefully at this list, it is strikingly similar to the old Soviet list of strategic goals. That’s because it is nearly the same and not much has changed since the first Cold War, including the way Moscow is likely to go about achieving its ends.

An entire book could be written on each one of these subjects. My goal here is to merely draw attention to the challenges that America faces and explain the realities of what I am calling Cold War II. I will explain the current situation in relation to each as I understand it as briefly as possible.

Centralization of Power

At this point the first major goal has been effectively achieved. The remaining work to be done is maintenance of a position instead of creation of one. Vladimir Putin has already assumed unrivaled control of all state functions first by playing off oligarch’s interests against one another, and later by outright demanding fealty from them. He has passed the stage of mere oligarchical control and has moved on to the nationalization of strategic industries and the economy.

Whether it is still technically considered a free market or not, a situation where every major company is already 60% or more owned by either the government, a state bank or an oligarch who is now a senior government official may as well be a state economy. Putin has used the current global credit crisis and the windfall state tax earnings on the recent oil price bubble (which only just popped in September 2008) to issue state bail-outs of select banks. To keep a good face on things the language of the press releases which reference these controlling moves carefully mirror the language used in the US to explain the bailouts there, but the terms of these acquisitions are entirely different. The American focus of the bailout plans is to focus on a successful government exit from industry, the Russian plan is to entrench government control at all levels of the economy. Moscow now owns and permanently chairs all the major banks in addition to its own reserve system. Now that smaller banks are going bust, further bailouts are not an option – small banks must be acquired wholesale by the government entities or collapse.

The same is true for businesses of any strategic value such as heavy industry, technology, communications, infrastructure, construction or energy. As businesses feel the pressures of foreign investment fleeing the country and no credit lines being extended from banks the government rides in to save the day – and establishes its legal presence and absolute dominance over that company’s board and assets.

This economic conversion process is greatly aided by the fact that most large businesses are owned by oligarchs, who, if they are still alive and in business, work directly for Vladimir Putin now. They either serve him officially and have government titles in addition to their business titles or privately with a tacit understanding that they had better consider Moscow’s interests before considering their own.

Establishment of Regional Hegemony

This has been Moscow’s most important strategic imperative throughout history and represents, at its core, the need to create and maintain geographic buffer zones around Russia. This imperative has been expressed in two ways: by annexing extra territory or forcing neighboring states into vassal relationships. This could be seen in Russia’s early and middle expansions during the reign of Ivan III (“Ivan the Terrible” = interesting guy) and most notably during the Soviet era when Russia maintained secure buffers all around its periphery from Europe to East Asia. Russia felt more militarily secure during this period than at any other time and it is this situation Moscow is looking to recreate once again, albeit under a different label and with a far different public face. It is important to remember that the man in charge of Russia today spent his entire career prior to politics serving at senior levels of the KGB during the Soviet period. He is intimately familiar with the workings of the old Soviet Empire and knows how it was created and how to remake it. Of course, this time it can be done without the problematic ideological restrictions that communism placed upon the system.

Starting with the collapse and breakup of the Soviet in 1991 Moscow has seen the West gobble up its old Soviet possessions. This puts Russia into a historical and strategic panic and worries them about American intentions. The US does not intend to ever directly threaten Russia so long as its minds its own business, and to this end the Clinton administration made specific promises that NATO would never expand to include former Warsaw Pact nations. Over the last two decades, however, this is precisely what NATO has done.

From the Russian’s policy-making perspective, intentions can be ignored as it is never safe to base foreign policy and long-term national strategy on the assumed intentions of another nation – stated intentions must be backed up with tangible and enforceable realities. America and England fought more than one bloody war against each other but today find themselves such close allies they can correctly assume each other’s social, military and economic support. Japan and America were close strategic allies since Japan’s first acceptance of foreign influence yet fought World War II on opposite sides, resulting in America dropping two nuclear bombs on what historically (and currently) is a close ally. Politics is a fickle and ever changing beast, even at the national level. I include this to illustrate the imprudence of defining strategic policy on another nation’s imagined intentions, as they could easily change tomorrow when chance and circumstance present a different situation.

NATO was specifically founded as an anti-Soviet alliance. Russia today is the legal successor to the Soviet and therefore views NATO as an anti-Russian alliance. It may not be militarily potent without the US backing it, and the EU may be a geopolitical joke at this point, but the fact is that an anti-Russian military alliance which includes every American and European nation of any significance has extended itself to the very border of Russia and placed its limit of advance only a few hundred miles from Moscow. This is unacceptable from a Russian strategic perspective as it violates the buffers they have worked centuries to create. NATO works by consensus, meaning that any nation that does not agree with a group initiative can veto it and halt the motion. So every NATO member agreed to break the promise of not expanding into former Warsaw Pact nations when they decided to include Poland, Slovakia, Czech, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – essentially devouring and assimilating their former Warsaw Pact enemies, Russia’s Cold War allies.

Moscow has to draw a line somewhere or simply accept a crushing strategic defeat and relegate itself to being a middle-weight in the international community. Moscow does not take well to being sidelined. The line they chose to draw initially was Kosovo, staking their perceived international power and influence on the issue of Kosovar independence. Whether Kosovo became independent or not was of no consequence to the Russians in the long-run, they simply were taking a stand contrary to the West to assert themselves. This was the first instance of Russia demonstrating a shift from being just another friendly neighbor in the New Europe to being a potential adversary to the West. In the end, Kosovo became independent and Russia was treated as a non-entity, not only because it seemed a right thing from the Western point of view, but also because once Russia started a shoving match it became a Western political imperative to push back.

Kosovo was not the only place the West was pressuring Russia – or more precisely, where Russia felt pressured by the West. A string of political revolutions was moving in parallel with NATO expansion in former Warsaw Pact nations. They are often referred to as the “rainbow revolutions” or “color revolutions” because they all tended to be referred to by colors. The most threatening of these in Moscow’s view was the Orange Revolution which affected (or infected, depending on who you are asking) the Ukraine, the control of which Russia has always taken for granted. This revolution gave rise to a new set of political parties and, for the first time, a pro-West majority in the government under President Yushchenko. NATO membership was a serious consideration under Yushchenko, in part because it was absolutely anathema to the Russians. After all, over 30% of Soviet infrastructure development occurred in the Ukraine along with enormous strategic military expenditure. Simply letting Ukraine go not only West but go NATO is politically and strategically unacceptable, as this would give NATO possession of the strongest of all the former Warsaw Pact nations and remove the most key elements to any historical Russian buffer zone: Ukraine’s ocean access and its proximal buffer coverage of Moscow itself.

This violation of Russian influence and what Moscow saw as deliberate meddling in its strategic affairs demanded a response which Russia delivered in Georgia over the summer of 2008. Russia picked the time, place and topics upon which to deliver its response very wisely:

  • There was no better time than right then to mess with the US: Washington was militarily overextended by Iraq and Afghanistan and was not expecting military challenges outside of the Jihadist War. In fact, nearly everybody everywhere had bought into the naive new era idea that with the Cold War over national military conflicts were at an historical end. Until the US could get out of Iraq and restructures its military to face national military threats, little could be done without disproportionate efforts which would be socially and economically disruptive to the US.
  • Georgia is a key strategic location economically and politically and a brilliant choice for Russia: Georgia is selling itself to the West as the next Ukraine, ready to accept NATO membership (in fact, begging for it), the state in key possession of the BTC oil pipeline through which the majority of Central Asian oil flows to the outside world, and has two secessionist regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – which Russia could use to directly one-up the West’s Kosovo play.
  • Russia’s invasion of Georgia demonstrated that without America NATO was completely impotent. Moreover this demonstrated that Europe has elected to militarily castrate itself by indulging in an overly comfortable political and social life under the American security blanket. All the meetings and angry letters and noisy diplomatic “efforts” were shown to amount to nothing of real value. This  was aimed at crushing the European psyche and was a pointed invalidation of Europe’s “Soft Power” concept. The invasion also demonstrated that Russia can, and will, retake and control strategic energy infrastructure (the BTC pipeline) if it feels the need. This violation of Georgian sovereignty and subsequent sponsored secession and independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were Russia’s way of responding to the West’s sponsored secession of Kosovo a few years earlier.

This forces a strategic dilemma on the US over the mid-term: pick between the Middle East and East Europe. At the moment, Iran (represented by the Iraq conflict) is a lot more important an issue than Ukraine (represented by the Georgian conflict) for America. Russia recognized the situation and forced this decision with finesse.

It is an interesting feature of geopolitics that actions most often occur distant from their intended point of impact. The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 was not about Georgia, nor is the American-Iraq war about Iraq. Russia, America and certainly the leaders of Eastern Europe understand this, and the leaders of Eastern Europe such as Yushchenko and Timoshchenko in Ukraine, Angela Merkel in Germany, and Lech Kaczyński in Poland were the specific intended audience of this Russian action in Georgia.

Russia’s assertions in Eastern Europe will not stop with Georgia, rather they were a public announcement of Moscow’s reassumption of regional power status. The list of other Russian activities in its local area are far too numerous to detail here, but it is fair to say that Russia is well on the path to resumption of Soviet power plays minus the communist ideology which hamstrung it during the Cold War. Current Russian President Dmitri Medvedev recently announced that Russia would be asserting its national interests and established that Moscow specifically rejects and will counter what it sees as unbalanced American influence in the world – this amounts to as close a declaration of a cold war as we’re likely to get. As mentioned above, he announced a few weeks later that he would likely be stepping down from the Presidency (ostensibly to make room for Putin’s return) and had extended Presidential term limits. All of this works to secure Russia’s perceived and actual position of regional power and Putin’s personal control over the conduct of Russian affairs.

They key part of Medvedev’s short speech is worth reproducing here:

“I will make five principles the foundation for my work in carrying out Russia’s foreign policy.

First, Russia recognizes the primacy of the fundamental principles of international law, which define the relations between civilized peoples. We will build our relations with other countries within the framework of these principles and this concept of international law.

Second, the world should be multipolar. A single-pole world is unacceptable. Domination is something we cannot allow. We cannot accept a world order in which one country makes all the decisions, even as serious and influential a country as the United States of America. Such a world is unstable and threatened by conflict.

Third, Russia does not want confrontation with any other country. Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop friendly relations with Europe, the United States, and other countries, as much as is possible.

Fourth, protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country. Our foreign policy decisions will be based on this need. We will also protect the interests of our business community abroad. It should be clear to all that we will respond to any aggressive acts committed against us.

Finally, fifth, as is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are home to countries with which we share special historical relations and are bound together as friends and good neighbors. We will pay particular attention to our work in these regions and build friendly ties with these countries, our close neighbors. These are the principles I will follow in carrying out our foreign policy.

As for the future, it depends not only on us but also on our friends and partners in the international community. They have a choice.”

These directives place Russia in direct conflict with America and the West while likely accelerating the breakup of the EU and division of Europe. It is worth noting that the language of this speech is unusually direct and confrontational for anything coming from a diplomat who is not at war or rousing support for one (well, in a way, he is rousing domestic support for a broad conflict, not just a war). The intended audience was not folks at home in Russia, but the leaders of the West.

Safeguarding the use of Energy Policies as a Weapon

Russia’s recent resurrection as a regional power and coming out has been largely dependent on wise use of its energy resources both as an economic vehicle and as a political weapon in political conflicts with Europe. The feature which most defines Russia’s energy policies and business practices is its infrastructure, as discussed above. Safeguarding its position as the energy broker for Europe and extending its reach to East Asia is critical for a prolonged use of this important tool.

Europe is increasingly wary of Russian energy policies and is now recognizing what the implications of its huge dependence on Russian energy means in times of less than friendly East-West contact. Despite the immense cost of trans-oceanic pipelines, new oil reception facilities at ports and generally re-routing the way energy flows around the region, such re-routing seems increasingly to have value in the eyes of European leaders. These sort of changes cannot be implemented overnight. This gives Russia a chance to continue walking the fine line of making its energy favorable enough for Europe to not go to the expense and political effort of engineering a major change in its energy infrastructure while still wielding it as a geopolitical weapon to squeeze concessions out of the same Europeans.

Without getting too detailed, interesting developments to watch will be how Turkey responds to Russia’s BTC control demonstrations in Georgia, how Iran responds to the new Russian realities with its own pipeline plans, how India tries to fit itself into the picture through the Iranian angle and how the Chinese will feel about expanded access to Central Asian energy if that energy appears to come with strings attached. For example: Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in historically unusual discussions about economic co-development, peace initiatives (Armenia and Azerbaijan are usually at least at odds with one another, if not indirectly at war most of the time) and, tellingly, developing new energy infrastructure which bypasses Georgia. Russia will certainly be trying its best to influence any developments in this area.

Division and undermining of Western Alliances (NATO and EU)

NATO was demonstrated to be impotent when the Americans are busy during the Russo-Georgian War. The idea that Europe is critically weak in all ways military is not new, but what is new for this generation of Europeans is the sudden re-assertion of the age-old principle that political statements are only as strong as the military actions which can enforce them. Thus, Europe has been demonstrated to be generally weak – an assertion that Europeans have tried to reject for some time now with lots of thought and talk wasted on given to the concept of “soft power”.

A weak but united Europe is a scary reality for European leaders. They are facing the dilemma now of which way to spin their foreign policies. The EU does not have a unified and enforceable foreign policy and the specter of a Russian regional power yanking East Europe one direction and a typically American-allied Western Europe pulling in a different one places strains on inter-EU relationships to say the least. This sort of political shearing can already be seen in the different approaches France and Germany have taken to the Russian problem as well as the way different Eurozone nations are responding to the current liquidity problem – a problem exacerbated by the fact that the Euro is regulated by a central bank which has no controls placed on its fiscal policies which ties into any coherent EU foreign or trade policy. (This economic reality has created some ridiculously dangerous financial circumstances within the Eurozone that were just waiting for a problem such as the current liquidity crisis to massively upset. Watching the European economic collapse will be an interesting spectator sport and add to Russia’s leverage, while at the same time defining a weakness in Russian control concepts.)

Russia can go about widening these European divides in a few ways. On the military side Moscow could create a new European military alliance which includes Russia (and possibly excludes America) or even join NATO itself merely to confuse the issue of collective defense and redefine relationships. On the diplomatic side of things Russia can use energy dependence to manipulate the intra-EU policy stances of some nations, basically playing puppet master to pit one nation against another to create artificial rifts or exacerbate existing ones. There are social elements to Russia’s menu of options as well, such as using ethnic Russian minorities in the Baltic states as an excuse for intervention there the same way the Grand Duchy of Moscow did to justify intervention in and eventual annexation of Novogorod a few hundred years ago.

Regardless how Russia goes about splitting Europe up, keeping Europe from having any solidarity reduces the chances of having a potentially anti-Russian superstate form next door. Dealing with America is difficult enough already and they are an ocean away in both directions, dealing with a unified Europe and America would be too much, so keeping Europe in a confused political state (as is historically likely and predictable) is to Russia’s benefit.

Establishment of Non-Interdictable Blue-Water Ports

Russia has never been a naval power but has always dreamed of it. Control of the world’s oceans confers absolute control over what moves where how fast. In times of peace this can be used as a diplomatic tool and in times of war this is critical to preventing any enemy from building up or consolidating any position. Naval power is the first requirement for true, unconditional power projection as the US has repeatedly demonstrated. It cannot be argued, for example, that if the US had been adamantly opposed to the British engagement in the Falkland War that it could have engaged and sunk the British attack fleet the minute it was underway in international waters. On the flip side of this, if Britain were the global naval superpower it could have prevented American access to and engagement with Iraq in 1991 or 2003, not to mention Afghanistan, Somalia or anywhere else. He who controls the oceans can decide a lot about who does what when and where.

Russia, remembering how it was hamstrung by American naval power during the Cold War, is justifiably envious of the American naval position and even envious of the technological edge the Japanese still enjoy over their forces.

It needs to be understood that naval power is not simply about number of ships or even how capable each ship is from a technological standpoint. A single ship is a massively complex organizational entity and must be practiced and proficient in every facet of its operation. This requires continues deployment for fleets and a rigid focus on the organizational development and maintenance of a highly professional body of navy personnel replete with personal and collective skills. What this means for Russia is that lack of a blue-water port which cannot easily be blockaded (the way their easternmost ports can by the US and Japan), cannot easily be bottled up (the way the Black Sea can by the US or Turkey), and can be accessed year round (unlike the Sea of Finland where ice interrupts shipping throughout the fall and winter).

Moves in this direction have placed special emphasis on expanding its control over the Crimean, gentle pressure on Turkey and expanding its base of discussion over the Kuril Island dispute with Japan. Other moves in this direction seem to be in Africa, the Middle East and South America with rumored discussions about proposed Russian naval base construction in a number of locations. Obviously Russia simply cannot support the sort of force or the sort of facilities America has access to, but a start is a start and will once again place Russia in direct competition with America over global naval primacy.

Preventing America and China from Developing a Capacity for Space Blockade

Control over space is important in a very similar way that control over the oceans is. At the moment conflicts over space do not seem to be openly occurring, at least not in the traditional media. That is because the big argument over dominance of space is wrapped up in the language of ballistic missile diplomacy. Russia recognizes that the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) nuclear policy of Cold War I is economically unsustainable and generally pointless anyway. While Russia has an interest in maintaining a nuclear edge over its neighbors, it likely does not find it a reasonable basis for foreign policy development. That being said, all the bickering over the ABM shield really boils down to bickering over the creation of an American dominated (well, at least very Western + Japan dominated) gateway to space flight. Any technology which can shoot down ballistic missiles is also capable of shooting down space-bound rockets.

This is not to say that anyone is racing to weaponize space just now, far from it. Rather, America is looking to ensure the non-weaponization of space, at least over the mid-term. At the moment Russia is not looking to weaponize space either, but having a barrier to space launch which is controlled by someone else is not something the Russians would ever want to contend with in the future if control of space ever becomes an issue. Erection of such a launch barrier would simply guarantee that achieving parity or supremacy in space will face discouraging challenges in the same way that anyone trying to challenge American naval dominance would face unreasonable challenges.

I included China in this discussion to point out that Beijing is also exploring a land-based anti-satellite program. So far their concept includes ground-based laser and missile systems as well as space-borne elements such as killer satellites. Russia would be equally opposed to such a system whether controlled by China or America. The only ABM system Moscow would ever be in agreement with would be a Russian one. Expect to see Russia not only fighting this on the diplomatic front, but also on the technical. Russia is working hard to modify its current surface-to-air missile programs to be more comprehensive and include the capacity to engage the American ground-based anti-missile-missiles.

Though it sounds funny to try building anti-missile-missile-missiles – or anti-anti-missiles – this is deadly serious business to the Russians. Whoever succeeds in controlling space at the outset of serious human exploitation and colonization of space will control the nature and pace of those efforts, as well as reap the benefits of the new mercantilist front when it finally does open in earnest.

Establishment of Sustainable Nuclear Balance Favorable to Russia

As noted above, it is not favorable for Russia to return to the MAD doctrine of the first Cold War. Rather, Moscow’s new nuclear policy is aimed at creating interlocking regions of Russian-sponsored nuclear states which serve the long-term interest of Russia. This is a tricky issue at best, but it is the only solution Moscow sees as viable. Given that there is no way to make science a complete secret, it is reasonable to assume that any sufficiently motivated nation or even extra-national group in the world will eventually achieve a nuclear capacity.

Russia understands very well that there is a world of difference between the capacity to construct a “nuclear device” and the weaponization of that device. That fact coupled with the principle that eventually anyone, if left to their own devices, is likely capable of achieving nuclear status prompts the Russians to try to guide those developments instead of strictly resist them as the US (usually) does. This, of course, will occur within the framework of diplomacy and extraction of political concessions from the West as well as regional concessions based on carefully considered long-term Russian interests.

We can see this policy in action in Iran, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Nuclear and potential nuclear states are of great interest to the US and Europe. With that in mind, Russian agreement or complicity with sanctions or military action against such states is often vital to ensure their actual isolation. Russia has already made continued cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran conditional upon America’s complicity in Russia’s establishment of regional hegemony in Eastern Europe. This, naturally, places Russia once again in direct conflict with American and general Western interests.

Destabilization of and Establishment of Presence in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia

This particular subject is so broad and diverse that I simply cannot cover it here. Let it simply be said that Russia seeks to keep America busy in its own backyard through a resumption of old Soviet destabilization tactics. Activities such as support for Sandinista-like groups, sanctioning of state-sponsored organized crime contact with Mexican anti-government drug cartels, fostering of anti-American regimes in likely places (such as Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba or Venezuela), vast anti-American propaganda campaigns (which, when coupled with light sponsorship of drug-related organized crime multiply their effect many times over, a covert “gift that keeps on giving”), regional assassinations, fostering of civil disruptions in likely areas and regional conflicts (such as the one brewing in Bolivia).

South America may be the area of greatest emphasis on the global destabilization drive, but Russia has continued interest in the execution of other destabilizing activities. Namely the disruption of Africa and Southeast Asia. Russia is not geographically or industrially predisposed to benefit from African resources. After all, Russia is a primary resource exporter itself and doesn’t need Africa. But the West and East Asia need Africa, and denial of that area as an economic (and eventual consumer) base is a Russian imperative. Destabilization of Southeast Asia serves a slightly different purpose, as Southeast Asia is not a region that the West will ever come to depend on, but will certainly spend what the Russians consider an inordinate amount of effort to try to resettle and organize.

All of this effort spent putting out brushfires across the world will be effort which cannot be focused and spent working directly against Russia. It is for this fundamental reason that very often the Russian path of resistance is highly indirect and places Russian agents and initiative quite far from both Russia and its primary rivals.

ZOMG that was a long article…

Washington has things it would like to see done a certain way. Moscow would like things to be done in a significantly different way. These two powers are far too large to be contained by their own regions and this leads them to fundamental global conflict. This conflict became perceivable with the rift on the Kosovo issue. It broke out into the open when Bush visited Ukraine in early 2008 to demonstrate support for Yushchenko and the pro-West Ukrainian shift. The first shooting part of this conflict occurred in Georgia with the Russian invasion. The Russian and American rhetoric have become increasingly Cold War-ish over the past few months and there is no clear end to it in sight.

I am therefore dubbing this Cold War II, as it fits the criteria of the first Cold War. It just doesn’t seem as scary yet because, well, Commies were freaking scary back in the day and we just haven’t made up our minds about what to think of a technically democratic and supposedly capitalist adversarial Russia. It breaks the social programming of the  American or European’s threat identification criteria. Clearly, a new paradigm will eventually be needed. As odd as it may seem, the fact remains America and Russia are fundamentally locked in conflict from this point forward.

Recent US elections saw the Democrats saying anything they felt they needed to get elected into office – this is normal, politicians tend to do that. The geopolitical realities imposed on the US at this time, however, will dictate that the Democrats will likely have to behave very differently from the way they said they would. This could alienate the population in the same way it did for George Bush – and he had the solid advantage of being able to generally say what he was going to be up to when in office, at least his second time around.

These challenges will highlight one very interesting American fundamental that is almost guaranteed to not receive media attention: that America and Americans, whether Democrat or Republican or black or white, perceive and respond to the world much more in common than they represent themselves to. Barak Obama and his staff see challenges on the horizon and they are right to be cautious and very forward-thinking. George W. Bush has been intimately involved in dealing with these precise problems and understands very well the gravity of the situation. Neither man is stupid and both have very similar visions of the world and how it should work – after all, they are both Americans. Expect to see a highly coordinated and far more supportive exchange of American power from Bush to Obama than the media, campaign statements or the overly-vocal fringe Right or Left elements would lead you to expect.

2008.11.9 12:26

Implications of Democratic Control of Congress and Presidency

Filed under: Politics / Geopolitics,Special Series — zxq9 @ 12:26

I have been pretty quiet about the elections in the US. This is because in addition to recently catching up with what is going on I have had a lot to consider before writing anything except for a simple article explaining a simple situation. I have also always maintained that the course a nation takes is largely predetermined by circumstances, accidents of geography, and social realities. This leaves little room for the influence of one man — in this case Barak Obama — to have much effect, and indeed reality will be imposed upon him and we will soon see his policies and views change significantly. Obama will be dealing with — and expected to be at least on par with — the likes of Putin, Merkel, Sarkozy, Hu Jintao, the Ayatollahs and a host of other highly experienced persons of power who will not be moved by charisma or any childish notions of “change” that are not strictly to their benefit and often America’s specific detriment. A similar process will unfold in the Congress. That being considered, I did not view the election campaign itself or its outcome to be of significance, as the course they must take is largely already determined.

The Democrats have been elected, proving that they have mastered the art of saying the right things in public to get elected and convincing the media to frame them in the desired way. Now it is time to deal with reality and we will soon see how masterful they are at playing the actual game of geopolitical balance while trying to appear to live up to their campaign promises. It is very easy to say radical things, make broad sweeping gestures and produce emotionally pleasing sounds about some entirely undefined and ambiguous “change” when you are in the minority of Congressional and Executive power. Once you are actually in control, however, you must obey the laws of reality or risk sinking your ship.

Reality will be imposed upon the next version of the American government in three ways which differ significantly from the general public view of how government works:

  1. The roles of the President, the Congress, the Treasury and the Judiciary (i.e. Supreme Court) vary significantly from the way the public tends to imagine them to be.
  2. Government finance and the way the economy functions are grossly misunderstood by the public.
  3. The effects of competing foreign interest is almost always not only misunderstood but greatly discounted when understood by the public.

That being said, the Democrats have a desire to be in power. They are power hungry. That is why they have formed a political party — to gain and maintain as much power as possible over the workings of the United States. That means also that they desire to have the US be powerful itself. This means they do not wish to preside over the decline and demise of the US as a global superpower, the only meaningful military power left in the world and the only national economic entity sufficiently diversified enough to weather the current financial turmoil without panic. Here it should be noted that there is absolutely no distinction between economic and military power — they are deeply related, particularly in the case of the US, and are two sides of the same coin in the view of powerful statesmen and leaders. To maintain the base of American power in the world it will be fundamentally necessary to behave in a way which is in direct contradiction to campaign promises.

The electoral votes were decisive and substantial, but the popular vote was anything but a landslide. This leaves plenty of room for a public shift in public opinion. I predict that this in combination with the impending demise of the Democratic wishful imaginings about the status of the world will have two effects: Barak Obama will find himself with a drastically reduced support base as his presidency moves forward, and the support base of the Democrats will either split entirely or shift such that they will no longer enjoy a majority confidence after a few years. [While this series focuses on geopolitical issues and foreign policy — the principal job of the Office of President — Stratfor has written an excellent article which focuses on the domestic political control issues facing Obama and how he is handling them early by selecting his political appointees.]

Fully understanding this position requires a good bit of background explanation. I am therefore going to attempt to produce a small series which will investigate some of the larger forces at work in the world and how these forces will constrain and limit the choices America has over the next several years. Geopolitical issues I see as significant to the next American government are:

  • The Defining Realities of Russia and Cold War II
  • Necessary US plays in Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Iranian regional control issues
  • Iraq
  • The Lebanese equation
  • Global economy and finance
  • Georgia
  • Turkey’s re-emergence
  • The Mexican Drug War
  • Bolivian unrest
  • Brazil’s emergence
  • Venezuela-Cuba-Russia
  • Saudi Arabia, OPEC and oil politics
  • Dysfunction and demise of the EU concept
  • India’s regional role
  • Status of terrorist organizations
  • The Koreas
  • China’s potential for turmoil

Each of these topics will be the subject of an article. I will update this introduction page and link to each article as I write it. Some may morph, split, or combine as I work my way through them. All are closely related to one another. I just have to pick the places to divide each major issue into manageable chunks for myself and the reader. This will culminate in a final essay explaining what I see as the major constraining factors at work against any attempt at abrupt “change” in the American system.

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