Russians play chess. A lot. It is reflected in their foreign policy. On the grand scale, they rarely make an unnecessary move. No pawn is budged solely because it is their turn. And when they make a necessary move it is decisive and quick. Then they hold firm, adapt to the new dynamic and repeat the method.
At least this has been the strategy since Putin has been in charge. We are not talking about Russian domestic policy, day to day foreign manipulations or trade agreements with neighbors. We are talking about the great and slow game Russia plays with NATO. Global hegemony and long term survival. Organic war.
In the past few years there are a couple of conflicts which reflect what we call ‘Putin’s Pounds of Flesh’.
In 2008, there was an irrelevant-to-us kerfuffle occurring in a small autonomous region called South Ossetia. South Ossetia is located within Georgia but had remained autonomous since the fall of the Soviet Union with the assistance of Russia and their counterparts in North Ossetia, located in Russia.
To the ire of Russia, NATO had been cozying up to Georgia for years by providing training and arms to the pro-western government installed via a revolution/coup in 2003. When Georgia brazenly bombed and sent in heavily armed troops to quell unrest in South Ossetia against the wishes of Russia, crap hit the fan fast. For Georgians.
We can only presume NATO and Georgia were confident of success in South Ossetia because Russia had not militarily asserted itself outside of its borders against a NATO-backed operation for twenty years. However, the end result of this campaign was a change in global dynamics to NATO’s detriment and the beginning of further aggressions which continue to escalate.
Supposedly, the plan was the Georgians would occupy South Ossetia without a significant Russian response. Most likely, the West would then use media and friendly regional governments to bolster a supporting narrative to maintain this new status quo, delivering a direct blow to Russia’s ability to exert influence on its borders. Hopefully, further emboldening nations to attempt similar maneuvers or more loudly assert interests counter to Russia.
We say ‘would’ because this plan never got very far. Instead of accept the bombing of South Ossetia and deaths of Russian peacekeepers, Russia promptly invaded the next morning. Not just South Ossetia but Georgia itself. Even from the perspective of those not privy to superior information, it was clear the Russian army was wiping the floor with their Georgian counterparts. Within five days, Russia effectively conquered Georgia as if it were a movie only stopping 60KM outside of the capital Tbilisi. This was a statement to Georgia and the world that Georgia exists because Russia allows it to exist. And a larger statement that a bear has awoken.
Then attempting to appear magnanimous, Russia pulled back rather than destroy any more of Georgia. Yet they decided to keep South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia, because really what could Georgia or anyone do about it.
This was the first pound of flesh taken by Putin’s Russia (at least which these simple observers noticed). Somebody messed with them beyond a determined threshhold so they made a quick and decisive move, changing their borders to their benefit before pulling back and allowing themselves and everyone to digest the new status quo. This has been their strategy since and so far without failure.
As an aside, we do wonder about the origins of the 2008 Georgian conflict. A plausible belief is NATO urged Georgia into the conflict at that time because they feared Russia’s long-term ability to re-assert itself after the rise in the price of oil since 2000. Back then, anyone could tell the next fifteen years looked brighter for Russia than the past fifteen years. NATO most likely wanted to maintain a weakened Russia before high commodity prices would allow Russia to strengthen further. In the 1990’s, NATO may have incorrectly assumed Russia would remain broke and indebted to western institutions for the next 30 years, providing ample time to slowly destroy Russia from within by various means.
However, it worked almost too perfectly for Russia. This conflict became the symbol of Russia’s resurgence on the global stage. Could Russia have duped Georgia or NATO into thinking Georgian action would be successful in South Ossetia and Russia would only bluff a response? Then when the bait was taken, Russia could respond swiftly, looking like a dominant military force and counter-weight to NATO and putting the skids on further near-term plans by any neighboring states.
Regardless of the true cause of the Georgian conflict, the result was a clear victory for Moscow. Further, the reasons for the Russian victory were not lost on NATO. A surplus country, Russia was able to re-invest into armed forces as well as re-establish itself as a major economic player. After Georgia, it must have been clear within the Pentagon that Russia’s ability to profit from its natural resource wealth had to be disrupted in order for smaller sovereigns to be able to chip away at the Russian bear.
But since attacking Russia directly and occupying its oil fields and Siberia are not a feasible or sane option, the only way to successfully send Russia back to the poor house is to take away buyers of Russian oil and gas: Eastern and Central Europe. Most of Europe would like independence of Russian energy but do not have a choice. The map of the world is the only map the world. At least for now.
So in examining the map, it is clear one country stands in the way of pipelines from the gulf to eastern and central Europe: Syria.
Forget what is said about chemical weapons or the evil-madman Assad. Forget whatever contrived reason will all-the-sudden become urgent to act upon. What matters is Syria stands in the way of a NATO victory in an organic war. Long a target for regime change, the attempts against Syria began heating up and eventually so began with what we will glibly refer to as Plan A: Syrian Arab spring. Of course, an Arab Spring covertly supported by the West which would topple Assad and place in power a pro-western government. A new and fledgling government which would need assistance and be willing to barter easements for pipelines. But the Syrian Arab Spring did not happen.
So then it was plan B: pay and arm violent opposition groups of any variety under the guise of humanitarian or good-guy rebel resistance against an evil regime. U.S. politicians went all in like fools on this one trying to arm these groups at every opportunity even though many of them were anti-American jihadi-style nutballs. Senator John McCain actually and stupidly went out there to meet a bunch of rag tag idiots masquerading in suits to help craft this image. What a joke. McCain needs a better handler. Plan B failed as well but not totally. The Syrian resistance groups like Al-Nusra sprang up and did manage to take over regions of the country, creating humanitarian nightmares for ordinary people and crippling the Syrian economy and its ability to support Assad in perpetuity. However, without more direct NATO assistance the rebels were losing the war with Assad and it was clear Plan B would never achieve the desired result.
Even if Assad’s forces are limited to western portions of the country indefinitely, they will still be able to indefinitely prevent any pipelines from crossing any portion of the country with their superior air force. Further, since a weakened Assad will always need the support of Russia to survive, it is assured destruction of any pipelines throughout the country will be as paramount an objective to Assad’s regime as holding Damascus. A weakened and diminutive Assad does nothing to further the ultimate objective. He and any threat to a future NATO-backed power within Syria had to go.
If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. On to Plan C. As it became apparent the rag tag numbskull murderous rebels would not get the job done on their own, NATO looked for way to get directly active in the conflict but needed a nice, juicy and salacious piece of news to go their way. Lo’ and behold as Assad’s forces were finally starting to win the Syrian civil war, Assad’s regime attacked civilians with chemical weapons….because…you know…this is exactly what people do when victory seems close at hand. At least this is what the always-honest American media reported.
Either way, the fortuitously timed reason was provided and every grandstanding politician and news-actor talked about red lines being crossed and the need to do something now. Like an Iraq-redux horror show, the war machine kicked off with lightening bi-partisan speed. Ships and war planes were being maneuvered and it appeared another major war and soulless disaster was upon us.
Now if you understand how much effort NATO is exerting to get rid of Syria, imagine how much Russia values Syria. They are looking at the same maps we are and know more than anyone what happens if Europe were able to ignore Russian gas in favor of NATO-backed Qatari and gulf oil. Syria is for all the marbles. Russia did not give much of a shit when the US attacked Iraq other than the usual diplomatic back and forth. They do not give too much of a shit about the US bombing everyone in East Africa and Central Asia. But Syria they care about.
So when NATO was arming up, Putin did what he believed was necessary to protect Russia’s future sovereignty. Russia literally anchored half its navy off the coast of Syria and declared Syria would give up any weapons. He essentially dared the US to risk a REAL-MOFO war over Assad and over some chemical attack which half of American suspected was done by their own government or the jihadis we sponsor. We did not live during the Cuban missile crisis but this was as nerve racking as we are willing to put up with.
Sadly, we did not worry Russia would dare pull a trigger to start something. We were petrified we would and so were many Americans. This trepidation led to an all out bi-partisan outcry from normal Americans shouting about how no one wanted this war. This was public pressure not experienced before any past American war run-up. Allies dropped like flies saying they would take no part. Putin ran a piece in Time Magazine pitching Americans to stop their leaders. Think about this for a second. At no point did it ever seem possible the president of Russia would appear far more sane to our public than any American leader. Shocking. The U.S. government stood alone in its desire to attack Assad. No one wanted to risk a war with Russia for this and Putin’s gambit worked to perfection.
This was a bold, dangerous and smart gamble. Putin read the psyche of the American people and the allies well. He knew there would be too much static refuting evidence about the chemical attack to garner enough support among the allies or public. And by having all those warships in between NATO and its objective, Russia and Putin showed they were willing to risk starting World War III, even if by accident, to protect their interests. This is the statement to learn: Russia will fight a world war against NATO to protect Syria, which is an important piece to victory and the survival of the power structures on each side.
Welcome to Plan D. After NATO’s attempt to topple Syria was thwarted by the trump card which is the Black Sea Fleet, the objective became to neutralize the reach and effect of Russia’s navy to prevent a re-occurrence of what happened. There can always be another chemical attack or crossed red line to throw at Assad and restart the war machine on a moment’s notice. Therefore and since direct military action against Russia is not on the table, the Black Sea Fleet must be neutralized without direct action so the next opportunity against Assad can be capitalized upon.
Almost immediately after the flop in Syria, a “natural and grassroots’ uprising manifested in Ukraine. Very conveniently timed to serve NATO’s interest, Russia was left with a dilemma regarding the Crimean Peninsula, which hosted Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
For a brief period, it looked as if NATO would be able to dislodge the Black Sea Fleet from its base, forcing it farther East into the Black Sea. Further, had Ukraine swiftly become a solidified NATO ally, NATO warships could at some future point dock at what would have been the former Russian base at Sevastopol. Had this occurred, it would have been unlikely Putin would be able to position half his navy off the coast of Syria to prevent a future attack. Rather the Black Sea Fleet would be bogged down in the Black Sea concerned about proximity of NATO warships to the Russian heartlands.
This was the plan. Take Ukraine and limit the reach of Russia’s military so the bear cannot thwart the creation of a pipeline from the middle east to Europe. After Georgia and Plan C, NATO understood Russia may always be able to threaten or call the bluff of the West with troops since Western citizenries, no matter how brainwashed, are not keen on potentially nuclear wars over middle eastern or central asian states. Joe Schmoe does not give a shit about organic warfare, only his immediate welfare.
Plan D was ambitious but as Mike Tyson said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The Russian response to the developments in Ukraine was incredibly swift. Putin took another pound of flesh, holding up a middle finger to the world and topping his party off with a Winter Olympics. And this pound weighed a lot more than an Ossetia and Abkhazia combined. They took the Crimean peninsula immediately. Regardless of statements about future elections, Crimea was Russian territory permanently upon its seizure. The future elections were processing stamps for bureaucrats. (During the opening ceremonies at Sochi, Team Russia walked in playing Tatu’s Not Gonna Get Us. Cheeky.)
It should have been no surprise Russia would not yield control over Crimea or accept the loss of its base at Sevastopol. Doing so would be accepting the neutralization of the Black Sea fleet, accepting the toppling of Syria and creation of a pipeline. And ultimately accepting of the loss of revenues from natural resources and a return to indebtedness a la the days of always-drunk Boris Yeltsin.
Rather, what was surprising was NATO’s tepid non-response to this obvious maneuver. We are not sure if Plan D, similar to Georgia, included merely hoping Russia would go along or if there was a plan to assert some military control over Crimea. Either way, Russia’s swift and decisive action created a new status quo before NATO could change the dynamic. Russia took back the land Kruschev gave to Ukraine and the Black Sea fleet maintained its uninterrupted reign throughout the Black Sea with easy access to the Eastern Mediterranean.
While NATO would love to create a land dilemma along the massive and flat border between these two nations, this consolation prize seems unlikely. In the East, Russia asserts enough influence quietly it can be sure to maintain an appropriate land buffer for some time and would likely invade eastern Ukrainian provinces if they felt it necessary. With the NATO government in Kiev broke and barely able to function, blame for current and future problems are falling at the feet of the newly elected ‘pro-democracy’ leaders. Russia seems quite capable and willing to keep Ukraine a mess for as long as it needs. So far, it appears unlikely NATO can establish a long-term or stable government without Russia’s agreement and involvement, which would negate any benefits to Plan D.
But after Plans A, B, and C, Plan D was not the only plan in action. Making a go at the Black Sea Fleet’s base is not the ultimate goal since direct confrontation is not on the table. A pipeline through Syria is the goal and NATO will seek it regardless of whether it can succesfully limit Russia’s military influence. It will simply adjust tactics and try new strategies.
Plan E is concurrent with Plan D. In fact, to these casual observers, we are not sure which started first. After the failures of Plan B and Plan C, NATO realized they would not be able to topple Assad by providing direct support to abhorrent militant groups. By being allies to such groups, NATO invites public and private opposition and can not generate sufficient support for the broad military assistance/action required to topple Assad’s regime. Especially when backed by Russia. No ally good enough could be created for which Western citizens would be willing to sacrifice.
Unable to find an ally to topple Assad, NATO needed an enemy to be an enemy of Assad. An enemy powerful and fluid enough to get the job done but vile enough Western peoples and leaders would never tolerate such a group running a country like Syria. A group so hideous and evil whom if they did obtain power, NATO would be cheered as heroes for changing the regime even if it meant full scale war. At least this is what Western peoples would be told while pipelines would be built. But who could conveniently do such a job? There is no Saddam to convince to invade neighbors. Al-Nusra and the other groups were allies and could not do it. So who?
Abracadabra ISIS. Again, perfectly timed. A mysteriously powerful and ambitious group spawned in the vast expanse of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Armed to the teeth with weapons ‘stolen’ from allied hands, they will do the most evil made-for-tv actions. Mass murder of innocents? Check. Raping women and children? Check. Beheading people and sticking skulls on posts outside of cities like it were the middle ages? Check. Every evil and nightmarish stereotype of the worst humans imaginable? Check. Check. Check.
Yet fortunately for us, they want to topple Assad and sell oil in a conveniently located area. Granted, they want to topple many but we casual observers know who is first on their list. And it does not take a genius to figure out should they be successful, the West will not wait long before fully invading Syria to replace the ISIS regime and control the vacuum thus created. Imagine terrifying and heart-wrenching scenes on the streets of ancient Damascus. Pundits will talk about how the most evilly vile and backwards regime conceivable (literally) is inflicting horrible crimes on the Syrian people who the West will, again, all the sudden give a massive shit about. ISIS is a venomously insidious and useful tool. If they were to take uncontested power in Syria or a major portion thereof, no one could argue against taking them out without sounding like an immoral coward. There could be no letter from Putin urging the American people. ISIS provides the perfect excuse for intervention wherever they go.
Plan E has been viciously productive. Mindless Western masses are eating it up. But it has not been successful or neared ultimate success and Assad remains despite ISIS. Further, Russia has not yet thrown a punch in Plan E. They are unlikely to do so unless Assad is truly threatened with losing power. Russia does not care whether Assad rules from a bunker while all of Syria burns. Russia only cares to assure the current dynamic does not allow the construction of pipelines.
Should ISIS appear close to success against Assad or should the West be close to taking control of Syria either through Assad or through ISIS post-Assad, recent history shows Russia will take quick and decisive action to alter the status quo to their advantage. Then they will hold firm not caring about Western noise or mis-guided sanctions which hurt Western economies more than Russia. Putin will try to take another and probably larger pound of flesh from the West and not look back.
Perhaps it will be a coup in Turkey, a revolution in Greece or war in the Balkans. Perhaps the announcement of a gold-backed Asian currency to combat the dollar or the sudden unannounced arrival of heavily-armed Russian “peace keepers” in Damascus. From our un-illuminated perspective, this is impossible to predict. But it will come and there will be a new dynamic for which everyone must adapt. Then it will be on to Plan F and G and so on and so forth and yadda yadda yadda.