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Here We Go Again

In the early years of the new millennium, any political analyst who said that a hand from Russia was preparing itself to reach westward to seize

Europe in a cold, greedy grip would have been regarded as a terrible analyst and maybe a bit goofy. Most people would have discarded the message as stale propaganda left over from the Cold War. And who needed that? The Cold War was finished, and the West had won. In the aftermath, the Russians were too busy crying in their vodka to prepare to do anything.

Yet in fact a new, Colder War was developing. Its weapons would be oil wells, gas fields, uranium mines, energy processing plants, pipelines, and ports. Again, Europe would be the primary zone of engagement even though the United States would be the primary opponent. (See Figure 6.1.)

Russia's vast resource wealth and China's massive bank account were readily available to found a new coalition that could include former Soviet client states and countries along the Eurasian divide and in the Far East. The coalition might also attract countries in Africa and Latin America that just didn't like the way the United States had been comporting itself on the world stage.

And Vladimir Putin has presented himself as the leader of that emerging bloc.

In matters of foreign policy, it has never been a secret that Putin despises the United States' self-appointed role as global policeman and holds Europe equally at fault for cooperating with U.S. foreign policy. As for the U.S. presidents who have stood beside Putin in world affairs, just a mention of the names Bush and Obama are enough to evoke his contempt.

Putin believes a leader should be both strong and flexible, as circumstances dictate. The past two American presidents have been neither. To Putin, Bush was a slow-witted, bull-headed man under the sway of his neoconservative advisers and war drum beaters. Obama is just not up to the task—a geopolitical lightweight who was easily outmaneuvered in Syria and Iran.

For Putin, military force, when it is clearly necessary, should be swift and unforgiving, as he demonstrated in Chechnya. But an unprovoked invasion is a losing move. Why confront another nation with soldiers when you can build cooperative relations that will serve your interests so much better in the long run?

How Much Europe Depends on Russian Energy Source: Eurostat as published by Global Trade Information Services.

Figure 6.1 How Much Europe Depends on Russian Energy Source: Eurostat as published by Global Trade Information Services.

The long run is what matters. Putin's scorn for the American political process and American indifference to anything beyond the next election is boundless.

For a long while, the U.S. government could go about its business regardless of what Russia said or did in the United Nations Security

Council. If a Russian veto tried to interfere, the United States would proceed with its plans through NATO or some "coalition of the willing," or even go it alone if no one else would come along. Washington snubbed Moscow at every turn, quite intentionally making the point that Russian opinion didn't matter.

Could the United States have gotten along with Putin by being slower to confront and quicker to cooperate? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Animosity and mistrust between the two countries run deep. But the question is a moot one. One thing is certain: Putin was never going to accept the part of playing the United States' tagalong.

Nor did he need to consider taking on such a role. Russia is home to immense resource wealth. Per square mile, it has a far richer endowment of natural resources than most other countries. It is the largest country in the world by square miles, nearly twice the size of second-place Canada, the planet's big warehouse of oil, gas, coal, uranium, gold, silver, and much else.

Natural gas abounds. In 1999, Europe was already beholden to Russia for much of its supply. Then Putin lengthened Russia's list of gas customers through new pipelines and through contracts with China. He also worked to corner the uranium market; his country now controls 40 percent of global uranium enrichment capacity, the lion's share of the world's downblending facilities, and a fair chunk of the world's in-ground resources. On top of that, Russian nuclear-power giant Rosatom builds more nuclear-power plants than any other company in the world, with international deals for 21 reactors currently on the books.

These are all important factors, as we'll see. But as always in the modern world, in the end everything comes down to oil. The era of Putinization began with oil, so let's take a look there first.

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