The global chessboard

Barack Obama may not think he is playing on “some global chessboard,” but it is pretty clear Vladimir Putin does.  The contest is no longer an ideological one between the “free world” and Communism.  It is a pragmatic one between democracy and authoritarianism.  Which one can satisfy stakeholders sufficiently to survive the long run?  There is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy, though associated with wise economic management it is difficult to beat on the merits.

Authoritarians tend to abuse their political power for economic benefit.  There can be no clearer illustration of this phenomenon than erstwhile Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, whose palatial abode and documented graft are now open for all to see, even if the man himself has disappeared.  It isn’t pretty.  He seems to have lost even Russia’s backing, which has now been reduced from a $15 billion loan to a few fulminations from Prime Minister Medvedev.

If Moscow is going to act against the parliamentary takeover that Ukraine has witnessed, it won’t be to put Yanukovich back on his gold-plated toilet seat but rather to seize control of Crimea and perhaps a few provinces of eastern Ukraine.  The precedents are clear:  Trans-Dniester in Moldova as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia host Russian troops, supposedly to protect them from their Russian-speaking inhabitants from the depredations of the authorities elected to serve in their capitals.  Moscow could easily trump up that scenario in Crimea, where most of the population is Russian-speaking and loyal to Moscow rather than Kiev, which has been their capital only since 1954.

Another of Putin’s friends is at risk in Caracas.  Despite expectations, at least some Russian interest in Venezuela survived the death of Hugo Chavez.  His successor, President Maduro, visited the Kremlin last July amid speculation about increased Russian investment in Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.  The two countries have also signed defense and security agreements, likely more important as symbols than military capability.

Maduro is now the target of gigantic demonstrations, sparked by students but sustained by unhappiness with rampant inflation, arrest of opposition politicians, crime, corruption and government ineffectiveness.  Maduro has a lot more popular support, especially among Venezuela’s poor, than his counterpart in Ukraine, who relied on russophilia and brutality rather than handouts and counterdemonstrations.  But Venezuela is in deep economic trouble, despite its vast oil wealth.  Maduro is going to need a good deal more help than Putin is likely to offer.

Putin may abandon Yanukovich and Maduro, but he seems determined to continue to back Syria’s Bashar al Asad.  This is puzzling, as Russia experts assure me Putin doesn’t like Asad or even what he is doing.  Moscow has even gone along with a UN Security Council resolution that puts the weight of the blame for humanitarian abuse on the regime.

But the Russians see no preferable alternative.  They aren’t willing to risk the uncertain outcome if the opposition wins, because of the growing predominance of extremist fighters in its midst.  They appear impervious to the argument that continued fighting is creating more extremists than it is killing, some of whom are Chechens and Dagestanis who will no doubt want to return to their Russian homeland to wreck havoc once they are finished in Syria.  Nor do they listen when Westerners tell them the Sunni world will long remember and resent the support Moscow has given to Damascus.

From the American perspective, none of these places is all that important.  Ukraine is rightfully a European more than an American problem, and there is little we can do short of war to block Moscow if it decides to seize a piece of Ukraine’s territory.  Venezuela is a pain in America’s derriere, but it needs desperately to continue sending 40% of its declining production of heavy oil to specially designed Gulf Coast refineries.  Syria is not an imminent threat to the US, though the growth of extremism and spillover to Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey increasingly threaten American interests.  We can ill afford to allow al Qaeda to solidify a foothold in eastern Syria, where it already controls territory.

The trouble is that even pawns are valuable in chess.  Losing them, or causing your adversary to lose them, can make all the difference.  If Putin loses in Ukraine, he is likely to double down in Syria.  He doesn’t care much about Venezuela, which is in the US “near abroad.”  So the current chess game boils down to whether the US can do something to help the Syrian opposition, and in so doing serve US interests in blocking extremists and avoiding spillover of Syria’s devastating war.  President Obama has more options than the Administration has been willing to acknowledge.  He needs to decide which ones to adopt.


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5 thoughts on “The global chessboard”

  1. My assessment based on the data and an analysis based on the interests of all the parties involved in global trade agreement is following: Russia is disappointed in Ukraine and it does not really care who is in charge there. What happened in Ukraine was stupidity plain and simple. Years of corruption did not help either. I am not sure Russia would want to have to deal with Ukraine as an independent (rather rogue in this sense), corrupt and very greedy piece on the board between Russia and the EU regarding the energy agreement between Russia and the EU. Ukraine moving toward the EU would mean Ukraine having to the respect the rule of laws and those agreements and no more shutting down the pipeline on whim, blackmailing, not paying debts and credits and what not they had thanks to their geographic position. Things the EU is not eager to learn close personally about Ukraine either. What was important is Ukraine in an agreement that is good for Russia and EU and not a loose cannon. At the moment Russia would not want to have anything to do with what they perceive (not without merits) ultra nationalists and nazis (the same thing in Russia that is giving pause to Putin from grooming Medvedev as a successor and stepping down – far-right and neo-nazis). That said, Russian military movement is a warning to those far-right groups in Ukraine not to engage in ethnic violence.

      1. It is not considering the fact that it is Russian money and resources that is being consumed by the corrupt society that you have to deal with in order to deploy your product to the market.

  2. “The contest is no longer an ideological one between the “free world” and Communism. It is a pragmatic one between democracy and authoritarianism”.

    I wouldn’t say it is a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Democracy and authoritarianism are models of internal organization of a country; which of them will prevail depends more on social and cultural factors than on politicians and their personal will. This is rather a competition between international heavyweights for spheres of influence – a competition aimed at both self-protection and power projection – as it has always been and will always be.

  3. On a short term authoritarian model might look better for an economy (thus an affection among certain members of GOP for the Chinese model). On the long term (assuming we exclude obstacles in science advancement put forth by religious organisation of a plural democratic systems) democracy as a natural system has no peer. Every system that its agility derives from authoritarian model in time becomes brittle. The promised changes to the Chinese economy by the new Chinese leadership that we are yet to see. Take as an example Ukraine. No risk, old school proved to be riskiest. In this case we ought not to assume anything but one thing I could project with a high probability. Medvedev had a different idea on how to solve Ukraine issue. And with even higher probability I could project that his idea would pan out. This is internal their relationship and Putin and Medvedev are not at odds. It is only that Putin sees that the world changed by the globalisation brought to us by the global communication available to anybody (the same way I wish McCain would see the world changed, since I thinking of him as one of the most decent and respectful Republicans and alas obsolete by cold war mentality) and that Medvedev has a better grasp of that world. Unfortunately analysis has told to Putin that his authoritarian personally, authoritarian being engraved in the Russian society by centuries of dictatorships, is what is keeping the forces of chaos at bay. In Russian case the biggest problems are far-right often of neo-nazi type. Children of the old Communists are Cosmopolite in their nature and already are traveling the world – I got to know some in London. Putin has 11 time zones to sort out beyond Moscow. Also a 5 decades task. And I think that with a help from the western society, in a role of a partner (not only in the trade agreement) we could see riches of the Russia offered to the world in a much better way. Though I hope this last bit was not too much idealistic in the nature considering the fact that Crimea was foreseeable. Can Russia be helped there considering the fact of having problems that Russia is having in Crimea and in Russia. It is safe to assume that nationalists would destroy Russia but is it worth it considering the better way. Which is bringing Russia gradually to Europe as both, cultural and economical partner. In one book by Dostoevsky one of his characters says and I am paraphrasing: “I am Russian and European, and the more I am Russian one more I am European one.”

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