In an earlier blog, I noted that there are three major conflicts or ‘conflict plates’ in the world today: 1) the return of China, strategically, economically and psychologically, to the centre of global affairs (a spot it lost after the Opium Wars in the middle of the 19th century); 2) the collapse of the Middle East order; and 3) the Russia-West conflict.
I suggested in that same blog that while the China plate was manageable (from the standpoint of avoiding great power clashes or war for the foreseeable future), the Mideast chaos had no foreseeable resolution, and the Russia-West conflict (peaking over Ukraine) was in principle soluble – if the moves from the various sides were quick and proper.
21CQ is interested in all of these conflicts, having done considerable track 1.5 work over the last year and a half around the world on the Mideast conflict in the service of a future regional security framework (led by my colleague Sam Sasan Shoamanesh) and in the service of algorithms to reconcile Russia and the West, and to restore political and strategic stability in Ukraine.
As I write this blog now at the end of 2015/start of 2016, not only may the window of opportunity for resolving the Russia-West conflict have already disappeared (not least because of the changing political psychologies in Russia and Ukraine), but we have in recent months witnessed the merger of conflicts 2) and 3) through the vector of Russia’s military intervention in Syria.
Now what’s to be done?
If perfect resolution of any of the merged Mideast and Russia-West conflicts is impossible in the foreseeable future, then the de minimis goal must remain the same as it is with respect to the China conflict plate – to wit, to avoid at all costs any direct clash between the great powers (between the US/NATO and Russia, between Russia and China, or between China and the US/NATO, or between all three of them, God forbid). For there will in the next year, to be sure, be more episodes like the Turkey-Russia clash, and the prospect of bona fide war between Russia and the West – triggered accidentally or otherwise – is far from negligible in the coming year or two.
The coming year may not only see various permutations of clashes between outside players in the Mideast (notwithstanding the heroic Syrian peace and transitional framework recently hashed out at the Security Council), but also systemic uncertainties in Ukraine proper as well as in Russia. None of this bodes well for a general resolution of these conflicts, particularly in the context of a West that remains both clumsy and intellectually non-porous in its posture on these conflicts.
Let me propose the following “theses” in a humble attempt to frame an approach to dealing with these simultaneous conflict theatres – avoiding, as is my wont, morality plays and preoccupations with political personas:
There can be no improvement (leave aside resolution) whatever in the Middle East theatre, from Syria to Iraq, Libya and Yemen, without a re-stitching of the ties that bind in Europe.In other words, in order to make a dent in the Mideast, the Russia-West conflict in Europe proper must be addressed, and deep trust must be rebuilt between Russia, Washington and key Western capitals.
Ukraine and Russia are, by virtue of the Ukrainian revolution and Crimean annexation, two houses radicalized. They cannot resolve their differences bilaterally – not for the foreseeable future. And the Minsk 2.0 framework, with its Normandy Four format and trilateral contact group, while a significant advance in the reconciliation process, is too narrow a regime for the deeper Russia-West reconciliation required in 1). In other words, Ukrainian-Russian reconciliation can only happen in the context of larger European reconciliatory framework. To this end, I have called for a trilateral framework between Brussels, Moscow and Kiev. The trilateral framework (“Europe 2.0”) must be brokered in 2016, avoiding any changing dynamics resulting from the new presidency in the US. The framework would build on and subsume the elements of Minsk 2.0 and the trilateral gas talks between the three capitals to also incorporate: national security, migration, travel (note the highly irrational bilateral air travels bans recently implemented between Kiev and Moscow), food and agriculture, and, among others, manufacturing and heavy industry.
Returning to points made in an earlier blog post: Ukraine cannot succeed, and may not survive, economically without Russian re-engagement. (No amount of Western compensation or interest can make up for Russia’s absence. All Ukrainian elites know this well.) Russia, however, cannot succeed economically without European re-engagement. If the price of oil continues to drop (far from foreordained, of course, on various geopolitical scenarios relating to Mideast stability), then the cost of Russian military engagement in Syria will act in sharp contradiction with diminishing reserves in the national treasury, and may soon affect the stability of the state. And finally, Europe cannot will continue to suffer economically for the loss of the Russian market – a fact underappreciated in current commentaries on Europe’s economic torpor. More importantly, Russian collapse or direct conflict between Russia and the West would likely deal a death blow to the European Union-28 as we know it today. (Remember that the death of the EU means not only non-resolution of the issue of Russian soft integration with European structures, but also the unleashing of Germany’s historical security dilemmas at its major borders – the very reasons for the original Coal and Steel Community.)
The trilateral framework must be brokered in 2016. Why? Ukraine could collapse economically this year. It is already approaching political paralysis. A new American presidency in early 2017 – potentially even one more dogmatic in its understanding of the conflict, or one requiring considerable re-education in order to get up to speed – could deprive Europe of the confidence (and unity) it needs to proceed with such a framework.As for Russia, its internal economic stability will continue to suffer with the price of oil, but its political and psychological hardening away from Europe (a posture far less porous than it was in 2014, when Russia was far more open than the West to resolution of the conflict), will continue – this, partially, in anticipation of the 2018 presidential elections. We also do not know what will be the prospects for boycotts of the 2018 World Cup. If there are boycotts, then these will begin to be announced in the coming year or so. These boycotts, as I have written in the past, will only succeed in further pushing Russia psychologically away from Europe, and therefore killing any chances for outside stabilization of the disorder in the Mideast.
The year 2016 will continue to see ISIS- or Al Qaeda-inspired, directed or affiliated attacks inside and outside of the Mideast. More states, from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia, will be tested in terms of their ability to survive the accelerating collapse of the region. (Any collapse or political or strategic destabilization of Saudi Arabia, of course, would quickly reverse the collapse in the price of oil.) The question is whether this region can be dealt with, or its growing chaos reasonably boxed in, by a Europe that has been stitched back together across its territory (from Birmingham to Vladivostok, running through Rome, Odessa and St. Petersburg), or whether this chaos will be shadowed by the growing unravelling of Europe’s stitches. In its extreme form, a European unravelling issuing in war between Russia and the West could see the bombing of European and even North American cities (easily) .