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US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess

September 16th, 2013 - 4:43 pm

Crossposted from Asia Times Online.



US plays Monopoly, Russia plays chess
By Spengler

Americans see individual pieces of geopolitical real estate in isolation, like hotels on the Monopoly board, while the Russians look at the interaction of all their spheres of interest around the globe.

Syria is of no real strategic interest to Russia, nor to anyone else for that matter. It is a broken wreck of a country, with an irreparably damaged economy, without the energy, water, or food to maintain long-term economic viability. The multiethnic melange left in place by British and French cartographers after the First World War has broken down irreparably into a war of mutual extermination, whose only result can be depopulation or partition on the Yugoslav model.

Syria only has importance in so far as its crisis threatens to spill
over into surrounding territories which have more strategic importance. As a Petri dish for jihadist movements, it threatens to become the training ground for a new generation of terrorists, serving the same role that Afghanistan did during the 1990s and 2000s. 

As a testing ground for the use of weapons of mass destruction, it provides a diplomatic laboratory to gauge the response of world powers to atrocious actions with comparatively little risk to the participants. It is an incubator of national movements, in which, for example, the newfound freedom of action for the country’s 2 million Kurds constitutes a means of destabilizing Turkey and other countries with substantial Kurdish minorities. Most important, as the cockpit of confessional war between Sunnis and Shi’ite, Syria may become the springboard for a larger conflict engulfing Iraq and possibly other states in the region.

I do not know what Putin wants in Syria. I do not believe that at this point Russia’s president knows what he wants in Syria, either. A strong chess player engaging an inferior opponent will create complications without an immediate strategic objective, in order to provoke blunders from the other side and take opportunistic advantage. There are many things that Putin wants. But he wants one big thing above all, namely, the restoration of Russia’s great power status. Russia’s leading diplomatic role in Syria opens several options to further this goal.

As the world’s largest energy producer, Russia wants to enhance its leverage over Western Europe for which it is the principle energy supplier. It wants to influence the marketing of natural gas produced by Israel and other countries in the Eastern Mediterranean. It wants to make other energy producers in the region dependent on its good graces for the security of their energy exports. It wants to enhance its role as a supplier of military equipment, challenging the American F-35 and F-22 with the new Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter among other things. It wants a free hand in dealing with terrorism among its Muslim minority in the Caucasus. And it wants to maintain influence in its so-called near abroad in Central Asia.

American commentators reacted with surprise and in some cases dismay to Russia’s emergence as the arbiter of the Syria crisis. In fact, Russia’s emerging role in the region was already evident when the chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar, flew to Moscow during the first week of August to meet with Putin. The Russians and Saudis announced that they would collaborate to stabilize the new military government in Egypt, in direct opposition to the Obama administration. In effect Russia offered to sell Egypt any weapons that the United States declined to sell, while Saudi Arabia offered to pay for them.

That was a diplomatic revolution without clear precedent. It is not only that the Russians have returned to Egypt 40 years after they were expelled in the context of the real world war; they have done so in tactical alliance with Saudi Arabia, historically Russia’s nemesis in the region.

Saudi Arabia has an urgent interest in stabilizing Egypt, and in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudi monarchy nightly views as a risk to its legitimacy. Saudi support for the Egyptian military against the Brotherhood is not surprising; what is most surprising is that the Saudi’s felt to involve Russia.

Although there are a number of obvious reasons for the Saudi’s and Russians to collaborate, for example controlling the jihadists in the Syrian opposition, we do not yet understand the full implications of their rapprochement. The Saudis leaked news that they had offered to buy $15 billion worth of Russian weapons in return for Russian help with Assad. Rumors of this kind should not be read at face value. They might be misdirection – but misdirection towards what?

Putin’s chessboard encompasses the globe. It includes such things as the security of energy exports from the Persian Gulf; the transmission of oil and gas through Central Asia; the market for Russian arms exports; energy negotiations now underway between Russia and China; the vulnerability of Europe’s energy supplies; and the internal stability of countries on or near Russia’s borders, including Turkey, Iraq and Iran.

For American analysts, most of this chessboard might as well be on the dark side of the moon. We see only what the Russians permit us to see. For example, Moscow first promised to provide Syria with the S-300 air defense system and then withdrew its offer. Saudi Arabia in early August let it be known that it was prepared to buy $15 billion of Russian weapons in return for considerations in Syria. A negotiation of some kind is underway, but we have no idea what kind of carrots and sticks might be involved.

What we may surmise is that Russia now has much greater capacity to influence events in the Middle East, including the security of energy resources, that it has at any time since the Yom Kippur War of 1973. For the time being, it is in Russia’s interest to keep its interlocutory guessing, and to enhance its future strategic options. Russia in effect has placed the burden of uncertainty on the rest of the world, especially upon major economies dependent on Persian Gulf energy exports.

President Obama evidently considers this arrangement beneficial to his own agenda. The president has no interest whatever in enhancing America’s strategic position in the world; his intent may be to diminish it, as Norman Podhoretz charged in the Wall Street Journal last week, and I argued five years ago. Obama is focused on his domestic agenda.

From that standpoint, handing over responsibility for the Syrian mess is a riskless exercise. American popular revulsion over foreign military intervention is so intense that the voters will welcome any measure that reduces American responsibility for foreign problems. Although the elite of the Democratic Party are liberal internationalists, Obama’s voting support has scant interest in Syria.

Public commentary on foreign policy is an exercise in frustration under the circumstances. Because America is a democracy, and substantial commitment of resources requires at least some degree of consensus, diplomacy was exceptionally transparent so long as America dominated the field. Think tanks, academia and the media served as a sounding board for any significant initiatives, so that important decisions were taken at least in part in the view of the public. That is no longer the case on Vladimir Putin’s chessboard. Russia will pursue a set of strategic trade-offs, but we in the West will not know what they are until well after the fact, if ever.

Further dimensions of complexity will arise from the eventual response of other prospective players, in particular China, but also including Japan. The self-shrinkage of America’s strategic position eliminates the constraint for Russia to choose a particular option. On the contrary, Russia can accumulate positional advantages to employ for particular strategic objectives at its leisure. And Putin will sit silent on his side of the chessboard and let the clock run against his opponent.

Putin may think that he is pre-empting a similar strategy on the part of the West. Fyodor Lukanov wrote on the AI Monitor website last March:

From Russian leadership’s point of view, the Iraq War now looks like the beginning of the accelerated destruction of regional and global stability, undermining the last principles of sustainable world order. Everything that’s happened since – including flirting with Islamists during the Arab Spring, US policies in Libya and its current policies in Syria – serve as evidence of strategic insanity that has taken over the last remaining superpower.

Russia’s persistence on the Syrian issue is the product of this perception. The issue is not sympathy for Syria’s dictator, nor commercial interests, nor naval bases in Tartus. Moscow is certain that if continued crushing of secular authoritarian regimes is allowed because America and the West support “democracy”, it will lead to such destabilization that will overwhelm all, including Russia. It’s therefore necessary for Russia to resist, especially as the West and the United States themselves experience increasing doubts.

Russians typically assume that Americans think the way they do, gauging every move by the way it affects the overall position on the board. The notion that incompetence rather than conspiracy explains the vast majority of American actions is foreign to Russian thinking. Whatever the Russian leader thinks, though, he will keep to himself.

After 12 years of writing on foreign policy in this space, I have nothing more to say. The Obama administration has handed the strategic initiative to countries whose policy-making proceeds behind a wall of opacity. Robert Frost’s words come to mind:

As for the evil tidings
Belshazzar’s overthrow
Why hurry to tell Belshazzar
What he soon enough will know?

Or – as in Robin Williams’ old nightclub impression of then president Jimmy Carter addressing the nation on the eve of World War III: “That’s all, good night, you’re on your own.”

Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. He is Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It’s Not the End of the World – It’s Just the End of You, also appeared that fall, from Van Praag Press. 

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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I have read in other forums that the civil war in Syria has put the Iranians in such a bad light with the rest of the moslem world that it might be in their interest to bargain away the nukes so as to make some accommodation with the west. The problem is that nukes pointed at Israel are part of popular brinkmanship against Israel in the moslem world. That, as well as support for hamas and hezbollah. but when the nukes are seen as part of the ancient cold war between the sunnis and shias -- then the nukes take on a very different and sinister cast in the moslem sunni world. That puts the Iranians in very bad odor in their neck of the woods. Nuclear development might have been acceptable in the moslem world under the guise of being a new front against Israel. But when skylined by the sunnis shia dispute in Syria--Iranian nukes become a threat. Even before the weapons are developed. So right now the Iranians are getting all downside and no upside with their nuclear arms development.

Another consideration. The military crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood has gone so far that a judge recently banned all the Muslim brotherhoods activities. It remains to be seen as to whether this will stick but the fall out is so great that a whole bunch of Iranian allies are being hurt by the move. The palestinians are being increasingly isolated by egypt. Al Jazeera
has been throttled in many moslem countries. Even turkey has shifted to be more in line with the gulf arabs and egypt. And of course given Obama's support for the Muslim Brotherhood--the Obama admin is sidelined. What is going on in the middle east is in effect a major counter revolution--the return of the old guard.

All these movements are just shifting sands as far as Israel is concerned. But its helpful to know which way the wind is blowing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The wisdom of Sprengler should be where we start the discussion, not the best of what can be found outside the media clown zone.
Obama is not even playing checkers.
He is wandering in the delusions of his many Marxist fathers.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
David--- don't go! Every day I look to see if there's another of your contributions. Your wit and wisdom will be needed, for some time to come---if not on foreign policy per se, then on culture/philosophy/economics. C'mon, retirement dulls the mind---I say stay in the ring.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If the interest is in ending the Syrian civil war, then partition along the model of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the least worst option (there are no good options.) However, there can be no US troops on the ground, they'll be targets for every side. Perhaps Russian and German troops could fill the bill, they do have a history of cooperating in divvying up a country.

But if you want to look at the whole "Arab Spring" in a greater context, perhaps we just need to sit back and let the Arab/Islamic world have its internal struggle. The Islamic world is in need of its own Reformation. Egypt after 5000 is getting rid of the Last Pharaoh and a military coup is considered good? Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, is still riven along tribal lines? At least Europe is trying (misguided, IMO) to unify and put past differences behind it. And if the dynamic force in the Islamic world is fundamentalists who want to return to Medieval times, then I think they need to let the fever burn itself out and hopefully they'll modernize.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Muslim world had it's reformation. They chose the taliban and Al Queda over modernization.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"The Islamic world is in need of its own Reformation".

Our host has previously noted the European Reformation ended in the Thirty Years War (

In that spirit I ask, can we at least first remove or reduce the threat of their nuclear and biological weapons arsenals?

The best thing about W was that he at least articulated a policy keeping the "world's most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the world's most dangerous regimes". Too bad he didn't/couldn't follow through.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It just takes a few hundred years for full implementation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I would like to join Thenachash relative to your statement that you have nothing more to write after 12 years. Were you referring to concluding your participation in Asia Times or is the meaning more ominous. For instance, particularly the opacity of Putin (along with the incompetency of Obama) simply make discussion of foreign affiars re the problem to be no longer rationally possible? If Putin is a Russian doll inside a Russian doll and if you cannot open that Russian game, then you cannot say what or if anything is inside. Or, were you simply announcing retiring from the field of publicaiton on foreign affairs?

Just for the fun of finding historical analogies re the failure to fathom Russian intentions I suggest Napoleon who never understood Alexander's strategy, i.e., no decisive batte, some guerilla warfare and retreat and retreat until Napoleon INCOMPENTLY overextended himself and his army for the prize of a burnt out Moscow. Alexander did not confront Napoleon's advance, rather picked off Napoleon's army during its long, long retreat. Will the current Russian tzar pick off the Obama (mis)led West as we retreat from the world scene?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

Well, I'm sitting here on the other side of the pond but as a friend of Israel its easy enough to calculate Israeli interests. it quickly goes like this. the Saudis will do everything they can to prevail on the Russians to stymie Iranian nuclear progress. This is in the interest of Israel and likely in the interest of Russia. Syria is important to the Saudis as a matter of prestige and symmetry in Sunni/shia relations--but more important is Iranian nuclear research

but if the Iranians get the nuke -- then everything reverses. the Saudis will want a nuke of their own. they don't need the Russians for that. they can get the nukes from the Pakistanis pretty quickly. at this point the Saudis become enemies of Israel.

but Russian cover would be helpful. the Russians would provide cover for a price. but at this point the Russians would not be in control of their own destiny. if they were wise they would prevent the Iranians from getting nukes.and the Israelis would be wise to help them do so in any way they could--including pulling away from the USA during the Obama admin. but the Russians are not necessarily wise. a back channel set of negotiations between the Israelis and the Saudis would wise here.

nuke talk is all fail safe talk. its all no God but big government talk.

The other side of the Saudi Russian relationship is that they are both one trick ponies. both earn their national income from oil/gas. crises in the middle east is a beautiful thing. it kicks up the price of oil--and if the USA is embarrassed --then for the Russians its a 2fer. for the Saudis --its a shrug. for the Israelis--its white noise.

on the other hand the technology tide is turning as it did in the 1970's. Astute observers including Saudi Prince Alwaleed are not unmindful of the turn and the Russians show signs of being clued in too.

One side of Obama is that he is a throw back to the 1950's -60's anti colonial. These years were actually before his time. He was at Columbia university in the early 1980's--the same time I was and went to a poetry reading that I gave at the West End. Obama got his anti colonialism second hand from Edward Said-- a college professor at Columbia--even as Edward said got his anti colonialism second hand. That's why Obama is a Muslim brotherhood guy. Both Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood share the same anti colonial/anti Israeli strain--but its second hand superficial stuff.

The problem is that the world has long since moved on. No one in Egypt or Saudi Arabia knows what anti colonialism is anymore--and therefor they don't know what it is to be anti Israeli anymore. Why this link between anti colonials and anti Israelis? Because it was the genius of 1950's anti colonial Muslims to lnk anti Israeli with anti colonialism.)

The radical crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian generals supported by most of Egypt and the Saudis totally confounds Obama. He is at sea. As well he should be. The world is very different then he imagined. It has long since moved on.

While both the Saudis and the the Russians are top down command economies-- the USA economy is bottoms up. The USA succeeds despite the nitwit commands of nitwits at the top. Here is something to tell your children. If you want to increase the wealth of the world-=-then you decrease the cost of energy and secondarily...water.

While its happy talk for the political class to talk of the decline of American power--the turh is that the whole world is scrambling madly to keep up with technological changes being generated but the USA at a rapid clip.

What Israel and the USA share in common is that the technology tides are turning in their favor--making both--in the future--very rich.

Another part of Obama is his Indonesia part. For real anti colonials--the real guy to watch for the last 60 years or so has been Singapore's grand old man Lee Kuan Yew. He has been a weather vane. He is of Chinese descent. During the Viet Nam war he was anti American. But increasingly he has disliked the arrogant mainland Chinese with their arrogant Mandarin.

Obama in recent years has had the American military transition into the far East as the Chinese have become more aggressive. There is an internal governmental struggle for power between the the Communist Party of China and the Peoples Liberation Army of China that is not unlike the struggles between the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) and the civilian government of Japan --Ruled by the Emperor --in the early 20th century. (Its important here to understand that the both the Japanese emperor and the civilian government of Japan were puppts of the IJN and the IJA by the time of the outbreak of WWII.

The USA is tired of Middle East wars. There are no military or political solutions there.

There are business solutions. It is useless to talk of killing people. But killing the cost of oil and gas and becoming energy independent.

Yeah man. That's the real deal.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
the Israelis would be wise to help them do so in any way they could--including pulling away from the USA during the Obama admin
maybe not. If the current negotiations between the obama admin and putin's people actually results in some chemical weapons being destroyed--then the good cop bad cop model might work for the Iranians nukes somewhere down the line--where the USA/Israel/Saudis played the bad cop and the Russians played the good cop.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Someone once pointed out this proportionality:

Bismarck : Napoleon III :: Putin : Obama

On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan [] thinks that Obama was the cunning Machiavellian here.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Pay no more attention to Andrew. Leave him to his mental illness. Which is the most charitable explanation for his ravings.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"...the Saudi monarchy nightly views as a risk to its legitimacy."

Nightly? Rightly? A Saudian slip, perhaps.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Monopoly would be an improvement.

"President Obama's longtime aide Reggie Love says he and the president played cards during part of the raid in Pakistan that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. 'Most people were like down in the Situation Room and [President Obama] was like, "I’m not going to be down there, I can’t watch this entire thing,' ... he and the president, along with White House photographer Pete Souza and Obama aide Marvin Nicholson, gathered in the private dining room to play a couple rounds of cards ... 'We must have played 15 games of spades,' Love said. Obama has previously said that he watched the raid in real time in the Situation Room with members of his national security team. It's not clear when he stepped away to play cards.";
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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