Thursday, January 08, 2009

CEE and America


Thorns in the east
Jan 8th 2009

Pipelines, missiles and maybe something worse

GAZA, rather than gas, is likely to be top of the new American administration’s to-do list. If the ex-communist world gets any early attention, it will be in search of Russian help over Iran and in the Middle East, rather than the pressing business of Europe’s energy and military security. If Barack Obama’s top foreign-policy officials pay even a nanosecond of attention to eastern Europe in the first few months of their time in office, it will be to bemoan locals’ inability to deal with their own problems.

Imagine the difference a single-minded and effective push on Nabucco a few years back would have made. If that pipeline, bringing Caspian and Central Asian gas to Europe via Turkey, was seriously underway—perhaps fed by a trans-Caspian gas pipeline, perhaps just with Azeri gas—then the effects of the current Russian-Ukrainian energy spat would have been to accelerate an existing project to early completion, rather than to highlight the shambles.

Now the Kremlin is well-placed to tell the European Union that if it wants to avoid headaches with transit through Ukraine in future, then it had better hurry up and help Russia build its pet pipelines, North Stream and South Stream. These projects, in the Baltic and Black seas respectively, do get round the corrupt and fractious gas transit industry in Ukraine. But they create another problem: strengthening Russia’s ability to play divide-and-rule with European customers. It is hard to see the American administration sparing much time to worry about that.

A renewed push on arms control, conversely, still looks possible. Whereas the Bush administration seemed to regard dominance in strategic nuclear weapons as an end in itself, the signs are that Mr Obama’s advisers see it differently. Russia is already twitchy enough about its decaying nuclear arsenal, and about its failure to make its new submarine-launched missiles work properly. The urgent need now is for talks on a new third START treaty on big nukes, coupled with measures to get Russia back into the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (in which it has suspended its membership) and to preserve the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty. In addition, the new administration is unlikely to share its predecessor’s allergic reaction to any talks about an international legal order in space.

All that may go some way to defusing feelings of paranoia and neglect in the Kremlin. The most dangerous situation for the west is one where Russia feels vulnerable to an American first strike (because of nuclear or space-weapon superiority). Russia’s creaky command and control means that a move to “launch on warning” hugely raises the risk of a false alarm turning into a nuclear war.

That does not mean that America should make big symbolic gestures such as cancelling its planned missile-defence bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Doing that would be a huge snub to its most loyal allies, and stoke fears of American disengagement from Europe. In truth, the new rockets and radar don’t work yet, and the Democratic congress is unlikely to vote money for them in a hurry. That gives plenty of wiggle room over timing, during which America can see if there is any way of getting Russia to share its concerns about rogue-states’ missiles.

The trickiest task will be dealing with an internal political crisis in Russia that leads the Kremlin to seek a distraction abroad, such as undermining the sovereignty of a neighbouring country—Ukraine, Georgia or perhaps even a Baltic state. That is not likely to catch attention in Washington until it happens.

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