08 September, 2008

Disturbing news

From the International Herald Tribune:

KARALETI, Georgia: Russian soldiers prevented international aid convoys from visiting Georgian villages on Monday in a blunt demonstration of power in a tense zone around the breakaway province of South Ossetia.

The ambassadors of Sweden, Latvia and Estonia said they also had been barred from visiting villages beyond Russian checkpoints.

Monday's show of authority came as French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried in Moscow to persuade Russia to honor its pledge to pull its troops back to the positions they held before the fighting broke out Aug. 7.

A convoy of four vehicles from U.N. aid agencies waited for about an hour at the checkpoint in Karaleti, but was turned away after a brief discussion with a Russian general who arrived to negotiate. The three aid agency SUVs and a World Food Program truck loaded with wheat flour, pasta, sugar and other staples were headed to Georgian villages around South Ossetia.

An old lesson: he who controls the ground makes the rules. I really thought (hoped) the Russians would do a quick incursion, withdraw for peacekeepers (including their own), and try to get it all over with as soon as possible. I was wrong. Not just this action, but the pattern of action indicates a return to a more open imperialist stance.

I suspect that Russia has concluded that for the immediate future more formal integration, like WTO membership, isn’t as important as it used to be. Likewise, Russian stock markets have been falling, and that doesn’t seem to both Putin/Medvedev much.

There’s a window of opportunity here for Russian expansionism (or reestablishing its traditional sphere of influence, if you care to look at it that way). One reason for that is oil. There’s a good connection between oil prices and authoritarianism among oil producers. Today, crude oil is at $108 per barrel, and OPEC suggests an oil price range from $113 a barrel to as high as $186 a barrel by 2030. GAZPROM, Russia’s monopoly, predicted oil prices could hit $250 a barrel in 2009. While that’s less likely now than it seemed six months ago, one thing that could drive up the price is a perception of political instability. In that sense, while war is bad for people who profit from production and open markets, it can be great for the state oil monopoly. We seem to have an ugly cycle emerging, and few of our potential punishments do anything more than reinforce it.

A way to break the cycle is to reduce global dependence on a few oil producers. Even if it is possible, it takes time. Hence, a window of opportunity for Russia.

What does this mean for the emerging rule set? I suspect it will look a lot more like regional blocs and spheres of influence than a global Leviathan/SysAdmin. A global system might be sold as being in Russia’s interests, but they seem to have concluded that it isn’t going to happen, so the best they can hope for is regional integration and domination. Acting on that analysis tends to be self-fulfilling.

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