by Observer R for the Saker Blog
The documents issued by Russia in December 2021 (the so-called “Not-Ultimatum), concerning modifications to the security architecture in Europe, have created a considerable sensation in the diplomatic and military worlds. Russia politely requested that NATO confine its activities to its location as of 1997, and keep out of the former Warsaw Pact territory. This was to abide by the promises that the United States made to the Soviet Union at the time that the Soviets agreed to disband the Warsaw Pact. Both the United States and NATO responded negatively to the initiative, but agreed to hold negotiations with Russia during the week of January 11-14, 2022.
During the negotiation period many commentators have opined that the intellectual quality of the US official statements and the US think-tank products could be improved. Perhaps all is not lost, however, as at least some US officials have grasped the changes in Russian weapons and the Russian economy that make it necessary to sit down and do serious talking. For example, the top US general has announced that the world has moved from a unipolar setup to a multipolar one, and that the US is now only one of the poles, the others being China and Russia. The US general has engaged in “deconfliction” talks with the top generals of China and Russia—presumably to try and ward off any mistakes that could wind up frying the world to a crisp. In addition, the head of the CIA has allowed the CIA Fact Book to be published publicly showing that China and Russia are much higher-ranked in GDP than most politicians and pundits in the US give them credit for. China is significantly out in front, and Russia is sixth and closing in on fifth place. Finally, a former First Lady and Secretary of State has written that the massive US aircraft carriers are to a large extent obsolete and that the F-35 fighter jet does not live up to expectations. There is a widespread feeling that the US is behind the Russians in hypersonic weapons, air defense, and probably electronic warfare also.
The talk in Congress, the output of various think-tanks, and the coverage in mainstream media fail to fully reflect these sweeping changes in the world power balance. This factor puts the current US Administration between a rock and a hard-place. It cannot acknowledge the need to update the security architecture in Europe because the US public has not been prepared for the change, but it cannot continue the status quo because the US has already lost the arms race and is constantly losing ground in the economic competition. The three-pole world has arrived, but the US appears to be unprepared for it and is at wits end in deciding what to do next. However, the appearance of unpreparedness is what shows in front of the curtain; what the deep, deep state behind the curtain is actually planning and preparing is opaque. Such planning may be going on in extreme secrecy, based on the likelihood that some very high US officials have quite a good grasp of reality.
Nevertheless, this week’s diplomatic negotiations have come and gone without any observable breakthroughs or positive steps. The post-meeting announcements indicate a stalemate, with both sides driving their proverbial stakes even further into the ground.
The United States Side
Whatever might or might not be going on in secret, there is no observable indication that the US is prepared to adjust to a three-pole world. Instead the US appears to be trying to eliminate the other two poles and remain the hegemon of the world. There are several methods that the US is pursuing. One is to continue to move weapons into the countries bordering Russia and attempting to set up bases in more of these locations. The US reportedly has been working to get approval for new bases in the Central Asian countries, so far without much success. Another tactic is to foment color revolutions around the periphery of Russia. This was successful in Ukraine, failed in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and, so far, in Syria and Kazakhstan, with muddled results in Armenia and Georgia. Transnistria appears next on the list, with others probably in the future. By now most governments have likely read up on the color revolution playbook, and developed appropriate counter measures. A third tactic is to institute sanctions on Russia in an attempt to slow down or prevent future positive development in that country. Some current proposed sanctions include those on smartphones, machine tools, aircraft parts, and what ever else is traded with Russia. Many experts, however, feel that these sanctions are a lost cause because Russia has already decoupled from the West to a great degree. Previous sanctions on aircraft parts and composite materials led Russia to develop its domestic industry to produce engines and composite wings for the the MC-21 passenger aircraft. Both of these efforts have been successful and the plane is on schedule to be delivered to Russian airlines. The plane will compete with the Boeing 737MAX of recent fame, and the Airbus A320 family. The MC-21 has a more modern and advanced design than either of the Western models.
The problem for the US is that all these tactics appear now to be more or less blocked or offset by Russia. What worked even five years ago, does not have the same effectiveness in the current situation. Whereas the color revolution was successful in Ukraine, the current attempted color revolution in Kazakhstan has so far been a fiasco. The US is spending too much money for too little result. It is the US that is stuck in too many quagmires, not Russia. Furthermore, the US has not perfected the art of successful withdrawal from quagmires so that retreats can be spun as glorious victories. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a vivid illustration of this failure. The folks behind the curtain need to concentrate on this problem because many more retreats are coming in the future. The US bases in West Asia are not particularly viable in the event of a really nasty shooting war. The Iranians already showed that fact when they sent a missile straight into the large US base in Iraq and even notified the Americans ahead of time. The US forces were not able to intercept the missile. The US bases in the GCC countries are just as vulnerable, and the American soldiers there could be viewed as almost de facto hostages if the shooting starts. It is a rather sad delusion when the US sends aircraft carriers near Iran or China as a show of force, when it is clear that the range of the aircraft onboard the carriers is inferior to the range of the Iranian and Chinese anti-ship missiles.
The deep state is facing even more problems in West Asia (formerly “Middle East”). The major oil customer for both Iran and Saudi Arabia happens to be China. This calls into question the viability of the petrodollar, since now there is always the danger that it might become the petroyuan. China is also spreading the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries in the area. The recent addition of Syria on January 12, shows the New Silk Road’s continuing extension towards the Mediterranean. China also signed a massive economic development agreement with Iran and is planning to provide Saudi Arabia with assistance in developing ballistic missiles. In Iraq, the US has agreed to withdraw combat troops, while leaving training troops. Many folks in Iraq want all the US troops to leave and are blowing up US logistics convoys to make their point. In the meanwhile, the US is building a refinery in Syria to process illegally appropriated oil. All these developments do not seem like a viable long-term arrangement to benefit the US.
The Russian Side
The major occupation of foreign policy analysts and pundits for the last month has been to attempt to forecast what Russia will do once the negotiations over the Not-Utimatum had deadlocked. They all expected a deadlock, but differed widely on what might happen next. One group thought that the Russian position, as well as the US position, was just a maximal demand issued for negotiation purposes, and that both sides would end up compromising somewhere in-between the extremes. Another forecast was that Russia had bitten off more than it could chew, and that the US was giving Russia a path to climb down off its high-horse without losing too much face. A third forecast was that Russia would be forced to do some kinetic action to wake up the US to the seriousness of Russian demands. Many different locations were suggested as possible points that might be blown up. A fourth forecast was that Russia would reply in-kind by moving Russian missiles closer to the US border. There did not appear to be any forecasts for Russia to place onerous sanctions on the US (no more specialized oil supplies or heavy rocket engines, for example). Sanctions appear to center on the gas pipelines from Russia to Europe, where the analysts cannot agree on who would be most disadvantaged if the gas stopped flowing. Neither were there forecasts that Russia would institute a wave of color revolutions in the US vassal states. In fact, the latter appears to be a major difference in the Russian and American approaches to foreign relations. It does seem on the surface that Russia is fighting with one hand behind its back, but the advantage for the US in color revolutions may dissipate in the mists of time.
The kinetic action option is often described using Ukraine as the probable location. That tinder-box is constantly in the news, but may not see action unless Kiev seriously attacks the Separatists or tries to take back Crimea or some such fantasy. Other possibilities could be the forceable removal of hostile weapon systems near Russian borders, or for Russia to give a green light to anti-US fighters in Syria or Iraq to remove the Americans by force. At one point the Russians were bombing the oil tankers stealing oil in Iraq, so there is already a precedent for action in that area.
The in-kind option is the one mentioned by a Russian high official when he pointed out the danger of a second Cuban Missile Crisis. News media have already begun speculation that Russia might station missiles in Cuba or Venezuela, after flight tracking showed a Russian passenger plane reputed to be used by the FSB visiting both those countries recently. Other options noted are to station Russian submarines with Posideon missiles offshore the US, which, if used, could unleash tsunamis against the coastal areas. Since the first Cuban crisis began when the US moved missiles into Turkey and Italy and the Soviet Union responded by moving missiles toward emplacement in Cuba, the same thing could happen again.
Russia is also showing off its new and improved armaments to lend gravitas to the Not-Ultimatum. The new hypersonic Zircon missile is now in service and the vastly updated and modernized TU-160M supersonic bomber just made its first test flight. Many other advanced Russian weapons, ships, missiles, submarines, and planes have been put on display for the edification of military analysts and military attaches. Russia is also building super icebreakers for the Arctic and setting up a transport route across the top of the world.
A chief problem in trying to analyze the Not-Ultimatum crisis is not knowing who or what is pulling the strings behind the US curtain. A consensus holds that the ones in front, such as the President and Vice President, do not exhibit much authority and their speeches indicate a vast amount of magical thinking. On the other hand, there are top level officials in the US who talk in different terms and indicate that at least some powers behind the curtain have a more objective view of reality and the relevant facts. Some of these facts are 1) that the US has lost the arms race, 2) the US government debt is out of control, 3) the US has the worst inflation in 37 years, 4) the US budget deficit is out of control, 5) the US economy is no longer the largest in the world, 6) the US continues to pour money into obsolete weapons systems, 7) The US social, racial, education, and health policies are disasters. Russia, on the other hand, is doing reasonably well on these factors. All the analysts at Langley and the Pentagon cannot be blind to these facts. Therefore, it is hard to believe that there are not secret groups somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracies trying to figure out how to keep the ship of state from running into the proverbial iceberg. The key manifestation of such effort will be if new ideas begin to appear in the mainstream media and the more adept politicians begin to tack in a different direction. If this does not happen, then the American Empire will move ever faster toward sunset and follow all the previous empires to the same fate.