1. Isolation: Forming Alliances with the Countries Surrounding Russia
In December 2017, the US administration issued a document entitled “National Security Strategy” (NSS), in which it explained in detail to the American people, US allies and the various agencies of the administration, exactly who the enemies of the United States are. The document defined two clear enemies: China and Russia.
Facing China, the United States has already launched a trade war and is now trying to curb its ‘Silk Road’ programme, which has allowed the Chinese to gain an economic foothold in many countries around the world. It has recently announced that it also intends to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1987. If that happens, a withdrawal from the agreement will allow each side to formally launch medium-range ballistic missiles to threaten the other side.
But sanctions and withdrawal from an agreement are not enough. The US wants to exert enough pressure on Russia and force Putin to negotiate with Trump, and change Russian foreign policy. But how can this be achieved?
In January last year, Robert D. Blackbill and Philip H. Gordon, in an article published by the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the way to achieve this now is through a strategy of “Containment” (Containing the Threat or inhibiting it). This is a familiar strategy that the US administration has used since the end of World War II. This strategy was first publicised in 1947 in an article that appeared in ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine, written by an anonymous author. The goal then was to block the USSR and its allies “whenever and wherever they threatened to gain influence”. This policy was led by the United States throughout the world until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell.
Blackbill and Gordon suggest that this strategy should now be directed at countries surrounding Russia, which serve as a certain buffer between Russia and foreign forces that might threaten it. Among other things, they write, US military forces should be stationed in countries that have a common border with Russia, such as the Baltic states (Estonia and Latvia) and also Lithuania and Poland, which are relatively close to Russia.
In fact, this strategy is already underway. In November, the US Department of Defence reported that the United States and Poland were discussing the option of setting up a permanent US military base in Poland, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in November 2018 that persistent American efforts were being made to turn the Balkan countries into what he calls “a springboard against Russia”, as reported by the Russian news agency Tass.
Additional focal points will be almost all the other countries surrounding Russia. In October last year, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton visited Armenia, a loyal ally of Russia, and made it an offer to buy weapons from the United States instead of Russia, which until now had a monopoly on arms sales to Armenia. In the same month, the US signed cooperation agreements with Uzbekistan worth US$2.5 billion, with the objective of offering it an alternative to Russian investments, as reported by Trend News Agency (although in the same month Russia signed agreements worth US$27 billion with Uzbekistan). The United States is also expected to enhance its military drills with Georgia. According to estimates by Stratfor geopolitical intelligence platform, the United States is also expected to offer economic benefits to Belarus in order to prevent it from expanding its military ties with Russia.
Russia will probably try to stave off American moves and offer the same countries alternatives to American proposals in the form of more lucrative deals. It is a long standing rivalry between Russia and the United States over ties with these countries, during which negotiations between Putin and Trump will take place from time to time. The Americans’ aim is not to cause Russia to collapse, but to exert enough pressure on it to eventually change its behaviour and bring about cooperation in line with American interests in Syria, Europe and also China.
Will this be the last straw that will break Putin’s back? Probably not. But it will be a troubling straw that historically has already led to the undermining of the status quo and created chaos. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American containment strategy was expressed in its support of NATO member states in Europe, who received an American budget to set up a unified military force that could resist, among other things and if necessary, future Russian aggression. They even bombed Yugoslavia in 1999. In the 2000s, the containment strategy was expressed in American financial support in Western-oriented countries bordering Russia, such as Ukraine and Georgia. When Russia understood where the wind blew, it tried to improve diplomatic relations with the countries surrounding it. In 2010, a pro-Russian president was elected in Ukraine, and Belarus and Kazakhstan joined a “Customs Union” together with Russia.
Things went awry in 2014, when the pro-Russian government fell in Ukraine. Moscow responded by force and annexed the Crimea peninsula which was under Ukrainian control. To this day, Russia accuses the United States of supporting the opposition forces that led to the fall of the Ukrainian government. In response to the annexation of Ukraine, the United States imposed economic sanctions on Russia. At the same time, it continued to strengthen its support for the rising forces in Ukraine, as well as in Moldova and Georgia, which that year signed on a broad cooperation agreement with the European Union, which is considered a “Western power”.
Since then, the situation has become even more complicated. In 2015, Russia decided to retaliate and challenge American hegemony in the Middle East, by entering Syria and intervening in the civil war. All this led to the strengthening of sanctions against it. In any case, Putin is no fool, and the Kremlin has already begun to safeguard itself from sanctions that harm the Russian economy, for example, by getting rid of US government bonds held by the Central Bank of Russia. According to a July 2018 US Treasury Department report, Russia’s central bank reduced its US bonds by 84 percent between March and May last year. In addition, Major Russian companies are exploring the possibility of using the Rouble instead of the dollar when closing deals in countries like India and China.
2. The Gas War – Aiming to Replace Russian Gas With American Gas
Russia has another point that US President Donald Trump will want to add pressure to in the coming year: the supply of natural gas to Europe. European countries in recent years have imported about 200 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Russia, which is used to produce electricity and energy in large industrial plants. It constitutes about half the amount of natural gas traded worldwide (by the ocean). Europe is dependent on gas coming through pipelines from Russia, and to this day no substitute has been found. Some countries in Central and Eastern Europe do not even have physical infrastructures that can allow them to import gas from another supplier.
In 2009, Russia took advantage of this when it abruptly cut the natural gas transit to the continent as a means of exerting political pressure. Europe remained helpless. In order not to be caught naked again, the EU leadership decided to build pipelines that pass through the various countries across Europe, allowing them to trade gas and build their own reservoirs. It also passed the Third Energy Package law that became effective that year and banned Russian energy giant Gazprom from owning the pipelines it uses to transfer gas from Russia to Europe. And yet, the gas remains Russian and so is Putin’s political leverage.
Of course, not all European countries are similarly threatened by this; Eastern European countries are mainly the ones affected. There are two reasons for this: first, the countries in the western part of the continent still have a certain alternative to Russian gas — some are connected to a gas pipeline in the North Sea (near Britain), some are connected to the North African gas market, and some utilise terminals that allow them to import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from abroad. Second, some receive gas by the Nord Stream pipeline, which starts in Russia, passes through the seafloor and connects directly to Germany (Central Europe), bypassing all other ground level pipelines originating from Russia that pass through Eastern European countries. In other words, the Nord Stream pipeline allows Putin to continue to supply gas to countries in Central and Western Europe. But, at the same time, it also allows him to cut off gas supplies to Eastern European country at his will — allowing him to exert his pressure on them.
Another issue that enters the equation is the “Nord Stream 2” pipeline project, which is currently being built right next to the existing Nord Stream pipeline between Russia and Germany. Its aim is to double Germany’s gas consumption, making Germany even more dependent on Russia.
This is where the United States comes in, aiming to disrupt the existing order. In 2019, the US plans to export large quantities of liquefied natural gas to Europe, thereby creating an alternative to Russian gas. Before 2016, the United States was able to export about 1.5 million tons of gas a year; but by the end of 2018, by launching nine projects of exporting liquefied natural gas, the US is expected to reach an export capacity of about 63 million tons a year, according to the US Department of Energy. By the end of 2019, US natural gas exports are expected to grow even further and threaten Russian gas exports to Europe.
This is made possible by technological developments in the field of oil and gas drilling in the depth of the earth: hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock, has turned the United States in the past year into the world’s largest oil producer, and this year is expected to turn it into a significant exporter of liquefied natural gas, according to the US Department of Energy.
Of course, this will occur only if the United States places pressure on European countries to sign gas import agreements, which it will then present as a safer alternative to Russian gas. The focus of US pressure will probably be on Eastern European countries that have access to the sea (Ukraine, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Italy), as well as Germany (to which the Nord Stream pipes are connected). Trump’s emissaries will try to exert pressure on these countries and persuade them to build terminals for receiving liquefied gas. Such terminals currently hardly exist in these countries. Germany is talking about building liquid gas terminals and importing gas from abroad, but in the meantime continues to support the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, as reported in Fortune Magazine in September 2018.
These measures are already underway: the Polish Minister of Energy, Krzysztof Tchorzewski, and US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry have already met in Warsaw in early November and talked about supplying liquefied natural gas to Poland as well as setting up infrastructure in Poland. During the visit, PGNiG (the Polish state-controlled oil and gas company) also signed a 24-year agreement with Cheniere, a company from Texas. Under the agreement, the US company will initially supply about 500,000 tons of natural gas starting this year — about three years before the agreement of the Polish gas company with the Russian gas company Gazprom expires. A month earlier, the Polish company also signed a 20-year agreement with another US company, Venture Global, which will supply it with two million tons of liquefied gas a year, the Financial Times reported. This is how the American strategy in Europe begins to materialise, with the aim of replacing the Russian gas deals with US transactions, thereby weakening Russia and creating additional US leverage on Russia.
Qatar and Australia are also expected to become involved. They will try to compete with the Americans and supply liquefied natural gas to Europe. Qatar is now the world’s largest natural gas exporter, holding 27 percent of the market, followed by Australia with a market share of about 19 percent. The US is in sixth place with about 4.5 percent, but this is expected to grow significantly this year, according to the annual report of the International Gas Union (IGU, 2018).
Israel will also try to join the competition, albeit late. In December 2017, Israel signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of a gas pipeline between Israel and Europe. Construction of the pipeline is expected to be completed by 2025, and it will pass through Cyprus, Greece and eventually reach Italy — which will then serve as a gateway to Europe.
Translated from Israel Epoch Times