Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Tajikistan

The tiny ex-Soviet country of Tajikistan, located in Central Asia, has almost as many residents as New York City, at 8.2 million. It doesn’t have much to draw attention to its economy except for one thing: it is currently, by a wide margin for all countries where data is available, the national economy most dependent on remittance money transfers from its citizens abroad.

In 2013, 48.8% – or nearly half! – of Tajikistan’s 2013 GDP came from remittances from Tajikistani workers in other countries, who sent home $4.2 billion to their families, according to the World Bank.

Most of these workers are in Russia, the source for three-quarters of all remittances flowing to Tajikistan, which is very typical of the other ex-Soviet states in the region. Russia is, in fact, one of the top five destinations in the world for migrant workers.

tajikistan-location-map

For Central Asia’s economies, in some ways, the Soviet Union never really ended. Four of the top Tajikistani remittance sources are other former Soviet countries and neighboring Afghanistan – the Soviet invasion target that became the Union’s military undoing – is a fifth.

Neighboring Kyrgyzstan holds the title of second-most dependent on remittances with 32% of its 2013 GDP coming from them and nearly 80% of that coming from Russia.

Tajikistan’s domestic economy has remained severely hampered by geopolitical chaos since the formal dissolution of the USSR in 1991. A brutal 5-year civil war broke out almost immediately between the Communists, ethnic opposition and Islamists, as part of the continued fallout of the disastrous Afghan invasion.

I’ve mentioned this war in passing previously because it was particularly noteworthy among the post-Soviet wars of the Russian Near Abroad:

[In the months following the USSR’s collapse, newly “Russian” troops] were often ordered by Moscow to remain in place as outside “peacekeepers” (between the fighting populations of countries that had last seen self-rule around the time of the Franco-Prussian War) even though the Soviet Union had opposed peacekeeping as “anti-Leninist” and had thus had provided its troops and officers with zero training on how to conduct peacekeeping operations. In the most extreme case, ex-Soviet Russian troops hunkered down in defensive positions on Tajikistani military bases as a brutal civil war between Communists, democrats, and Tajik/Afghan mujahideen raged all around the bases and any heavy military equipment outside was stolen for use in the conflict.

 
Then, as its own civil war wound down, Tajikistan participated in the Afghan Civil War (between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban), which ended only with the U.S. invasion in 2001.

The country finally grew rapidly beginning around 2000, on the strength of aluminum and cotton, but this growth was beginning from a very small base. Therefore, Russia has continued to be an attractive source of employment for many Tajikistanis.

Unfortunately, this means the recent instability in Russia’s economy – from sanctions and falling oil prices – puts Tajikistan (and its neighbors) at risk. Migrants in Russia are losing their jobs and the value of their remittances is evaporating as Russia’s currency loses value.

While Tajikistan might not seem ripe for collapse and a return to war (and I certainly hope that is not on the horizon), its proximity to northern Afghanistan (where things are heating up again recently) means it is always in danger of a new flare-up. And the violently genocidal spiral Kyrgyzstan entered very suddenly in 2010 (full archive coverage➚) proved that the right spark at the wrong time can plunge these smaller Central Asian ex-Soviet republics back into chaos in the blink of an eye.

Yet another war about to erupt?

Oh, you thought world news couldn’t get worse? Wrong! It can always get worse. Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-aligned breakaway region of Azerbaijan, has been frozen in a ceasefire with no final agreement for 20 years (after 6 years of brutal war), but just saw 15 soldiers killed in 4 days, as angry rhetoric rises. The dispute over the region led to an internal war in the southern Soviet Union and worsened after the Union broke up and stopped keeping a lid on things altogether. The new troop deaths are the worst in twenty years, though civilians are often killed near the war zone border.

Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan after the 1994 ceasefire. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan after the 1994 ceasefire. (Credit: Wikimedia)

Russia, while playing mediator (now and in 1994), is much more aligned with Armenia, which has been enthusiastically supporting recent Russian foreign policy when virtually no one else will. Iran and Turkey both have interests in the situation, due to proximity to it, as well as various historical ties or antipathies toward one or the other. Turkey opposed Armenia last time around, while Iran opposed Azerbaijan. (Iran’s government currently fears an Azeri unification movement more than they want to liberate another majority Shia population from secular rule as a second satellite like Iraq.)

The last war also somehow involved Afghan mujahideen at one point, so if we’re looking to open up not only another ex-Soviet conflict but also make it a holy war, this seems like the place.

When do we reach capacity on world conflict? Right now we’ve already got cross-border war, civil war, low level internal conflict, or extensive civil unrest in: Syria, Gaza, Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Xinjiang, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Egypt. Plus maybe others I’m forgetting. (Edit to add: Central African Republic, Congo.)

Summer 2014 is not going much better than Summer 1914.

How to respond to Russia (safely)

Arsenal Essay: This isn’t Neville Chamberlain in 1938. It’s the world NOT taking the bait of Serbian gunmen in 1914.
nato-logo-200The Crimea annexation has raised a crucial question: What is the world to do when a country with a large military and nuclear weapons decides to end a (voluntary, it turns out) period of non-aggression toward its neighbors?

For a while, the Soviet Union and Russia was so bogged down by the 1980s Afghanistan debacle and economic problems of the 1990s that it wasn’t in a strong position to intervene militarily in its European neighbors’ political affairs as it had once regularly done.

But by the mid-2000s, Russia’s military was back up and ready. The United States and the wider Western world appears to have mistakenly convinced itself that Russian non-intervention in Eastern Europe was due to universalizing of norms against such interference and some sort of implicit global check against it.

Putin doesn’t appear to feel bound by any of those norms, after all (though the United States has had an extremely iffy track record on that as well since 1999). For some time now I’ve been firmly in the camp that this has more to do with restoring the pre-1914 Russian Empire and little to do with restoring the USSR. I think Putin’s vision of Russia is a lot like the Russia that was a European power with an inferiority complex and a Peter the Great-inspired desperation for Europe’s respect but not its approval.

It also calls to mind the arrogant Russia that saw itself as the older brother (and divinely chosen leader) of all Slavs everywhere, whether they liked it or not — and the White Man’s Burden Leader of the near abroad (especially Central Asia, as we’ve seen flashes of again recently). We’ve seen the revived patronizing attitude of Russians who simply can’t comprehend why Ukraine wouldn’t want to be part of Russia again.

Of course — as I’ll return to later in this essay — that was the same “Older Brother Russia” with the largest land army in the world that invaded the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in response to an Austrian police action in Serbia following the Serbian assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 (and Serbia’s alleged refusal to hand over the terrorists).

Rather than the Slavic World-Tsar liberating the Yugo-Slavs (the Slavs of the South), it brought the world into a devastating war that collapsed four empires, including Russia’s.

But let us return to Putin’s neo-imperial Russia of today. The lack of Russian invasions in Eastern Europe in the past nine years — apart from the disputed circumstances of Georgia in 2008 — seems now to have been more out of the “goodness” of Putin’s heart than out of any real commitment to respecting the independence of the Federation’s neighbors.

Putin’s revelation is that the 1956 rules still apply no less than they did in 1956, when the Soviet Union violently invaded Hungary (an anti-NATO Warsaw Pact member) to preserve communist rule there, and NATO was forced to watch passively because it could not risk a nuclear war over the matter.

Does the current Russian leadership, like the Soviet leadership of 1956, have enough sense to realize that it can only get away with interventions in its “sphere of influence” or will he press his luck? At the end of the day, it’s at least partly a matter of voluntary forbearance, as to how far Russia pushes. But partly as the hawks are telling us, it’s also about whether NATO and the United States are a credible umbrella for NATO members in Eastern Europe. As in: Is NATO really prepared to honor its defense obligations to the Baltic Republics if Russia intervenes there too?

I don’t know for sure if we’d actually launch a war if Russia invaded Estonia, say, but I do know that the United States isn’t twiddling its thumbs either — and is working to make sure that doesn’t happen in the first place, so that we never have to find out. Contrary to Republican belief, President Obama has been taking strong measures to shore up NATO allies in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression. Here’s the New York Times on the moves:

Since President Vladimir V. Putin ordered troops to seize Crimea, Mr. Obama has become increasingly engaged, blitzing foreign leaders with telephone calls, imposing sanctions and speaking out more frequently.

To reassure nervous allies, he sent six extra F-15C Eagles to Lithuania and 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland. Mr. Obama, who met here with Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, will further bolster defenses in Eastern Europe by rotating more ground and naval forces for exercises and training in Poland and the Baltic countries; update contingency planning; and increase the capacity of a NATO quick-response force.

“Putin just declared war on the European order and it’s demanding that the United States focus on Europe again as a security issue,” said Damon Wilson, a former national security aide to Mr. Bush and now executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. While some Republicans have pushed the president to be tougher, Mr. Wilson praised Mr. Obama’s response. “I don’t think I’ve seen the president more personally engaged on any foreign policy crisis in a concerted way as he has been on Ukraine.”

 
This might not do much to help or re-assure non-NATO members such as Ukraine, Moldova, or Sweden, but we haven’t ever legally bound ourselves to defend them in the event of a foreign attack. The administration is striking a balance by re-affirming our existing commitments and alliances without drawing us into fresh entanglements that risk a World War I-style avoidable meltdown into war between major powers.

world-war-1-map
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Thanks, Obama: Crimea Edition

I’ve noticed that the U.S. conservatives — including sore losers John McCain and Mitt Romney, but also many many others — who are pounding their fists and tearing their hair over the Obama’s Administration’s purportedly pitiful, pathetic, terrible, underwhelming, horrible, ineffective (etc) response to the Crimea takeover … have been conspicuously careful not to call outright for a military conflict with Russia over the matter.

Can anyone point out where in all their literal lip-curling displays of disgust at the President that they have suggested anything substantive that would be a better response, in their eyes? I think I’ve seen vague mentions of bringing Ukraine et al into NATO (which I think is a terrible idea), but otherwise I can’t think of anything I’ve seen them suggesting as an alternative to the administration’s course of action. 

Update, 9:30 PM:
David W. Wise has an excellent new article in The Globalist (my employer, though I was not involved in editing it) on the same question I posed above: “Why Crimea Is Not the Product of U.S. Weakness”

It is currently fashionable in Republican circles and in cable TV talk shows to argue that, first, President Obama’s foreign policy projected an aura of weakness, which was then, second, exploited by President Putin with aggressive and illegal moves in Crimea.

The problem with this narrative is that, while convenient, it is also patently untrue. Russia in general and Putin in particular, operate under the power politics rules of international affairs. They will thus act according to perceived threats to the security interests of the Russian state.

Unless President Obama had been willing to use military force, an ill-advised course, there was probably nothing the United States could have done to deter Putin’s actions in Crimea once Ukrainian President Yanokovych was deposed and had departed.
[…]
Let us […] go back a few years to 2008 when Bush, Cheney and the neoconservatives were in power. They talked tough and backed it up in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also abrogated the ABM treaty and ramped up defense spending.

Yet, in 2008 the same President Putin who recently sent unmarked troops into Ukraine did something as unsavory. He invaded Georgia to within miles of its capital and recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgia regions.

And yet, the Republicans – with their emphasis on an always muscular foreign policy – stood by relatively idly. Did Republicans think that Putin acted out of anything other than his cold-blooded calculation of Russia’s interest? Or did they believe then that the Bush/Cheney team’s “weakness” invited Putin’s action in Georgia?

No, they didn’t. But evidently, different rules of foreign policy calculations and interpretations apply depending on who’s in office. That may be effective politics, but hardly adds up to a serious policy argument.

 
Wise also discusses at length how Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s pushes to expand NATO into the former Russian imperial heartland made Russia feel threatened, encircled, and under siege — something I discussed previously. Their reactions now can arguably seen as new defensive measures against exactly the aggressive American hawkishness John McCain and others have advocated.

Russia’s present course may partially be an effort to restore a defensive buffer zone around Russia itself, much as the larger Soviet Union insisted on indirectly occupying East Germany and much of Eastern Europe to prevent a third total war homeland invasion that century.

But, again, as Wise notes, much of the criticism has nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with the occupant of the White House: “evidently, different rules of foreign policy calculations and interpretations apply depending on who’s in office.”

In particular, we know exactly where John McCain’s criticisms stem from. If it were just about Russia he wouldn’t speak with such audible disdain and disrespect for the president. He was doing that long before it was about Crimea.

Get to know a geopolitical flashpoint: Moldova

A Russian-dominated breakaway region of another former Soviet Republic, just up the river from the Black Sea and a short hop from Crimea, has formally requested the Russian Federation follow up on its Crimea annexation by doing the same there.

Although many Western observers initially thought the continuing buildup of Russian troops near Eastern Ukraine was intended for a possible invasion of Eastern Ukraine, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said today that he is worried it may in fact be the Russian Army positioning itself for another intervention on the other side of Ukraine and Crimea, in the Transdniestria region of Moldova.

A month ago I would have said that was nonsense — and it still feels strategically and logistically less likely than the Crimea takeover — but a month ago, few were expecting such a brazen seizure of Crimea by the Russian Federation. So with that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to expand upon my “Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet ‘Near Abroad'” prepare some research on Transdniestria and Moldova.
Transdniestria-Eastern-Europe-Map-March-23-2014
The landlocked Eastern European country of Moldova is wedged between southwestern Ukraine and northeastern Romania. The predominant language is Moldovan, which is effectively the same language as Romanian and since 1989 has used the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet (previously enforced by Moscow). The country has been independent since 1991 when the Soviet Union ended, but it changed hands and was carved up many times in the past 500 years. At various points, parts of the country were ruled by the Ottomans, the Romanians, the Lithuanians, the Polish, the Ukrainians, the Russian Empire, and the Soviet Union.

The borders have also changed quite a few times in that time and Moldova has struggled to find its geographical place in the region. Part of the country had long been a Russian Empire border zone (on the edge of Ukraine) and was absorbed into Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union right after World War I, when the Russian Empire collapsed and was replaced by the communist government. The rest of the country was part of Romania during the interwar years. After World War II, the parts of what are now Moldova today were fused together into a Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic, one of the smaller of the USSR’s member republics.

So, as you can imagine, by the end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s, things were pretty confusing and jumbled. There wasn’t a clearly defined national identity because there wasn’t even a clearly defined historical area or legacy of self-rule. It was possible that Moldova might even try to rejoin Romania, which has the most in common with the bulk of the country and had previously controlled it several times. After late 1989, when Romania’s totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had been executed, it seemed to Moldovan nationalists like a good escape route from Soviet/Russian domination, which had not yet ended.

This plan, unfortunately, didn’t sit well with the longstanding Russian population from the other side of the Dniester River, the zone that had not been part of Romania during the interwar years (having been almost immediately brought into the Soviet Union by 1924). This was a place that had been a militarized frontier of the Russian Empire since 1793 and had suffered greatly under Axis-Romanian occupation during World War II — experiencing forced Romanianization and the murders of over 100,000 Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in Axis concentration camps built in the region.

This geographical area, the narrow strip of land between the Dniester River and the Ukrainian border, effectively Moldova’s Russianized East Bank (and a few communities on the Moldovan side of the river), is known in English as the Trans-Dniester region or Transdniestria/Transnistria and other variants adapted from the Romanian point-of-reference to “the area across the Dniester.”

The bulk of the rest of Moldova, the Dniester’s West Bank, is the non-Russian-speaking area referred to as “Bessarabia” — which has changed hands far more often than Transdniestria. By the early 1990s, Transdniestria’s Russian population, despite now being separated from the Russian Soviet Federal Republic by the entirety of a newly independent Ukraine, still saw itself as the Western-most outpost of historical Russia, and felt very threatened by the pro-Romanian nationalism of the Moldovan independence movement that had broken the country away from the Soviet Union.

They promptly declared independence from Moldova as the USSR was breaking up and — after some initial skirmishes in the first politically chaotic months — the new Moldovan military tried to invade the Transdniestria region.

Below: The current flag of the breakaway region.
Flag-of-Transnistria

Complicating matters was the giant, heavily armed elephant in the room: The fact that the Soviet Union’s 14th Army had been stationed in eastern Moldova (Transdniestria) at the time of independence and was assigned to Russia, rather than Moldova, when the former Soviet states were divvying up the old USSR’s Army and Navy.
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A Beginner’s Guide to the Post-Soviet “Near Abroad”

The term “Near Abroad” was coined in the 1990s by a Russian foreign minister to describe the countries formerly controlled by the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire. It is sometimes also called the “periphery” or various other terms, but “Near Abroad” is now the more common term in English-language literature, translated from the Russian phrase. About a decade ago, Vladimir Putin proclaimed the region to be Russia’s official “sphere of influence” along the lines of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine in Latin America. Obviously, given the situation in Crimea, he’s taking that pretty seriously.

This post attempts to provide a very basic, abbreviated background guide to the countries of the Near Abroad and their relationship with Russia since December 1991.
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1992: The Great Russian Withdrawal from the Near Abroad

Flag_of_Russia_(1991-1993)-200pxA while back I posted the story of the experiences of the Soviet cosmonauts who were in space as the Soviet Union was breaking up.

While that was a pretty extreme situation, I just came across this article from 1997 about Soviet military units deployed in the non-Russian republics of the USSR (the “Near Abroad”) as it was breaking up. What were they supposed to do: withdraw immediately — hold in place? It was a logistical and political nightmare.

In many cases, ethnically Russian Soviet troops suddenly found themselves under Russian national command hundreds if not thousands of miles outside of the new country they were serving. Some units immediately started marching and driving back toward Russia, overland, abandoning in place any equipment they couldn’t take with them. Other units found themselves completely cut off and trapped in deployment locations as long-dormant ethno-religious and political conflicts broke out around them.
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