Russian to the Brink

While Nikita Khrushchev once pounded a negotiating table with his shoe, promising that “[the USSR] will bury you,” Vladimir Putin seems committed to a course of “let’s all drown together.” Whether it be oil or violence or rising oceans, the real risks facing his people are clouded in his mind by the demands of keeping a nation of eight time zones under his thumb.

As an industrialized nation whose ports are locked in ice for six months each year, Russia has a mania for warm weather. That was expressed in the ’50s in currying favor with its neighbor Iran, and in the ’80s with the invasion of Afghanistan. As global warming gained steam, the failure to secure a warm-water port made Russian nominally the only nation standing to benefit from climate change.

That wasn’t enough for Putin, whose seizure of Crimea was a thinly-disguised grab for an outlet to the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, a good piece of Ukraine stood between Russia and its new acquisition. Western opposition to the dismemberment of the Ukraine has frustrated Putin’s ambition and exposed the weakness of his military. The flurry of airspace violations by Russian fighter jets has died down as the maintenance bill mounted.

Instead, Putin has shifted to support of Bashar Assad in Syria. This is an escalation of the asymmetrical warfare epitomized by suicide bombers, except in this case the walking dead are the refugees fleeing conflict. The cost of managing the millions fleeing the region is mounting, and borne almost exclusively by the European countries who have responded to Russian adventurism with diversification of their fossil fuel supply.

Again, this geopolitical aim is shrouded in a lofty rationale: Russian claims to be fighting Daesch, the Islamist caliphate that is looting the abandoned regions of eastern Syria and western Iraq. In reality Russian military might is strongly aligned with Assad in his battle with the rebellion again his criminal regime.

In the meantime, Russia continues to pump oil into the Chinese and other markets. Its primary competitor in supply is Saudi Arabia, whose cheap production costs and small population allowed flexibility to decrease production during an oil glut to stabilize global output. Unfortunately, Sunni Saudi Arabia is locked in a regional struggle for dominance with the Shiite regime of Iran, nominally a supporter of the Allawi regime in Syria. This has led it into military adventurism in Yemen, at the cost of $17 billion a month, and is now prompting the Suadi’s to consider intervention with ground troops against Daesch in eastern Syria. An obviously a side-effect is to secure the existence of a Sunni bastion in a region about to be dominated by Shiite states. But it also creates a drain on the Saudi treasury that forces it to sell oil, driving down the price even further.

Saudi Arabia is not the only threat to Russian control of Syria. The rebels being bombed by Russian jets are not going to go away should the regime reestablish control of their strongholds. They will melt into the population, and continue to operate as insurgents. And of course, there’s all those returning refugees to provide for. Just as in Ukraine, Putin is setting himself up to be trapped for the long term in the Middle Eastern quagmire.

Finally, we have the paradox of the melting Russian tundra, composed in no small part of methane crystals that are evaporating. How much of Russia’s oil and gas infrastructure will be swallowed in sinkholes is anybody’s guess. At the very least, we can expect roads and rail lines to be disrupted. Worse, some estimates are that the continental shelf along the Arctic Ocean will soon burp up enough methane to drive global temperatures up by 2 C in the next ten years. That will moderate as the methane burns off, but the effect will be to increase desertification of Russian agricultural land. While warming Siberia is huge, it is dominated by tundra and boreal forest, possessing only a thin layer of soil. It’s not going to be a breadbasket anytime in the next thousand years.

Russia has always been a marginal state, held together by the repressive fist of the tsars. As the last of that line, Putin is playing a game of personal power on the global stage driven by the need to prove his strength to the Russian people. While it’s anybody’s guess as to how soon the Russian state will collapse under the weight of his ambitions, all we can hope is that there’s something left for the Russian people to rebuild with.