Flashpoints & Tinderboxes ll
Jul 15, 2014

The current situation in Eastern Europe reveals that the “Cold War” between democracy and communism has never truly been put to rest. The original, meaningful attempts by both the US and the USSR have been subverted in ways that have allowed “hardliners” to slowly retake control of key areas. Russia’s historic desire for a controlled buffer between “Imperial” Russia and the West may be a key driver in the re-establishment of power. In contrast, Communist China has taken the softer approach of encouraging Western economies to utilize cheap Chinese labour in order to maximize their return on investments – providing the Chinese government with access to technologies and research information, with minimal effort, to increase and modernize their military capabilities and weaponry.

One might conclude that these two “behemoth” countries would be firm allies, working together to “contain” the West, particularly since they have each exercised the ability to block access to strategic resources of Western nations. Each have pursued overseas investments, and have been increasing their military assets on a large scale.

While appearing to share similar goals, they are equally ethnocentric, have  long-standing traditions of abusing the civil rights of their own peoples, and view each other with suspicion – sharing a long history of border troubles. The Sino-Soviet War of the late 1960s exemplified the schism that existed between them, as both claimed sovereignty over the same territory. Since then, each has continued to deploy sizeable military forces along their joint border, fearing an invasion or major border “incident”. Neither side wants such a conflict to escalate into an “all-out” war, however, if the “nuclear genie” is let out of the bottle, the conflict might spread farther afield than their respective “backyards.”

Russian Aggression
Since the reign of Peter the Great, Russia has sought to be the centre of a massive empire stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic Circle to the borders of the Turkish and Chinese empires. The constant 19th Century friction between the British and the Russian Crowns over continued attempts to push into India through Afghanistan, was only finally dropped after the disastrous 10-year Afghan-Soviet war in the ’80s and ’90s. This often overshadowed the schism that existed over border clashes between the former USSR and China. The size of their respective empires remain of particular pride to the Governments of both Russia and China.

Ukrainian warships in Balaklava Harbour, Crimea. (© Xxlphoto 38358138 )

The Russian Empire had taken steps in the late 19th Century to modernize and bring an end to the feudal Serf system, democratize land holdings, and to increase the level of education for the population, however, they made no moves to offer freedom to the submerged ethnic areas. Despite the popularity of these reforms, a Socialist underground movement did not believe the reforms aided the “workers”. This underground, mainly socialist group embarked on a campaign of protest that ranged from civil disobedience to the proposed use of assassination and terror as a means of deposing the Czarist Government, monarchy and the nobility. Despite the minor uprisings, the Czar and his government were able to maintain stability and a general peace throughout the Russian empire.

However, the dispute between the Communists and the Democratic government under Kerensky grew with carefully orchestrated communist agitation, which eventually precipitated a long and bitter civil war that was eventually won by the Communists.

To fulfill Stalin’s ambitious plan to create a massive industrial society, the Russian government undertook a series of major infrastructure projects, established new state industries and increased collective farming. However, the staggering loss of life from the Civil War led to the use of convicted political prisoners, conscripted citizens, and even major criminals as labourers for new railways, canals and hydro electrical projects. The underlying master plan was to upgrade weapons of war, thwart civilian unrest, and deter aggression on shared borders.

To avoid issues with the rising Nazi state, the Russian government colluded with the government of Adolph Hitler, signing a secret accord pledging not to attack Germany when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In return, the Russian government was allowed to seize a substantial portion of the Polish Nation. However, far more important to Russia was trade between itself and Germany. Russia shipped vast amounts of raw materials to the Germans to obtain badly needed technology with which to upgrade their old industrial plants and to manufacture more modern goods. Surprisingly, Russian industrial planning officials and the Stalin government failed to foresee that this “agreement” was designed to keep the Russian military off-guard, and officials initially went into denial when German forces entered Russian territory. In fact, they continued shipping raw materials for a short period after the conflict had started until some members of the German invasion force were caught by Russian forces.

The initial German thrust into Russia occurred in the midst of a major re-armament program and a reorganization of military leadership. There was an urgent need to fill the vacuum that Stalin’s paranoia had created by shooting several thousand of his best Armed Forces leaders. The German onslaught advanced so quickly that many essential weapons systems were in danger of being captured. In response, Stalin ordered weapons production moved east of the Urals. Once established, this new facility produced a series of new weapons, aircraft and ships that were both innovative and durable. Stalin continued with an unabated weapons development program even after the war.

Three Gorges Dam

Despite great strides in industrial modernization for the production of arms, Russia’s economic miracle has yet to occur for non-military goods.

The bizarre manner in which the Russian government has acted regarding foreign investment, has been a disaster. Western companies that have entered into agreements with Russian agencies or businesses have described Russian conduct as reprehensible, if not illegal. Allegations persist of government or police officials who demand bribes and special privileges in order for the company to proceed with the project. What had once been so promising, deteriorated under the pressures of reality. Even when companies completed projects and were paid the agreed price, there was always a risk that their representatives could be arrested and deported. Assets these companies had accumulated (funds, patents or physical plant), could be confiscated by the Russian state under a fabricated charge of tax evasion. Sadly, the conduct of Russian officials revealed that little had changed in terms of corruption.

Today, the practice of dealing in bad faith with the West is as active as it had been under Stalin – another facet of the longstanding policy of theft of technology for the greater Russian good. The re-emergence of this behaviour under the Putin government reveals yet again that attitudes and actions towards the West remain very much ingrained.

It is astounding that the Russians still fear being conquered by the West. In the 70-odd years since the end of the second World War, there has been no threat posed by Western nations that could be construed as a sound foundation for such irrational fears. Russia’s stance of being “forced” to defend itself by seizing even more territory is a dangerous self-delusion. This paranoia is the irrational propellant for the continued “need” to build more sophisticated modern armaments.

So we come to the Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula and the fundamental reasons for Russian actions. Since the end of the Soviet Union, the government of Vladimir Boris Yeltsin has exhibited the same irrational fear that nations of the West are conspiring to invade or embargo Russia. Despite evidence to the contrary, Russian “hardliner” politicians and many of its citizens believe the West is intent on destroying Russia, so they continue to enthusiastically support Yeltsin’s aggressive stance and his ultimate plan to incorporate a new buffer zone.  However, the advent of compact, sophisticated self-guided weapons means a major attack could be launched from anywhere on the planet, or even from space.

As irrational as it sounds, Russia feels that it needs to control assets such as the Crimean Peninsula and the large Russian Naval Base at Sevastopol. It remains one of the very few “warm water” ports open to the Russian Navy since losing access to ports on the Baltic Ocean. In addition, large number of Russians find the loss of their “Empire” to be “humiliating” in every respect. Now, former Soviet states that share a border with Russia are suspicious that if they take, as the Ukraine did, a “Pro-West” stance, they too could be faced with armed intervention to ensure they continue to follow the proscribed Russian political position.

Maintaining buffering states between Russia and any potential threat has been an essential policy component since the days of the Romanovs, and the overwhelming desire by many Ukrainians to engage the vibrant economies of Europe and North America was enough to restart the old Russian paranoia.

In addition to retaining a “warm water” port in Crimea, the seizure of some Ukraine provinces would provide a level of comfort to Vladimir Putin. If annexation of those eastern provinces is achieved, it is doubtful he will make more demands on the West in the near future. His government will be too busy trying to repair the damage caused by his actions. With Western Europe now aware of Putin’s ruthlessness, it will take a herculean effort to repair the now extremely sullied Russian reputation regarding economic dealings. Most governments or businesses will be wary, and reluctant to participate in any agreements proposed by Putin, and Russia can no longer afford to be isolated from Western markets or lose its energy customers to eager Middle Eastern producers.

China: Espionage & Economics
Claims from industry and governments abound, accusing Chinese military or civilian organizations of hacking sensitive information, copying, or reverse engineering patented technologies and processes without authorization. The United States and the other major economies are only now discovering the full extent of the penetration of major industrial and military databases. Some suggest that Western agencies have begun their own intelligence gathering using recently developed software that leaves no evidence.

Despite well-published successes in commercial and military technologies, the Chinese are facing a significant set of problems that will impact the country in the coming years, particularly given some their more disastrous social policies of the past several decades.

China has proven its economic and engineering prowess by developing major projects such as the “Three Gorges Dam”, however, in doing so, has dislocated huge areas and created a major population shift that will reverberate well into the new century. Will dislocated citizens depend on government handouts, or move to coastal areas in search of work? Although new villages and cities have been constructed, their isolation often offers no economic possibilities other than subsistence. The government has built a number of what its citizens call “Ghost Cities” of modern buildings and facilities, however, despite the availability of such “upscale” accommodation, there has been no migration to these cities simply because they lack commercial activities to support inhabitants. Couple this initiative with the stated Government plan to relocate 20% of China’s population to urban centres, and this policy seems to run counter to the new cities initiative.

Predictably, the “one child” policy of previous regimes means that less and less marriages will occur because the average estimated ratio of one female to ten males means that, for the foreseeable future, only about 10% of eligible males will marry and produce offspring. This will lead to the planned result of a major drop in population and future workforce.

In fact, Social Planners believe that India will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous state, and will have a far larger and well-educated workforce – and this will cause China’s economy to shrink as the West looks to India for cheaper labour. This will have a disastrous impact on the Chinese government such that at some point in the future, it may be forced to call upon other countries to manufacture or assemble components into finished goods that the country once produced. Such a reduction of manufacturing capability will also mean a potential major reduction of national income, which will no doubt require China to dispose of its current massive holdings of foreign debt. This action, when coupled with the current levels of domestic crime, rampant drug abuse and the emigration of educated young adults to other growing economies will likely have dire major long-term consequences for China’s economic future.

So why has China embarked upon a program of confronting their neighbours about boundaries and exploitation rights? For the first time in 500 years, the nation is once again the dominant economic and military state. They again given themselves the “Mandate of Heaven” to exercise political, economic and military power over the region as they once did.

No doubt, the Chinese government believes that if it establishes control in its adjacent waters, even if there is a future decline in their national military power and effectiveness, they will still have sufficient residual forces in their military to repel any attempts to seize these areas. This is also consistent with their desire to have a presence in other continents such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They have invested heavily in those regional economies and entered into agreements to provide sophisticated weapons, logistics support and technical expertise in order to gain long term access to badly needed raw resources for their economy. Furthermore, their continuing presence will also, they think, reduce the influence of American foreign policy in the region. For the Chinese, the long term is not measured in months or years but in tens of years. They will need to remain cautious in their dealings with their client states since the regions where they have established a presence are also renowned for rapid political turnovers.

One Voice, Combined Strength
Perhaps the most compelling portent of future Sino-Russo conflict will be the desire for control of the vast resources in North Eastern Asia. Their emerging policies are causing and will continue to cause major concern for western nations and multi-national organizations such as NATO. But more importantly, the new politically assertive policies of both the Russian and the Chinese governments may force Western nations to seriously review trade and commerce policies with a more pragmatic and critical view.

Proactive political and military preparedness may, in the end, not be the only choice. Will the West rally as one voice, and with a combined strength and commitment that can overwhelm either Russia or China’s potential military power, and obstruct access to technology and critical raw materials needed to feed their economies?

Robert Day is a military analyst based in Ottawa. His next article will study difficulties between China, Russia and their neighbours while examining what might well precipitate a major war.
Read Part 1 here:
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