The coming scramble for Greenland

Now that the status of Greenland is a live political issue, I wonder if China will make its own play to acquire the world’s largest island before the US does:

It’s not just America who acknowledges the strategic importance of Greenland, either. Look no further than China, which has repeatedly attempted to gain infrastructure on the island.

In 2016, a Chinese company attempted to buy a former U.S. military base in Greenland, and the government in Denmark stepped in, vetoing the deal. At the time, Danish officials were quoted anonymously in the press, saying they had resisted the deal as a favor to its longtime American ally.

Then in 2018, a Chinese government-owned firm was announced as a likely winner for a contract to build a new airport. The 3.6 billion Danish krone (U.S. $560 million) contract would have given China major economic power over the local government, and decision makers in both Washington and Copenhagen worried it could lead to the U.S. being pushed out of Thule – or give Beijing a ready-made airport that could accommodate Chinese military planes in case of a conflict.

Eventually Copenhagen and Nuuk reached an agreement, with generous financial support from Denmark’s coffers, to pick a different contractor. But it is likely that China will continue to push for entry into Greenland, underlining its strategic importance once again.

I can only guess that the US put considerable pressure on the Danes to squash these Chinese attempts at gaining a foothold in Greenland.

More from Reuters:

The Arctic region sits at a geopolitical intersection of renewed rivalry between world powers China, Russia and the United States, and – with its melting ice cap – is a major symbol of the growing impact of climate change.

Russia has been raising its profile in the Arctic, creating or reopening six military bases shut after the Cold War ended in 1990, modernizing its Northern Fleet, including 21 new vessels and two nuclear submarines, and staging frequent naval exercises in the Arctic.

Russia also hopes that as the polar ice cap retreats, a shipping lane north of Russia will develop as an alternative route for goods from Asia to Europe.

The Trump administration last year began re-establishing the U.S. Second Fleet, responsible for the northern Atlantic, to counter a more assertive Russia. […]

China has also shown interest in Greenland after Beijing laid out its ambitions to form a “Polar Silk Road” by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming and encouraging enterprises to build infrastructure in the Arctic.

Greenland, which plans to open a representative office in Beijing later this year to boost trade ties, has courted Chinese investors and construction firms to help expand three airports to allow direct flights from Europe and North America.

Greenland, which is three times the size of Texas, has vast mineral reserves including uranium and rare earths, as well as 50 billion barrels of still-untapped offshore oil and gas reserves, according to the article.

Project 501

Photo by Amos Chapple

Photo by Amos Chapple

No matter how bad I think the Soviet Union was, it always turns out to have been worse:

These haunting photographs reveal the rotting carcasses of Soviet gulags and a partially built railway where up to 300,000 prisoners died, with their remains still buried in the soil.

The horrific camps were strewn across the Siberian wilderness, just below and above the Arctic Circle, and the prisoners in them were forced to work on a train line dreamt up by Joseph Stalin – the Salekhard-Igarka Railway. His aides knew it was a pointless scheme mapped out in terrain that was impossible to work with, but dared not tell him.

More background on Project 501, aka Death Road:

Stalin conceived of an 806-mile-long rail line to run between the Siberian cities Igarka and Salekhard. Between the years 1947 to 1953, political prisoners were tasked with turning two separate projects into one massive bad idea. Working from the banks on the River Ob prisoners constructing the 501 Railroad’s struggled to unite their project with that of a separate team of prisoners who were actively dying as they laid ties and rails on their 503 Railroad. On either side of the tracks, wooden barracks (also built by the very prisoners they once housed) can still be seen crumbling into the low brush of the tundra. As the years wore on, progress was made with ever increased sluggishness. Supervisors also started to realize that demand waiting on the other side for the completed railroad verged on nonexistent.

When word reached the camps of Stalin’s death in 1953, all work on the tyrant’s insane pet project was put to an end, leaving the railway a simple straight line through the sparsely populated Arctic.

A new bloc on the block

Sergey Karaganov

Sergey Karaganov

The day (in 2000) when Putin suggested that Russia would be willing to join NATO if it was treated as an equal partner seems like a very long time ago. Of course, the offer was never made, and NATO proceeded to expand eastward to within 100 miles of St Petersburg.

In retrospect, shutting Russia out of the Western alliance was a colossal mistake, possibly one of the great strategic blunders in all of history. Because now Russia is hellbent on forging an alliance with China:

Russia’s view of China has shifted significantly over the past five years. Moscow has abandoned any hope that the Chinese economy is an example it might emulate. Instead, foreign policy experts now talk of how Russia can use China to further its geopolitical goals.

There was no doubt at Valdai that China knows how to do economic growth, and that Russia does not. Russia’s elite — always so ready to resist any sign of Western hegemony — have no problem admitting China’s economic superiority. Their acceptance reminded me of the way Britain gave way to the United States as the world’s dominant economic power.

Seen from Moscow, there is no resistance left to a new alliance led by China. And now that Washington has imposed tariffs on Chinese exports, Russia hopes China will finally understand that its problem is Washington, not Moscow.

In the past, the possibility of an alliance between the two countries had been hampered by China’s reluctance to jeopardize its relations with the U.S. But now that it has already become a target, perhaps it will grow bolder. Every speaker at Valdai tried to push China in that direction.

Both Russia and China have obvious shortcomings, but the fact is that the US, Russia and China are the world’s foremost military powers; and an alliance of two of those powers against the third could prove to be a geopolitical game-changer.

This alliance, if it becomes concrete, would overturn how we do global politics. Imagine an international crisis in which Russia and China suddenly emerge as a single bloc. The impact would be considerable, and to some extent unpredictable: Psychologically, in the mind of the West, it would combine the fear associated with Russia with the apparent invulnerability of China. Washington would feel under attack; Europe, intimidated and unsettled.

The old Continent would also face the threat of a split between Western Europe and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, which could turn their focus east under the influence of a cash-happy China ready to invest in the region.

The author, a former Europe minister for Portugal, describes a scary meeting between former Putin adviser Sergey Karaganov and some Chinese officials and think tank people:

There, a number of Chinese participants said they doubted Russia’s assertions that the world is in the midst of a new Cold War.

Karaganov dedicated himself to convincing them otherwise, arguing with increasing passion that China is deluding itself if it thinks issues between Beijing and Washington can be conveniently resolved to the benefit of both sides.

If Beijing places its bets on peace and cooperation, the great Chinese adventure will come to an end, and China will have to live in the shadow of the U.S. for another generation — perhaps forever, Karaganov said. Chinese authorities, he argued, have no more than five years to make a decision.

The clock is ticking.

Russia doubles down in Venezuela

The overthrow of Maduro may not go *quite* as smoothly as the US State Department is probably hoping it will:

Private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for President Nicolas Maduro in the face of U.S.-backed opposition protests, according to two people close to them.

A third source close to the Russian contractors also told Reuters there was a contingent of them in Venezuela, but could not say when they arrived or what their role was.

Russia, which has backed Maduro’s socialist government to the tune of billions of dollars, this week promised to stand by him after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president with Washington’s endorsement.

[…]

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors, said he had heard the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about 400.

But the other sources spoke of small groups.

The contractors are believed to be linked with Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group, which has also sent forces to Ukraine and Syria. It would, of course, be suboptimal for the US to end up in a shooting match with Russian mercenaries in Venezuela. If that happened, it would not be the US’s first rodeo with Russian clandestine forces. Last February, the US killed 200-300 pro-government forces in Syria, many of which were believed to be Russian mercenaries linked to Wagner Group.

The strategic landscape and stakes are a bit different for Russia now, since Venezuela is on the other side of the Atlantic rather than in Russia’s backyard.

Hypersonic race

Russia says it has conducted another successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile:

Moscow’s hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed Avangard, has been in development for three decades and can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or about one mile per second.

The weapon, which the U.S. is currently unable to defend against, is designed to sit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once launched, it uses aerodynamic forces to sail on top of the atmosphere.

Sources familiar with U.S. intelligence reports assess that the Russian hypersonic glide vehicles are equipped with onboard countermeasures that are able to defeat even the most advanced missile-defense systems. The weapons are also highly maneuverable and, therefore, unpredictable, which makes them difficult to track.

The US appears concerned:

The Defense Department is looking to step up its development of hypersonic weapons — missiles that travel more than five times faster than the speed of sound — DOD leaders said at the National Defense Industrial Association-sponsored “Hypersonics Senior Executive Series” here today.

“In the last year, China has tested more hypersonics weapons than we have in a decade,” said Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. “We’ve got to fix that.”

Russia also is involved in hypersonics, Griffin said. “Hypersonics is a game changer,” he added.

If Russia were to invade Estonia or China were to attack Taiwan tomorrow, Griffin said, it would be difficult to defend against their strike assets. “It’s not a space we want to stay in,” he told the audience.

An emerging alliance

China Russia military exercises

Harvard Kennedy School’s Graham Allison ponders the rapidly solidifying alliance of convenience between Russia and China:

Given these structural realities, the prospects for a Chinese-Russian alliance in the longer run are undoubtedly grim. But political leaders live in the here and now. Denied opportunities in the West, what alternative do Russians have but to turn East? Moreover, while history deals the hands, human beings play the cards, even sometimes practicing a quaint art known in earlier eras as diplomacy. The confluence of China’s strategic foresight and exquisite diplomacy, on the one hand, and U.S. and Western European clumsiness, on the other, has produced an increasingly thick and consequential alignment between two geopolitical rivals, Russia and China.

In international relations, an elementary proposition states: “the enemy of my enemy is a friend.” The balance of power—military, economic, intelligence, diplomatic—between rivals is critical. To the extent that China persuades Russia to sit on its side of the see-saw, this adds to China’s heft, a nuclear superpower alongside an economic superpower.

American presidents since Bill Clinton have not only neglected the formation of this grievance coalition; unintentionally but undeniably, they have nurtured it. Russia emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 with a leader eager to “bury Communism,” as Boris Yeltsin put it, and join the West. The story of how we reached the depth of enmity today is a long one, strewn with mistakes by all parties. The Clinton administration’s decision in 1996 to expand NATO toward Russia’s borders, Kennan observed, was the “most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.” He predicted that the consequence would be a Russia that “would likely look elsewhere for guarantees of a secure and hopeful future for themselves.”

The growing Sino-Russian alignment is economic, diplomatic, and most worryingly for the US, military in nature:

Most American experts discount Sino-Russian military cooperation. Commenting on this year’s unprecedented military exercise in which 3,000 Chinese soldiers joined 300,000 Russians in practicing scenarios for conflict with NATOin Eastern Europe, Secretary of Defense Mattis said: “I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.”

HE SHOULD look more carefully. What has emerged is what a former senior Russian national security official described to me as a “functional military alliance.” Russian and Chinese generals’ staffs now have candid, detailed discussions about the threat U.S. nuclear modernization and missile defenses pose to each of their strategic deterrents. For decades, in selling arms to China, Russia was careful to withhold its most advanced technologies. No longer. In recent years it has not only sold China its most advanced air defense systems, the S-400s, but has actively engaged with China in joint r&d on rockets engines—and UAVs. Joint military exercises by their navies in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, the South China Sea in 2016 and the Baltic Sea in 2017 compare favorably with U.S.-Indian military exercises. As a Chinese colleague observed candidly, if the United States found itself in a conflict with China in the South China Sea, what should it expect Putin might do in the Baltics?

Pushing Russia away from the Western alliance and into China’s arms was phenomenally stupid, a foreign policy catastrophe for the ages. On the other hand, it’s probably time for the US to wind down its imperial meddling in Eurasia and focus on problems closer to home. The China-Russia rapprochement will certainly hasten that process. And being a regional, rather than a global, power isn’t so bad.

Russia-Ukraine spat

So, Russia and Ukraine are all over the news again. Apparently the Russian coast guard intercepted and boarded three Ukrainian ships – two patrol boats and a tug – that were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Sea of Azov, destined for Mariupol. Ukraine says Russia rammed the tugboat and fired on the other two ships, wounding a number of sailors. Russia also took 24 crew into custody. In addition, Russia parked a tanker under the Crimean Bridge, the new bridge spanning the Kerch Strait, effectively blocking traffic through the narrow waterway.

Here’s a map of the sea:

Sea of Azov

Note that the Sea of Azov is divided between Russian and Ukrainian control; it is not international waters.

As is often the case in today’s insane world, establishing the facts of what happened is not easy because the two parties to the dispute are saying opposite and mutually exclusive things. Ukraine claims that the vessels followed the safe passage protocols, hailing the Kerch authorities and asking permission to pass through the strait as they were supposed to do, but received no response.

Russia, however, says that the ships did not hail the Kerch port for permission to pass through and did not respond to hails from Russian authorities as they approached Russian territorial waters on the eastern side of the strait. The Russians claim that the ramming took place in their undisputed territorial waters.

One side must be lying, and I have no idea which side that is. Neither, in all probability, do you. There is another way of looking at the situation though, and that is by asking: Cui bono? It’s hard to imagine that Putin would have moral qualms about escalating hostilities with Ukraine, if he felt it was in Russia’s (or his own) interests to do so.

In that respect, this article from bne IntelliNews is interesting. The author does not appear to have a pro-Putin bias, as he is sharply critical of Russian policy towards Ukraine. As he sees it, though, the big beneficiary of this military clash in the Sea of Avoz is not Putin, but Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko:

With presidential elections now only four months away, Poroshenko is trailing badly in the polls at least 10 percentage points behind his nemesis opposition leader, former prime minister and head of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party Yulia Tymoshenko, and unlikely to make it to the second round after the poll on March 31, 2019, let alone win. Ukraine watchers admit that he has failed to deal with corruption, failed to solve any of the journalist murder cases, failed to jail anyone responsible for the deaths during the Euromaidan protests and in general failed to deliver on the promise of the Revolution of Dignity. Ukraine is now the poorest country in Europe and recent polls say 85% of the population believe the country is going in the wrong direction.

A sharp military showdown with Russia, a strongman image of decisive action in the face of an external enemy, the imposition of martial law (and the potential ability to cancel the elections at will) and the opportunity to wear his military uniform in public often is exactly what Poroshenko needs to rescue his campaign. Indeed, these were exactly the tactics Putin used to bolster his flagging support in 2014 when Russia annexed the Crimea, and later led to a sweeping victory with a record margin in the Russian presidential elections in March. If Ukraine didn’t provoke this clash then Poroshenko has just had an extraordinary piece of political luck – and for this reason alone the question must be asked.

The whole piece is worth reading. Until the true facts of this murky military dispute come to light (if they ever do), Americans should remain agnostic about which side is to “blame” and extremely skeptical of calls for a stronger US response. The absolute last thing the US needs right now is to get sucked into another miserable, pointless conflict far from home.

Russia to verify moon landings

Buzz Aldrin moon July 1969

I always thought this looked fake

It’s time someone cleared this up once and for all:

The head of Russia’s Roscosmos space agency has said that a proposed Russian mission to the moon will be tasked with verifying that the American moon landings were real, though he appeared to be making a joke.

“We have set this objective to fly and verify whether they’ve been there or not,” said Dmitry Rogozin in a video posted Saturday on Twitter.

Rogozin was responding to a question about whether or not NASA actually landed on the moon nearly 50 years ago. He appeared to be joking, as he smirked and shrugged while answering. But conspiracies surrounding NASA’s moon missions are common in Russia.

“Novichok spymaster” dies

GRU director Igor Korobov

GRU director Igor Korobov

The twisty Skripal affair takes another turn as the head of Russia’s GRU, who is viewed as the mastermind of the poisoning, is reported dead:

One of Russia’s highest ranking spies and the powerful head of military intelligence has died “after a long and serious illness,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson told the news agency RIA Novosti. Gen. Col. Igor Korobov, the 63-year old head of Russia’s Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU), was reported dead early Thursday morning; currently there’s no reports of foul play though officials did not reveal specific details or the circumstances of his death.

Crucially Korobov had been dubbed by the West the “Novichok spymaster” — as the Russian GRU chief ultimately blamed for the Salisbury attack as well as the downing of MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, which the Kremlin in turn had blamed on pro-Kiev national forces.

Korobov had for two years been under US sanctions, added by US Treasury in December 2016 related to allegations of Russian hacking and “efforts to undermine democracy”. Ironically, however, he was seen at times as a cooperative ally in Washington’s “war on terror” efforts since 9/11. […]

What’s the real story here? As usual… who knows? But here’s a possible clue:

Korobov had been ill since early October, when reports revealed he was severely reprimanded by President Putin himself over mishandling accusations surrounding the alleged Salisbury poison attack the West pinned on Russian intelligence.

The Daily Mail reports:

President Vladimir Putin personally gave a dressing down to the head of Russian spy agency GRU over ‘deep incompetence’ shown in the Salisbury poisonings and other international operations.

GRU chief Col-Gen Igor Korobov, 62, reportedly emerged shaken and in sudden ‘ill health’ after his confrontation with the furious Russian president.

As for the “deep incompetence”: the once-fearsome GRU is apparently not sending its best.