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     Oct 14, 2006
Epitaph to unipolarity
Russian Rubicon: Impending Checkmate of the West by Joseph Stroupe

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia's potential to regain genuine global power has been discounted by many as a conspiracy theory or a remnant of Cold War mentality. With world leaders transfixed on the rise of China, Russia has been relegated to the category of a spent force.

Strategic-forecasting expert and Asia Times Online contributor Joseph Stroupe's new book goes against the tide of Western smugness and makes a brilliant case for sitting up and taking notice of how the Russian bear is opportunistically wrestling to divest the United States of its world hegemony.

Notwithstanding disarming public proclamations, Russia is cutting into US interests around the planet, rolling back "color revolutions" in the post-Soviet space and allying with key powers in Asia, Europe and the Americas that are inimical to Washington. Using the "energy trump card", Moscow is constructing a dense network of like-minded states that is coalescing into a rival pole to counterbalance the US.

Stroupe begins with the realist views of history that unipolarity is a "passing anomaly", an aberration that cannot be sustained by the international system. The "Anglo-American Empire" is partly strong and partly weak, "a mixture of iron and clay". (p 24) Dissenting liberal ideologies such as democracy and human rights prevent Pax Americana from following in the footsteps of earlier empires and imposing outright conservative colonial domination.

Moreover, Stroupe maintains, Russia was only temporarily thwarted in 1991 and is now mounting a second challenge as the US stock of global goodwill declines swiftly. "Since the Serbia air campaign in 1999, the gap between America's image of power and real power has become a chasm, providing opportunity for rivals to displace it from the geopolitical center." (p 44)

Russia's organization of the anti-Iraq-war bloc in 2003 is one manifestation of the new "complex lopsided bipolarity", with the US on one side and a "rising multifarious East" with Russia as the core on the other. "Thinking Russia" is attempting neither to re-create the Soviet Empire nor to threaten its neighbors with military intervention. Instead, it is weaving around itself a collective power bloc "of truly unprecedented structure, proportions and influence". (p 50) This bloc will end US hegemony by multi-layered economic and diplomatic means in the arena of competition for control over strategic resources.

Stroupe discerns a clear pattern in Russia's recent diplomacy whereby crude oil, gas or other strategic minerals play a central role in every relationship it cultivates. This applies to thickening ties with China, Venezuela, Germany, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Spain, Algeria, Turkey, South Africa and the Central Asian states. To scatter and disintegrate Russia's bloc, the US attempts "democratization" (alias pro-Western regime changes).

However, the color revolutions are backfiring, and the "China model" of rapid economic growth without political freedoms is becoming the norm among energy-rich states of the world. In spite of the 2003 "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, Moscow still dictates to Tbilisi through its gas monopoly. Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" failed to stem Kiev's return to Russia's yard owing to Moscow's oil-and-gas leverage. To battle the United States' economic pressures, Russia's central bank has diversified 50% of its foreign-exchange reserves to non-dollar denominations and set the example for other states to desert the US dollar.

Stroupe insists that "multipolarity" in the international system is a misnomer because lesser poles tend to align with or orbit greater ones, causing power to converge around two principal poles only. The result is a complex circumambulation of lesser powers around the "Russia-China axis" that will soon outdo but not annihilate the Anglo-American pole. Moscow and Beijing's joint efforts to gather around themselves key global exporters of minerals, oil and gas are leading the world to "uneven bipolarity". (p 82)

In the security sphere, Russia has developed a wide array of sophisticated weapons systems that are relatively inexpensive but "smart" enough to withstand a US military onslaught. Supersonic land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles, laser-guided anti-tank weapons, nuclear-capable torpedoes, ultra-quiet submarines and other strategic arms that can dodge Washington's anti-ballistic-missile shield are already in Russia's arsenal.

They "limit US ability to project military power in various places in the event of a crisis" (p 97) and have been proving effective in the Iraqi resistance since 2003. The Sunni-dominated Iraqi insurgency against the US occupation is equipped with Russian arms technologies funneled through Syria and Iran.

Diplomatically, Russia leads a host of like-minded states at the United Nations in opposing unilateralism and preventing the formation of pro-US "coalitions of the willing" that can share costs of invasion and occupation with Washington. The subsequent failure of the United States in Iraq has increased international reluctance to be a deep strategic partner with Washington. Contraction of US influence leaves a vacuum that Russia and its partners are filling.

Fatal weaknesses in the US economy - deep indebtedness, deficits, slowing growth, plunging currency and real-estate bubbles - are transferring massive wealth to powerful economies in Asia through high energy prices and cheap exports. "The world is no longer forced to look for its fortunes within the old US-centric order." (p 181)

Central banks around the world are accumulating reserves in euros and precious metals and abstaining from buying US dollars. Diminishing US access to oil and gas contrasts with a bewildering web of Russian agreements with energy-producing countries that aims to achieve an "economic encirclement of the West." (p 131) The fundamental decay in the US economy is expediting the ascendance of the Russian-led bloc.

The Iran-US standoff has great geopolitical stakes for Russia and China. For Moscow, "the US must actually be stopped somewhere, and Iran is the red line". (p 152) Russian radars, weapon systems and missiles in Iranian and Syrian possession can complicate any US or Israeli attack. Iran's leadership claim over the Middle East is being "sponsored by greater powers rivaling the US". (p 162) Stroupe predicts that "if the US militarily strikes Iran, geopolitical forfeiture to Russia-China would be the unavoidable result". (p 163) It would trigger even higher oil and gas prices and hand Moscow a huge economic windfall.

In East Asia, ongoing realignments of South Korea and Japan toward Russia on the basis of energy security and multilateralism are thinning America's hold. Stroupe remarks that "axis of evil" crises drive a wedge between US allies and shift power to the Russia-China pole. Moscow and Beijing use Iran, Syria and North Korea as proxies to undermine US-led unipolarity.

Since 2000, Japanese, South Korean and Southeast Asian exports to China have been galloping while those to the US are stagnating. Two-thirds of China's exports are heading now to non-US destinations even as domestic Chinese consumption increases its share in the country's overall economic growth.

Stroupe sends a chilling message that if economic warfare ever broke out between the US and China, the latter could cause an accelerated Asian exit from the dollar to other currencies while the former's dependence on cheap imports would leave it with no ability to retaliate with tariffs or embargoes on Chinese commodities.

Russia's core strength lies in its marshaling of oil and gas alliances. Through state-owned Gazprom and Transneft, Moscow is extending its sway over strategic energy resources far beyond its borders and forming a "de facto multinational confederation with global reach" that is different from a typical cartel. The confederation is cohesive and self-sufficient, comprising both producer states and consumer states, with Russia as the underwriter.

The producer countries in this confederation are "resource-based corporate states" with domestic political repression similar to that in Russia and China. The confederation supports preferred markets and customers and excludes the liberal West. Energy-based cross-investment between producer and consumer states cements the internal unity of the confederation. For instance, the Russo-German Baltic Sea pipeline is heavily financed by Berlin, but Russia also invests in German gas companies.

From Russia's standpoint, the inordinate advantages afforded to the West in prior energy agreements with producer states are obsolete. In President Vladimir Putin's words, "No one-sided solutions will be accepted." (p 235) For producer states, the current US-backed global oil-market arrangement is less preferable to the solid guarantee of stable and reliable demand offered by reverting to the pre-1973 state-to-state long-term supply contracts. Nervous consumer states such as China and India are also keen on abandoning the US-benefiting global market and pursuing the Russian-run assured supply route.

State-to-state energy agreements are politically hued and help Russia "cheat the American constellation of its stars". (p 271) Stroupe credits New Delhi-Beijing energy cooperation to Moscow's facilitation, as "deterioration in Sino-Indian relations is a regional catastrophe for Russia". (p 252) Significantly, Russia couples arms sales with energy supplies to clients either to crush indigenous opposition or to withstand invasion by the US.

Perched atop the new confederation, if ever provoked, Russia will be able to "single out the US for a targeted oil embargo", devastating the latter's already emasculated economy. Putin's moves to launch a new oil-and-mineral bourse denominated in the ruble will also amplify the dollar's calamitous fall.

Stroupe concludes that reliance on foreign supply of strategic resources is the Achilles' heel of the Anglo-American pole as well as the lever to power for the Russian-led confederation. Since China-India cooperation is a crucial requirement for the confederation to stand up to the US, he reasons that New Delhi's "economic interests and fortunes lie much more with its Asian and Russian partners than with the US". (p 308) Washington lacks the cards to lure either producer states or Asian consumer states such as India away from the Russian camp. The writing on the wall is thus an epitaph for unipolarity.

Though logically sound in its thesis, Stroupe's book could do with some qualifications. First, the impression that Russia and China have absolutely no domestic economic flaws that can mar their march to match the US is erroneous. Russia still has a huge underclass (more than 20%) of impoverished people and enormous income inequalities that threaten social stability. China's banking system is moribund, and its regionally unbalanced growth has implosive omens.

Second, how much of the Sino-Indian strategic rivalry can be subsumed by synergies in the field of energy? Internal divisions within a loosely structured "confederation" are bound to exist, especially due to the abiding grip of nationalism and differing attitudes toward the US.

The anti-Americanism of some of the confederation's adherents is evident, but others such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey could be fifth columnists of Washington to sabotage the second pole. Stroupe excels in warning not to underestimate Russia, but he should not totally underestimate the defender of unipolarity.

Russian Rubicon: Impending Checkmate of the West by Joseph Stroupe. Global Events Magazine, 2006. ISBN: 0-9789068-0-2. Price: US$21.95, 319 pages.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

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