By George Friedman
In geopolitics, major conflicts repeat themselves. France and Germany, for example, fought multiple wars, as did Poland and Russia. When a single war does not resolve an underlying geopolitical issue, it is refought until the issue is finally settled. At the very least, even without another war, tension and confrontation are ongoing. Significant conflicts are rooted in underlying realities — and they do not go away easily. Keep in mind how quickly Balkan geopolitics led to a recurrence of wars that had been fought a century earlier.
Russia is the eastern portion of Europe and has clashed with the rest of Europe on multiple occasions. The Napoleonic wars, the two world wars, and the Cold War all dealt, at least in part, with the status of Russia and its relationship to the rest of Europe. None of these wars ultimately settled this question, because in the end a united and independent Russia survived or triumphed. The problem is that the very existence of a united Russia poses a significant potential challenge to Europe.
Russia is a vast region with a huge population. It is much poorer than the rest of Europe, but it has two assets — land and natural resources. As such it is a constant temptation for European powers, which see an opportunity to increase their size and wealth to the east. Historically, though, Europeans who have invaded Russia have come to a disastrous end. If they are not beaten by the Russians, they are so exhausted from fighting them that someone else defeats them. Russia occasionally pushes its power westward, threatening Europe with the Russian masses. At other times passive and ignored, Russia is often taken advantage of. But, in due course, others pay for underestimating it.
The Cold War only appeared to have settled the Russian question. Had the Russian Federation collapsed in the 1990s and the region fragmented into multiple, smaller states, Russian power would have disappeared, and with it the challenge Russian power poses to Europe. Had the Americans, Europeans, and Chinese moved in for the kill, the Russian question would have been finally settled. But the Europeans were too weak and divided at the end of the twentieth century, the Chinese too isolated and preoccupied with internal issues, and after September 11, 2001, the Americans were too distracted by the Islamist war to act decisively. What actions were taken by the United States were insufficient and unfocused. In fact, these actions only served to alert the Russians to the great potential danger from the United States and ensured they would respond to it.
Given the simple fact that Russia did not disintegrate, the Russian geopolitical question will reemerge. Given the fact that Russia is now reenergizing itself, that question will come sooner rather than later. The conflict will not be a repeat of the Cold War, any more than World War I was a repeat of the Napoleonic wars. But it will be a restatement of the fundamental Russian question: If Russia is a united nation-state, where will its frontiers lie and what will be the relationship between Russia and its neighbors? That question will represent the next major phase in world history — in 2020, and in the years leading up to it.
If we are going to understand Russia's behavior and intentions, we have to begin with Russia's fundamental weakness — its borders, particularly in the northwest. Even when Ukraine is controlled by Russia, as it has been for centuries, and Belarus and Moldavia are part of the Russian empire as well, there are still no natural borders in the north. The center and south are anchored on the Carpathian Mountains, as far north as the Slovakian-Polish border, and to the east of them are the Pripet marshes, boggy and impassable. But in the north and south (east of the Carpathians), there are no strong barriers to protect Russia — or to protect Russia's neighbors.
On the northern European plain, no matter where Russia's borders are drawn, it is open to attack. There are few significant natural barriers anywhere on this plain. Pushing its western border all the way into Germany, as it did in 1945, still leaves Russia's frontiers without a physical anchor. The only physical advantage Russia can have is depth. The farther west into Europe its borders extend, the farther conquerors have to travel to reach Moscow. Therefore, Russia is always pressing westward on the northern European plain and Europe is always pressing eastward.
That is not the case with other borders of Russia — by which we mean to include the former Soviet Union, which has been the rough shape of Russia since the end of the nineteenth century. In the south, there was a natural secure boundary. The Black Sea leads to the Caucasus, separating Russia from Turkey and Iran. Iran is further buffered by the Caspian Sea, and by the Kara Kum Desert in southern Turkmenistan, which runs along the Afghan border, terminating in the Himalayas. The Russians are concerned with the Iranian-Afghan segment, and might push south as they have done several times. But they are not going to be invaded on that border. Their frontier with China is long and vulnerable, but only on a map. Invading Siberia is not a practical possibility. It is a vast wilderness. There is a potential weakness along China's western border, but not a significant one. Therefore, the Russian empire, in any of its incarnations, is fairly secure except in northern Europe, where it faces its worst dangers — geography and powerful European nations.
Russia had its guts carved out after the collapse of communism. St. Petersburg, its jewel, was about a thousand miles away from NATO troops in 1989. Now it is less than one hundred miles away. In 1989, Moscow was twelve hundred miles from the limits of Russian power. Now it is about two hundred miles. In the south, with Ukraine independent, the Russian hold on the Black Sea is tenuous, and it has been forced to the northern extreme of the Caucasus. Afghanistan is occupied, however tentatively, by the Americans, and Russia's anchor on the Himalayas is gone. If there were an army interested in invading, the Russian Federation is virtually indefensible.
Russia's strategic problem is that it is a vast country with relatively poor transportation. If Russia were simultaneously attacked along its entire periphery, in spite of the size of its forces, it would be unable to easily protect itself. It would have difficulty mobilizing forces and deploying them to multiple fronts, so it would have to maintain an extremely large standing army that could be predeployed. This pressure imposes a huge economic burden on Russia, undermines the economy, and causes it to buckle from within. That is what happened to the Soviet state. Of course, this is not the first time Russia has been in peril.
Protecting its frontiers is not Russia's only problem today. The Russians are extremely well aware that they are facing a massive demographic crisis. Russia's current population is about 145 million people, and projections for 2050 are for between 90 million and 125 million. Time is working against it. Russia's problem will soon be its ability to field an army sufficient for its strategic needs. Internally, the number of Russians compared to other ethnic groups is declining, placing intense pressure on Russia to make a move sooner rather than later. In its current geographical position, it is an accident waiting to happen. Given Russia's demographic trajectory, in twenty years it may be too late to act, and its leaders know this. It does not have to conquer the world, but Russia must regain and hold its buffers — essentially the boundaries of the old Soviet Union.
Between their geopolitical, economic, and demographic problems, the Russians have to make a fundamental shift. For a hundred years the Russians sought to modernize their country through industrialization, trying to catch up to the rest of Europe. They never managed to pull it off. Around 2000 Russia shifted its strategy. Instead of focusing on industrial development as they had in the past century, the Russians reinvented themselves as exporters of natural resources, particularly energy, but also minerals, agricultural products, lumber, and precious metals.
By de-emphasizing industrial development, and emphasizing raw materials, the Russians took a very different path, one more common to countries in the developing world. But given the unexpected rise of energy and commodity prices, this move not only saved the Russian economy but also strengthened it to the point where Russia could afford to drive its own selective reindustrialization. Most important, since natural resource production is less manpower-intensive than industrial production, it gave Russia an economic base that could be sustained with a declining population.
It also gave Russia leverage in the international system. Europe is hungry for energy. Russia, constructing pipelines to feed natural gas to Europe, takes care of Europe's energy needs and its own economic problems, and puts Europe in a position of dependency on Russia. In an energy-hungry world, Russia's energy exports are like heroin. It addicts countries once they start using it. Russia has already used its natural gas resources to force neighboring countries to bend to its will. That power reaches into the heart of Europe, where the Germans and the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe all depend on Russian natural gas. Add to this its other resources, and Russia can apply significant pressure on Europe.
Dependency can be a double-edged sword. A militarily weak Russia cannot pressure its neighbors, because its neighbors might decide to make a grab for its wealth. So Russia must recover its military strength. Rich and weak is a bad position for nations to be in. If Russia is to be rich in natural resources and export them to Europe, it must be in a position to protect what it has and to shape the international environment in which it lives.
In the next decade Russia will become increasingly wealthy (relative to its past, at least) but geographically insecure. It will therefore use some of its wealth to create a military force appropriate to protect its interests, buffer zones to protect it from the rest of the world — and then buffer zones for the buffer zones. Russia's grand strategy involves the creation of deep buffers along the northern European plain, while it divides and manipulates its neighbors, creating a new regional balance of power in Europe. What Russia cannot tolerate are tight borders without buffer zones, and its neighbors united against it. This is why Russia's future actions will appear to be aggressive but will actually be defensive.
Russia's actions will unfold in three phases. In the first phase, Russia will be concerned with recovering influence and effective control in the former Soviet Union, re-creating the system of buffers that the Soviet Union provided it. In the second phase, Russia will seek to create a second tier of buffers beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. It will try to do this without creating a solid wall of opposition, of the kind that choked it during the Cold War. In the third phase — really something that will have been going on from the beginning — Russia will try to prevent anti-Russian coalitions from forming.
It is important to step back here and look at the reasons why the former Soviet Union stayed intact in the latter half of the twentieth century. The Soviet Union was held together not simply by force but by a system of economic relationships that sustained it in the same way that the Russian empire before it was sustained. The former Soviet Union shares a common geography — that is, vast and mostly landlocked, in the heart of Eurasia. It has extremely poor internal transport systems, as is common in landlocked areas where the river systems don't match with agricultural systems. It is therefore difficult to transport food — and after industrialization, difficult to move manufactured goods.
Think of the old Soviet Union as that part of the Eurasian landmass that stretched westward from the Pacific Ocean along the wastelands north of populated China, northwest of the Himalayas, and continued along the border with South Central Asia to the Caspian, and then on to the Caucasus. It was buffered by the Black Sea and then by the Carpathian Mountains. Along the north, there was only the Arctic. Within this space, there was a vast landmass, marked by republics with weak economies.
If we think of the Soviet Union as a natural grouping of geographically isolated and economically handicapped countries, we can see what held it together. The countries that made up the Soviet Union were bound together of necessity. They could not compete with the rest of the world economically — but isolated from global competition, they could complement and support each other. This was a natural grouping readily dominated by the Russians. The countries beyond the Carpathians (the ones Russia occupied after World War II and turned into satellites) were not included in this natural grouping. If it weren't for Soviet military force, they would have been oriented toward the rest of Europe, not Russia.
The former Soviet Union consisted of members who really had nowhere else to go. These old economic ties still dominate the region, except that Russia's new model, exporting energy, has made these countries even more dependent than they were previously. Attracted as Ukraine was to the rest of Europe, it could not compete or participate with Europe. Its natural economic relationship is with Russia; it relies on Russia for energy, and ultimately it tends to be militarily dominated by Russia as well.
These are the dynamics that Russia will take advantage of in order to re-assert its sphere of influence. It will not necessarily re-create a formal political structure run from Moscow — although that is not inconceivable. Far more important will be Russian influence in the region over the next five to ten years, which will surge. In order to think about this, let's break it down into three theaters of operation: the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the European theater, which includes the Baltics.
The Caucasus is the boundary between Russian and Turkish power, and has historically been a flash point between the two empires. It was also a flash point during the Cold War. The Turkish-Soviet border ran through the Caucasus, with the Soviet side consisting of three separate republics: Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, all now independent. The Caucasus also ran north into the Russian Federation itself, including into the Muslim areas of Dagestan and, most important, Chechnya, where a guerrilla war against Russian domination raged after the fall of communism.
From a purely defensive point of view, the precise boundaries of Russian and Turkish influence don't matter so long as both are based somewhere in the Caucasus. The rugged terrain makes defense relatively easy. However, should the Russians lose their position in the Caucasus altogether and be pushed north into the lowlands, Russia's position would become difficult. With the gap between Ukraine and Kazakhstan only a few hundred miles wide, Russia would be in strategic trouble.
This is the reason the Russians are so unwilling to compromise on Chechnya. The southern part of Chechnya is deep in the northern Caucasus. If that were lost, the entire Russian position would unravel. Given a choice, the Russians would prefer to be anchored farther south, in Georgia. Armenia is an ally of Russia. If Georgia were Russian, its entire position would be much more stable. Controlling Chechnya is indispensable. Reabsorbing Georgia is desirable. Holding Azerbaijan does not provide a strategic advantage — but the Russians would not mind having it as a buffer with the Iranians. Russia's position here is not intolerable, but Georgia, not incidentally closely allied with the United States, is a tempting target, as was seen in the August 2008 conflict.
Bitter rivalries continue to rage in the region, as always happens in mountainous regions where small nationalities persist. The Armenians, for example, hate the Turks, whom they accuse of conducting genocide against them early in the twentieth century. Armenia looks to the Russians for protection. Armenian-Georgian rivalry is intense and, in spite of the fact that Stalin was a Georgian, the Georgians are hostile to the Armenians and extremely wary of the Russians. The Russians believe the Georgians looked the other way while weapons were shipped through their country to the Chechens, and the fact that the Georgians are very close to the Americans makes the situation even worse. Azerbaijan is hostile to Armenia — and therefore close to Iran and Turkey.
The situation in the Caucasus is not only difficult to understand but also difficult to deal with. The Soviet Union actually managed to solve the complexity by incorporating all these countries into the Soviet Union after World War I and ruthlessly suppressing their autonomy. It is impossible for Russia to be indifferent to the region now or in the future — unless it is prepared to lose its position in the Caucasus. Therefore, the Russians are indeed going to reassert their position, starting with Georgia. Since the United States sees Georgia as a strategic asset, Russia's reassertion there will lead to confrontation with the United States. Unless the Chechen rebellion completely disappears, the Russians will have to move south, then isolate the rebellion and nail down their position in the mountains.
There are two powers that will not want this to happen. The United States is one, and the other is Turkey. Americans will see Russian domination of Georgia as undermining their position in the region. The Turks will see this as energizing the Armenians and returning the Russian army in force to their borders. The Russians will become more convinced of the need to act because of this resistance. A duel in the Caucasus will result.
Central Asia is a vast region running between the Caspian Sea and the Chinese border. It is primarily Muslim and therefore, as we have seen, was part of the massive destabilization that took place in the Muslim world after the fall of the Soviet Union. By itself it has some economic value, as a region with energy reserves. But it has little strategic importance to the Russians — unless another great power was to dominate it and use it as a base against them. If that were to happen, it would become enormously important. Whoever controls Kazakhstan would be a hundred miles from the Volga, a river highway for Russian agriculture.
During the 1990s, Western energy companies flocked to the region. Russia had no problem with that. It wasn’t in a position to compete, and it wasn’t in a position to control the region militarily. Central Asia was a neutral zone of relative indifference to the Russians. All of that changed on September 11, 2001, which redefined the geopolitics of the region. September 11 made it urgent for the United States to invade Afghanistan. Unable to mount an invasion by itself quickly, the United States asked the Russians for help.
One thing they asked for was Russian help in getting the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban group in Afghanistan, to play the major role on the ground. The Russians had sponsored the Northern Alliance and effectively controlled it. Another thing the Americans asked for was Russian support in securing bases for the United States in several Central Asian countries. Technically these were independent countries, but the United States was asking for help with the Northern Alliance and couldn’t afford to anger the Russians. The Central Asian countries did not want to anger the Russians either — and U.S. planes had to fly over the former Soviet Union to get to them.
The Russians agreed to an American military presence in the region, thinking they had an understanding with the United States that this was a temporary situation. But as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, the United States stayed on; and as it stayed on, it became more and more influential with the various republics in the region. Russia realized that what had been a benign buffer zone was becoming dominated by the main global power — a power that was pressing Russia in Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltics. In addition, as the price of energy rose and Russia adopted its new economic strategy, Central Asia's energy became even more significant.
Russia did not want American forces a hundred miles from the Volga. Russia simply had to react. It didn't act directly, but it began manipulating the political situation in the region, reducing American power. It was a move designed to return Central Asia to the Russian sphere of influence. And the Americans, on the other side of the world, isolated by chaotic Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, were in no position to resist. The Russians reasserted their natural position. And tellingly, it was one of the few places U.S. naval power couldn't reach.
Central Asia is an area where the United States can't remain under Russian pressure. It is a place where the Chinese could potentially cause problems, but as we've seen, that is unlikely to happen. China has economic influence there, but the Russians, in the end, have both military and financial capabilities that can outduel them. The Russians might offer China access to Central Asia, but the arrangements created in the nineteenth century and maintained by the Soviet Union will reassert themselves. Therefore, it is my view that Central Asia will be back in the Russian sphere of influence by the early 2010s, long before the major confrontation begins in the west, in Europe.
The European theater is, of course, the area directly west of Russia. In this region, Russia's western border faces the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the two independent republics of Belarus and Ukraine. All of these were part of the former Soviet Union and of the Russian empire. Beyond these countries lies the belt of former Soviet satellites: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Russians must dominate Belarus and Ukraine for their basic national security. The Baltics are secondary but still important. Eastern Europe is not critical, so long as the Russians are anchored in the Carpathian Mountains in the south and have strong forces on the northern European plain. But of course, all of this can get complicated.
Ukraine and Belarus are everything to the Russians. If they were to fall into an enemy's hands — for example, join NATO — Russia would be in mortal danger. Moscow is only a bit over two hundred miles from the Russian border with Belarus, Ukraine less than two hundred miles from Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad. Russia defended against Napoleon and Hitler with depth. Without Belarus and Ukraine, there is no depth, no land to trade for an enemy's blood. It is, of course, absurd to imagine NATO posing a threat to Russia. But the Russians think in terms of twenty-year cycles, and they know how quickly the absurd becomes possible.
They also know that the United States and NATO have systematically expanded their reach by extending membership in NATO to Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. As soon as the United States began trying to recruit Ukraine into NATO, the Russians changed their view both of American intentions and of Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, NATO expanding into Ukraine threatens Russian interests in the same way as if the Warsaw Pact had moved into Mexico. When a pro-Western uprising in 2004 — the Orange Revolution — seemed about to sweep Ukraine into NATO, the Russians accused the United States of trying to surround and destroy Russia. What the Americans were thinking is open to debate. That Ukraine in NATO would be potentially devastating to Russian national security is not.
The Russians did not mobilize their army. Rather, they mobilized their intelligence service, whose covert connections in Ukraine were superb. The Russians undermined the Orange Revolution, playing on a split between pro-Russian eastern Ukraine and pro-European western Ukraine. It proved not to be difficult at all, and fairly quickly Ukrainian politics became gridlocked. It is only a matter of time before Russian influence will overwhelm Kiev.
Belarus is an easier issue. As noted earlier, Belarus is the least reformed member of the former Soviet republics. It remains a centralized, authoritarian state. More important, its leadership has repeatedly mourned the passing of the Soviet Union and has proposed union of some sort with Russia. Such a union will, of course, have to be on Russian terms, which has led to tension, but there is no possibility of Belarus joining NATO.
The reabsorption of Belarus and Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence is a given in the next five years. When that happens, Russia will have roughly returned to its borders with Europe between the two world wars. It will be anchored in the Caucasus in the south, with Ukraine protected, and in the north its borders on the northern European plain will abut Poland and the Baltic countries. That will pose the questions of who the most powerful country in the north is and where the precise frontiers will be. The real flash point will be the Baltics.
The traditional path to invade Russia is a three-hundred-mile gap between the northern Carpathians and the Baltic Sea. This is flat, easily traversed country with few river barriers. This northern European plain is a smooth ride for invaders. A European invader can move due east to Moscow or to St. Petersburg in the northwest. During the Cold War, the distance from St. Petersburg to NATO's front line was also more than a thousand miles. Today the distance is about seventy miles. This explains the strategic nightmare Russia faces in the Baltics — and what it will need to do to fix the problem.
The three Baltic countries were once part of the Soviet Union. Each became independent after it collapsed. And then, in that narrow window, each became part of NATO. As we have seen, the Europeans are most likely too far into their decadent cycle to have the energy to take advantage of the situation. However, the Russians are not going to risk their national security on that assumption. They saw Germany go from being a cripple in 1932 to being at the gates of Moscow in 1941. The inclusion of the Baltic countries along with Poland in NATO has moved NATO's frontier extraordinarily close to the Russian heartland. For a country that was invaded three times in the last two hundred years, the comfortable assumption that NATO and its members are no threat is not something it can risk.
From the Russian point of view, the major invasion route into their country is not only wide open but also in the hands of countries with a pronounced hostility to Russia. The Baltic countries have never forgiven the Russians for their occupation. The Poles are equally bitter and deeply distrustful of Russian intentions. Now that they are part of NATO, these countries form the front line. Behind them is Germany, a country as distrusted by Russia as Russia is by the Poles and Balts. The Russians are certainly paranoid — but that doesn't mean they don't have enemies or that they are crazy.
This would be the point of any confrontation. The Russians can live with a neutral Baltic region. Living with a Baltic region that is part of NATO and close to the Americans, however, is a much more difficult risk to take. On the other hand, the Americans, having backed down in Central Asia, and being cautious in the Caucasus, can't retreat from the Baltics. Any compromise over the three NATO members would send Eastern Europe into a panic. Eastern Europe's behavior would become unpredictable, and the possibility of Russian influence spreading westward would increase. Russia has the greater interest, but the Americans could bring substantial power to bear if they chose.
Russia's next move likely will be an agreement with Belarus for an integrated defense system. Belarus and Russia have been linked for a very long time, so this will be a natural reversion. And that will bring the Russian army to the Baltic frontier. It will also bring the army to the Polish frontier — and that will start the confrontation in its full intensity.
The Poles fear the Russians and the Germans. Trapped between the two, without natural defenses, they fear whichever is stronger at any time. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, which at least has the barrier of the Carpathians between them and the Russians — and shares a border with Ukraine, not Russia — the Poles are on the dangerous northern European plain. When the Russians return to their border in force in the process of confronting the Baltic states, the Poles will react. Poland has almost forty million people. It is not a small country, and since it will be backed by the United States, not a trivial one.
Polish support will be thrown behind the Balts. The Russians will pull the Ukrainians into their alliance with Belarus and will have Russian forces all along the Polish border, and as far south as the Black Sea. At this point the Russians will begin the process of trying to neutralize the Balts. This, I believe, will all take place by the mid-2010s.
The Russians will have three tools at their disposal to exert their influence over the Baltic states. First, covert operations. In the same way the United States has financed and energized non-governmental organizations around the world, the Russians will finance and energize Russian minorities in these countries, as well as whatever pro-Russian elements exist, or can be bought. When the Balts suppress these movements, it will give the Russians a pretext for using their second tool, economic sanctions, particularly by cutting the flow of natural gas. Finally, the Russians will bring military pressure to bear through the presence of substantial forces near these borders. Not surprisingly, the Poles and Balts both remember the unpredictability of the Russians. The psychological pressure will be enormous.
There has been a great deal of talk in recent years about the weakness of the Russian army, talk that in the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union was accurate. But here is the new reality — that weakness started to reverse itself in 2000, and by 2015 it will be a thing of the past. The coming confrontation in northeastern Europe will not take place suddenly, but will be an extended confrontation. Russian military strength will have time to develop. The one area in which Russia continued research and development in the 1990s was in advanced military technologies. By 2010, it will certainly have the most effective army in the region. By 2015–2020, it will have a military that will pose a challenge to any power trying to project force into the region, even the United States.
Russia will be facing a group of countries that cannot defend themselves and a NATO alliance that is effective only if the United States is prepared to use force. As we have seen, the United States has a single core policy in Eurasia — preventing any power from dominating Eurasia or part of it. If China weakens or fragments and the Europeans are weak and divided, the United States will have a fundamental interest: avoiding general war, by keeping the Russians focused on the Balts and Poles, unable to think globally.
The United States will use its traditional method for supporting these countries: technology transfer. As we approach 2020, this method will be much more effective. The new technology for warfare will require smaller, more efficient military forces, meaning that lesser countries can wield military power disproportionately if they have access to advanced technologies. The United States will be eager to increase the power of Poland and the Baltic countries and have them tie down the Russians. If Russia has to be contained, this is the best way to contain it. Georgia in the Caucasus represents a secondary flash point, irritating to the Russians, something that diverts forces from Europe, and therefore will be an area where the United States will intrude. But it will be Europe, not the Caucasus, that will matter.
Given American power, there will be no direct attack by the Russians, nor will the Americans allow any adventures by their allies. Rather, the Russians will seek to bring pressure on the United States elsewhere in Europe and in other parts of the world. For example, they will seek to destabilize countries on their border, like Slovakia and Bulgaria. The confrontation will spread along the entire frontier between Russia and the rest of Europe.
Russia's basic strategy will be to try to break up NATO and isolate Eastern Europe. The key to this will be the Germans, followed by the French. Neither of them wants another confrontation with Russia. They are insular nations, and Germany is dependent on Russian natural gas. The Germans are trying to reduce this dependency and probably will to some extent, but they will continue to depend on the delivery of a substantial quantity of natural gas, which they will not be able to do without. The Russians will therefore argue to the Germans that the Americans are again using them to contain Russia, but that the Russians, far from threatening Germany, have a shared interest — a stable, neutral buffer between them, consisting of an independent Poland. The question of the Baltic states should not, they will argue, enter into it. The only reason Americans would care about the Baltics is if they were planning aggression against Russia. Russia will be prepared to guarantee Baltic autonomy in the context of a broad confederation, as well as Polish security, in return for reduction of arms and neutrality. The alternative — war — would not be in the interests of the Germans or the French.
The argument will probably work, but I believe this will play out in an unexpected way. The United States, always excessively aggressive from the European point of view, will be stirring up unnecessary trouble in Eastern Europe as a threat to the Russians. If the Germans allow NATO to do this, they will be drawn into a conflict they don't want. Therefore, I believe they will block NATO support for Poland, the Baltics, and the rest of Eastern Europe — NATO requires unanimity to function, and Germany is a major power. The Russian expectation will be that the shock of the withdrawal of NATO support would cause the Poles and others to buckle.
The opposite happens. Poland, caught in its historic nightmare between Russia and Germany, will become even more dependent on the United States. The United States, seeing a low-cost opportunity to tie down the Russians and split Europe down the middle, weakening the European Union in the process, will increase its support for Eastern Europe. Around 2015 a new bloc of nations, primarily the old Soviet satellites coupled with the Baltic states, will emerge. Far more energetic than the Western Europeans, with far more to lose, and backed by the United States, this bloc will develop a surprising dynamism.
The Russians will respond to this subtle American power grab by trying to increase pressure on the United States elsewhere in the world. In the Middle East, for example, where the interminable confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians will continue, the Russians will increase military aid to the Arabs. In general, wherever anti-American regimes exist, Russian military aid will be forthcoming. A low-grade global confrontation will be under way by 2015 and will intensify by 2020. Neither side will risk war, but both sides will be maneuvering.
By 2020 this confrontation will be the dominant global issue — and everyone will think of it as a permanent problem. The confrontation will not be as comprehensive as the first cold war. The Russians will lack the power to seize all of Eurasia, and they will not be a true global threat. They will, however, be a regional threat, and that is the context in which the United States will respond. There will be tension all along the Russian frontier, but the United States will not be able to (or need to) impose a complete cordon around Russia as it did around the Soviet Union.
Given the confrontation, the European dependence on hydrocarbons, much of it derived from Russia, will become a strategic issue. The American strategy will be to de-emphasize the focus on hydrocarbon energy sources. This will kick into high gear the American interest in developing alternative sources of energy. Russia, as before, will focus on its existing industries rather than on the development of new ones. That will mean increased oil and natural gas production rather than new energy sources. As a result, Russia is not going to be in the forefront of the technological developments that will dominate the later portions of the century.
Instead, Russia will need to develop its military capabilities. Thus, as it has over the past two centuries, Russia will devote the bulk of its research and development money to applying new technologies toward military ends and expanding existing industries, causing it to fall behind the United States and the rest of the world in nonmilitary but valuable technology. It will be particularly hurt, paradoxically, by its hydrocarbon riches — because it will not be motivated to develop new technologies and will be burdened by military spending.
During the first phase of Russia's reassertion of power, until about 2010 or so, Russia will be grossly underestimated. It will be perceived as a fractured country with a stagnant economy and a weak military. In the 2010s, when the confrontation intensifies on its borders and its immediate neighbors become alarmed, the greater powers will continue to be dismissive.
The United States in particular tends to first underestimate and then overestimate enemies. By the middle of the 2010s, the United States will again be obsessed with Russia. There is an interesting process to observe here. The United States swings between moods but actually, as we have seen, executes a very consistent and rational foreign policy. In this case, the United States will move to its manic state but will focus on keeping Russia tied in knots without going to war.
It will matter a great deal where the fault line lies. If Russia's resurgence is to be a minimal crisis, the Russians will dominate Central Asia and the Caucasus and possibly absorb Moldova, but they will not be able to absorb the Baltic states, or dominate any nations west of the Carpathians. If the Russians do manage to absorb the Baltics and gain significant allies in the Balkans, like Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece — or Central European countries such as Slovakia — the competition between the United States and Russia will be more intense and frightening.
In the end though, it won't truly matter. Russian military power will be severely strained confronting the fraction of American military power that the United States decides to wield in responding to Russia's moves. Regardless of what the rest of Europe does, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania will be committed to resisting Russian advances and will make any deal the United States wants in order to gain its support. The line therefore will be drawn in the Carpathian Mountains this time, rather than in Germany as it was during the Cold War. The Polish northern plains will be the main line of confrontation, but the Russians will not move militarily.
The causes that ignited this confrontation — and the Cold War before it — will impose the same outcome as the Cold War, this time with less effort for the United States. The last confrontation occurred in Central Europe. This one will take place much farther to the east. In the last confrontation China was an ally of Russia, at least in the beginning. In this case China will be out of the game. Last time, Russia was in complete control of the Caucasus, but now it will not be, and it will be facing American and Turkish pressure northward. In the last confrontation Russia had a large population, but this time around it has a smaller and declining population. Internal pressure, particularly in the south, will divert Russian attention from the west and eventually, without war, it will break. Russia broke in 1917, and again in 1991. And the country's military will collapse once more shortly after 2020.
Excerpt from the book, The Next One Hundred Years, by George Friedman, published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.