The Teeter Totter.

During August 2015 the Russians decided to increase their support for their Syrian ally, Bashar al-Assad. This decision came into the open in the first days of September 2015 when an advance team of Russians appeared at a Syrian air force base near the port city of Latakia. Signs of things to come included pre-fabricated housing units for a thousand men and an air-traffic control system separate from the one in use by the Syrians.[1]

Really heavy equipment in large quantities would have to come by sea through the Bosporus. More immediately, the fastest way for the Russians to get men and weapons to Syria lay in an air-lift. The U.S. got Bulgaria to reject a Russian request for over-flight rights. With the Balkan flight route closed, the Russians turned to Iran and Iraq. On 5 September 2015, the U.S. “asked” Iraq to reject any Russian request for over-flight rights from Iran into Syria. Iraq declined to bar the flights. The advance team then welcomed a half-dozen battle tanks, 35 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers, and the personnel to operate and service them. One American expert described the Russian moves as “risky.” He didn’t say for whom.[2]

Beginning in mid-September 2015, Putin widened his efforts with suggestions that he and President Obama meet in New York during a U.N. conference on Syria; that the militaries of the two countries hold talks on Syria, and announcing his intention to lay out a peace plan for Syria.

American observers described these efforts as part of an effort by Putin to worm and slime his way back into the good graces of the U.S. after the costs of his intervention in Ukraine a year ago had begun to bite. The Russian view is that the Americans have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in recent years by sponsoring—or forcing—the overthrow of tyrants who were keeping the lid on explosive situations. Other voices suggested that the American problems in the Middle East (Iran, ISIS) would be difficult to resolve without Russian assistance. This would be all the more true if the Russians could expand their influence beyond the Syrian regime.[3]

In the first half of September 2015 Russia deployed two to three air-defense systems to the Latakia base, along with four fighter aircraft. In mid-September 2015, two dozen Russian ground-attack aircraft arrived at the Latakia air base.[4]

Then, in late September 2015, Russia formed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iran, Iraq, and Syria. On the surface the agreement is directed only against ISIS. The announcement caught the Americans by surprise. It seemed just as likely that non-ISIS opponents of Assad will be targeted.[5] The early reports on bombings bear out this fear.

There are two questions worth asking.

First, the Russians are joining the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war within Islam on the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle that conflict with “allies” in both camps (Shi’ite dominated Iraq and Sunni Saudi Arabia). Will the Russian move force an undesired clarity on American policy?

Second, Iraq’s embrace of the Russians caught the U.S. flat-footed. Did Iraq launch a big rat-hunt for spies the minute the Americans withdrew? Did CIA know it was blind?

[1] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Pose Concerns for U.S.,” NYT, 4 September 2015.

[2] Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “Russian Moves in Syria Widen Role in Middle East,” NYT, 14 September 2015.

[3] Neil MacFarquhar and Andrew Kramer, “Putin Sees Path to Diplomacy Through Syria,” NYT, 16 September 2015.

[4] Eric Schmitt and Neil MacFarquhar, “Russia Expands Fleet in Syria With Jets That Can Attack Targets On the Ground,” NYT, 21 September 2015.

[5] Michael Gordon, “Russia Surprises U.S. With Accord on Battling ISIS,” NYT, 27 September 2015.

Buyer’s Remorse: Russia and Ukraine.

Russian is a big exporter of natural gas to Western and Central Europe. During the life of the Soviet Union, the USSR had supplied natural gas to both the Ukraine region within the USSR and to Western Europe. The price charged Western European purchasers was below world market rate. Two of the USSR’s natural gas pipelines to Western Europe ran through Ukraine and carry 80 percent of Russia’s natural gas exports. After the Soviet Union broke up and Ukraine voted to secede, the Russians negotiated a natural gas agreement with Ukraine. The agreement provided that Ukraine would receive 17 billion cubic metres of natural gas per year as a fee for the pipelines that crossed Ukraine. This agreement also sold 8 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Ukraine at the prevailing world market price.

During the 1990s the Russians claimed that the Ukrainians had not paid for much of the gas that they received. They stopped deliveries of natural gas to Ukraine until they were paid, while continuing to ship gas through the pipelines across Ukraine. The Ukrainians then diverted some of the gas bound for Western Europe to make up for the suspended gas deliveries. (The government of Ukraine later admitted that they had done this.) The two countries finally settled this dispute in an agreement in October 2001.

Negotiations for a new agreement began in 2005. In the process, it was revealed that the Ukrainians had “misplaced” almost 8 billion cubic metres of gas that the Russian energy company Gazprom had stored in Ukrainian facilities in 2004-2005. When Ukraine balked at some of the Russian terms, the Russians cut down on gas deliveries in January 2006. Ukraine soon gave in. However, the Russians repeatedly claimed that the Ukraine of the “Orange Revolution” failed to pay for natural gas deliveries. Growing weary of Ukraine’s repeated “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” approach, in early 2008 the Russkies said Ukraine had to pay the whole 2008 bill up-front or no more gas starting immediately. Ukraine’s government, headed by Yulia Timoshenko, rejected that deal.

In late 2008 Ukraine caved-in and paid what they owed the Russians. Negotiations for a 2009 agreement immediately broke down. The Ukrainians wanted a subsidized price, the Russians wanted the market rate; the Russians insisted on payment up front. The Russians turned off the tap in gas supplies to Ukraine, so Ukraine resorted to a number of under-handed practices in response: the pressure dropped in the pipelines to Western Europe (indicating siphoning by Ukraine); the government called on the EU to involve itself; and the Ukrainian court voided Ukraine’s agreement to trans-ship Russian gas to Western Europe. The Stockholm Tribunal of Arbitration soon smashed Ukraine’s pretensions. Moreover, this was costing everyone a lot of money. Eventually, in late January 2009, the two countries negotiated an agreement to cover the period to 2019.

Later in 2009 the Russians agreed to revise the contract in light of the recession in Ukraine. Then in 2010, they agreed to cut the price of gas to Ukraine by thirty percent in exchange for an extension of the lease on the naval base at Sebastopol to 2042.

In late 2013, Russia offered Ukraine a further big cut in price if it would not sign the Association Agreement with the EU. The overthrow of the Yanukovych government put an end to this discount. The Russian seizure of Crimea put an end to the discount for an extended lease on the Russian naval base there. Why pay rent for what you now own?

So, the stuff in the news about an “80 percent price increase” isn’t fully accurate.

Also, Ukraine tends to cheat. The Russians already know this. The US soon will.