If the Russian Bear has indeed emerged from its post-Soviet hibernation to regain global prominence, that means big things for your portfolio. From the punishingly obvious war with Georgia last summer, to the more subtle - but equally powerful - shut off of natural gas to Ukraine and Europe, Russia is making it abundantly clear that they want to be global players again. To get a read on how this is all going to play out, I turn to my friend George Friedman, the founder of global intelligence firm Stratfor.
Stratfor just published its 2009 Annual Forecast, and I count on George's team of analysts because they're the very best in the business. And apparently the "secret" is getting out because I can't turn on CNN or read Forbes or listen to any of a dozen radio stations without hearing George being interviewed about his new book, The Next 100 Years. As an investor, I'm interested in both the near- and the long-term, and nobody matches the insights that George and his team provide.
I've included the "Russian Resurgence" section of Stratfor's 2009 Forecast below. Read it, and you'll see why you should join Stratfor and get the entire forecast as part of your Membership. George has also kindly offered my readers a free copy of his new book if you join now. I heartily recommend that you consider Stratfor for global intelligence for the next year and the next 100 years.
Global Trend: The Russian Resurgence
Russian power is in long-term decline. Compared to the Soviet Union in 1989, the Russian Federation has less than half the population, one-third the economic bulk, lower commodity production and vastly decreased industrial output. Demographically, Russia is both shrinking and aging at rates that have not been seen outside of wartime since the time of the Black Death. The educational system has stalled, so Russia is facing an impending slide in labor quantity and quality, which will make it difficult if not outright impossible for Russia to keep up with its advancing neighbors. The long-term prognosis is, at best, very poor.
But "long-term" is the operative term. Russian power today must not be measured in the terms that will dominate its existence in the future. Instead, it must be assessed dispassionately in relative terms against its neighbors and competitors. Of those neighbors, only China can compare to Russia regarding military and economic capability, and the two states are bending over backward to avoid an adversarial relationship. True, in 2009 Russia faces the most dire economic challenges since the 1998 ruble crash and debt default, but so do all the states in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Central Europe and the Baltics. In fact, since Russia maintains more reserve funds and currency reserves than all the states in this arc combined, Russia even maintains a financial edge over the competition. And even with the global recession placing very real limits on what Moscow can achieve financially — both at home and abroad — Russia has myriad tools that place countries of interest to it at the Kremlin's mercy. The Kremlin (rightly) fears that Russia's days are numbered, but it has a simple plan: Re-establish as large of a buffer zone around the Russian core as possible while the balance of power remains in Russia's favor.
For Russia, most of the post-Cold War era was a chronicle of retreat from previous prominence, culminating in the West's decision in 2008 to recognize the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo — a decision that Russia campaigned long and hard to prevent. But in August 2008, Russia invaded its former territory of Georgia and proved to the world that Russian power was far from spent, marking the inflection point on the question of Russia's resurgence. The year 2009 will be about Russia using its military, intelligence and energy might to extend its influence back into its periphery.
Russia's primary target in 2009 is Ukraine, a country uniquely critical to Russia's geopolitical position and uniquely vulnerable to Russia's energy, intelligence and military tools — and then there is the influence Russia can wield over Ukraine's large Russian-speaking population. Russia has many other regions that it wants to bring into its fold while it can still act decisively — the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Balkans, the Baltics and Poland — but Ukraine is at the top of the list.
Ukraine occupies a piece of territory that is completely integrated into Russia's agricultural, industrial, energy and transport networks. Its physical position makes it crucial to Russia's ability to project power. A Ukraine at odds with Russia constrains Russia's position in the Caucasus, limits Russian power in Europe, threatens the entire Russian core and puts Moscow within spitting distance of a hostile border. A defiant Ukraine not only forces Russia to be purely defensive, but actually makes Russian territory indefensible from the west and south, as there are no natural boundaries to hide behind. In contrast, an acquiescent Ukraine allows Russia to project power outward into Central Europe and gives Russia greater access to the Black Sea and thus the Mediterranean and outside world.
Russia lost the territory in 1992 with the Soviet collapse, but managed to keep Ukraine a political no-mans-land. In 2004, however, the Orange Revolution brought to power a government not just oriented toward the West but downright hostile to Moscow. This sparked a panic in the Kremlin that prompted a foreign policy leading to Russia's resurgence. That resurgence is now stable enough that the Kremlin feels it can return Ukraine to the Russian orbit — forcibly, if necessary.
Russia has no shortage of tools to use on Ukraine to mold it into a shape more amenable to Russian interests. Russia backs and bankrolls Viktor Yanukovich, Yulia Timoshenko and Rinat Akhmetov — three of Ukraine's four most powerful political forces. Russia supplies Ukraine with two-thirds of its natural gas and four-fifths of its energy needs, and is not shy about using that control to damage the government. Ukraine is integrated into the Russian industrial heartland, and Russian firms directly control large portions of the Ukrainian metals industries. Russian control over several of Ukraine's ports links several Ukrainian oligarchs — and some Ukrainian organized crime syndicates — directly to the Kremlin.
Ukraine is not well equipped to resist Russia's efforts. The United States has been working with Ukrainian intelligence (which is currently under President Viktor Yushchenko), sparking a fierce battle within the Ukrainian intelligence services, which spun off from the KGB. Yushchenko is trying to purge ex-KGB forces and put in younger, American-trained staff members, but the Russian intelligence surge into the country since 2004 has been massive and is hard to counteract. Other Western intelligence agencies are simply too far behind to make much of a difference; only the Turks have made a notable effort. The rest of the "Western" moves are largely limited to bureaucratized American processes, largely financial and social, which simply are no match for the powerful, multi-vectored effort that Russia is making.
Russia is perfectly capable of achieving its goals in Ukraine on its own. The natural gas crisis at the start of 2009 is a testament to Russian capability, but Moscow has shown that it is willing to accept a deal that will make Ukraine more malleable. Specifically, the United States is attempting to forge a means of supplying its growing troop commitment in Afghanistan without becoming more dependent upon Pakistan. Russia is willing to allow American supplies to transit Russia and Russian-influenced Central Asia. But the price is Yushchenko's ouster and an agreement that the United States will not parlay its transit routes across Central Asia into actual influence over the region. And just in case the United States decides to push for more, Russia has established a network of options in the Middle East to complicate American efforts there should the need arise (for more information, see the Middle East section of the Annual Forecast), and is even putting some flags in the ground in Latin America.
Under the Obama administration, American foreign policy's initial focus is on fighting the Afghan war. So the question regarding the Russian resurgence is not what the Americans will give the Russians, but how much and how publicly. This will give the United States greater leverage in dealing with what it has identified as its prime concern, but at the cost of both creating a greater challenge in the future and undermining the strength of the Transatlantic alliance structure.
John Mauldin is president of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC, a registered investment advisor. All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Investment recommendations may change and readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions.
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02-05-2009 2:07 PM