Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Spanish author of “Shadow of the Wind“, wrote, “A story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise”.
And sometimes, a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself that his fantasies have come true and that things he wishes were so, are so. Lies My Mirror Told Me.
How about we look at an example – Edward Lucas’s “Renewal Amid the Decay“; his predictions for 2013, and annual love letter to the Baltic States. I ran across it linked in another European Voices piece, and – knowing my respectful worship of Edward Lucas – both Cartman and Mike Averko also linked it in comments. Alex Mercouris mentioned Lucas writes every year that Russia is about to collapse any minute now, and his readership never seems to be put off by the fact that it didn’t happen. They don’t seem to notice that it is actually growing wealthier and more influential every year, either, but that’s because they are Edward Lucas readers, and in the mystical land of Myanus – the source of Lucas’s inspiration – none of that is happening.
Anyway, as I said, we’re going to take a look at it. But first, since we have lots of time and it might be fun to put Alex’s theory to the test, let’s go back in time – weeeeeeooooooooo ….back to 2007. Here’s Lucas – who, we might as well get this on the table right up front, is an overrated, pretentious, black-hole-for-reality hack who is to the world of introspective policy analysis what parachute pants were to the world of fashion – in 2007, with his forecast of how the world is going to shake out in 2008. From the vantage point of being able to look back on 2008, how did he do?
Right out of the gate, Lucas foretold that most of the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe would join the Shengen passport-free area as of January 1st. Bzzzzttt!!! Wrong. The only country that joined the Shengen area in 2008 was Liechtenstein. Never a Communist country, I’m afraid. Poland was already a member, since 2004, so it didn’t take much vision to see that it would be in 2008; but I hope that Bulgaria, Romania and Georgia did not break out the party hats and champagne. Poland joined them for a double boning when Lucas predicted they would be included in the USA’s Visa Waiver Program (VWP) for visa-free travel to the United States, as George W. Bush flamed out like a dying Cherries Jubilee, flinging favours about him indiscriminately in gratitude for those who helped him conquer Iraq. Bzzzzzttt!! That didn’t happen, either – to this day, 5 years later.
Mr. Lucas then went into a little shuck-and-jive about NATO membership, speculating that there would be renewed pressure to “[set] Georgia, along with Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, further on the road to membership of NATO. That will infuriate the hawks in the Kremlin, who will use it as an excuse to edge closer to America’s rivals and bugbears such as China and Iran.” In fact, Croatia and Albania were admitted in 2009. Georgia and Macedonia, afraid not. And Lucas probably should not sound so gleeful about the Kremlin “edging closer to China”, since the latter is moving rapidly to world’s largest economy. It is also the third-ranked country for military power, with a standing military of over 2 million, another 800,000 in the reserves, huge reserves of foreign cash and gold, and another 19 million men reaching military age every year. China’s older platforms are steadily being replaced with new weaponry and indigenous fifth-generation fighters. And it is right next to Russia, both geographically and on this list; Russia is military power number 2. Still giggling, Ed?
He was quite right that the economies of the ex-communist countries which joined the EU in 2004 would continue to stagger in 2008, but how risky a bet was that, really? The entire global economy nearly went over the edge in late 2008 and 2009. It also invites speculation that those countries were better off before joining the EU – which has, in fact, become a flabby trapeze act hanging desperately by its fingernails to Germany.
All right, let’s fast-forward – bibblebibblegobbledibbleditdit – to 2010, when Mr. Lucas believes that, by 2020, the relationship between the NATO powers will resemble “…a marriage…where the husband and wife meet only at breakfast, to haggle over the household bills”. NATO, he asserts boldly, is past its sell-by date. Just let me go on record, here, that if you add Russia boosting defense spending by 59% before 2015 to Russia edging closer to China to China boosting its defense spending by 10% or more annually over the past 20 years, you do not get Time To Chuck NATO unless your math blows chunks like your foreign-policy analysis. The USA might well be the world’s preeminent military power, but there is about as much chance of a 2013 Jimi Hendrix World Tour as there is of Number 1 being able to prevail alone against an alliance of Number 2 and Number 3. Dream On, as Aerosmith used to sing before Steven Tyler turned into the lost 5th California raisin. And the USA will not settle for anything less than full-spectrum dominance, while the costs of keeping it up are bleeding it dry.
What else you got, Ed? Ooooo…the EU is going to get a lot bigger; adding “most bits of the former Yugoslavia and Albania” will acknowledge European soft power’s triumph. Well, I guess that could happen, but according to the BBC, Iceland‘s accession is on hold due to a dispute over mackerel fishing. Oh, and payment of compensation entailed by its collapsed banks. How do you think that stacks up against “moving too slowly in the fight against organized crime and corruption, and unstable energy supplies” (Albania), “ethnic quarrels, corruption and organized crime and an unstable political system” (Bosnia-Hercegovina), “reluctant movement against war criminals, insufficiently transparent appointments of judges and prosecutors, court backlogs and insufficient help for disadvantaged minorities” (Croatia), a fight over the country’s constitutional name (Macedonia) and “insufficient freedom of expression and rule of law, not doing enough against corruption and organized crime” (Montenegro)?
Next, it’s off to the High Arctic, where – we learn – Norway will become the top security partner of the USA. More so than Canada, Lucas wants you to know, which may go all squishy like those gutless sausage-eating surrender monkeys under Merkel, and “cozy up to Russia”. I’m at a loss to explain what, in 2010, convinced Lucas that Canada and Russia were getting increasingly snuggly. Stephen Harper was Prime Minister then, just as he is now, and is the most conservative leader the nation has had in living memory. He would be as likely to walk to work wearing nothing but pink socks as he would be to cozy up to Russia, and it is his cozying up to the USA which provides much more potential for alarm. While Lucas was smoking the tea-leaves in 2010, Canada was doing $1 Billion in trade per day with the USA. Norway? Did about a week’s worth at the Canadian rate, all year, in 2010. More than 60% of American exports go to Canada. Canada is the USA’s largest foreign supplier of oil, by a wide margin – far, far ahead of Saudi Arabia, and Canada is the only producer whose exports to the USA are steadily increasing.
Conspicuous by its absence as an energy supplier to the United States….Norway.
Briefly withdrawing his head from the comfort of his buttocks long enough to look around and perhaps realize that he is not cut out for prediction, Mr. Lucas makes a stab at comedy with his assertion that Denmark and Britain will play major roles in the High Arctic as well. Yes, I know…c’mon, be serious for a second, and let’s take a look at it, anyway – I’m kind of glad Edward brought that up. Here’s a handy map of maritime boundaries in the Arctic, as well as disputed areas. We’ll get to Denmark in a minute, but first – where’s Britain‘s claim? The entirety of the Arctic frontage that might feasibly be considered claimable by the UK is already claimed – and the result of international agreement – by Denmark, Norway, Iceland or Russia. Perhaps Mr. Lucas is asserting his claim to membership on England’s behalf based on the undeniably great achievements of British explorer Martin Frobisher. But that was in the 1570’s, and Britain relinquished all claims to the Arctic archipelago to Canada in 1880. Britain currently has zero claim to any of the Arctic.
Denmark? Yes, Denmark has some, a fairly good-sized piece of real estate considering its own size and international influence. So has Norway, and the latter claim is the more significant as claimed Norwegian waters extend farther beyond that country’s coastline, likely thanks to Svalbard and its archipelago. However, Norway and Russia worked out their differences in an historic agreement signed – but not ratified – in 2010. How big, exactly, is Denmark’s share?
Oh, wait. There’s something we haven’t talked about yet, and that’s the extension of territorial seas based on seabed shelves which extend outward from landmasses, known as continental shelves. These are generally considered to be a part of the nation from which they originate. Maritime borders can traditionally be set legally using the baselines method (maximum 350 nautical miles from the baseline, usually the coastline where the land touches the water, or the isobath method, which is a maximum of the point where the ocean depth reaches 2,500 meters (2,500 m isobath) plus 100 nautical miles (nm).
Wouldn’t it be awesome if a country had a continental shelf which extended far, far out under the ocean, above which the ocean never reached the 2,500 m isobath? What kind of real estate might be claimed under such conditions?
Conditions such as are associated with the Lomonosov Ridge, which extends from Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago – which belongs entirely to Canada – to the New Siberian Islands – which belong entirely to Russia – 1,800 km away, in an unbroken land bridge which thrusts itself between 3,300 and 3,700 m above the seabed. Most unfortunately for international claimants, the Arctic is the shallowest ocean; only 5,450 m deep at its deepest point, the Eurasian basin. The Lomonosov Ridge is the physical feature that bisects the Arctic Ocean, dividing it into the Eurasian Basin and the North American or Hyperborean Basin – resulting in an average depth of only 1,038 m.
It would seem there is a very good chance the isobath never reaches 2,500 m depth above this undeniably present landmass, since the minimum depth above it is only 954 m. Using the isobath method, then, there exists a claimable territorial limit which extends 100 nm in each direction down the spine of the Lomonosov Ridge, throughout its 1,800 km length – for somebody. Russia discovered the ridge, from a drifting Soviet ice station of their high-latitude expeditions in 1948, but that alone does not imply ownership. Where is the ridge’s point of origin? It might be Ellesmere Island, meaning it is an extension of the Canadian landmass. It might originate in the New Siberian Islands, meaning it is part of the Russian landmass. Determining which is the case is a little like investigating which end of the Golden Gate Bridge was built first, without any plans, charts or access to historical documentation, and will have to be resolved by common agreement using accumulated survey data and solid, convincing science.
Tell you what we can rule out, though. That the Lomonosov Ridge originates in Britain, Norway, Iceland, Denmark or the United States. And even without the ridge, Canada and Russia dominate the Arctic in terms of maritime territorial seas, because of their enormous coastlines.
Another anomaly which accrues to the country that Edward Lucas suspects of getting squishy about Russia is the Northwest Passage. Long believed a myth, hints of its existence cropped up through time and subsequent discoveries, and it was finally mapped from end to end in 1906 by Arctic legend Roald Amundsen. It lies entirely within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. That’s not good enough for the USA and some European nations, of course, who would be delighted to claim it as sovereign territory if it lay within their own boundaries – but since it does not, insist it is an international waterway, with free passage for all. However, Canada’s claim looks fairly solid, and the introduction of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act – asserting both Canadian sovereignty and responsibility to protect the sensitive environment – is supported by the clause America uses to challenge its legitimacy; UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) Article 234, which provides that Arctic environments are protected more stringently under UN law. Canada has repeatedly offered that it does not oppose international shipping through the passage, which cuts about 4,000 km off the shipping route from Europe to Asia – provided other countries acknowledge Canadian sovereignty, and ask permission. At the same time, the USA – which shows the strongest inclination to challenge Canada’s claim – has acknowledged the route lies entirely inside waters bounded by islands which are undisputed Canadian territory.
Anyway, let’s not get too deeply into the weeds on this; let’s see what else Mr. Lucas claims. Yes, indeed; in the opening paragraph, he did predict Russia’s dramatic decline relative to the BRIC countries, validating Alex’s principle that Edward Lucas consistently forecasts disaster for Russia mostly because that’s what he wishes would happen. Otherwise, while anything is possible, I don’t see any substantiation for his pessimism about Russia. It’s well ahead of the other BRICs in per-capita ratings which compensate for the others’ larger populations. Brazil does have a higher per-capita GDP, and on the face of things looks like Russia’s major competitor among the BRICs. However, Brazil turned in its second-worst economic performance since 2004, in 2011, and the worst performance among the Latin American countries, with an anemic 3% growth. The Brazilian Real is the most overvalued currency in the world, while the manufacturing sector has shrunk steadily for a decade despite manufactured and semi-manufactured goods comprising the bulk of Brazilian exports. Additionally, Brazil is heavily dependent on the world economy, and while it is energy self-sufficient, more than 70% of its oil reserves come from deep-water extraction, which is risky. I can’t foresee a situation in which the world’s biggest energy exporter will decline against its energy-importing partners. But perhaps Edward Lucas has discovered a heretofore-unexplored wormhole in the global-economics continuum.
Mmmmm…good to hear that “Europe’s energy market will be in good shape. Technological change will make unconventional forms of hydrocarbons cheaper to exploit. Russia’s east-west monopoly of gas export pipelines will be a tiresome historical relic, rather than a threat. The big worry will be not Russia’s clout but its weakness. With central Asian countries exporting directly to the west and to China, Russia will be struggling to meet its export commitments.” Good for Europe, I mean. Presumably we’re talking again about shale gas when speaking of “unconventional forms of hydrocarbons”. Well, good luck with that. I don’t intend to waste any more time pointing out what a capricious technology shale-gas extraction is, offering jubilation with its initial bonanzas, then rapidly falling off to diminishing returns. Suffice it to say the “promise” of shale gas has been around for something like a century, and it has yet to wipe oil and gas off the table. I’d be cautious about predicting a shale-gas revolution becoming a game-changer in less than 10 years. But, then again, I’m not Edward Lucas, and I can’t just make shit up. Still I have to give credit where credit is due in the fearlessness department; it takes some kind of brass to forecast the end of Russian energy dominance in a year when it had not only maintained its dominance of the European energy market, but muscled into the lead – over South Africa – in exports to Europe of hard coal; doubled in only 7 years. It’s true that Russia’s share of gas supplied to Europe declined, and the difference was picked up by Qatar. I must say, I was unaware that Qatar had laid a pipeline to Europe. What?? It hasn’t? So, all that LNG goes by ship? Well, that certainly seems a sound energy strategy, doesn’t it? No, it does not. And the Financial Times – for once – agrees with me. In England’s case – Lucas’s homeland – for example, all but 2 cargoes of LNG in 2011 came from Qatar; up 67% over 2010. Yet only 24% of those cargoes were guaranteed by long-term contracts, and the rest could be sold to a higher bidder. England’s own domestic oil production has been contracting at an average annual rate of more than 6% for the last 7 years. The west threatens war with Iran on an almost daily basis, and Iran has promised it will block the Straits of Hormuz at the first sign of attack. Qatar is on the wrong side of the straits, and its gas exports would fall to zero overnight in such an event. Has all the elements of a well thought-out energy policy. Well, except the thinking part.
More than half the EU’s energy comes from countries outside the EU, and that dependence has generally risen over the last decade. But Edward Lucas doesn’t have to worry about making sense. In Edward Lucas’s analysis, Russia will have to employ increasingly-desperate incentive schemes to get Europe to continue buying its gas, offering free draws on a Land Rover to its customers, while the plump, happy citizens of Europe wave a casual goodbye and open the taps on their new, reliable and cheap gas supply. From somewhere. This is the part in engineer’s jokes where all the lines converge in a black box, with “here a miracle occurs” written above it, followed by an “equals” sign and the answer you had already worked out but could not substantiate.
I have to impose a cut-off here, at the point Lucas is arguing that by 2020, Russia will be struggling to keep up with Vietnam and Nigeria. Although the article offers the certain promise of more deliciously entertaining lunacy, and there is an undeniable fascination in watching such destructive mental unraveling, I want to look at his current masterwork; and we’re getting a little top-heavy for words.
Without further ado, then, Renewal Amid the Decay. Right away, we learn that the NATO which is supposed to wither and die by 2020 is going to have a good year in 2013. Bringing Sweden and Finland under the umbrella of NATO and deputizing them to help out with the defense of the Baltic states is a bit of a pet project for Lucas: he regularly interjects fantasy scenarios such as a “law-and-order breakdown in north-eastern Estonia or Latvia” which would be “exploited by Russian irregulars” (whatever those are). In his megalomaniacal dream-reordering of society, he envisions a tightly-knit, ultra-responsive joint air defense network in which “[i]n five years’ time it is quite possible to imagine that the Gripen JAS-39 (or F-16) shepherding a “lost” Russian bomber out of Baltic airspace is flying from a Latvian airfield, flown by a Swedish pilot with a Finnish navigator, guided by a Lithuanian-run radar network and maintained by an Estonian aircraft engineer.” You know what it sounds like to me? A recipe for a dramatic midair collision, as the Lithuanian AIC tries to vector the Swedish pilot and his Finnish navigator onto the Russian bomber when not one of them speaks the same language as the others. Unless those 5 years were going to be spent learning English, so they could go, “Righto, tally-ho, chaps – enemy in sight!! Blimey, what an ugly brute!!”. The two most similar languages – Lettish and Lithuanian – are “not mutually intelligible”, and all these countries have their own language, written into the constitution and spoken by upwards of 85% of the population. Perhaps Mr. Lucas has a plan for a magic decoder ring, or something that will permit them all to understand each other. Or maybe they only have one plane, and have to do it that way.
If this is a preview of The Plan…..run.
Exercise Steadfast Jazz, to be run in fall of this year in the Baltics, will show the Russian bear who’s boss, though. And apparently, “everyone knows” it is a stiffish response to “Russia’s manoeuvres in 2009, which practised the invasion and occupation of the Baltic states (and concluded with a dummy nuclear drill in which the target was Warsaw).” Everybody except The Telegraph, I guess, since they reported it in November and could not even be sure in what month it occurred. Their source is a Polish newsmagazine named Wprost, which claims to have learned the details of the exercise from “documents it obtained”. These documents not only described the exercise in detail – including a simulated nuclear strike on Poland (as if such a thing is ever committed to paper in military exercise planning – the Russians use fictitious countries for everything just as NATO does), but numbered the participants at some 13,000 Russian and Belorussian soldiers. This sizable force, or part of it, carried out an aggressive “Polish” beach landing in Kaliningrad, and it all happened on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Shame that in all that gold mine of martial detail, nobody thought to include the dates the exercise was to run, and nobody saw it, since nobody is even sure, two months later, that it took place in September. I guess the excitement of ripping Saakashvili a new asshole the year before awoke the spirit of conquest in the Russian breast. Funny that, considering some of the Poles were so upset they suggested anyone who was not freaking out was unpatriotic… nobody got any pictures. Didn’t the captured documents have a contact address where you could write for more details? They appeared to leave nothing else to chance. Fortunately Poland’s Defense Minister, Bogdan Klich, was “monitoring the exercises to see what has been planned”. That’s probably a good idea, Mr. Klich, and if I could be permitted a small observation, it will have even greater prospects of yielding valuable information about potential plans if the monitoring takes place while the exercises are actually going on.
Bad news for those of us who think Vladimir Putin is doing a pretty good job running Russia, though; he’ll be leaving in 2013. Well, he might hang on a bit longer, but he’d be mostly skulking around the Kremlin by 2014 looking for a lift to the border so he could make good his escape, since his popularity is sliding almost daily and by then he will probably be the most hated man in Russia.
Ha, ha. Sorry, I really tried to play that straight, but I just couldn’t do it.
Look, the west has tried this over and over, and failed to convince anyone but itself. The Russian public is not going to turf Putin out on his ear, because the public is not broadly unhappy with his performance, and even when his approval ratings sink a little, they still remain well above the same ratings of western leaders by their electorates. Moreover, polls suggest that while Russians are not necessarily content with their lot in life – and nobody ever is, everyone feels they deserve better – they do not blame their leader for current reality and believe he is serious about addressing their concerns. Shrill western democratizers like the always-bitter and often-quoted Masha Lipman cannot explain it in any way that comes out pro-regime-change, so they default to the Russians-are-bydlo foolishness, which is not so much deliberate insult as it is an expression of frustration at being baulked.
Finally, the promising-the-kids-a-pony sweetener that is as characteristic of Edward Lucas forecasts as is doom for Russia – the USA and the EU will ram through the largest free-trade deal in history this year. Silk underwear and shrimp cocktails all around, bartender, and damn austerity – this economy is going to rock!!! Pick up those instruments and play, for Christ’s sake; this is a celebration!!
Except it’s not, and anyone who makes a habit of investing based on Edward Lucas predictions should be spanked and sent to bed. The EU-US Free Trade Deal is a concept that has been batted around since the 90’s, and sporadic attempts to strike a deal have already been derailed several times. I’m not saying it’ll never happen, but the pressure to get it done now owes more to the hot breath from China that America feels on the back of its neck than anything else; blending the two economies would deflect the humiliation of being passed, and maybe even delay it for a few years. Most sites which discuss it seriously speak of an agreed framework for proceeding that’s a maybe for 2014, or for a possible “detailed agreement” in several years. The USA, Bloomberg tells us, runs a deficit in goods and a surplus in services. Since it also mentions a third of the companies involved are affiliates of one another…how’s that going to work? The manufacturing sector in both the EU and US is steadily contracting, the EU’s for 16 straight months, as the outsourcing craze of the early 2000’s comes home to roost. Are the US and EU going to make a fortune selling services to one another?
Even if the financial incentives were mind-boggling – and they’re not – there’s the question of government mojo, which bears directly on its ability to ram through contentious legislation. The present U.S. government has no mojo, and the Republicans are not going to allow anything that might look like an Obama success, even if the initiative under discussion promised to make every Republican a millionaire and make slaves of everyone else.Well I heard some people talkin’ just the other day and they said you were gonna put me on a shelf Let me tell ya that I got some news for you and you’ll soon find out it’s true; You’re gonna have to eat your lunch all by yourself… ‘Cause I’m already gone and I’m feelin’ strong I will sing this victory song ‘Cause I’m already gone From the “On The Border” Album, Eagles
The window for constructive dialogue with Russia is closing. Nuts like Edward Lucas are trying to slam it shut. Are you sure that’s what you want? You have only to read the news to see that the current Russian government has backed up as far as it is going to, and pushback is the order of the day. Constant aggravation and harassment from the west forces Russia to conduct a daily re-evaluation of how much it actually needs the west, and how much it is in its interest to form new partnerships and alliances. Edward Lucas would have you believe that the U.S. military is so powerful that it can impose American and western will anywhere on the planet, but he is an academic (generously speaking) and not a military tactician, and there is a great deal he does not know at the same time that what he thinks he knows is informed by dazzling victories over military nonentities like Libya. Russia is a whole different ball game, and an attacker would have a logistic chain that stretched halfway around the world – I seem to recall that ending badly for Napoleon. Also, it is snuggled up against another major military power to which it is the biggest supply of energy. China would not stand by quietly and allow the west to take over or destroy its energy supply. Not without a fight, and believe me, the juice is not worth the squeeze.