Author: John Ruehl

Russian Energy Politics

Recent Russian escapades in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria have all shown the enthusiasm of the Kremlin act militarily abroad, again. The reasons behind the conflicts vary but occasionally overlap. For example, Georgia and Ukraine’s location on the Russian border meant they were obvious choices after they had flirted with joining NATO. Meanwhile, a pro-Russian Syrian government is largely dependent on Russian military force at this moment in the Syrian Civil War. Applying that force and stabilizing the regime will give Russia a powerful voice at future peace negotiations.

But all three conflicts share a particular trait -energy supply. Control over energy routes into Europe has been a key part of Russia’s foreign policy for decades. It supplies the continent with much of its gas, giving it leverage over recipient countries and a degree of price-control. Russia’s economy, already under strain from Western sanctions, is heavily dependent on the price of energy. Russia will naturally attempt to have as much control over the supply routes, which also serves to compliment their own significant energy reserves. Not only does this bolster their economy, but it can be used as a tool against those who are dependent on a Russian-controlled energy supply.

A detailed look into the Caucusus pipelines —


For almost two decades, the Russian military had not engaged openly in an active conflict located outside its borders. After Georgia and Ukraine were offered NATO membership action plans in April of 2008, it represented two more areas in which the western alliance system would be on their borders. In August, the Russian military invaded and occupied Georgia. Pressuring the leadership enough until it was forced to step down would demonstrate to their respective political establishments the consequences of attempting to join NATO.

But there was another recent development that perhaps aided Moscow’s decision to attack Georgia. In 2006, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (see above) began pumping energy into Europe. It passed through Azerbaijan, Georgia (both formerly part of the USSR) and then into Turkey, before continuing onto Europe. It was able to bypass existing Russian pipelines that brought energy in from the Caspian Sea.

Though the pipelines cannot supply all or even a significant part of Europe, together, with others, they form part of the lifelines that supply the continent. Pipelines are expensive to build and maintain, yet worth the cost for countries that can afford it. Controlling part of one gives countries considerable influence over its destination country.

Five years before the conflict, a popular revolution had toppled the pro-Russian government in 2003. Moscow could no longer be sure that Georgia would continue to abide by their policy over energy supply. When the new pipeline was built in 2006, it further undermined a significant part of Russia’s power in the region. Russian troops were sent in to convey their feelings towards the Georgian shift away from Moscow’s orbit, and remain in areas of the country to this day.

A detailed look into the Russian-Ukraininan energy pipelines —


Georgia did not take Russian eyes off Ukraine for long. Later in 2008, a price dispute broke out between Russia and Ukraine, not two years after their last one. On January 1st, 2009, Russia then cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, where it would usually continue into other European markets. The decision caused panic in many European countries, now subject to the whim of a Russian price disputes with Ukraine.

Flow eventually resumed after almost three weeks, but the damage had been done. The pricing dispute became a major headache for the pro-Western government. Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russian gas. Russia cutting off that gas was a message to Ukraine and the countries who share the same supply line. Any deals with foreign institutions (NATO, EU) that countries were flirting with would be met with collective suffering. In the 2010 Ukrainian election, voters would choose the pro-Russian leader Viktor Yanukovych to lead the country out of the debacle.

When his government succumbed to popular revolt in 2014, its pro-Western successor was forced to deal with Russian repercussions. Russia invaded and occupied the Crimean Peninsula, a largely Russian-populated area of land jutting out into the Black Sea. Though the Russian struggle for Ukraine has many reasons behind it, one of them is certainly the fact that Ukraine is integral to Russian supply into Europe. Over half of Russian gas into Europe passes through Ukraine, making it an important transit country that Russia would like to have as much control over as possible.

Potential pipelines in the Middle East


But how did Russia become embroiled in a Middle Eastern conflict, and how is energy involved? The Syrian Civil War, soon to be in its 6th year, has been a focal point of the region’s major powers. The reasons behind them, again, are numerous. Russia’s too are plentiful, but once again, energy politics comes into play.

Gas reserves in the Persian Gulf are owned by both Iran and Qatar. Qatar has invested heavily into the Syrian Civil War, not least because the Syrian government rejected their proposed pipeline (see above). Assad, leader of Syria, rationalized this decision in order to “protect the interests of [its] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas” (The Guardian 2013).

No matter what a post-war Syria looks like, Russia is undoubtedly going to have a powerful voice at future peace negotiations. The government of Syria still exists because the Russian military intervened in 2015 to prop up the regime, at a time when the war was going badly for it. The government has been able to cement its control over much territory it had lost, and it owes Russia the biggest favors. Whenever something resembling peace returns to Syria, proposals may continue for pipelines to traverse through the country. Should one be built, Russia is likely to have considerable influence over the decision-making process.


Russian aggressiveness in regards to pursuing its regional energy policy isn’t about stopping the flow or even preventing it from ever going through. It is about having the potential to do so, should the Kremlin feel it necessary. It is also about controlling whose resources are being transported, as well as the amount. Control over flow gives Russia considerable leverage over export and import countries. It also gives Moscow an element of control over prices, which Russia needs at a certain level due to their reliance on energy revenue. Friendly governments in Georgia and Ukraine are much easier to control than pro-Western ones, wary of the influence Russia may have over them.

Though it may appear that Russia’s militarism is an act of strength, in a sense it is an obvious recognition of their own weakness. They are dependent on energy supply routes for regional control and influence, particularly over some European countries. Moscow is so concerned over losing that control that it is willing to engage in conflicts overseas, at least in part because of it. A diversification of Europe’s energy supply, particularly Eastern Europe’s, is one of many way’s that countries could escape Moscow’s grasp. Save for a renewable energy revolution, societies will remain dependent on fossil fuels to function. Because of this, Russia will continue to attempt to control their supply as much as possible — dependence on a single supplier makes countries much more vulnerable to their demands.

Reunifying Korea — It’s complicated

North Korea stands out in the world as a lone bastion of near-complete secrecy and isolation. It has existed as a modern country for almost 70 years, separated from the southern half of the Korean peninsula as part of wider Cold War struggle. In a sense, the separation of North and South was similar to that of East and West Germany, which occurred during the same period.

So why couldn’t the region’s leaders figure out a way to make North and South Korea to accept the same reunification conditions as East and West Germany when they reunified in 1990? When the Soviet Union began to collapse, East Germany fell out of Moscow’s grip. Finally free from the Kremlin, the East chose to reunify with the US-backed West Germany. North Korea however was still under Beijing’s influence, even as China continued to shed much of its communist identity. A light stranglehold on North Korea’s foreign policy offers a glimpse as to why it did not reunify with the South at this time, but there are several more complex reasons.

North Korea — adapting to a post-Cold War world

The end of the Cold War heralded the end of Pyongyang’s ability to “play” the two communist powers of Russia and China against one another. North Korea would always oppose the US, but it sometimes had leverage over which side of the communist bloc it placed itself on. North Korea’s swaying allegiance was rewarded with aid and support in turn by Russia and China. Both were attempting to lead the communist bloc against each other and the US. Once the communist ideology was widely abandoned in almost every country, North Korea’s leadership found itself subject to the whim of Chinese demands.

That all changed when North Korea developed nuclear weapons in 2006. Its leadership was given a new suicidal lease on life. The act also instigated the US to double down on efforts to isolate the country further. China, the only supply line the North Koreans had left, began to see it less and less as a country to influence and more of a country to contain. But a military operation against North Korea by either the US or China suddenly became vastly more complex. North Korea’s army, though large, has always been under-equipped and technologically outmatched by major powers. The possibility of a nuclear explosion, no matter how technologically inferior to their own arsenals, is now far too much for the US and China to risk.

North Korea remains dependent on China and pressured by the United States. Russia continues to hold a presence in the region, but no longer feel the need to offer much help to the North Koreans every time they threaten to embrace China or get in trouble. South Korean and Japanese leaders remain wary of the North’s erratic behavior, and are largely supportive of an American military presence within their countries. Though South Korea and Japan would like to see the end of North Korea as a security threat, several potentialities and realities make this idea less feasible.

South Korea — Southern Comfort

South Korea is eons ahead of the North in what we may call societal advancement — where economic, technological and cultural evolution has occurred at a faster pace. Though a similar phenomenon had developed between East and West Germany, it was not quite to the same extent of two Koreas.

In terms of population size, both North Korea and East Germany were smaller than their geographical counterparts. With roughly 16 million people at the time of reunification, East Germany was dwarfed by West Germany’s 63 million. Bringing the eastern population up to a more universal German standard was incredibly expensive (by some estimates over 2 trillion euros) but was generally seen as worth the cost.

Today, South Korea’s population stands at 50 million, while the North is believed to have roughly 25 million. South Korea has become wealthy after decades of strong economic growth, while the North lags far behind in almost every aspect of societal advancement Reunification would be an expensive burden for the South, as they would have to bring the North up to a more equal standard of living. It is easy to see why they might be apprehensive about the entire process. The culture shock as the two countries absorbed back into each other could also cause a number of social problems, with no easy solutions.

Despite its advantages, South Korea generally has to remain on high alert militarily. The Korean War, which created both countries, never ended with an official peace treaty. Both North and South are still technically at war, in a frozen but active conflict. South Korea maintains the 10th highest military budget in the world as of 2016. Though the North occasionally likes to violate their ceasefire agreement, the South can do little back, in order to avoid escalation. Only a full-scale assault by the North is likely to prompt the South to retaliate unilaterally, which it would do in tandem with the US. Over 28,000 American troops remain in the country as a show of force and in support of Seoul, making the Americans South Korea’s most important military ally.

Japan — identity crisis

Since their defeat in World War Two, Japan has only been allowed to have a passive military, collectively named the Japan Self-Defense Forces. It has the 8th largest military budget in the world as of 2016, but the country is forbidden by their constitution to act in any way but self-defense. The terms of that defense would be organised in cooperation and guidance with the US. Japan considers the US its most important bilateral partner and over 54,000 US troops remain in the country. This is also an American show of force to China, North Korea, Russia and perhaps Japan too.

A unified Korea would come to rival Japan in terms of population size. Japan is already engaged in a fierce debate over whether or not to allow the military to take more responsibility in regional order and security. A reunified Korea would almost certainly make that happen. The US might begin withdrawing their forces in response, making Japan more vulnerable to China and Russia, both of which it has territorial disputes with. So long as American troops remain in the country to deter North Korea, Japan remains untouchable to other major powers. Despite the danger North Korea poses, to some in the Japanese political and military leadership, it may be viewed as a necessary nuisance.

China — Pyongyang’s hesitant partner

China has maintained its rocky relationship with North Korea from the end of the Cold War. But they are by no means allies, despite what either countries’ media proclaims. Nonetheless, the relationship North Korea has with China is undoubtedly Pyongyang’s most important.

From the Chinese perspective, a sudden reunification of the Korean peninsula would raise many questions. Would American troops, already stationed in South Korea since the Korean War, remain in a unified Korea? If they left, would that make Japan renege on its pacifist constitution, and increase the capabilities of its military? Could there be refugee flow over into China from North Korea, should social conflict erupt on the peninsula?

As long as China believes it can contain North Korea, it will continue to do so. It can scold them at the UN whenever the North Koreans do anything provocative, knowing full well that North Korea’s lifeline is them and only them. For both Russia and China, North Korea remains a distraction for the US, allowing them to pressure the American global order in other areas. China sees the US as its biggest competitor in the region, and the largest obstacle to them establishing a regional dominance over its neighbors.

US — power and projection

The US remains committed to the region for several reasons. Most importantly, it has to act as a balance to China. In his book Perspectives on International Relations, Henry Nau upholds that “ultimately, states have to base their calculations on capabilities, not intentions”. China’s capabilities have been rising steadily for decades. It now has the second highest military budget in the world as of 2016. The US is committed to defending the order that it largely established in East Asia after World War Two. It fears China will upend that order and establish its own.

Even Vietnam, which had to fight a brutal war against the US on its own soil decades ago, is now actively calling on the US to maintain its presence in the region against China. Such a pragmatic reversal in relations no doubt stems in part from Vietnam’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, and the belief that only the US can effectively block Chinese power.

Having a military presence in Japan and South Korea can be justified for the Americans so long as North Korea remains a perceived-threat. It is unclear if an American military presence would remain in the Korean peninsula upon reunification, or if China could even replace them. Would Japanese forces, perhaps no longer bound by its pacifist constitution, make moves to be independent from American protection? If so, would they be able to contend with China’s superior strength and a larger single Korea? Furthermore, would a reunified Korea and a re-militarized Japan remain helpful to the US’ regional foreign policy?

The Americans are also aware that they need to prevent North Korea from destabilizing South Korea and Japan. Working out a reunification agreement between the North and South is off the table for the moment. This means the US has to maintain a presence there to prevent North Korea from acting too boldly. Pyongyang has already proven itself to be nuclear-capable. Though it cannot contend with American and Chinese nuclear power, it can still seriously intimidate South Korea and Japan.

DPRK — here to stay?

The conflict between North and South Korea is unlikely to be resolved soon. Ultimately, the South is for unification in public only. Both its’ leadership and citizens know the cost of reunification would be one of significant financial magnitude. It could significantly diminish the economic and social progress made over decades. Japan, China and the US are all in turn unsure of the geopolitical re-balancing that could affect the region, should a unified Korea emerge.

North Korea’s leadership is unlikely to succumb to outside pressure any time soon. Their nuclear weapons are their most important possession, worth the cost of further isolation. China, South Korea and even the US occasionally offer aid to appease the leadership in between acts of diplomatic disputes. This is done for many reasons, not least to prevent North Korea from ever being desperate enough to reach for the nuclear button.

North Korea’s leadership appears capable of surviving for the time being. The world can wait for them to suffer from internal collapse, or for them to give up power willingly. For the latter to happen, an attractive-enough deal by other countries would have to be offered, in order to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

But why would any of them want to do that?

Nuclear Weapons — History, Significance and Implications

As of 2016, only nine countries are believed to possess nuclear weapons. Their expertise in the nuclear field varies, yet all have the capability to inflict serious destruction with their respective arsenals.

There are already disputes among the nuclear nine. Increasing the amount of members in their little club multiplies the potential for more unrest and uncertainty between them. However, why would any of them be willing to give them up? Furthermore, why wouldn’t some other nations’ leaderships pursue them? The geopolitical clout alone has proven tempting.

Understanding disputes between the powers which possess nuclear bombs and the reasoning behind them is integral to decreasing the threat of such weapons. A key aspect of their power is in not using nuclear weapons on adversaries, whether or not they have them too.

Victors’ spoils

Upon the conclusion of World War Two emerged five victorious major powers. The US, Russia, Britain, France and China were unrivaled by any other countries on the world stage.

With the exception of China, the other four had begun nuclear research before and during the war. In July of 1945, the US was able to detonate the first nuclear weapon in the Nevada Desert  — Trinity. One month later it would detonate two more over Japan; Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki. The explosions effectively ended the Pacific theatre of World War Two just months after the European theatre had concluded. It demonstrated the weapons’ destructive power, and they remain the only time they have been used in warfare.

Their detonations also sent a message to Russia — Europe would be shared. The larger, battle-trained army of the USSR was far less formidable against America’s new weapon. However, the Russians would detonate a nuclear weapon merely four years later. Together, they would engage in a nuclear arms race for decades, which have meant that together they currently possess more than 90% of the world’s stockpile (over 7,000 nuclear devices each).

Britain and France would detonate their own in 1952 and 1958, respectively. It was a comforting achievement to the two remaining European powers at a time of decreasing diplomatic power in part due to the US and Russia’s growing share.

Finally, China would detonate one in 1966. Far from the military and economic colossus that it is today, it was nonetheless privately accepted by the major four as eligible. Like France and Britain, it possesses a few hundred nuclear weapons.

The five were and still are the only permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The balance of power has swayed considerably between them since 1945, yet the five remain the strongest actors in international relations.

The final four

However, the creation of such a weapon was unlikely to remain exclusive for very long. The US, with the support of some of the other five occasionally, has attempted to limit the amount of nuclear weapons globally. The following countries had to develop discrete ways to develop their nuclear programs, and deemed it necessary to suffer potential consequences in pursuit of them.

Israel — ~1960s (roughly 80 nuclear weapons)

Israel’s modern creation shortly after World War Two placed its leadership in a precarious position. The country’s tiny size and array of larger, hostile neighbours meant that its very survival was constantly under threat. Significant initial aid from the French and later their own research allowed the Israelis to perhaps create a bomb by the 1960s.

The Vela Incident in 1979 is often believed to be a covert Israeli nuclear test off the coast of South Africa, though Israel has a policy of neither confirming nor denying if it has nuclear weapons. Nicknamed the Sampson Option, the Israelis’ military policy prepared for a large-scale nuclear retaliation against a hostile force as last resort, should a significant part of Israel be destroyed. Preventing any other regional power from obtaining nuclear weapons is a core part of Israeli foreign policy, and is part of the reason they neither confirm nor deny having them.

India — 1974 (roughly 100 nuclear weapons)

Conflict with China but particularly Pakistan led to the development of the Indian Nuclear weapons. During the 1972 Indo-Pakistan War, both the US and Russia became involved in order to release their Cold War tensions. The US sent a carrier group as a show of force in support of Pakistan. It was trailed by a nuclear-tipped Indian-allied Soviet submarine, and demonstrated to Indian leaders the power of merely having such a weapon against a source of pride in the American Navy.

Previous years’ research culminated in the detonation of India’s first nuclear weapon in 1974 in an underground detonation. The bomb, Smiling Buddha,was described was a “peaceful nuclear explosion” by the Indian press. Pakistan, who would be the next country to join the nuclear club, obviously had problems agreeing with the Indian term.

Pakistan — 1998 (roughly 150 nuclear weapons)

Even before India’s first nuclear tests, Pakistan had flirted with the idea of acquiring nuclear weapons. Two weeks after India conducted its second round of nuclear weapons tests in 1998, Pakistan responded in kind. Chagai-I and Chagai-II were a series of detonations that proved they too had developed the weapons after more than two decades of stagnating nuclear-capable countries.

As J Swift wrote in 2003, India’s nuclear weapons tests in 1974 “meant that it was only a matter of time before Pakistan evaded safeguards and secretly gained the enrichment technology to develop its own weapons”. The Pakistani leadership deemed it would never be treated equally by India now that they had nuclear weapons. The desire to return to a level playing field against their most formidable and threatening adversary was their primary motive for obtaining nuclear weapons.

North Korea — 2006 (roughly 10 nuclear weapons)

In 2006, North Korea became the last member to join the current club. It is diplomatically weak, financially destitute, and until 2006, was able to be contained militarily by the US, China and other actors. Similar in a sense to Israel’s Sampson Option, the North Korean leadership has a nuclear deterrent. Removing the political leadership or defeating it in conventional military terms does not automatically reduce the damage elements within the country could still pose. North Korea’s leadership found a new lease on life after struggling to adapt to a post-Cold War world. That new lease came with the ire of much of the international community, led by the US. However, until it collapses on its own terms, the North Korean leadership appears capable of surviving.

Nations who’ve had/tried

Except for perhaps India, the final four nuclear states just mentioned are not major powers. However, just like the first five, their security could be jeopardised should more countries ever get nuclear too.

In his 2009 article for titled “Nations that gave up on the nuclear bomb”, David Graham identifies 15 countries that fit the mould. They are: South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Iraq, Sweden, Libya, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Syria, Egypt and Algeria. Some relinquished their nuclear weapons and programs (Ukraine), others could not continue to afford it (Sweden) or had it obstructed (Iraq, Syria).


Only one country continues to appear to be actively pursuing a live program — Iran. The US has placed sanctions on Iran since 1979, though some have recently been lifted. Iran has taken some distinct steps in the complicated field of creating a bomb, but maintains that it is for civilian energy use.

Whether or not the Iranians are actively pursuing a nuclear program is irrelevant to both the US and Israel. By not admitting they have nuclear weapons publicly, Israel can avoid instigating a regional nuclear arms race that may occur due to public, political and military pressure inside other Middle Eastern powers. If Iran creates or detonates one publicly, countries like Turkey might feel compelled to get one too. This weakens Israel’s leverage against its larger neighbours and creates a nightmare for American nuclear containment policy.

Iran insists it maintains its program for civilian purposes, and some have argued that Iran has used the allure of pursuing a weapons program to negotiate a reduction in sanctions with the US. Nonetheless, it remains a thorn in the side of Middle Eastern politics, and one that could devolve quickly if left unattended.

So what can be done?

Banning and destroying nuclear weapons are obviously the easiest ways to do remove the threat they pose. It is also impossible for the time being.


What is possible is the ability to establish more safeguards to make the current nuclear powers more restrained in potentially using them. In 1983, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defence Forces by the name of Stanislav Petrov is credited with helping to avoid an accidental nuclear war from occurring between the US and Russia. Soviet satellites warning systems had malfunctioned, and were showing signs of an imminent American nuclear attack. Instead of initiating measures to launch a counterattack (as was protocol), Stanislav Petrov waited until it was confirmed as a false alarm.

Thanks to his actions, the world may have avoided a nuclear catastrophe. Establishing more safeguards when matters such as this arise would help to make such a risky event from almost taking place again. In a war between nuclear powers like Russia and the US, the entire world would likely fall victim to the nuclear fallout. Countries with smaller arsenals such as Pakistan and India could still inflict enormous damage, and they have had several wars against each other since 1998. Without maintaining an element of restrain between nuclear powers, the potential for a collective global demise grows.

Policing the Prevention Policy

Every country that becomes nuclear-capable increases the potential for global devastation. The US, despite being the only country which has ever used them in warfare, has attempted to keep the number of nuclear weapons states as low as possible. It is constantly looking for greater collective responses to do so.

Coalitions of nuclear and non-nuclear states (such as the first five and Germany negotiating Iran’s nuclear program) can help achieve this. Meanwhile, the US and Japan do not want South Korea (which had a nuclear program in the 70s) to develop weapons as a deterrent against the North for example. The Saudis and the Israelis in turn don’t want a nuclear Iran. Making nuclear powers and non-nuclear powers invested in preventing any more countries from obtaining them is critical to them being seen as too dangerous to pursue. As the strongest country in international affairs, the US can organise their efforts most effectively.


Three Strategic Arms Reductions Treaties (START) have been signed by the US and Russia in 1979, 1993 and 2010. They have reduced the amount of weapons in each country’s large arsenal considerably. Every nuclear weapon that is destroyed makes the world slightly more immune to nuclear catastrophe. Countries like France and UK might be more open to the idea of getting on board with reducing their numbers, not least because their nuclear reserves are so much smaller than Russia and the US. Meanwhile, countries such as North Korea might have leaderships open to the idea of relinquishing their nuclear weapons (similar to Ukraine and South Africa) if they are offered an attractive enough deal.


Thousands of years of inter-human conflict led to the creation of the nuclear bomb. It is the ultimate weapon, and does not even have to be used when deterring enemies. However, the world remains unsure of how to accept their existence. What would a nuclear war look like? Who would it involve? Why should some countries be allowed them yet forbid others from getting them too?

Despite these concerns, it remains obvious to limit the availability of these weapons. It is also important to make sure they are properly safeguarded, in order to make them the very last thing military planners would want to turn to. Finally, destroying as many as possible in mutual reduction treaties would help alleviate the concern of the world, as well as pacify the disdain of the vast majority of countries that don’t have them.

Why NATO needs reform

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NATO Summit, 2016 (NATO website)

Without an adjustment to NATO’s future ambitions, conflict between the US and Russia remains more likely. Recent years have shown tension between the two countries to greatly influence European and the Middle Eastern regional stability. NATO, a Cold War relic that has survived for 25 years past its original intention, remains a thorn in the side of Russia, which in turn remains a thorn in the side of the US. 

As countries with the two strongest militaries in international relations, coupled with their historic rivalry, American and Russian interests are bound to clash occasionally. Limiting the frequency of those clashes is integral to upholding the peace that has prevailed in Europe for over seventy years. It may also raise possibilities in helping to end the violence that currently plagues much of the Middle East. 

Scope Creep

Regardless of the complexities that will come out of inheriting the nation at one of its least enviable moments in history, Donald Trump will have a multitude of international commitments to contend with as well. It is still unclear as to which road the US will take internationally, from a President who has not hidden his disdain for global American allies who are judged not to carry their own weight. The US’ military forces are becoming increasingly unable to deal with the vast amount of global instabilities emerging, particularly in the Middle East. The Americans were able to establish a global military hegemony, more powerful than any other country’s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. From its ashes emerged Russia, which was incapable of confronting the US as it once could. On the world stage, the US was and still is near-unrivaled in terms of military power; save for the use nuclear weapons which would conclude in a mutual national suicide. However, it has found its global military apparatus threatened by non-state actors.

The major powers in the Middle East as well as a resurgent Russia have funded and participated in proxy wars with one another, no more so than in Syria. Tensions with Russia regarding NATO expansion are central to multiple conflicts that have emerged in recent years. NATO, which has continued to operate past its original intention, perhaps may suffer from elements of “scope creep”, where;

Scope creep (also called requirement creep, function creep and feature creep) in project management refers to uncontrolled changes or continuous growth in a project’s scope. This can occur when the scope of a project is not properly defined, documented, or controlled. It is generally considered harmful (wikipedia). 

Growth and its consequences

 NATO is essential to Europe’s security, but the increasing number of its members is impeding on areas that used to be under Moscow’s sphere of influence instead of Washington’s. Its growing scope and the fact that many nations do not add much to the alliance has meant the US has had to increase its military commitments and face backlash from Russia and others. Meanwhile, the geopolitical ambitions of some of NATO’s members have clashed violently in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, though only indirectly in regional proxy wars.

 Reforming NATO in order to correct these discrepancies should be a serious priority for the incoming Trump Administration in whatever form it will take. The US is so entrenched in military affairs that a rapid global withdrawal would destabilise things even more so. A reform of its growing membership and decreasing strain on Russian-American relations could help stabilise things in the Middle East. One thing that will be integral to that is understanding the elements of Russia’s energy security, which will be discussed later in the paper.

The first Secretary General of NATO was Hastings Ismay: a British officer, diplomat and chief military assistant to Winston Churchill during World War Two. During his tenure as Secretary General from 1952-1957, he is credited with popularizing the notion that the purpose of the institution was to “Keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 signified that all three had come to fruition. Since then, NATO has attempted to remain useful, but some of its policies have diverged so much that they now contradict themselves. Reforming NATO is essential to maintaining the once-unthinkable general European peace that has lasted for over 70 years and that the institution was central in maintaining.

NATO’s post-Cold War growth

Geopolitical competition between Moscow and Washington did not simply end upon the conclusion of the Cold War. Russia was forced to come to the realization that many of the countries it used to have considerable control over no longer accepted its authority, and were eager to get out of its former sphere of influence. The US, without a geopolitical rival, could use its military seemingly anywhere, and no other country was able or willing to present a good enough reason not to. The Russians used to enjoy doing the same thing, yet they were now unable to confront the US as an equalizer in international conflicts.

A map of Europe with eight colors that refer to the year different countries joined the alliance.
NATO enlargement (wikipedia)

During this time, NATO continued to add members to its roster. The first round of post-Cold War enlargement was in 1999, followed by another in 2004. Many of the countries that joined were formerly part of the Soviet-led military alliance that had stood as a former bulwark to NATO.Some of these new countries helped contribute to American-led efforts overseas, keen to prove themselves as eager members in order to gain the security guarantees of a collective military alliance with the US. The Americans were naturally, happy to receive them. In 2008, NATO membership action plans were given to both Georgia and Ukraine. Georgia would mean a new member of a perceived-hostile alliance on Russia’s southern flank and gateway towards the Middle East. Meanwhile, Ukraine was closely tied to Russia through its economy, history and culture.

The Kremlin was of the belief that it was unacceptable for either of them to fall into the western alliance system. In August of 2008, Russia suddenly went to war with Georgia, declaring their support for a local insurgency there and occupying the territory after the war’s conclusion. Though most of the international community refuses to accept the new status quo, a Russian military presence remains. It was the first true affront to American dominance in international affairs by a country since 1991, and is perhaps the first real policy “retreat” the US was forced to endure in that time, too. Georgia, in the end, was forced to take forces out of Iraq where they were serving with American troops, a minor complication for the US considering the major headaches they were having across the wider Middle East.

Middle Eastern power politics

The local Middle Eastern powers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran had all had complex relationships with the US. However, all acquiesced to the overt military dominance of the Americans. The Saudis and Turks are generally considered allies of the US, the latter even being a member of NATO. But divides have grown in recent years as foreign policies have occasionally clashed. Iran, which has had what could be described as a less-than-friendly relationship with the US for decades, has further contributed to the ever-shifting  regional balance of power.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq, inextricably linked, have changed the traditional power dynamic considerably. Iranians and Saudis trained, supplied and financed a number of rival militias during the American occupation of Iraq, while all major powers (and Russia) began investing heavily into the Syrian conflict when it became clear the US could not prevent them from doing so. The US, with its immense military power, made war between the  major powers almost impossible. They could never fight one another directly, though began doing so fiercely and indirectly as soon as they figured out how to during the chaotic aftermath of post-invasion Iraq.

The Arab Spring

The US eventually managed to gain an element of control over Iraq briefly, until the Arab Spring broke the pre-existing military and political order that had lasted for a two decades. As the Americans withdrew from Iraq, opportunistic rhetoric from NATO allies Britain and France led them and the US to launch air operations in Libya. In conjunction with a NATO no-fly zone and operations by the Arab League, the US was able to aid in the overthrow of Qaddafi, former leader of Libya who had been at odds with western leaders for decades. However, like in Iraq, a divided country plunged into chaos once its structure was compromised by the removal of a ruthless leader who seemed to be the only one able to keep it together. Since then, France and the US have both supplied and aided rebels in Libya directly opposed to rebels supplied by Turkey, their mutual NATO ally. Rival factions competing for rule over Libya have facilitated the removal of the country’s ability to regulate migrant flows across the Mediterranean, at a time when their numbers were increasing due to Arab Spring-related violence. What has been hailed Europe’s Migrant Crisis had begun, and would only worsen with an increase in regional instability.

As Libya succumbed to chaotic internal elements, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria was exhibiting similar symptoms seen before Qaddafi fell. Protests against Assad soon turned into an armed rebellion, and the country’s central proximity to the Middle East’s major powers soon made the conflict an all-or-nothing affair. Iran has given considerable support and even its own soldiers to fight alongside Syrian government forces. Russia has also given a great deal of support to Assad for various reasons. It hosts the only naval base that Russia has on the Mediterranean, and is an important source of Russian power projection into the Sea. The US, Saudis and Turks have all given support to various competing rebel elements opposed to Assad, though the Obama Administration is less invested in the country than any other of the major participants. With its vast number of actors and exhaustion from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US was unable and unwilling to end a conflict that was hurting Russia anyway. It was a useful way to release the pressure on the American position in Europe after Georgia had slipped from NATO’s grasp years earlier. The option of a potential Ukrainian membership nonetheless remained on the table.

Ukraine’s tug-of-war

Ukraine, as previously mentioned, was offered a membership action plan in 2008. The Ukrainian government, led by Yulia Tymoshenko since 2005, had maintained talks with NATO over the proposed membership. However, she would lose re-election in 2010 to Viktor Yanukovych, a more pro-Russian president who cancelled an impending agreement with the European Union in late 2013. The EU, despite not having the US as a member, is sometimes seen as the political-economic sister organisation to the political military institution of NATO. Though obviously dominated by Europeans, many of them rely on the Americans for military defense. This gives Washington considerable sway over collective EU policy, too. Soon after the plan’s rejection by the Ukrainian President, protests broke out against the Ukrainian leadership. If US policy-makers were not involved in the protests, then at the very least they found them highly convenient. Distracting Russia at a time when the US was wary of its actions in Georgia and connection to the Syrian conflict was a positive for the US. The Russians, which had caused regional concern due to their war against Georgia, were again placed on the defensive.

However, as the government in Kiev fell to protesters, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea. It is a largely Russian populated area, which also hosts, like Syria’s coast, a Russian naval base. Moscow, unsure if the new Ukrainian government would continue to lease it to them (and desperate to establish an element of control over the situation) took the peninsula by force, without much resistance. NATO, which had been essential in implementing a European rules-based order, was unable to prevent the most serious affront to that order since its inception.

The US and the UK lobbied for collective American and EU sanctions on Russia, which in turn terminated much of the agricultural trade with all EU members. Though this hurt Russia too, it acted to sow dissent within NATO/EU ranks, as smaller countries such as Hungary greatly relied on Russian trade. It was also at a time when the continent was and still is struggling to make its way out of a general continental economic malaise that has undermined the EU’s shared-prosperity, a central tenet in the organisation’s popularity.

The Syrian frontier

Nine months after the fall of the pro-Russian government in Ukraine, the US began airstrikes in support of the rebel forces it was already supporting. Though it could not attack Syrian forces without a formal declaration of war, it could prevent the Islamic State from attacking the rebels its already supported. This in turn would force the Islamic State forces to turn their attention to the Syrian regime instead. The Obama administration chose to ebb carefully, so as to not repeat the mistakes of the Bush Administration in Iraq. The limited action was used to convey the notion that the US had some say over local affairs, as well as a military that was vastly more powerful than any local variant. Though it did not want Assad in power, it certainly did not want the Islamic State or another Islamist group to assume control over the country. Recent emails released by Wikileaks reveal American knowledge of the Saudis and Qataris funding these groups, yet the US was unable to truly prevent them from doing so, and had to work within the framework that had emerged. It had the benefit of continuing to put pressure on Russia, which was more isolated than ever stemming from its endeavors in Ukraine.

Pressure increased exponentially on the Assad regime, and it looked close to collapse. However, in September of 2015, Russia indicated that it would send significant military aid to Assad, heralding the beginning of their own large scale efforts in the war. Though a small Russian military presence has been established in Syria for years, the country sent its top aircraft, missiles, personnel and air defense systems in order to prevent a collapse in the Syrian regime, and ensure itself an important seat at potential future negotiations. In the next few months, Russia was able to shore up the regime after it was on the edge of the abyss. Its air power turned the tide of the conflict, while the American’s own air power has created a stalemate that perpetuates a continual rate of “sustainable” violence that has also placed pressure on European unity through the sheer amount of Europe-bound migrants the conflict has created.

Making peace with Russia is the most obvious answer to beginning to solve such enormous problems, but they and the US remain locked in perpetual competition due to their immense scope in international relations. Together with over 80% of the world’s nuclear weapons, how is it possible for them not to see the other as a threat? Like all big powers, the US and Russia can’t help but take measures to check themselves geopolitically. The fall of the Berlin Wall became merely a temporary stumbling block for the Kremlin. As it was put succinctly, the US can’t help but push; Russia can’t help but push back. We can perhaps minimize that pushing by removing conflicting characteristics of NATO that aid in the development of tension with Russia and between members.

Regional energy politics 

Before doing so, it is important to understand the issue of energy security to Russian leadership. When Russia invaded Georgia, it also hoped to oust the pro-NATO Georgian leadership. In the late 1990s, large energy reserves were found in the Caspian Sea. A pipeline was constructed in 2006, through Azerbaijan and Georgia (both formerly USSR) and then through Turkey. It is able to bypass the existing Russian pipelines into the energy-hungry markets of Europe. After the war, Georgia’s leadership remained intact, but weak, damaging the willingness of NATO to continue their talks with the country. Russia is still able to attack Georgia, without fear of triggering Article Five of NATO; that an attack on a member calls for the collective defense of that country.

Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline

In 2009, over a pricing dispute, Russia cut off gas supplies from reaching Ukraine, where it would usually continue into other European markets. It occurred during the middle of winter, and cause panic in many European countries now subject to the whim of Russian price disputes with Ukraine. The fact that both Georgia and Ukraine had both shown themselves willing to militarily ally with a US-dominated institution that developed as a bulwark against Russian power was perhaps influential in the Russian decision to pursue military and economic measures and pressure against them.

What is perhaps the most confounding are the energy implications of the Syrian civil war. Gas reserves in the Persian Gulf are owned by both Iran and Qatar. Qatar has invested heavily into the Syrian Civil War, not least because the Syrian government rejected their proposed pipeline. This was rationalized in order to “protect the interests of [its] Russian ally, which is Europe’s top supplier of natural gas” (The Guardian, 2013). Iran too would like to sell its reserves to European markets (should a lifting of existing sanctions permit it), and does not want Qatari rivals from undermining their potential as an energy power.

Note the purple line which traces the proposed Qatar-Turkey natural gas pipeline and note that all of the countries highlighted in red are part of a new coalition hastily put together after Turkey finally (in exchange for NATO’s acquiescence on Erdogan’s politically-motivated war with the PKK) agreed to allow the US to fly combat missions against ISIS targets from Incirlik. Now note which country along the purple line is not highlighted in red. That’s because Bashar al-Assad didn’t support the pipeline and now we’re seeing what happens when you’re a Mid-East strongman and you decide not to support something the US and Saudi Arabia want to get done.
Proposed, rival pipelines (zerohedge)

In a marriage of convenience, both the Gulf States and the US found themselves fighting for similar reasons. The Gulf States and the US wanted Assad gone, because he was allied closely with both Iran and Russia. A pro Saudi/Gulf State Syrian government would wield a significant blow to the Iranians geopolitical efforts in the Middle East, and would also help remove considerable leverage the Russians have over the Europeans, were a pipeline to be built.


Would Russia have acted so boldly, had it not been for the perceived encirclement of NATO forces? Would the US have been so willing to oversee an enlargement of the institution, had it known the lengths the Russians would go to prevent it? In hindsight, it is still hard to answer these questions. One thing is certain- the actions of NATO, an institution that is trying its best to remain relevant, has been central to many conflicts in recent years. Its continual growth has allowed its agenda to widen, meaning the commitments of the US, which fronts the bill and manpower for it, has had to widen as well.

Nations act in their interests, and NATO, though heavily US dominated, has made the US responsible for other nation’s interests. Reliance on the US has weakened them in turn, while members such as Turkey are directly and actively opposed to wider American and NATO policy in the Middle East. An incident in 2015, where the Turkish military shot down a Russian bomber that had strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria, brought the institution even closer to an armed conflict with Russia. Though tensions have simmered slightly, the likelihood of a similar thing happening in times of crisis remains.

NATO, having outlived its original intention, needs fundamental reform. Continuing to add members, so long as they meet certain criteria, makes the organisation weaker, as its collective policy diverges more with every newcomer. The institution can perhaps handle this occasionally, before it is able to integrate them into a clear and collective direction. It cannot handle major powers like Turkey and France having violently different policies while still operating under a supposed single mandate. Together with Russia’s fear of NATO, America’s overstretch in support of it and on top of their own geopolitical ambitions, the institution has begun  to show signs of collapse.

Reform of the institution may include enforcing rules such as:

  • · Countries not meeting the 2% GDP spending minimum on defense will have to pay the US to have their forces there. American taxpayers are becoming more and more wary of fronting the bill for other nations’ defense
  • · Limiting expensive foreign military involvement, without a clear and collective mandate. Conflict has changed radically in recent years; consensus on the use of force and blocking the routes for war through proxy must be recognized so they are not exploited
  • · Recognizing elements of Russia’s energy security dilemma, but facilitating a diversification in European energy needs. Russia will act aggressively if it feels threats to its power are manifesting. Slowly weening Europeans off a dependence on Russian gas can prevent this.
  • · A momentary freeze on new membership to establish these new guidelines among existing members. It they can’t accept them, then their membership could be suspended or terminated
  • Reassuring countries such as Poland of NATO’s commitments to them, while also making them more independent and capable in terms of their national defense and their ability to form partnerships with other countries to confront mutual problems and concerns
  • · Allowing European countries to regain their own independent military responsibilities, but making sure they are mutually invested in the continuation of collective peace. As a country of still unrivaled influence, the US can regulate this evolution

After the end of the Cold War, NATO has remained the bedrock of the US’ military power and still acts as a powerful check to Russia. The only problem is, the US is doing most of the heavy lifting. It has disrupted the natural balancing act of European power relations by absorbing many of their most basic military commitments, such as defense of territory. NATO has continued to add members as per its original mantra, yet the US, as the strongest actor in it, has to contend with its various commitments it owes to each of its members, even when their interests contrast. 

Since the third and final round of post-Cold War enlargement in 2009, NATO has been unable to effectively respond to many of the challenges that confront it. Can it survive a fourth? Under its current model of growth, NATO could face a violent collapse, or a slow decline in its ability to remain a relevant institution. Regional civil war in the Middle East, a divided Europe and a paranoid Russia are related to the inability of the US to uphold its complicated obligations. They would all benefit enormously from warmer Russian-American relations. Reforming NATO is paramount to at least begin mending their collective sources of contention.