Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Watching The Pieces On The Chess Board: Climate Change, Ukraine, Oil Prices, Putin Support of Asad, Greek Debt, Refugee Crisis

Let's start with this LA Times headline Tuesday:
"A crisis of unity exposed in EU" 
In the last couple of weeks I've been thinking about how Europe's influx of refugees is causing great disruption in Europe not to mention the horrors that are causing the refugees to leave their homes.  But there's one clear winner - Russia, of course.  A united Europe is not good for Putin's ambitions.

As I see this, we get news about the world in fragments, and often that's how they stay in our brain - fragmented.  But everything is related to everything.  So this post is a way for me to try to connect in my own head a lot of these fragments.    And I'm sure I'm missing a lot, but let's look at some of the moves on the chess board.

1.  Russia's march into the Crimea made for daily headlines such as this back in spring 2014.

2.  Western reaction was strong and included sanctions.   

3.  Sanctions against Russia caused Putin to retaliate including threats to Europe's natural gas supply.

4.   EU stands firm on sanctions.

5.  And don't forget Russia's offer to help Greece with its debt to the rest of the EU.

6.  Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war expands as ISIS comes in.  And Russia continues its support of Syria's Asad.

7.  The Saudis, unhappy with Russia's support of Asad,  have increased oil production, which led to lower oil prices.  Since oil is critical to Russia's economy, the Saudis were hoping the economic impact would lead Russia to drop support of Asad, according to the New York Times.

 8. Back to the  Los Angeles Times headline  that I began with:
A crisis of unity exposed in EU
Some of the 28-nation bloc’s key initiatives are in jeopardy amid deep discord over the influx of refugees.
   LONDON — Just three years ago, the European Union basked in the glory of a Nobel Peace Prize and boasted of being a tight-knit community bound by “European values” of democracy, diversity and dignity.    By its own measure, the 28-nation club is now looking decidedly less European and even less a union these days as it grapples with the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.. .

So, if millions of Syrian (and other) refugees flood into Europe, critical parts of the European unity get tested.  Schengen - the agreement that eliminated stops at border crossings between most European countries - has been one of the most important symbols of the EU's unity.  And now Hungary's building of a border wall to block the refugees, raises question about Schengen.  Croatia has only applied to be a Schengen member so it isn't a breach of Schengen yet. But now Austria is talking about closing its borders with Hungary, which would be a breach. 

Another symbol of that unity is the Euro which came into crisis with the Greek debt showdown.  And the Russians offered to support Greece against the rest of Europe.

If, in fact, the refugees help break down the European Union, then Russia's European opposition is much weaker economically and militarily and Putin would have much more freedom to treat his people and neighbors as he pleases.   

Abdul Jalil Al-Marhoun  argues that Russia's key goal in Syria is access to the Mediterranean Sea.  While a port in Syria would be a useful base, he argues, it's not essential.  A weaker Europe would make securing this route much easier.  Especially through the narrow strait by Istanbul.

Click to enlarge and focus - map from Wikipedia

The map shows the Black Sea geography.  Russia has a major naval base in Sevastopol which it leased from the Ukraine for, according to a state sponsored  Russia Today article: 
"$526.5 million for the base, as well as writing off $97.75 million of Kiev’s debt."  
After the takeover, that agreement was voided by the Duma.  That's over half a billion savings for Russia and loss for Ukraine.  A Center for Strategic and International Studies article describes the strategic benefits to Russia of this naval base.

Life is much simpler when the news anchors just say "the good guys" and "the bad guys" and that's all you have to know.   And when news is made up of discrete unrelated incidents of video violence.  News is merely entertainment - real life examples of action movies.  But it doesn't help us understand how and why things are happening.  For that you have to think like a chess player - each move is about the position of all the pieces and where they will be three or four or five moves hence.   Certainly Putin, head of a nation of chess players, has in mind strategy such as this offered by the United States Chess Federation:
"When you are considering a move, ask yourself these questions:
  • Will the piece I'm moving go to a better square than the one it's on now? 
  • Can I improve my position even more by increasing the effectiveness of a different piece? 
  • Will the piece I move be safe on its new square?  
      • If it's a pawn, consider: Can I keep it protected from attack? 
      • If it's another piece, consider: Can the enemy drive it away, thus making me lose valuable time?
Even if your intended move has good points, it may not be the best move at that moment. Emanuel Lasker, a former world champion, said: "When you see a good move, wait---look for a better one!" Following this advice is bound to improve your chess." 

Maybe American schools should start teaching chess so American students can learn to think about the long term implications of their actions.

Oh yes, climate change.  How does that fit in here?  From Scientific American:
"Drying and drought in Syria from 2006 to 2011—the worst on record there—destroyed agriculture, causing many farm families to migrate to cities. The influx added to social stresses already created by refugees pouring in from the war in Iraq, explains Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who co-authored the study. The drought also pushed up food prices, aggravating poverty. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. 'We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.'”


  1. This is a brilliant analysis -- and what journalists should be doing in America to educate them; but who watches CNN and Fox (numbers are down apparently), and other mainstream news channels? -- they are just other entertainment channels, afraid to lose any more viewers. Viz., the Trumpcapades All the serious blogs and on-line pundits are preaching to the choir, their audiences wanting to have their prejudices confirmed.

    So how to reach the closed circuits of the right-wing cult these days... beats me.

  2. thanks Barbara, though perhaps you exaggerate a bit. It just looks good compared to the fragmented news elsewhere.


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