January 15, 2009

About gas and Gaza: commonalities of real and pipeline wars

The news streaming into our living rooms from the television screens have lately been about two major issues – Gaza and gas. Before Christmas, Israel opened another page in the blood-stained history of its conflict with the Palestinians by launching an attack on the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, allegedly to destroy the militants’ capability to fire missile to the Israeli cities. When the New Year celebrations were ending, Russia shut down gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine, alleging that the latter was stealing transit gas instead of paying its debts and agreeing to a new price.

The news streaming into our living rooms from the television screens have lately been about two major issues – Gaza and gas. Before Christmas, Israel opened another page in the blood-stained history of its conflict with the Palestinians by launching an attack on the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, allegedly to destroy the militants’ capability to fire missile to the Israeli cities. When the New Year celebrations were ending, Russia shut down gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine, alleging that the latter was stealing transit gas instead of paying its debts and agreeing to a new price.

The two conflicts are still raging parallel to each other. The human toll of the Gaza war is already over a thousand, most of them civilians, and is likely to rise further as the Israeli troops move slowly into densely populated areas. No deaths have so far been directly attributed to the gas supply shutdown, but millions of people in Central and South-Eastern Europe had to endure days of quite severe winter cold in their homes, while entire industries came to a complete halt and one government after another were declaring energy emergencies.

The nature of human suffering is different, but both conflicts carry striking similarities extending beyond the keywords, Gaza and gas. Both of them follow similar conflicts in 2006, when Israel waged a war against Hezbollah in Lebanon and when Russia also stopped gas transit via Ukraine. In both conflicts, a superior power directs its ire against the unloved governments which were brought into office through ballot: Israel – against the Hamas-led administration in Gaza strip, Russia – against the pro-Western “Orange” coalition in Ukraine. In both cases, those powers say that they just respond to the sustained lengthy provocations of the opponents – missile launches to Israel from Gaza strip and gas theft by Ukraine. Even some proposed or actually pursued solutions sound familiar – border monitors in the case of Gaza and energy flow monitors in the case of the gas dispute.

Quite alike, Israel and Russia put pressure on the players who are divided and weakened by the internal political squabbles as well as quite dependent on the whims of their more powerful neighbours. Also, both leadership of Israel and of Russia face, in one form or another, some serious legitimacy tests ahead. In Israel’s case, parties in the governing coalition are positioning themselves for the elections in February. In Russia, the regime all of a sudden appears vulnerable to the impact of the global financial meltdown and steep fall of oil prices. It is probably not accidental that the timing of these conflicts is such that the most influential global player with a considerable stake in both of them, the United States, is distracted by the transition between two presidents. And, of course, in both conflicts it is the innocent people who are caught in between and suffer most.

Certainly, there are many differences in these cases of the use of different forms of state power. And drawing parallels between them might appear of little more value than just engaging in some intellectual frivolity. However, there is a common theme underlying both stories, which is fundamental to our understanding of what is going on. In both cases, state power – military by Israel and energy by Russia – is used as a tool of strategic coercion. It is quite appropriate that a book entitled “Strategic Coercion”, edited by Lawrence Freedman and published exactly ten years ago, contains chapters on the use of oil by Russia to coerce its neighbours and on coercion against a non-state actor, the PLO, by Israel. It is also rather amazing that both chapters come back-to-back in the book (Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 respectively), as if the editors knew what was in store for the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009. Replace “oil” with “gas” in the case of Russia, and “PLO” with “Hamas” in the case of Israel, and you’ve got an excellent guide to the “why’s, how’s and so what’s“ of the current conflicts.

If one accepts this interpretation, the developments acquire a somewhat different meaning than only that focusing on the attainment of narrow military or commercial objectives stated by Israel and Russia. Since strategic coercion is a complex strategic game, defined as “the deliberate and purposive use of overt threats to influence another’s strategic choices” by Freedman, it is difficult to predict its immediate outcomes or long-term consequences with great certainty. However, there are certain tenets which should be kept in mind:

—Perceptions and psychology matter most. It is not the number of destroyed missile launchers or cubic meters of gas cut off which determines the outcome. It is how the actions taken affect the calculations and interpretation of the reality by the target of coercion. Was its political standing and reputation weakened? To what extent? Does everyone see the coerced party as a cornered hapless entity, losing even the staunchest allies? Or does it appear as a defiant hero, thumbing the nose of the bully? Whose cause is understood to be just? It seems Israel and Hamas as well as Russia and Ukraine appreciate this very well, so the information war rages ferociously in the media space, with the opposing parties trying to paint each other as evil and driven by ulterior wicked motives.

—Credibility is key. No one will be coerced if the issued threats to use force, military or economic, are not seen by the receiving side as credible. So, often the coercer has to take action, if only for the sake of remaining credible and ensuring that future threats are taken more seriously. Had Israel not opted for military action in the face of Hamas’ provocations, this would have further weakened credibility of its military deterrent, damaged by lacklustre performance in the 2006 war. Had Russia kept pumping gas, despite Ukraine’s moves toward the West and its support to Georgia during its war with Russia, the potency of its energy weapon to advance a combination of political and commercial interests would have been undermined. Now, no one doubts anymore about the willingness of Israel to use force again, despite previous setbacks, or willingness of Russia to use gas and oil as instruments of coercion, despite previous compromises or international outcry. Any settlement arrangements, which could be seen as loss of credibility will be eventually rejected by the coercing party.

—It takes two to tango. Credibility is an important resource, but it does not ensure that coercion will work anyway. In the end of the day, it is the decision of the target to yield to the pressure or to defy it. The mechanism of how threats or action translates into the decision is highly complex one, influenced by the cultural, political, economic and other factors. Linear logic would dictate that, the greater pain Israeli military action inflicts on Hamas or even entire population of Gaza strip, the sooner Hamas will succumb and accept the terms of ceasefire dictated by Israel. But it is equally possible that greater pain will push Hamas to more extreme measures of retaliation, further escalating the conflict. In a similar vein, Russia may expect Europe to pile pressure on Ukraine, increasing its costs of noncompliance and forcing Kiev to submit to Moscow’s demands, implicit or explicit. But equally well Ukraine may feel that the cost of compliance is too high for it to accommodate (loss of gas infrastructure’s ownership, for instance; or complete loss of political prospects for pro-Western camp, etc.).

—Third parties can be as important targets, by design or accidentally. They can be utilised to put additional pressure on the target of coercion: Israel expects the West and the Arabs to twist the arms of Hamas, and Russia wants the EU to squeeze Ukraine. It is important for Israel to restore the deterrent effect of its military capability in relation to other actors in the region – in short, to communicate the potency of its military power to other hostile players. For Russia, it is important to demonstrate what happens to those who cross it as well as to drive the point home that large tracts of Europe are completely dependent on Russia. But again, the conclusions that the third parties are going to draw are not entirely within control of the coercer.

—The law of unintended consequences is always relevant. As in all strategic games, the outcomes of coercion may be entirely different, or even opposite to what the coercer wants. Russia wishes to persuade the EU of how untrustworthy Ukraine is and of how reasonable its plans for the undersea Nord and South Stream pipelines are? Fine, but it discredits itself as energy supplier, alienates even the sympathetic pro-Russian EU members such as Bulgaria and rekindles the EU effort to search for alternatives, thus undermining the very leverage it seeks to demonstrate. Israel wishes to send a message that it is ready to defend itself whatever the human cost? But the same humanitarian cost starts eroding support to Israel’s policies in the West and hardens the extreme views among the Muslims about its very right to exist.

—The coerced will wait to exact their revenge. They may lie low after yielding to coercive uses of power by their opponents, they may accept the terms dictated to them and they may do the bidding of the more powerful opponent for a while. But the memories of humiliation and loss will linger for a long time. And, if the right set of circumstances emerges, they will withdraw their compliance and will find the way to pay the same coin back. Israel and Russia are all too familiar with this pattern, so it is just amazing how easily they are lured, again and again, by the deceitful shine of strategic coercion and its treacherous short-term benefits.

Successful strategic coercion is an art – art of strategic vision, subtle communication of threats, management of perceptions, coordination and synchronisation of various instruments of national power, understanding of the opponent’s reasoning and many other things. None of which come across as particular strengths of bitterly divided electioneering Israeli leadership or power-obsessed self-admiring bosses of the Kremlin.

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