Widening Geo-political linkages and the Middle East

Conflicts Forum's Weekly Comment, 13-20 February 2015

The Greek government is challenging the EU ‘system’ in a very fundamental way, as Russia is challenging the global ‘system’

Earlier this week, the recently retired head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, Sir John Sawyers, said: “… but the Ukraine crisis is no longer just about Ukraine. It's now a much bigger, more dangerous crisis, between Russia and western countries, about values and order in Europe.” He warned that western countries could ‘take on’ Moscow, but, “as long as Mr Putin sees the issue in terms of Russia's own security he will be prepared to go further than us” (CF emphasis added).

We do not know exactly how Sir John understood the nature of this clash of values: possibly he merely intended to underline the familiar meme that Crimea’s voluntary secession from Ukraine was tantamount to placing at risk the whole European ‘order’ (many might interpret it in this way – though only by turning a blind eye to what took place in what was formerly Yugoslavia).

Or possibly, Sir John was hinting at something more profound: that Moscow is indeed challenging the West on its claimed prerogatives over the financial and trading order; of its liberal/neo-liberal, consumer-democracy model of governance as a universal imperative; and its re-engineering of the international order away from the norms on which it was founded, towards geo-financial coercion, isolation and sanctions. The feeling of existential clash prevalent amongst almost all Russians does suggest we are witnessing something profound: a Fukayama-esque clash of civilizational values - as Sawyers (possibly) may be hinting.

In a certain way, this Russian tension somehow chimes with that other crisis of Europe, the crisis – which is also of ‘values and order’ - that is represented by Greece’s challenge to the EU élite. As Yves Smith has noted:

“This incident [the breakdown of the Eurogroup talks with Greece] suggests that a far more basic struggle is underway, that is not reflected in a straightforward manner in Greece’s talks with the Troika. The Greek government and its creditors appear to have fundamentally different views of what Greece’s powers are. In effect, the position of its various lenders is that Greece has traded away significant, if not most, of its sovereignty in return for bailout money. And its creditors have set up a debtcropper system in which Greece can never free itself of its obligations. Put it another way, Greece has been reduced to a subject of various largely unaccountable Eurozone level authorities, with none of the benefits of being a member of a true federal union, the most important being the recipient of fiscal transfers. Greece, by contrast, takes the view that it is still a state and has rights that cannot be taken away.

“If this is the underlying nature of the disagreement, with the negotiation spats a mere symptom, there is not much reason for hope for an agreement, save a capitulation by Syriza. Greece is effectively demanding a change in the shadow constitutional order: that [is to say] of the various terms imposed by the rescue agreements that the other periphery states treat as binding and irrevocable. Changes in constitutional orders are messy at best and generally come about via coups or wars”.

Indeed, Syriza is challenging the prerogatives of the microcosm, just as Russia is challenging the macrocosm. Greece is contesting the financial order (as expressed in the absolute prioritization of creditor interests over all other interests, be it that of realism itself, or human suffering); it is also challenging a model of governance – institutionalised neo-liberalism - that dictates that Greece be squeezed until it pays back debts that can never realistically be paid back, and whose very exaction voids any pretentions that Greece may have to sovereignty. And Greece too is challenging the prerogative of that order to financially coerce (by threatening to bankrupt its banks), in order to have its way. One commentator perceptively suggested that Greece’s true fight is less with the Eurogroup (the microcosm), but really with that which lies beyond it: the de-territorialised, financial ‘deep state’ of Europe and New York.

Many will hold that it is ‘irrational’ to challenge the latter; and that Greece – to be rational – must acquiesce to ‘Mr Market’ at the eleventh hour. But then Syriza (apparently) is not the usual compromising centrist social democratic party. And the argument is not the simplistic pro- or anti- market dialectic, but a more complex one about how radical monetary policy, Central Bank manipulation and new forms of trading by a few big market actors, have twisted the ‘market’ into a predatory and unaccountable global autocracy.

It is not surprising then that these two (ostensibly quite separate and distinct) crises - Ukraine and Greece - are becoming conflated politically (more Greeks express openness to Moscow than to Brussels, polls show). There is a definite political correlation between political parties in Europe who have understanding for Greece’s predicament, and who are also more ‘open’ to Russia.

Over preoccupied by the issue of debt and the fate of the Euro, we perhaps loose sight of the political: the Greek government is challenging the EU ‘system’ in a very fundamental way (as Russia is challenging the global ‘system’). Not surprisingly political parties across southern Europe, who are disenchanted with Brussels’ heavy-handedness are paying utmost attention. They too, will have noticed that Syriza has joined with a party on the Right in mounting its common anti-‘system' campaign (even if in the long-run their paths must diverge). This will have sent a frisson of fear down the spines of many European centrist parties committed to austerity and the EMU.

Likely, it is fear of political contagion, more than financial contagion, that is causing the Euro-Élites to react with such irascibility to Greece’s case. But by the very irascibility of their response, European leaders risk turning an economic dispute into a nationalist one, fanning flames of nationalism (and anti-German sentiment) throughout southern Europe, and into the Balkans.

We see the sharp focus of Euro-sceptic parties in UK, France and Italy, inter alia, fixed on the fate of Greece’s revolt. In the Balkans, the twin crises have already conflated in public perception, and are re-opening the sores from the dismembering of Yugoslavia. For Serbians in particular, the Ukraine crisis conjures up a sense of déjà vu: Ukraine standing in relation to the western desire to slap down Russia’s ‘impertinent’ uppishness, as Croatia and Slovenia stood in relation to the wish to put down an uppity Russian-leaning Serbia.

Yves Smith (above) echoes Sawyer’s point that challenges to collective values or to established orders is never easily achieved, but usually comes about only through conflict, which is what makes these two crises so intractable. The common element to both is a desire to re-coup sovereignty from the global or European financial and political order: in other words to ‘re-sovereigntise’ their states. It is pretty clear that America does not want Russia ‘re-sovereigntised’, and nor does Germany want it for Greece (for fear of the precedent for Spain, Portugal and Italy, as well as for the umbrage taken in Germany at the challenge implied to its authority and leadership in Europe).

It is this depth to the twin crises which forms the linkages to the Middle East. When asked recently whether he saw a political solution in Syria, the Russian Ambassador in Beirut answered that the Ukraine crisis made that unlikely; similarly the Moscow Times quotes a Russian Ministry of Defense adviser speculating that were the US to arm Kiev, then Russia would arm Iran.

But, more than these more obvious linkages, the Ukraine crisis – and the ensuing geo-financial war launched against Russia – has prompted Russia to react in the Middle East by consciously re-seeding the region as a more multi-polar, and non-dollar denominated region. All three of the present pillars of Middle East - Iran, Turkey and Egypt - are toying with closer ties to China and Russia and (to differing extents) moving away from dollar-based trading, at least between themselves.

In other words, any escalation to this double crisis and its inherent tensions will impinge directly into Europe’s and America’s ability to mediate in the Middle East, since Russia, Iran, Egypt and Turkey are all, or partly, key to resolving all the present regional conflicts. Just to be plain, President Putin’s criticism of the global ‘order’ and of America’s weaponisation of the global financial system finds many sympathetic ears across the ‘non-western’ world.

And if Greece ultimately is to be made a failed state (pour décourager les autres), the trend in the Middle East of states de-coupling from the unipolar world, to move towards a more bivalent, multi-polarism will accelerate. Greece has been a core EU member (it is one of earliest members of the EU – before Spain or Portugal) and is a member of NATO. Any re-orientation by Greece towards Russia and China (for help in its post-Euro distress), or any Greek disassociation from NATO, would send shock waves throughout the Balkans.

Already China is speculating about an extension of its ‘Silk Road’ economic corridor from Turkey through Serbia to Hungary (which just broke ranks with the EU, to host President Putin in Budapest). There is talk too of a gas pipeline linking the new Turkish ‘Stream’ (replacement for South Stream) to Greece, Serbia and Hungary – perchance to run along the projected Chinese railway and economic corridor linking up this part of South East Europe.

Then, a significant part of eastern Europe would be very physically orientated, and linked, to the Middle East, and beyond that, to Russia and China.