In the stable and prosperous bi-polar world of 2030 in which we live today, it is hard to recall how close the multi-polar world of 2020 came to limited nuclear war and even to wholesale Armageddon. Still harder to grasp is how remote from the 2020 conflicts were their cause — and how beneficial that cause seemed when it occurred in 2015. But the discovery of a vast oil field in northern Canada that year set in motion a series of events that eventually led to . . . well, let’s trace its extraordinary impact.
Canada was already an energy superpower in 2015 when Nunavit Energy announced that it had discovered oil reserves equal to half those of Saudi Arabia in western Nunavit and a nearby natural gas field described simply as “huge.”
Oil prices had already wobbled two years earlier when a new technology had sharply cut the cost of extracting oil from the Canadian prairie oil sands. Now they began a slide that by 2019 reached the levels of the early 1990s. Most countries, being net energy consumers, were delighted by this stimulus to economic growth. The European Union was a partial exception because its 2012 “Kyoto-Plus” regulations strictly limited its growth potential and hence its ability to take advantage of this windfall. But the EU’s stagnation was a mild problem compared to the economic disasters that now began to overwhelm Russia.
High oil prices had been the more important of the two factors sustaining Russia’s claim to be a great power. (The other was its Soviet-era nuclear armory.) Yet as Roger Bootle of Capital Economics in London had warned as early as 2007, high oil prices were more a threat than a benefit to Russia in the long run. They stimulated government over-spending, corruption, and buying voter popularity. They discouraged moves towards the transparent markets and genuine democracy needed for long-term economic growth. And they camouflaged Russia’s worsening social problems — a population declining by 700,000 people a year, a rising Muslim share of this declining population, and growing ethnic conflict.
By 2020 Russia’s population had fallen below 100 million and was still heading downwards. The Russian army relied on Muslims for 50 percent of its conscripts. The country enjoyed tense relations with almost all its neighbors including the “Stans.” Moscow’s revenue from oil prices was falling by a larger percentage every year. Neither private investors nor international agencies were willing to plug the gaps in the Kremlin’s finances — the former because of President Putin’s extensive expropriation program in his second term, the latter because they could see no hope of fiscal improvement.
In the face of these threatening disasters, Putin’s centralized regime of siloviki (former intelligence agents) initially maintained stability surprisingly well by a policy that included selective assassination. All around Russia, however, its hostile neighbors sensed a fatally weakened giant and began to prepare accordingly.
Iran had risen to the rank of a regional superpower in the previous decade. It had acquired a modest nuclear capability, effectively guaranteeing it against attack, and conducted a forward foreign policy, largely through surrogates such as Hezbollah, in the Gulf, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. But Russia had been a constraint on Iranian ambitions in the latter two regions as well as Iran’s ally against the U.S. Now, with Russia descending into poverty, Iran forged an alliance with China to advance their joint interests in security and energy. To be precise, both powers eyed Russia’s virtual monopoly of energy pipelines to Europe with predatory intent.
Turkey was more seriously inconvenienced by Russian developments. Following the European Union’s rejection of Turkish membership in 2012, the resentful Turks had moved in two directions, emphasizing their Islamic identity in Middle Eastern policy while forging an anti-Western alliance with Russia in return for cheap energy. But energy prices were now cheap everywhere, Russia was in decline, and Iran next door, backed by China, was a rising threat. Soldiers are practical men. In the bloodless coup of 2017, the Turkish armed forces emerged from their barracks, overthrew the moderate Islamist government, formed a new government with Kemalist party support, and asked Washington to form “a serious NATO,” i.e., one in which soldiers would fight when necessary. Richard Perle emerged from retirement to negotiate the treaty. In return for the protection of America’s nuclear umbrella, Ankara sent a division to assist struggling NATO forces in Afghanistan.
China was the first to take direct advantage of Russia’s weakness, however. Chinese workers had been migrating to the thinly populated Russian areas of Siberia and the southeast for the previous 30 years “to do the work that Russians won’t do.” In fact there were simply too few Russians to develop the oil and gas fields in those regions. There may have been as few as ten million ethnic Russians between the Urals and the Pacific by 2015. Their number declined still further with the fall in the oil price as marginal fields closed down and exploration was curtailed. By 2020 much of the region was Russian in name only. Ethnic Russian provincial governors, appointed by Moscow, ruled over a heterogeneous population of which Chinese migrants were the largest single component.
China now took a cautious but fateful step. It adopted a state policy of subsidizing Chinese migration into eastern Russia with grants. Not only did this expand Beijing’s sway; it also helped to relieve growing internal pressures in China. Riots had been spreading in agricultural provinces excluded from the country’s prosperity. Strict movement controls prevented poor farm workers from moving to the boom towns of Canton and Shang-hai. In effect they were now diverted into Russia.
The announcement of this policy had an astonishing impact in Moscow: no reaction whatsoever. Until the day before it was announced, the Russian media had been crying up the “Sino-ization of Russia” with tabloid hysteria. A special Russian edition of Patrick Buchanan’s book — State of Emergency — on third-world migration had gone into sixteen editions. But the official confirmation of these fears produced silence. The Russian government ignored it; the Russian media failed to report it; Western journalists found no one willing to discuss it on the record.
Everyone knew what this meant. Moscow lacked both the will and ability to evict the trespassers. Russia had gone from weakness to impotence.
A tempted China now rolled the dice. Denouncing anti-Chinese riots (that no-one else had witnessed) in the Russian cities of Khabavorsk and Belogorsk, Beijing now approached the United Nations and demanded a humanitarian intervention to save lives and restore order. Iran was the only other country to support Beijing in the Security Council. As the U.N. diplomatic process dragged on, Beijing, citing the precedents of Kosovo and Iraq, threatened unilateral intervention in Russia’s Far East. Iran simultaneously moved its own troops northwards to the borders of Armenia and Turkmenistan. Iranian-backed groups also exploded bombs and launched seemingly coordinated guerrilla attacks on Russian forces in Chechnya, Georgia, Dagestan, and other parts of the Caucasus.
Taken together, all these moves looked like a Sino-Iranian pincer attack designed to seize the bulk of Asian oil and most of the means of delivering it to Europe. The world held its breath.
Russia held its tongue. Moscow’s paralysis was due in part to the slow-motion collapse of the Putin regime. Putin himself had resigned on grounds of ill-health and left Russia not long after the Nunavit oil and gas discovery. Following his example, other siloviki took their money and themselves to nations which combined warm climates with the absence of extradition laws. The regime’s second-string authoritarians — men very similar to the no-hopers who had attempted the 1991 Soviet coup — had no idea of how to cope with Russia’s proliferating problems. Their previous policies of high spending and expensive populism evaporated along with the high oil revenues that had sustained them. With growing poverty, unemployment and inflation in their future, Russia’s regions had little reason to stay with the dying empire. Russia’s armed forces were showing in the Caucasus that they lacked equipment and morale. Almost the only weapon that the Kremlin had in this crisis was its nuclear armory. But how could it be used?
On August 14, 2022 Russia fired “a tactical nuclear missile” into an uninhabited region of the Taklimakan Desert as a “warning to all who might harbor aggressive intentions towards Mother Russia.” The following day China fired five tactical nuclear missiles into uninhabited Russian regions of the Arctic. Environmentalist bodies protested the loss of wildlife and amenity on both occasions.
America’s secretary of State, xxx xxxx, now flung himself into what became known as “the peace shuttle process.” Both China and Russia, terrified by their own use of nuclear weapons, were happy to cooperate; neither wished to back down. Chinese, Russian, Iranian, jihadist, and other forces remained at battle-readiness throughout Asia. The diplomatic process dragged on without result. What was needed was a deus ex machina to descend and cut the Gordian knot.
He arrived on stage in the unlikely form of the commander of Russia’s Far East military district. Together with the governors of Russia’s seven most eastern regions, he proclaimed the establishment of the Far East Republic (DVR) under a provisional military government in Vladivostock, with independent internal and foreign policies. Its first act, he said, would be to protect the lives and property of all inhabitants regardless of ethnicity or national origin.
This got everyone off a very painful hook. In an anodyne and pacific response, Moscow pretended that this new state was merely a rearrangement of provincial responsibilities within the Russian Federation. The Kremlin now relaxed, believing that the crisis was over. China — which was generally and maybe rightly suspected of having inspired the coup — welcomed the division of Russia and the creation of a weak buffer state that would surely accept its fate as an obedient suzerain of the Middle Kingdom.
Both turned out to be wrong in the decade that followed.
As Oxford’s Regius Professor of History, Pavel Stroilov, has written in his classic The Fall of the Russian Republic:
[INDENT] “In Russia itself, the successful separation of the Far East provoked a chain reaction. Within a year, another half a dozen independent republics were proclaimed in Siberia. Russia’s de facto Eastern border was now at the Ural Mountains. Once the siloviki fled Russia entirely, the task of defending its territorial integrity was inherited by colonels. In early 2023 they withdrew the most loyal forces from North Caucasus and stationed them along the Volga River. That left the small Muslim republics in Caucasus to their own fate. The Chechen War, which had continued with varying intensity ever since 1994, was now concluded with the complete defeat of Russia. Pro-Russian leaders were executed within days, in some cases by their own bodyguards. Today’s Caucasus is divided between jihadist regimes such as Dagestan allied to Iran, unstable moderate Muslim regimes such as Chechnya, and relatively stable regimes linked to the West such as Georgia. But Russia itself is not very different, with some two dozen democracies, kleptocracies, and outright tyrannies jostling for advantage in what almost seem like cease-fire conditions.”
China emerged from the One-Day War slightly chastened but in an apparently improved strategic situation. It was soon to be disappointed by the DVR, however. After “restoring order” at home, the DVR pursued the independent foreign policy it had announced, starting with the return of the Kurile Islands to Japan. Japan responded with diplomatic relations and a treaty of economic cooperation, and her lead was soon followed by the U.S., India and the West. Investment followed. Within a decade of the war’s end, the DVR was closer to the West and far more prosperous than it had been as a region within Russia. It was also a haven for Chinese democrats as well as migrant workers. China disliked all this. But since the DVR enjoyed the benefits of both the U.S. nuclear umbrella and its own stock of nuclear weapons inherited from Russia, there was little Beijing could do about it.
China was also unhappy about the performance of its Iranian ally. At the height of the conflict, Turkey, enjoying U.S. nuclear protection, had moved its Afghan division to the northern Iran border and sought to interdict the supply of Iranian arms to jihadists in the Caucasus. That had effectively checkmated any Iranian intervention.
More significantly, Turkey had also played a helpful part in the only European intervention during the crisis. Inspired by a 2009 Foreign Affairs article by Hudson Institute futurist S. Enders Wimbush, Poland’s veteran energy minister — Piotr Naimski — had had approached the Turks seeking their assistance in salvaging a Western-controlled energy supply line from the ruins of Putin’s pipeline monopoly. In secret talks with Central Asian, Georgian and East European leaders, Ankara had forged a new energy alliance linking Central Asia and Europe through stable parts of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. By 2030 the China-Iran bid to replace Putin and construct their own Asian energy monopoly had been decisively defeated.
China and Iran remained important powers. Indeed, their alliance was the single most important strategic fact about the Eurasian landmass. But the U.S. and Turkey between them during and after the war constructed a strong maritime “new NATO” linking Britain, most of Europe including Poland and Ukraine, Israel, India, Japan and Australia. This alliance now blocked the central Eurasian powers strategically. And the realization that they had been checked in a bid for wider world dominance began to aggravate strains in their own authoritarian societies in which the populace was often more sophisticated than their rulers. Neither government still enjoyed the Mandate of Heaven. Change was coming there.
There were still loose ends to tie up. Russia and the northern Caucasus had been reduced to new and more dangerous Balkan regions with failing and rogue states that offered a haven to both jihadists or Russian mafia veterans according to taste. Former President Putin was still fighting the ICC to stay in Brazil. All in all, however, the so-called One-Day War was perhaps the most decisive war in history in which the main casualties were camels, Arctic birds, sea-lions, and polar bears.
And Canada? Canada did nothing in the war — except start it.
– John O’Sullivan is author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World. This was orgininally published in Canada’s National Post.