Russia vs. Europe, Iran vs. Saudi Arabia & an Asian Tanker War
We recently met with geopolitical strategist Peter Zeihan to discuss world events since the American election and his new book, “The Absent Superpower: The Shale Revolution and a World without America.” In the book, Peter credits energy and resource innovations with reshaping the global geopolitical environment.
We covered so much ground in our visit with Peter that we decided to break it into two reports. Last month in part 1, we covered the broad impact of the Shale Revolution, which he calls, “the greatest evolution of the American industrial space since 1970,” and which he expects to accelerate the breakdown of the global order as we know it. Today, in part 2, we examine the major global shifts in geopolitics that will result as the US moves into energy independence. Peter believes this will reshape global geopolitics, leading to three major conflicts. It is these conflicts we asked him to discuss in greater detail. We hope you enjoy the discussion.
GAVEKAL CAPITAL:We last left off discussing how the oil export ban could be rescinded if global geopolitical issues flare up. What are you on the lookout for?
PETER ZEIHAN:There are three big conflicts I see that could cause a major schism between what the US pays for oil and what the rest of the world pays for it. I’m talking about a potential global oil price of around $150 per barrel while the US pays only $50 per barrel thanks to shale oil in the US and a resumption of the ban on oil exports. The break-even cost in the United States is around $40. If you put the embargo back in place, you’ve got a functional ceiling on how high the price can be domestically. If shale overproduces and you can’t export the crude, then it’s a question of refining capacity which can’t be built out that quickly.
War number one is Russia vs Europe. The Russian demographic situation is already untenable and it’s moving into catastrophic. By the time we get to about 2020-2022, the size of the Russian army will be less than half of what it was last year. The post-Soviet Union baby bust was that sharp, so if they are going to use their military in an attempt to re-shape their world, they have to do it now. And in many ways they already are. Depending on which scenario plays out -I list several in my book -anywhere from two to seven million barrels per day of crude in the market goes offline. Former Soviet Union oil shipments are in danger in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Eastern Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Northeast Romania, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. That list is the entirety of Russia’s western energy exports. The Russians will either use oil as a political tool, or the targeted folks will say, “You’re not going to sell crude through us while you’re conquering us.” Either way it’s going offline. And because Russian energy production is in the permafrost it can’t be shut in safely. If you turn off the wells, they freeze solid and you have to re-drill them, so from the point that the Russians stop production in a field, it’s 10 years minimum to bring it back online.
One of the biggest mistakes I think people make when analyzing Russia is they don’t realize that the Russians are not thinking about money right now. The general consensus is that the Russians won’t do anything to disrupt the flow of oil because they need the oil income. That’s not how the Russians are thinking at all. Their current borders are completely unsustainable, and they only have a short window to do something about it. The Russians see the end of their country on the horizon, and they’d rather have that be 60 years from now than five years from now. There’s no route for withdrawal: they’ve got to get through to the Carpathians, the Caucasus and they’ve got to get to the Polish gap and the Baltic Sea.I believe Russia’s move to extend its border is going to fail, but if I were Putin right now, I wouldn’t have a better plan. And that will take, based on which scenario goes down, between two million and nine million barrels of crude offline, and five BCF and 12 BCF of natural gas.
GC:What do you think of the relationship between Trump and Putin?
PZ:For two men with egos as large and as fragile as Trump and Putin, I can’t imagine they’re going to get along for long. However, for 2017 both of them have a lot reasons to focus on other issues, so burying the hatchet for the moment makes a lot of sense. Also, the United States has no long-term rationale to get involved in a ground war with a nuclear-armed power who’s a shell of its former self, with nothing to lose and who is invading countries that aren’t even defending themselves. I expect the rhetoric to pick back up, but for 2017, I think it’s going to be pretty calm in bilateral relations. This will free up Russia to act more aggressively regionally. That means Ukraine is even more in play. That means breaking up the European Union. That means consolidating the former Soviet space. All of that is going to go into high gear this year and next.
GC:What’s Russia’s interest in breaking up Europe?
PZ:If the Europeans are squabbling –and it’s not a difficult task to get the Europeans to squabble –they can’t form a common front against the Russians unless they’re American-led. So if the Americans step back for their own reasons, and you can keep the Europeans at each other’s rhetorical throats, Russia can take advantage.
GC:What would be the bell that would ring that would announce to the world that Russia is on the move?
PZ:We have the French nationalists saying that the Russians are intervening in French national elections just like they did in the US. So the bells are ringing left, right and center. It’s happening. We’ve already had civil discontent in Latvia and Estonia caused by Russian efforts.
GC:Who goes to bat for these countries?
PZ:Well, if it’s not the United States, if you’re the Baltic countries, it’s Sweden. And I think they will. But Sweden can’t roll back the Russians by themselves. They can make it hurt like hell. For Poland, it’s Germany. The Poles just get the bad end of every stick throughout history, and they’re about to get another one. For Romania and the Caucasus, it might be Turkey. Although the Russians are doing everything they can to make sure that the Turks don’t want to get involved, and so far it’s working. Poland, plus Germany, plus the Scandinavians, plus the Brits are sufficient to roll the Russians back.
GC:Are you starting to see movement of personnel and material in anticipation of this?
PZ:All three of the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) have given up on conventional warfare. They have largely, for all practical purposes, disbanded their conventional militaries and they’re training their entire population in guerilla tactics. They know what’s coming. And the number one country to assist them with that is Sweden. The Finns are basically breaking out all their grandfathers’ equipment and getting ready for another Winter War.
GC:Geographically, is it easy to roll into the Baltic states and Poland?
PZ:Estonia and Latvia are nearly as easy to roll into as Poland. Lithuania is a little bit more difficult. There’s a lot of forest; it’s a bit more rugged. But rolling back the Russians on land has to be German-led, and the Germans don’t have an army right now. They’re the only ones who have the demography to potentially fill a force that could do it.
GC:What could Europe do that would be sufficient for Trump to want to get involved?
PZ:If they doubled defense spending in the next 12 months, that could at least get the conversation started. But if the free trade era is over, if Bretton Woods is over, why would you get involved if you are the US? It’s not a ridiculous position, even if Trump makes it sound that way sometimes.
GC:Does the US continue selling weapons to everyone?
PZ:Oh, of course, the US isn’t that crazy! The US will still pick sides, will still provide intelligence and might even rent out a bunch of drones. I don’t mean to suggest there’s no American role, but the idea of the US Army coming to the rescue, that’s off the table. As we discovered in Crimea, NATO’s rapid reaction divisions are only 500 troops each. In the aftermath of Crimea, only four divisions of 500 troops were sent. The US provided one, Canada provided one, Poland finally provided one, and the other one was all the other NATO counties put together.
GC:How many Russian troops are in Crimea, Ukraine, right now?
PZ:It is tough to know exactly but I’d say at least 15,000 Russian troops are in Crimea. On paper, the Russian military is still basically a million-man army. They are not, man for man, nearly as good as American troops, but they’re better than Spanish troops or Italian troops or Polish troops. In order for Russia to pull this off they probably need at least 100,000 troops. You’re talking about two million square miles and 70 million people. You’re not going to do that with 10,000 people.
GC:This is going to take a massive mobilization effort on Russia’s part, right?
PZ: Well, the mobilization won’t take as long as you’d think because there’s already at least 25,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, not counting the ones that aren’t officially in Ukraine proper.
That process has already started. The Ukrainian military has basically been decapitated. You haven’t heard a lot about Ukraine recently because the Russians sent in a few special forces troops to bait the Ukrainians to send out their own best troops –their American-led, American-equipped troops –to the front. Then Russia used regular army and air force to kill all the commanders of all the best units. So all that Ukraine has left now are reservists. When the war comes, unless the Ukrainians resist to the last man, the regular, organized resistance is already over. It’s just a matter of how fast do the Russians want to push into Kiev.
Now, once they get to Kiev and the bridges over the Dnieper River, you enter a slightly different sort of war because you move into Western Ukraine which is not a Russified Ukraine. You’re more likely to have civilian resistance in Western Ukraine. But that first half, if that takes a month, I’d be really surprised. Belarus will welcome Russia in, and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania combined are only six million people. Moldova can’t manage political opposition to Russia, and the Russians already have an active military base with 10,000 troops. So that just leaves Romania. If Romania and Poland are the great hope for the West in this war, then it is not looking good.
GC:Do you think that war starts this year?
PZ:I don’t know when it will officially begin, but with the way the political relationship is going, and with what I think is about to happen in Europe, it’s a golden opportunity. The Russians can’t maintain this tempo with the demographic situation for very long so the sooner they start it, the better. If you start it before the Europeans start to function like nation-states again, and if the Americans have already exited stage left, it’s a perfect opportunity. Once the ball gets rolling, this will take several years to play out. I think maybe the end play for Russia is to get the Germans to say, “Okay, you can have Ukraine, but you can’t have Poland. Okay, you can have Belarus, but you can’t have Poland. Okay, you can have Estonia, but you can’t have Poland. What? You took Poland? You can’t have Romania.” That’s basically what the Russians are hoping for. It’s not a stupid plan. That would be their preferred path. And it’s worked before. “Okay, you can have Eastern Poland but we draw the line at Western Poland.” That’s World War II.
GC: What is war number two?
PZ:So Russia vs. Europe starts on its own, not over energy security but energy is a clear casualty. Conflict number two is Iran vs. Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. If the Americans remove themselves from keeping those two powers apart because America no longer cares about keeping oil flows out of the Persian Gulf safe then those two countries fall into direct competition. Eventually, that competition turns into an attempted Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia.
GC: How does that play out?
PZ: There’s a 300-mile desert gap between Kuwait and the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, and it’s not clear that the Iranians can make it across. What the Saudis are doing right now in Yemen is target practice for that, they’re preparing, learning to use their military equipment, particularly their air force, to turn that northern desert buffer into a kill zone. Right now, they are doing it pretty well. Will it be enough? I don’t know. The Saudis would rather not face a war at all, but they know that in a post-Bretton Woods world, without American protection, over time the Iranians will bury them. So just as the Russians feel that they’re on a limited time scale to create more sustainable borders, the Saudis feel they’re on a limited time scale to crush Iran. The 2015-2016 oil price war then wasn’t really about shale, it was about Persia. And to be perfectly blunt, it hasn’t worked as well as the Saudis hoped.
GC: So will the Saudis try to develop nuclear weapons?
PZ: No, if it comes to that, Saudi Arabia will just buy them. They can get them from Pakistan and that conversation has already happened. Pakistan has 150 nuclear weapons, and if they can sell them for $1 billion a pop, they are happy to do it. The Saudis are already providing them with subsidized oil in order to make sure that those lines of communication never close. Assuming no one else gets caught in the crossfire, that’s potentially another 11 million barrels per day of crude off the market when these two countries go at it. And if other countries get caught in the crossfire, it goes up to 20 million barrels per day. So the Persian Gulf is War #2.
GC: Is it connected or disconnected from the Russian war?
PZ: Disconnected. It could start any time, it could start tomorrow. When the Iranians realize what the Saudis are up to and that it can kill them, that’s when this war begins. The Syrian war has taken a turn that is relatively pro-Iranian recently, so Iran isn’t feeling stressed. A year ago, it was going a very different direction. ISIS is probably the calmest, kindest sort of group that the Saudis will form over the next few years because it is proving that it wasn’t enough. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Saudis are pulling the strings of ISIS; they just formed it and then let it go off on its own. And as long as ISIS is killing Persians and Persian allies, the Saudis are totally fine with it. And the Saudis will form more groups, they’ve probably already formed a hundred groups in the last six years alone. Most of them are fighting in Syria but not exclusively, some of those groups like Jundallah are already in Iran.
GC: What is the third war?
PZ: The third war is dependent on one of the first two: it doesn’t matter which one happens first, either one will trigger the third war. If you have an oil shortage anywhere in the world — because Russia is on the move toward Europe or because Iran is invading Saudi Arabia — energy security and availability for the rest of the world becomes a question of transport routes. The world’s longest, most vulnerable transport routes are from the Persian Gulf to Northeast Asia. Based on whichever country you are in, that’s anywhere from 5,000 to 7,500 miles. If you have a shortage anywhere, Northeast Asia has to eat the entirety of the shortage because they are furthest from the wells. And, worst of all is that there’s not enough to go around for the Koreans, the Taiwanese, the Chinese and the Japanese. Somebody has to go without, and the country that goes without is the country that cannot physically defend crude oil on a convoy route from the Persian Gulf all the way home. So the third conflict is an Asian tanker war, and that triggers all kinds of different results.
GC: Who will be the winners and losers of the tanker war?
PZ: The countries that have the longest reach, like Japan, will probably be able to protect their transport routes the whole way so they should be OK. Japan has by far the strongest navy in that region of the world. Countries that have a deep and abiding experience at bribing people, such as Korea and Taiwan, will probably pay India to fly cover for them for the first part of the trip through the Indian Ocean. This could work out for them, but it comes with a lot of risks. The Chinese have a serious problem with naval power projection and are going to have to establish bases closer to the oil source. That means China will probably have to invade chunks of Vietnam and the Philippines so that they can turn the South China Sea into an internal lake. If they successfully do that, then that’s a 1,000 miles less they have to worry about transporting and protecting their energy supply.
Ultimately though, I would expect the Chinese to lose the tanker war because of how much oil they need and their relative lack of naval strength. I think the tanker war will be the shortest of the three wars, but it’ll be the most colorful, because it basically breaks down the entire structure that has sustained Northeast Asia’s economic ascension for the last 60 years.
By the end of these wars, I would expect us to see around $50 oil in the US, $150 oil in Paris and over $200 oil in Beijing (assuming any crude can make it to Beijing at all). The whole supply chain model that has made East Asia successful for the last 50 years will be gone. All that manufacturing capacity has to relocate, or because of the global demographic breakdown and the energy crisis, all that capacity may just disappear because of lack of demand.
Peter Zeihanis the best-selling author of “The Accidental Superpower.”
Article by Gavekal Capital