Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Little Wars with Russia and Iran

We'll take a quick break from battle lines to look at the "little wars" going on between US/allies and Russia/Iran. Much like during the Cold War, we're seeing regional military action that threatens regional escalation as outside powers become more involved.


Shelling from rebels in Ukraine has started back up (using rocket launchers and tanks that are both banned and were-never-there-in-the-first-place), which we predicted after Minsk II: the deal with Russia caused successful withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from key areas--especially Mariupol, which is next on the rebel/Russian list of targets. Unsurprisingly, the shelling is happening in Shyrokyne (along with reported rebel presence and gunfire exchanges), just east of Mariupol.

Ukraine requested EU peacekeepers; they have been refused. But Poland and the US continue to reassure Kyiv that they will provide support. The US recently deployed anti-air batteries to eastern Ukraine and says it will keep sanctions on Russia until it has completely fulfilled Minsk II.

Even more interesting: Finland spotted what might be a Russian submarine off its coast in its territorial waters, and dropped depth charges with the intent of scaring it off. Sweden did the same in October.

This is another sign, along with continued military exercises near Estonia, that Russia is testing Western resolve and may be intending to create a clearer "sphere of influence" at its border areas where Western military powers cannot operate. Finland and Sweden aren't part of NATO and, like Ukraine, don't have that military umbrella (though unlike Ukraine, they are part of the EU and therefore have more standing to request help). Unlike Ukraine, their militaries are formidable and they do not have restive Russian populations, so don't expect an invasion any time soon; but there may be a rising conflict over the Baltic sea as Russia tries to expand its sphere.


Last week, US carrier Theodore Roosevelt moved to the coast of Yemen in order to turn away Iranian cargo ships likely carrying arms for Houthi rebels. The ships were deterred, meaning the US now has a partial blockade of Yemen and has for all purposes entered the conflict. Roosevelt has moved back to the Persian Gulf, but the point seems to have been made. 

Iran has responded.

For reasons not yet clear, 5 Iranian combat vessels intercepted a US (Marshal Islands) cargo vessel heading into the Strait of Hormuz, demanding it move towards Iran. After the cargo ship refused, Iran fired warning shots across its bow, and then escorted the ship into Iranian waters and boarded it.

The Strait of Hormuz is a free-go zone (it's all Iranian territorial water but is subject to innocent passage law). The ship may have moved closer to the shore than Iran may have liked, but typical protocol is to demand that such a ship leave, not come closer. So it's interesting behavior.

The US has sortied jets and a destroyer to the area to "monitor." 

American forces aren't likely to open fire or create a direct confrontation, but Iran now has 34 crew members held hostage. It may be a muscle-flexing strategy or Iran may be looking for a negotiating chip of some sort in its standoff with the US over Yemen.

It's the most direct conflict the US and Iran have had in the past few years. At the very least, Iran is making clear that it has no intent to be pushed around by the US, but the Obama administration is unlikely to respond to this by capitulating on Iranian arms shipments to Yemen.

Expect a simmering conflict here, as well.

Little Wars

Like in the Cold War, these "little wars" are unlikely to escalate into major superpower conflict--it's something nobody wants and something that's hard to back down from once started. 

The risk is that Iran and Russia are so inundated in comically-absurd propaganda that it might be politically difficult to save face if backing away from conflict, so these escalations must be managed very carefully.

This will be a longer-term trend over the next decade--the US' "war focus" is likely to shift to an ongoing cold war with Iran and Russia as its attention leaves Afghanistan and Iraq. Once ISIS is pushed out of Iraq and negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban are complete, the US will have its hands newly quite full with Russia and Iran.

But that is likely going to be a problem that comes to a head during the next administration.

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