The original Great Game was the conflict between the British and Russian empires, played out in the territories of Central Asia. The new Great Game seems to be between the European Union and Russia, with the rest of the world's great powers looking on: the USA, China, India. Fossil fuels are central.
I spent an hour online last night, discussing the geopolitics with a German-American, who is all for US intervention. She has a point: we don't want Russian imperialism—and it probably is that—to go unchecked. Juan Cole points out that Turkey is surrounded by Ukraine, Syria, and Iran. After reading that, and thinking some more about it, I spent time looking at the Google Earth globe and imagining a giant Go board, stretching from the Ukraine to Indonesia.
We seem to be back in the multipolar world, where great powers dream of empire and radicals dream of global federalism. I don't think we get to withdraw from the game without dire consequences. And climate change is the game timer.
Tug of PipelineVisualize a vast tug-of-war, with a whole crowd of creatures on the west and a bear on the east. Instead of rope, imagine natural gas pipelines, and most of those knotted together in the Ukraine.
Ukraine was the origin of the Soviet national gas industry in the 1920s. Ukraine's fossil fuel economy has grown hugely since then, and Ukraine into a nexus of pipelines and a home to refineries and gas storage facilities. The pipelines cross the country, carrying fuel from east to west.
Russia, because of this and because of its port on the Black Sea and its agricultural productivity, not unnaturally wants to control Ukraine. The European Union, fearing dependence on Russian gas supplies, not unnaturally wants to control Ukraine. There are some fine points, which Jerome a Paris (presumably a pseudonym) spells out in Ukraine vs Russia: Tales of pipelines and dependence.
Russia has twice forced genocidal famines on Ukraine, first in 1921-2 under Lenin and again in 1932-3 under Stalin. The Ukrainian people, because of this, and because of a longer history of oppression, hate Russia. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych apparently sold out to Russia, and partly because of this Yanukovych is now a hunted man.
And, where does Russia fit in? It appears that stories of emergent fascism in Ukraine are Russian disinformation (in this connection, it is perhaps useful to remember that Vladimir Putin was for many years a KGB officer.) There is a fascist faction in Ukraine but, so far, it is not in charge. When asking about fascism, however, I ask where it is that the government has chosen a group to oppress, and put the full power of the state behind that oppression. And that is Russia, with its tormenting of gays.
And yet the geopolitics will not be denied. Europe wants gas. Russia has gas. Ukraine is in the middle. It seems to me that we are returning to the global order of the 19ᵗʰ century. The world is again multipolar, and we must again think both of the local struggles and how these influence the relations among the great powers, and states caught between the great powers must step carefully. Where now are the great statesmen? Who will step forward to play the great game again? How do we avoid the end of the first great game, which was global war, and the drowning of our civilization in the rising seas of a warming planet?