Central Asia, North America

When Autonomous Vehicles Leave The Nest

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but she is no sole provider. The US military has long been Necessity’s devoted husband. As the happy couple is now reaching its eighteenth anniversary since settling down for a life together in Afghanistan, it may be that the children of this extended sabbatical – namely, autonomous vehicles – will soon finally move out into the world on their own terms. Quite possibly, they will rebel against their loving parents.

The main characteristic of autonomous vehicles is the ability to travel where human drivers cannot comfortably, safely, or cheaply go themselves. Some examples include small autonomous trucks operating in mountainous areas, large autonomous trucks crossing deserts, autonomous boats accessing islands where no good ports exist, and aircraft using JPADS (Joint Precision Airdrop System) invented in Afghanistan in recent years to deliver cargo to areas that would otherwise be inaccessible as a result of natural disasters, natural barriers, or war.

These inventions may have two huge effects. First, they may help to overthrow the tyranny of Necessity, easing the transportation of basic necessities in poor countries in a way similar to what mobile phones have been doing for communication. Second, they may undermine the dominant position of the US, by empowering large, strategically located countries that have until now been limited by those very same barriers autonomous vehicles may help to overcome.

Five world regions stand out here, as areas where autonomous vehicles could be especially impactful.

One is the Latin world, particularly the Spanish world, which is characterized by mountains, rainforests, deserts, and narrow seas like the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Another is the Arctic, with its air, land, and icy sea routes linking Asia, America, and Europe, encompassing large expanses of remote, resource-rich territory. A third region is Southeast Asia, with its islands and peninsulas from Taiwan to Australia, and jungles, Himalayas, and sky-high plateaus between India and China. Fourth, the vast, vibranium-rich heartlands of Africa: from the ten Great Lake countries (including Ethiopia) in the south and east, to the ten Saharan countries in the north and west.

But perhaps most important is the “Greater Middle East”: the Islamic world from Central Asia to Central Africa, spanning deserts, seas, and mountains, and sitting atop a sea of oil that will probably continue to be necessary to power any autonomous vehicles – or, at least, power any autonomous aircraft. Particularly well-situated may be the oil-rich Gulf states, such as Iraq, and the mountainous Central Asian ones, such as Afghanistan. This would be an interesting turn – one the one hand, it might actually help fulfil America’s dream of bringing democracy to the Middle East; on the other hand, it might help fulfil America’s nightmare of Islam re-emerging as a global political force.

This would be nothing new, however. Mobile phones were invented during the Vietnam War era, yet they have since empowered Communist China more than any other major state (if also, arguably, helping to de-radicalize China). Britain invented railroads during the years between its wars with the US, only to see the US empowered by railroads more than any other major power, and inherit Britain’s leading status. (Railroads also helped to de-radicalize the US: by linking America’s Northeast and Midwest they undermined the South, which had previously enjoyed influence in the Midwest by way of sailing up the Mississippi). Just as Necessity is not a single mother, Invention is no only child. Rather it has two siblings, born just moments after humanity’s first and greatest tool was invented, when its inventor accidentally burnt himself celebrating. Invention’s siblings are Illumination, and Irony.









Central Asia, Europe, Images, Middle East

Image of the Day, November 24, 2015: Turkish-Russian Geopolitics


(above — Black Sea drainage basin; below — Volga river drainage basin)



Russian-Turkish Geopolitics:

The economies of Russia and Ukraine depend on exporting bulk goods like oil, coaliron oregrainuranium, and manufactured goods. The easiest way for Russia and Ukraine to transport these goods is via ship or barge rather than by truck or train, for a number of reasons:

  • ships are generally the most efficient way of moving bulk goods long distances
  • the railways of Russia and Ukraine use a different gauge than those of other European countries and so do not directly connect to one another in most cases
  • most of the import markets for grain are in North Africa, the Middle East, or South Asia, and most of the import markets for goods like coal, iron ore, and Russian-made or Ukrainian-made weapons are in Asia
  • relying on land transport would make Russia and Ukraine dependent on Eastern and Central European nations like Poland, Romania, Italy, and especially Germany. It might also make Russia reliant on Ukraine or Belarus, which sit in between Russia and European markets.
  • The Volga-Don river system (the two rivers are connected to one another via a canal, next to Volgograd – formerly Stalingrad – which solves the problem of the Volga flowing into the landlocked Caspian Sea) is where nine of Russia’s sixteen largest cities are located, including Moscow
  • The Volga and Don rivers in Russia and the Dnieper and Dniester rivers in Ukraine are wide, deep, long, and relatively slow-flowing, and as such can be used by large vessels. Moreover, their extreme width – they are often about 5 km across, and far wider than that in many places – has made building bridges across them expensive, further constraining land transport alternatives.The Volga and Dnieper are especially visible in the satellite image below:

Russia and Ukraine have two main options for their water transport: via the Baltic Sea or via the Black Sea. The Baltic route has a number of crucial limitations too:

  • Ukraine does not border it directly, and Russia barely borders it directly
  • It generally freezes over a lot during the winter, particularly the Gulf of Finland where Russia’s main access to it, next to St Petersburg, is located
  • The populations of Russia and Ukraine mainly live in areas where the rivers flow towards the Black Sea rather than the Baltic
  • Accessing the Atlantic Sea via the Baltic would make Russia dependent on Baltic Sea powers like Germany, the Scandinavians, and perhaps even Poland, Finland, or Britain
  • The Baltic is an extraordinarily out-of-the-way route for exporting grain to the Middle East and Asia, or other goods and commodities to Asia
  • Most of landlocked central and eastern Russia and all of Russia’s sphere of influence in Central Asia are located much closer to the Black Sea than to the Baltic

If Russia and Ukraine are to use the Black Sea to reach international markets, however, they must be able to ensure passage through the gulfs on either side of the Crimean Peninsula, as well as through the narrow Turkish Straits next to Istanbul and through the Aegean Sea occupied by Turkey, Greece, and the Greek islands. Given that in recent years Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine, involved itself militarily in south-eastern Ukraine, and built up the area around Sochi along the Black Sea, while at the same time Turkey’s economy has expanded and Greece’s has practically collapsed, the relationship between the Russians and the Turks has now become of particularly great importance.

Some other Turkish-Russian issues to watch:

  • The Syrian Civil War, which Russia has entered into more directly in recent weeks, and in which Russia and Turkey generally find one another on opposite sides
  • Turkey has become Russia’s main vacation destination. With Russia’s population aging and desiring to get away from Russia’s dark, cold, long winters, and with the recent Sinai peninsula attack on the Russian plane flying out of the resort haven of Sharm el Sheik threatening Russian tourism to Egpyt, which is Russia’s second largest vacation destination, this is a big issue.
  • More than 10 percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, and Russia also has a sphere of influence in Muslim Central Asia, in resource-rich Turkic countries like Kazakstan (where very large numbers of Russians live), Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
  • Turkey wants to wean itself off its dependence on importing Russian energy, and then eventually supplant Russia as Europe’s energy supplier by connecting European markets to the energy producers in the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, and Central Asia
  • Turkey and Russia have both historically wanted influence in Bulgaria, a Slavic Christian Orthodox country, and Greece, a Christian Orthodox country. Russia has  looked to these countries as a source of leverage over Turkey, since the city of Istanbul is exposed to the borders of both and reliant on passage through the Greek Aegean. Bulgaria and Greece could also provide Russia with a winter vacation destination and, if intermodal transportation can become more efficient, a way to access the Mediterranean without passing through the Turkish Straits.
  • The Balkans continues to have tensions between Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim groups – with the Orthodox closer to Russia and the Muslim ones to Turkey – and between Slavic and non-Slavic groups. Meanwhile, the Caucasus continue to have serious tensions between Christian Armenia, which is close to Russia and despises Turkey, and Turkic Muslim Azerbaijan, which is close to Turkey. Turkey and Russia are also the only two countries apart from Azerbaijan and Armenia to border Georgia, and in the past Russia has accused Georgia and Turkey of helping groups in the Russian Caucasus in places like Chechnya.