This month marks the conclusion of my first decade teaching at Staff College. In that time, I can think of two years that stand-out as containing fundamentally unexpected events, that have caused quite drastic adjustments to what I talk about when I teach. Those years were 2011 – the year of the Arab Spring – and 2014 – the year of the rise of ‘Islamic State’ and the Russo-Ukraine conflict.
I’m no fan of making predictions at the arbitrary moment most humans have decided is the beginning of a new 365-day long period of time. And I’m not going to do that here. Rather, I am going to highlight important issues that I think will dominate global affairs for the year ahead.
The Oil Price
Like most, I’m delighted to be able to fill my car with petrol for less than £50, but I find it simultaneously odd that I able to do so when there are so many international crises ongoing. Traditionally, unrest in the Middle East and/or Russia have elevated oil prices, yet, at the time of writing, the oil price is $52.69 per barrel, which is nearly half what it was a year ago.
Whilst this will make the average person feel much richer in the short-term, it will surely continue to have a terrible impact on oil-dependent economies. Of those, the most worrisome remains. The Ruble has recovered somewhat from its December low, but it still remains very weak ($1 will buy R58.51 at time of writing).
The Russian economy now looks as though it will enter a prolonged recession – if not a depression – as GDP is expected to contract in 2015 by 0.8%. This is at least in part the result of Western sanctions over Russian military activity in Eastern Ukraine, but prolonged economic malaise is likely to drive President Vladimir Putin to take drastic action to shore up his own popularity in Russia. So, a continued low oil price will likely have significant implications for Russian military aggression in 2015.
Moreover, Russia is not alone in suffering as a result of the low oil price. Should oil continue to fall, then the gas price will surely follow suit, and eventually, the cost of ‘fracking’ will outweigh the benefits of the controversial technique for extracting shale gas. A low oil price might well have implications for Iran, as the new regime seeks to improve relations with the West.
Afghanistan: Confluence, not Graveyard, of Empires
The end of 2014 saw the end of the NATO operation in Afghanistan, although a significant Western presence remains in the country. Having said that, the notion of an Indo-Pakistani proxy war commencing in Afghanistan has long been mooted amongst experts and armchair strategists. It seems entirely possible in 2015 that such a proxy war might well emerge. Pakistan remains deeply troubled by the prospect of India gaining economic and political precedence in Afghanistan.
In such light, the strategic significance of Afghanistan can be more easily witnessed. Inaccurately portrayed as the ‘graveyard of empires’, the country has long been the confluence of several major empires and this remains the case today. Afghanistan is not just in Pakistan and India’s ‘backyard’, but shares a border with Iran and China, and is also a strategic concern for Russia.
Although Afghanistan might recede in importance for the West, its stability – or lack thereof – will likely remain a critical concerns for a number of global powers in 2015. In this sense, Afghanistan will re-capture the geopolitical importance it possessed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This should mean that economic investment comes to the fore, but if competing powers vie for dominance in the region then the sort of proxy war envisaged for the last decade might take hold.
This time last year, only regional experts had heard of what was then known as ISIS, and few would have appreciated its potential to wrest control of large areas of Iraq and Syria. Military intervention by an alliance of Western and Arab states have arrested the expansion of IS, but the prospect remains for similar ideological expansion in 2015 as occurred in the second half of 2014.
The infamous Nigerian Islamists Boko Haram recently declared their own caliphate, and there are increasing concerns that the separatist Uighurs in Xinjiang province of China might follow a similar route.
Meanwhile, the situation in Iraq and Syria will remain a cause for concern. It is difficult to see how Iraq can continue as a stable political entity, and many experts perceive the break-up of the state in the near future, with an independent Kurdistan likely to emerge as a result. How Turkey will react to such a situation is also troubling.
On a different note, 2014 was an important year for the historical commemoration of past conflicts. 2015 sees just as many significant anniversaries. The 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo will be commemorated with a re-enactment of the writing and delivery of the famous Waterloo Dispatch, along with a special service of commemoration in St. Paul’s Cathedral on 18 June. On the battlefield itself, the biggest ever re-enactment of the battle will take place, to which an estimated 60,000 spectators are expected to attend.
The ongoing remembrance of the First World War will see commemorations of the Battle of Loos and Gallipoli, among others. After the initial hope that the war would be over by Christmas 1914, this was the year that saw the settling in to bloody trench warfare. Having said that, considerable innovation and adaptation was to take place on both sides of no-man’s land. For British forces, in particular, the idea of a ‘land-ship’ began to germinate.
Although the hundredth anniversary of the First World War will undoubtedly dominate thoughts, it is also important to remember that 2015 marks the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and with it, the emergence of the world into the Nuclear Age.
These are just some of the hot potatoes that Defence-in-Depth will be tackling in the year ahead, as part of the Defence Studies Department’s efforts to bring you cutting-edge research and expert analysis, both historical and contemporary, on the issues behind and influencing Defence.