A resurgent, ambitious Russia has taken the West by surprise, just when the United States was pivoting and bracing itself to face down China.
BUENOS AIRES — After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the biggest disruption of the Cold War was when communist China's ruler, Mao Zedong, received U.S. President Richard Nixon in Beijing. The diplomatic event was a bold, calculated gamble by the Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to divide the communist block, and paved the way for the Soviet Union's geopolitical depreciation. It also helped the United States mitigate its recent defeat in and withdrawal from Vietnam.
Has another, similar geo-strategic disruption just happened? Everything suggests there is an objective alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's leader, Xi Jinping. And this may push the United States into a trap to which it has itself helped set, with a string of mistakes that began all the way back with the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
Both the Republicans and Democrats have had mistaken assumptions. They thought Russia could not rebuild itself, and China would participate in a 'Sino-American' epoch of unstoppable progress toward free-market capitalism and democracy.
Putin has energy problem
From President Barack Obama and onward, U.S. foreign policy pivoted toward containing China, and giving priority to Asia. Europe and Russia were seen as regional powers, absent from the global, strategic chessboard. Washington came to see NATO as an aging alliance and Russia, a power in decline.
Policymakers overlooked the fact that Russia and China have a similar foreign-policy culture based on premises laid out by the historical leader of communist rule, Vladimir Lenin. Dissuade your enemies from acting, he propounded, divide them, take them to the brink of conflict, and from the weak democracies, extract concessions.
Putin has more a sense of urgency.
The broad idea is to win without fighting. The war must be won before it is engaged, and today this means murky methods, hybrid and cyber warfare. Evidently these are all feasible, in the absence of an international system to regulate crises.
The Sino-Russia alliance is also aided by differing timelines. China is taking its time as it pressures Taiwan. Putin however is moved by more a sense of urgency, as Russia's economic and demographic decline cannot be hidden.
There is a deadline to the age of fossil fuels, and Putin has yet to assure the country's energy transition. In China, the Communist Party rules while Russia is governed with a mix of authoritarianism and crony capitalism. While Xi entertains a more cogent goal, of unifying China and Taiwan, the dream of reconstituting the Soviet sphere is highly problematic.
Chinese President Xi Jinping holds a virtual meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on Dec. 15, 2021
At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin announced an action plan to which his audience paid little attention: rebuild the geopolitics of the Cold War. The plan has been unfolding in the invasions of Georgia and the Ukraine (2008 and 2014), and in Russia's recent mediation in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Putin sees his political stability as tied to the project for a "Greater Russia." This is epitomized in his ambition to redefine the post-Cold War order, and includes the "Finlandization" of certain states, which are once more to become satellites beholden to Russia.
Putin wants NATO to return to its 1997 limits. That means 11 European states and NATO members abandoning the alliance and entering a gray zone, with Russian troops on their borders. The United States must also commit itself not to expand NATO nor station troops in those lands, including Ukraine but also Baltic and eastern European states. It is a throwback to the world of the Soviet heydey, which preceded its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
To attain this goal, Russia must break the Atlantic alliance and sideline Europe as an international actor, which is why it has sought to negotiate directly with Washington, as it did in the Cold War. U.S. President Joe Biden cannot accept this ultimatum. Without assuring their security, the U.S. would be left without their European allies.
Beijing is the main rival
Likewise, its policy of containing China in Asia would fall apart. Without NATO, lesser alliances like QUAD (United States, India, Japan and Australia) or AUKUS become useless, and would pave the way for Chinese supremacy in Asia. This makes the Sino-Russian alliance an insurmountable element of the global equation.
What are the scenarios before Europe? Washington cannot accept the Russian ultimatum, but only discuss certain, minor aspects like arms supplies to Ukraine. America's short-term options are also limited to imposing sanctions on Russia and urgently working to free Europe from its gas dependency on Russia — a German legacy. In the absence of European strategic sovereignty, the United States is unready for military involvement in Ukraine.
Turkey is the one country that can dispute Russia's regional predominance.
A possible way out here is through Turkmenistan. It too wants to depend less on Russia and China, which it could do with a pipeline to export its gas to Europe through the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Turkey. The three states have observed events in Kazakhstan with unease, and Turkey is the one country that can dispute Russia's regional, military and economic predominance.
For the Biden administration, economic pressures and a threatened return of Trumpist conservatism have forced it to choose its priority with realism. It has decided that only Taiwan must be defended, and the real threat is in Beijing, not Moscow.
*Pérez Llana is an international affairs specialist and former Argentinian ambassador to France.