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America's campaign against Vladimir Putin will hand China an easy victory

President Biden's tirade against Putin may well be designed to secure the best possible deal in eventual negotiation.

March 27, 2021 / 10:01 AM IST
Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Inside his prison cell in the castle of Landsberg am Lech, held for his role in the failed Beer Hall putsch against the Republic, Adolf Hitler drew a map for rebuilding the eternal glory of his fallen race: “If the German people wants to terminate a condition of threatening extermination in Europe”, he wrote in 1926, “then it must not fall into the errors of the pre-War period, and make enemies of everybody in the world, but it must recognise the most dangerous enemy, in order to strike him with all its concentrated force”.

Fifteen years later, the armies of the Third Reich struck east against the Soviet Union. In 1939, conscious of the need to avoid a two-front war, Hitler had signed a treaty with the Soviets, as he began a war with Poland that would draw in France and Great Britain.

Now, he ignored his own counsel—and not without reason. War against Great Britain had stalemated; it was a matter of time before the United States, with its gargantuan industrial base, entered the conflict. Germany needed to grab Soviet resources to fight the long war which would follow. The Soviets, moreover, had begun to mass forces in Poland, in preparation for what archives suggest was preemptive attack against the Nazis.

Hoping to beat history to the punch, Hitler unleashed his armies into the Soviet Union. The gamble failed: Nazi Germany ended up at war with all its enemies, not some.

As President Joe Biden seeks to craft a new world order, the story is worth reflecting on. In recent weeks, Biden has made clear he intends to push back against China’s rising power in Asia. But Biden has simultaneously cracked down on the United States’ other great geopolitical competitor, Russia, sanctioning officials Washington alleges are responsible for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. In curiously Trumpian language, Biden has described Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, as “a killer”.

For New Delhi, a second Cold War against Russia will have no small implications. Even though India’s imports of Russian military equipment have halved in value over the last decade, Moscow is a critical partner in everything from combat jets to missiles and nuclear submarines. Indeed, New Delhi’s purchase of the Russian S400 system, critical to India’s air defence, might invite United States sanctions.

The capital that should be most worried, though, isn’t New Delhi. Washington should be asking itself: Can the United States really oppose both China and Russia at the same time? Is forcing its two most powerful adversaries into an ever-closer alliance in fact in the United States’ interests? If not, which of the two is its more important adversary?

Humiliation and hubris set the stage for the fraught relationship between Russia and the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia initially set about cultivating a closer relationship with the victorious West.  In essence, Russia sought an arrangement which would enmesh it in the system of power built by the United States in Europe, represented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Moscow, though, sought to retain influence over its own near-neighbourhood.

From the mid-1990s, though, NATO began to drift eastwards, encompassing former Soviet satellites in eastern Europe, like Poland and the Baltic states. For a cross-section of Russian leaders, this represented an existential threat to the country’s status as a regional power. The anxieties were fuelled by the long and brutal war against Islamists in Chechnya, which raised the spectre of the splintering of Russia.

Liberal opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky famously declared in 1998: “Talk that this is a different NATO, a NATO that is no longer a military alliance, is ridiculous. It is like saying that the hulking thing advancing towards your garden is not a tank because it is painted pink, carries flowers, and plays cheerful music. It does not matter how you dress it up; a pink tank is still a tank."

Events came to head in 2014, when a mass movement deposed Ukraine’s democratically elected, and pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich. The Kremlin believed that the United States had sponsored the uprising against Yanukovich. Now, Putin responded with force, annexing the Crimea and Donbass regions of Ukraine.

In the years that followed, Russia-United States relations degenerated into a kind of low-grade warfare, characterised by threats, sanctions and cyber-conflict—most spectacularly, the propaganda campaign alleged to have facilitated former President Donald Trump’s victory.

Like the United States and its allies, Russia had no reason to welcome Chinese hegemony in Asia. The course of events, though, left Moscow with very little choice.

His reflexes conditioned by years of bruising confrontation with Russia, Biden—cheered on by human-rights organisations which want American foreign policy to be shaped by moral concerns—might see this as a good time to settle unfinished business. There are several reasons to doubt the wisdom of this course. First, there is no reason to believe that the United States can, or will be able to, secure regime change in Moscow. Like China’s President Xi Jinping, Putin’s political position is secure. His opponents—a patchwork of genuine liberals, disgruntled business interests and the racist right—are divided amongst themselves.

Efforts to contain Russian power have, secondly, showed no great results. Putin has, through Russia’s relatively successful military intervention in Syria, succeeded in expanding his country’s global influence. Even though European Union and United States sanctions have hurt the Russian economy, it shows no signs of collapse. There is, simply, no sign that Russian might is in decline.

Thirdly, several key United States allies across the world have strategic ties to Russia. Even in the face of sanctions threats, President Angela Merkel has continued to push for the Nord Stream 2 project, which would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. Vietnam, a key partner for both the United States and India, sees Russia’s power as an important hedge against China’s influence.

In the past, ideological revulsion didn’t stop the United States from strategic engagement with its adversaries. Even at the height of the Cold War—as both sides threatened each other with nuclear weapons, and engaged in proxy wars—leaders of both the two great powers saw the wisdom of remaining engaged. Indeed, the eventual United States victory in the Cold War rested on its adroit use of the schism between two states it was ideologically opposed to, China and Russia.

Likely, President Biden understands this. His tirade against Putin may well be designed to secure the best possible deal in eventual negotiation. But the longer Biden delays engagement, the harder it will become to put crack the cement joining China and Russia.

To step back from this mutually damaging geopolitical confrontation will not be easy. The United States will have to carefully consider the limits of how far east its power should reach in Europe; Russia, to rethink the costs and consequences of confrontation with the West.

From the times of the Peloponnesian wars in classical Greece, on to Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte’s march on Moscow and Nazi Germany’s war on the Soviet Union, wars of many fronts rarely turn out well. America and its allies are unlikely to be served by ignoring this lesson.

Praveen Swami
first published: Mar 27, 2021 10:01 am