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Sacrificing the Russian Threat to the Chinese God
Biden is following a large consensus that pretty much all resources must be allocated against China. That's a recipe for disaster.
Warning: A lot of throat-clearing before I get to the Russia part of the argument. Bear with me! (Speaking of bearing, this is totally unrelated, but I need to get it off my chest. There has been a controversy surrounding the use of “birthing people” instead of mothers. I won’t get into the culture war here because this is not the place for it. As a grammar “enthusiast,” however, I just would like to point out that birth is the noun for bearing. Grammatically, it should be “bearing people,” not “birthing people.” But then, what are they bearing? So I guess it should be embryo-bearing people. As you could tell, my mind is a rabbit hole caused by untreated and severe ADHD!)
I was planning on covering Zapad—I will next week—but I realized that I need to make a more important point first before I could get to Zapad. Last week’s botched rollout of the AUKUS military alliance reiterated a message that the Joe Biden administration has been signaling: There are no second priorities; there is only one priority, and that is China. (For those interested, I wrote my column last week on AUKUS. Check it out here: Four Things to Know About the New U.S.-U.K.-Australia Submarine Deal.)
Only a fool would dismiss China’s threat to the global order and the United States, but I purposefully named this newsletter “The Russia-Iran File” because I am very worried about dismissing Russia and Iran, as well as other and more minor threats, to focus on China. And I need to make a confession. When I say “The Russia-Iran File,” what I really mean is “The Europe-Greater-Middle-East-File.”
Back to Biden and Russia! President Biden met with Vladimir Putin earlier this year for a summit. The administration officials said in the background that the objective was to achieve “strategic stability.” (Expect a newsletter soon about the misuse and abuse of the term strategic, especially as it relates to nuclear weapons.) This means was that they want Russia to behave so the United States could focus on China. Listen, if President Biden could achieve this objective, I will name my pet unicorn after him.
One definition of a superpower is a state that can break international rules and get away with it. As we stand today, Vladimir Putin is occupying two foreign countries, Georgia and Ukraine—and a third country, which is Russia. If that is not getting away with norms-breaking, what is? Russia has two advantages that China does not. First, it was never heavily connected with the global economy, and the further detachment from it in the 2010s has not hurt Russia the way it could hurt China.1 So the economic penalty did not deter Russia, and Russia has ever since learned to live with it. (This advantage also applies to Iran.) Second, Russia’s nuclear weapons stockpile is the largest in the world, which gives it a much greater deterrence than China. These are the reasons for why Russia today occupies Georgia and Ukraine, but China has not touched Taiwan, yet.
There is an emerging consensus, however, that we should pull more or less all of our resources from around the world to focus on China. There have been China hawks who are proponents of this draconian policy, better described as profound stupidity, on the right, most prominently the likes of Elbridge Colby and Congressman Mike Gallagher. Terrifyingly, people on the left are joining it, too, including the Biden administration.
Okay my throat is clear!
Now let’s get to why this is a bad thing when it comes to Russia.
First, America has a greater interest in Europe than Asia because of our economic ties with the continent, NATO, cultural closeness, etc. This means two things. 1. Because of these ties, and because of China’s ties with Europe, there is no China policy that doesn’t involve European cooperation. 2. Relatedly, the only way for Europe to cooperate against China is if its immediate security threats, namely Russia and then Islamist terrorism, are addressed. But focusing on China and being distracted from Russia does the exact opposite of that.
Second, let’s get back to “strategic stability.” By asking stability from Russians, we are asking Putin to stop being Putin, to give up a great advantage here has.
(I need to define my terms here. I am going to use chaos distinct from anarchy. I understand anarchy as the lack of any authority. In fact, if you talk with anarchists—and I have had MANY dorm-room conversations with them that might or might not have involved a lot of alcohol—they claim that anarchy will lead to order. Chaos, on the other hand, is the lack of order, but it is not a lack of authority.)
The DC supervillain, The Joker, is an agent of chaos, but he is not an anarchist. He is a product of the chaos in Gotham, but he understands chaos better than anybody else, so he can thrive through it. (This might be a coincident, and it might not be, but Putin grew up in the slums of St. Petersburg, so he learned how to adapt to chaos on a personal level.) Putin is The Joker. He is a beneficiary of chaos because he understands it, because he causes it, and because he can manipulate it. And when we deliberately and explicitly decide to pay less attention to him, he is only further encouraged to stir the pot because he can get away with it and gains from it.
There are several ways that Putin causes chaos. First is the international level. Don Jensen and Peter Doran wrote a good essay about it three years ago for The American Interest, which you can find here. The essay was based on a longer report for the Center for European Policy Analysis, titled, “Chaos As A Strategy.” Check it out.
Putin has many disadvantages against his liberal enemies around the world, caused by the shortcomings of the Russian economy. One advantage he has, however, is that we, the gentle liberals, cannot operate under the rule of the jungle. We lose our focus under chaos. This is why we love “the rules-based order.”2 Putin understands how impossible life under the rule of the jungle is for liberal democracies, so he wants to bring back the rule of the jungle to the world, where he can thrive.3
Then there is the other side of Putin’s benefiting from chaos. Again, Jensen and Doran talk about this:
For all of Russia’s weaknesses as a great power, the Kremlin thinks it possesses one key advantage in long-term competition with America and the democratic West: Russia is more cohesive internally and will thus be able to outlast its technologically superior but culturally and politically pluralistic opponents. In recent years, Putin, his chief military strategist Valery Gerasimov, and other Russian leaders have employed disinformation to spread chaos for strategic effect. The Kremlin’s goal is to create an environment in which the side that copes best with chaos (that is, which is less susceptible to societal disruption) wins. The premise is Huntingtonian: that Russia can endure in a clash of civilizations by splintering its opponents’ alliances with each other, dividing them internally, and undermining their political systems while consolidating its own population, resources, and cultural base. Such a strategy avoids competition in those areas where the Kremlin is weak in hopes of ensuring that, when confrontation does come, it will enjoy a more level playing field.
Liberal regimes are susceptible to chaos. First, we reject the enforcement of “social cohesion” through public policy and planning, especially through policing. Putin, on the other hand, can maintain order through fear and Russian nationalism. Second, the politics of open societies is chaotic by design due to competing interests. (How’s the infrastructure week been treating ya for the past five years?) But the free flow of information allows for information warfare—information warfare, it is important to note, is not just the spread of disinformation, but also the targeted spread of accurate information, such as the 2016 DNC email leaks—to create further chaos. I wrote about this a year ago: Bernie and Trump, Putin’s Chaos Candidates. As Putin’s adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky told GQ’s Julia Ioffe at the time, elaborating that Putin did not have a preference among the contenders for President, “[t]he ideal scenario is to maintain the schism and uncertainty in the States till the end. Our candidate is chaos.”
Everybody remembers Putin’s promotion of right-wing lunacies in 2016—and many know of his promotion of Q-Anon—but very few know that there have been similar efforts to promote causes such as Black Lives Matter by the Kremlin. Similarly, in 2019, during the second Democratic Presidential primaries debate, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a tweet that caused a mini-scandal. The person who posted it said wrote:
Kamala Harris is *not* an American Black. She is half Indian and half Jamaican. I'm so sick of people robbing American Blacks (like myself) of our history. It's disgusting. Now using it for debate time at #DemDebate2? These are my people not her people.Freaking disgusting.
That was not an authentic tweet though. It was, almost certainly, part of a Russian operation. There were many accounts that tweeted this verbatim at the same time, but all of those accounts are deleted, including the one that Trump Jr. retweeted.
Then there are Putin’s infiltrations of Western finance and energy sectors to cause chaos through corruption. Of course, there are complementary benefits to these, but chaos is a key one.
Finally, there are new and emerging Russian strategies of chaos. One is Russia’s employment of mercenaries, especially in the Greater Middle East. The most infamous one is the Wagner Group, but there are more. These mercenaries rarely seek to establish order. Quite the opposite, they seek to prevent order. For more on Russian chaos strategy in the region, you can check out Anna Borshchevskaya’s 2016 monograph, “Russia in the Middle East.” Then there are the increasing ransomware attacks against Western public and private entities, most recently the meat production facility and the pipeline attack, which had Americans running around like chickens without heads. But that confusion was exactly what Russia was seeking. And note that what countries like Syria and Libya, wherein Russian mercenaries operate, and the cyber domain have in common is that they are all ungoverned territories, where there is a certain degree of chaos and potential for more.
Let me bring it back to where I started. The United States wants to stop paying attention to Russia, but Putin seeks attention and recognition. To stop paying attention to him is to stop acknowledging him as a major player. It is to dismiss Russian grandeur. Except that Putin’s regime seeks the restoration of Russian greatness, and ignoring it will prompt him to remind us about it. One is tempted to say that it is wise not to feed the troll, but, in this case, the troll has too many nuclear warheads, and he is willing to exploit them to invade other countries and create international and intra-national disorder, and not taming it will create the chaos we cannot afford.
Last Thing: There also is a lot to be said about Sino-Russian co-operations, and how there is no China policy that does not include Russia as a Chinese partner. (Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have said they are each other’s best friends, although that might be a bit of a stretch.) There is a very good 5-part series on War on the Rocks about military cooperations between the two, which you can find here. I plan on writing about this issue at some point (as well as the relationships between Iran and Russia and Iran and China and, eventually, the triangular relationships among the three).
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Unlike Russia, the fear of being cut off from the global economy is an insufficient, yet important deterrent against China—check out Michael Beckley’s work on this.
Although there is a strong argument that for rules-based order to work, the hegemon needs to occasionally break those rules.