It’s the Nikolai Patrushev-Yang Jiechi show all over again. These are the two players running an up-and-coming geopolitical entente on behalf of their bosses Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
Last week, Yang Jiechi, the director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, visited Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in Moscow. That was part of the 16th round of China-Russia strategic security consultations.
What’s intriguing is that the Yang-Patrushev meeting happened between the Blinken-Lavrov meeting on the sidelines of the Arctic Council summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, and the upcoming and highest-ranking Putin-Biden in Geneva on June 16 (possibly at the Intercontinental Hotel, where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1985).
The Western spin before Putin-Biden is that it might herald some sort of reset back to “predictability” and “stability” in currently extra-turbulent US-Russia relations.
That’s wishful thinking. Putin, Patrushev and Lavrov harbor no illusions. Especially when at the G7 in London, held in early May, the Western focus was on Russia’s “malign activities” as well as China’s “coercive economic policies.”
Russian and Chinese analysts in informal conversations tend to agree that Geneva will be yet another instance of good old Kissingerian divide and rule, complete with a few seducing tactics to lure Moscow away from Beijing, an attempt to bide some time and probing openings for laying out geopolitical traps.
Old foxes such as Yang and Patrushev are more than aware of the game in play.
What’s particularly relevant is that Yang-Patrushev laid the groundwork for an upcoming Putin visit to Xi in Beijing not long after Putin-Biden in Geneva – to further coordinate geopolitically, once again, the “comprehensive strategic partnership” (in their mutually recognized terminology).
The visit might take place on July 1, the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, –or on July 16, the 20th anniversary of the China-Russia Treaty of Friendship. So Putin-Biden is the starter; Putin-Xi is the main course.
That Putin-Luka tea for two
Beyond the Russian president’s “outburst of emotions” comment defending his Belarusian counterpart’s action, the Putin-Lukashenko tea for two in Sochi yielded an extra piece of the puzzle concerning the RyanAir emergency landing in Minsk– starring a blogger from Belarus who is alleged to have lent his services to the ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi-ridden Azov battalion, which fought against the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in the Ukrainian Donbass in 2014.
Lukashenko told Putin he had “brought along some documents so you can understand what is going on.” Nothing has been leaked regarding the contents of these documents, but it’s possible they may be related to the fact that sanctions were imposed by the EU against Belavia Airlines even though the carrier had nothing to do with the RyanAir saga – and they may be potentially capable of being brought up in the context of Putin-Biden in Geneva.
The big picture is Eurasia versus the Atlanticist West. As much as Washington will keep pushing Europe – and Japan – to decouple from both China and Russia, Cold War 2.0 on two simultaneous fronts has very few takers.
Rational players see that the 21st century combined scientific, economic and military power of a Russia-China strategic partnership would be a whole new ball game in terms of global reach compared with the former USSR/Iron Curtain era.
And when it comes to appealing to the Global South, and the new iterations of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), emphasis on an international order upholding the UN Charter and the rule of international law is definitely sexier than a much-vaunted “rules-based international order” where only the hegemon sets the rules.
In parallel to Moscow’s lack of illusions about the new Washington dispensation, the same applies to Beijing – especially after the latest outburst by Kurt Campbell, the former Obama-Biden 1.0 assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific who is now back as the head of Indo-Pacific Affairs on the National Security Council under Obama-Biden 3.0.
Campbell became the actual father of the “pivot to Asia” concept when he was at the State Department in the early 2010s – although as I pointed out during the 2016 US presidential campaign it was Hillary Clinton as secretary of state who claimed maternity in an October 2011 essay.
At a gig promoted by Stanford University last week, Campbell said, “The period that was broadly described as engagement [with China] has come to an end.” After all, the “pivot to Asia” never really died, as there has been a clear Trump-Biden continuum.
Campbell obfuscated by talking about a “new set of strategic parameters” and the need to confront China by working with “allies, partners and friends.” Nonsense: this is all about the militarization of the Indo-Pacific.
That’s what Biden himself reiterated during his first address to a joint session of the US Congress when he boasted about telling Xi that the US will “maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific” just as it does with NATO in Europe.
The Iranian factor
On a different but parallel track with Yang-Patrushev, Iran may be on the cusp of a momentous directional change. We may see it as part of a progressive strengthening of the Arc of Resistance, which links Iran, the People’s Mobilization Units in Iraq with Syria, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and, now, a more unified Palestine.
The proxy war on Syria was a tragic, massive fail in every aspect. It did not deliver secular Syria to a bunch of takfiris (aka “moderate rebels”). It did not prevent the expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence. It did not derail the Southwest Asia branch of the New Silk Roads. It did not destroy Hezbollah.
“Assad must go”? Dream on; he was reelected with 95% of Syrian votes with a 78% turnout.
As for the upcoming Iranian presidential election on June 18 – only two days after Putin-Biden – it takes place when arguably the nuclear deal revival drama being enacted in Vienna will have reached an endgame. Tehran has repeatedly stressed that the deadline for a deal expires today, May 31.
The impasse is clear. In Vienna, through its EU interlocutors, Washington has agreed to lift sanctions on Iranian oil, petrochemicals and the central bank, but refuses to remove them on individuals such as members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
At the same time, in Tehran, something very intriguing happened with Ali Larijani, former Parliament speaker, an ambitious member of a quite prominent family but discarded by the Guardian Council when it chose candidates to run for President. Larijani immediately accepted the ruling. As I was told by Tehran insiders, that happened with no friction because he received a detailed explanation of something much bigger: the new game in town.
As it stands, the one positioned as the nearly inevitable winner on June 18 seems to be Ebrahim Raisi, up to now the chief justice and close to the Revolutionary Guards. There’s a very strong possibility that he will ask the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to leave Iran – and that means the end of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as we knew it, with unforeseen consequences. (From the Revolutionary Guards’ point of view, the JCPOA is already dead).
An extra factor is that Iran is currently suffering from severe drought – when summer has not even arrived. The power grid will be under tremendous pressure. The dams are empty so it’s impossible to rely on hydroelectric power.
There’s serious popular discontent regarding the fact that Team Rouhani for eight years prevented Iran from obtaining nuclear power. One of Raeisi’s first acts may be to command the immediate construction of a nuclear power plant.
We don’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowin’ when it comes to the top three “existential threats” to the declining hegemon – Russia, China and Iran. What’s clear is that none of the good old methods deployed to maintain the subjugation of the vassals is working, at least when confronted by real sovereign powers.
As Sino-Russo-Iranophobia dissolves in a fog of sanctions and hysteria, mapmakers like Yang Jiechi and Nikolai Patrushev relentlessly carve the post-unilateral order.