The Russian pessimist says things are so bad they can’t possibly get worse; the Russian optimist says, “Don’t worry, they will!”
If Western leaders think that Russia and China are aggressive now, the Russian-Chinese alliance now emerging will be a nastier combination than most Western observers can imagine.
It doesn’t have to happen, but probably will, given the West’s toxic combination of aggressive posturing and inherent weakness. The former tempts China to use force, and the latter causes China to think that it can get away with using force.
Case in point: On May 6 the hawkish Chinese policy site “Observer” (guancha.cn) led with a 5,000 word screed by Russia’s “Eurasianist” ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, the inspiration for younger officers in Russia’s military and intelligence services who think that Vladimir Putin is too soft on the West.
That should alarm Washington, although I doubt anyone in the White House took notice.
Western commentators demonize Putin, and distract attention from the fact that Russia’s long-serving president is a centrist figure by his country’s standards.
A deep current of Russian politics is anti-modern, paranoid, anti-Semitic and apocalyptic. If Putin is overthrown, it probably will occur at the behest of Eurasianists like Dugin rather than Western-oriented liberals.
Putin came to office believing that he could do business with the West, but American efforts to loop Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence persuaded him otherwise.
By Russian standards, Putin is a moderate, which can be seen in his friendly relations with the State of Israel. Putin is favorably disposed towards Israel, allowing Jerusalem a fairly free hand in suppressing Iranian encroachment in Syria. And his relations with Russia’s Jewish community are warm by all accounts.
Putin’s businesslike relations with Israel and friendly ties to Russia’s Jews are a bitter source of contention with Russia’s Eurasianists. Consider this lunatic screed on Dugin’s website.
The Zionists did not recognize either the decision to create a Palestinian state or the international status of Jerusalem. Constantly referring to their suffering at the hands of the Nazis, Jews used this as an excuse to ignore either the Arab protests or the calls of the UN and the international community.… Zionist leaders, in fact, identified themselves with the Mashiach [Messiah]. And now it remains only to proceed to the construction of the Third Temple. And for this it is necessary to expel the Arabs from the Temple Mount and destroy the Islamic shrine – the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Completing the Palestinian genocide is also part of these Zionist plans. And then, in their opinion, there will come a period of Jewish rule on a global scale – the Fifth Monarchy, when the peoples of the earth, the goyim, recognize the supremacy of the Jews and submit to them. This is what the State of Israel lives on.[Asia Times translation]
Dugin is a Russian Nazi, whose obsession with a global Jewish conspiracy is indistinguishable from Hitler’s. In his May 6 essay for the Chinese website Dugin equates the Allied victory over Hitler and the fall of Communism as steps towards the elimination of “the pre-modern European order” – his ideal – and the imposition of liberal rule:
The traditional pre-modern European order was defeated and completely destroyed at the beginning of the 20th century. The victory over fascism in 1945 and the victory over communism in 1991 marked two symbolic moments in the liberation of individuals from national and class identities (this time an artificial identity created by modernist non-liberal ideologies). The European Union was established to commemorate this historic victory. Liberalism becomes its internal (and sometimes external) ideology.
It is disturbing to read this sort of rant on an influential Chinese website but, sadly, unsurprising. From China’s standpoint, the West’s economic demands are simply an attempt to prevent China from becoming a modern economy.
It goes without saying that China, with its 1.4 billion people, would be the world’s largest economy and the world’s strongest power if it reached Western levels of productivity. And Western support for separatist elements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang look like efforts to fracture and collapse the Chinese state.
Even paranoiacs have real enemies, and a substantial current of Western opinion believes that the Chinese Empire can be cracked and broken from the outside.
China is not a nation but a multi-ethnic empire held together by vast infrastructural investment and a Mandarin administrative elite selected by merit from its scores of ethnic groups. Its imperial system is at least 3,000 years old. The fact that China has regenerated its system over and over again, despite the collapse and replacement of dozens of dynasties, at least raises the question of whether it’s possible to govern China by any other means.
When local warlords successfully challenged the central authority, China suffered long periods of chaos, most recently the “Century of Humiliation” from the First Opium War of 1839 to the Communist Revolution of 1947.
China will go to war over Taiwan, Xinjiang or Tibet on the principle that one rebel province will incite others. It will prevent Hong Kong from gaining independence for the same reason.
For thousands of years, China has exterminated “unruly barbarians” on its border who declined to assimilate into Chinese culture. Its crackdown on the 12 million Uighurs of Xinjiang, like its earlier suppression of Tibetan culture, repeats what China always had done.
By Western standards this is repugnant, and I do not mean to make it look better than it is. But the fact that the West is appalled by China’s actions does not make it likely that China will stop what it had been doing for thousands of years before we stumbled onto the world scene.
When President Trump in his last month in office removed the East Turkestan Islamic Movement’s official designation as a terrorist group, Beijing concluded that the United States planned to subvert its rule in Xinjiang by inciting Muslim separatism, along the lines of the old Zbigniew Brzezinski strategy against the Soviet Union.
That isn’t a new thought. Uighur terrorists trained in Syria in jihadi units are supported by the CIA. Chinese military leaders told me that America’s involvement in Syria was part of a grand conspiracy against China (as reported in my book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World).
China believes, in short, not only that the West wants to strangle its nascent modern economy – but also that it intends to provoke provincial secession and fracture the Chinese state. It isn’t difficult to find American strategists who think that this outcome is both achievable and desirable.
Russia’s Eurasianists, meanwhile, have reproached Putin for his weakness toward the West. Putin thought he had a deal over Ukraine: The former Soviet Republic, with its 30% Russian population, had surrendered its nuclear weapons in return for the understanding that it would remain a buffer state between Russia and the West.
In 2004, then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice supported the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. On the strength of eyewitness accounts I wrote (in “Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess,” August 19, 2008):
On the night of November 22, 2004 … Vladimir Putin watched the television news in his dacha near Moscow. People who were with Putin that night report his anger and disbelief at the unfolding “Orange” revolution in Ukraine. “They lied to me,” Putin said bitterly of the United States. “I’ll never trust them again.” The Russians still can’t fathom why the West threw over a potential strategic alliance for Ukraine.
“Paranoid Russian,” to be sure, is a pleonasm. But the fact remains that the United States has no strategic interest in Ukraine.
Bringing democracy to Russia has been an obsession of American policy since the fall of Communism, and revolution in Kiev has always been a way-station towards regime change in Russia for ideologues like Victoria Nuland, now the State Department’s number three official. In 2014, Nuland, then the Obama Administration’s ranking official for European affairs, was caught on tape cherry-picking members of the next Ukrainian regime after the Maidan coup.
A Russian-Chinese rapprochement is a bad outcome for the West. Avoiding this has been a pillar of American policy since Richard Nixon went to China half a century ago. Even worse is a Russian-Chinese alliance motivated by mutual paranoia towards the West, and one that reinforces the worst anti-Western tendencies in Russia.
It is easy to sniff at the much-reduced Russian Federation, but it graduates more engineers each year than the United States and has formidable capacities in science and military technology. A Eurasian combination would be all the harder for the West to counter.
The more the West tries to encircle China, the more China will hit the West where it isn’t, in General George S Patton Jr’s phrase. China just signed a $400 billion trade deal with Iran – an important turnabout, since China (at least officially) cut oil imports from Iran to nearly zero under the Trump administration’s sanctions. When Beijing was negotiating trade terms with Washington, it avoided provoking the United States over Iran.
During the last few months, Beijing’s unofficial oil imports from Iran have jumped. China is keeping its options open. Tempted to pressure Washington and its allies, it might (or might not) help Iran with its nuclear weapons program, as it helped Pakistan and North Korea in the past.
The distinguished sinologist Francesco Sisci said last week that China also quietly encouraged North Korea to resume testing ballistic missiles in March, after a four-year moratorium. That sent a message to the Biden Administration. China has the option to send a similar message via Iran.
China plays the world Go board. Iran is simply one piece in a much larger game. Under some circumstances China might use its influence to dissuade Iran’s clerical regime from developing nuclear weapons; under others, it might help Iran build nuclear weapons. Everything is subordinate to China’s efforts to break out of American encirclement.
It does not seem to have occurred to the Trump administration’s strategist that China might try to flank the United States that close to Central Asia.
For Israel, America’s closest ally in the region, these developments are disappointing at best and dangerous at worst. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cultivated a close working relationship with Putin, and the Russian and Israeli armed forces have managed to cohabit Syria with a minimum of friction.
Israel maintained good relations with China, concentrating on its expertise in agricultural, environmental and other non-military technologies that China urgently needs.
Now Israel faces a double threat. A Russian-Chinese alliance might increase the influence of outright Jew-haters like Dugin, and China’s greater involvement in Iran might accelerate Iran’s nuclear weapons development. American bungling has made it an expensive friend to have.
The neo-conservatives of the George W Bush administration, despite their avowed sympathy for the Jewish State, put Israel at risk by forcing majority rule in Iraq, bringing to power a Shiite regime with close ties to its co-religionists in Iran.
The Trump administration, despite important symbolic support for Israel, gave China a reason to meddle in the Middle East.
To Trump’s credit, he understood that the United States could not disengage from the region without some working relationship with Russia. For this, he was excoriated as an alleged dupe of the Russian regime, and subjected to a three-year witch-hunt over supposed “collusion” with Russia.
The Biden administration appears to believe that it can provoke everyone without demonstrating strength. And that is the most dangerous possible mode of behavior for a major power.