Decoding the Washington-Moscow-Beijing triangle
Just after the high-profile Geneva summit meeting between United States (US) president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin on June 16, a journalist asked Biden why Russia would cooperate with the US.
Biden’s response was a geostrategic revelation: “Russia is in a very, very difficult spot right now. They are being squeezed by China. They want desperately to remain a major power. They desperately want to be relevant.”
In the same vein, Biden answered a question about whether Russia would stop being a disrupter of the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance. He said that Putin was not “looking for a Cold War” because he had “a multi-thousand-mile border with China.” The American leader continued, “China is moving ahead, hellbent on seeking to be the most powerful economy in the world and the largest and the most powerful military in the world. You’re (Russia is) in a situation where your economy is struggling, you need to move it in a more aggressive way, in terms of growing it.”
The geopolitical connotations of these comments were so significant that they drew angry responses from China’s state-owned media mouthpieces. Hu Xijin, the belligerent editor of the Global Times, hit back that “Russia’s difficulties are precisely due to strategic squeezing & sanctions by the US. Biden is muddled and thinks Russia can be easily duped.” Slamming Western efforts to “split China-Russia relations” as “extremely hilarious, useless and too obvious”, Beijing highlighted Putin’s recent remarks that he could see through “attempts at destroying the relationship between Russia and China”.
Although China’s State-owned media relentlessly peddle propaganda and spin, they were not off the mark on this point. From a Russian perspective, the US has been hostile for decades, and particularly so since the 2014 Russian military intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The Barack Obama administration slapped a slew of economic sanctions on Russia that year and mobilised its European allies to expel Russia from what used to be the G8 group of countries (it is now reduced to the G7).
Many analysts believed the US also colluded with Saudi Arabia to send global oil prices crashing in 2014-2015 in order to punish Russia, whose State revenues and coffers depend almost entirely on fossil fuel exports. The subsequent long economic downturn in Russia led Putin, a former KGB intelligence agent, to believe that the US would never abandon its mission to overthrow him and “democratise” Russia by hook or crook.
A trained black belt in judo, Putin decided he had to counter-attack by aligning closer with China, as it was the only weighty alternative willing to defy Western sanctions and throw him a lifeline. As soon as the US and Europe fell on Russia like a ton of bricks in 2014, Putin signed a mega $400 billion natural gas deal with China.
With the presidency of Donald Trump not delivering relief to Russia despite ardent hopes in Moscow, Putin accelerated military and economic cooperation with China to demonstrate that he had other options, and that Washington and Brussels could not coerce him. In 2018, Russia dispatched the first tranche of its game-changing S400 anti-missile system to China, which casually shrugged off American sanctions against countries buying advanced Russian weaponry. As Russia-US ties plumbed the depths, Russia-China relations attained what Putin called their “highest level in history”.
Given this triangular dynamic where Russia lurches toward an ever more powerful China for redemption when cornered by the US and Europe, Biden has a Herculean task ahead. His references to the China factor after the Geneva summit with Putin indicate he is attempting to wean Russia away from China or at least lower the heat with Russia in order to focus the US’s full energies on containing and isolating China.
This kind of triangular grand strategic manoeuvre, which President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger executed to perfection in 1971 by enlisting Mao Zedong’s China to checkmate Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Russia, is easier sought than accomplished today.
For Putin to distance himself from China’s strongman Xi Jinping, whom he has met dozens of times and who describes Putin as his “best friend”, it will require a lot of material and behavioural incentives from the US. Simply reminding Russia that China is overshadowing it in Russia’s near abroad of Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and in global economic and military standing, is not enough. Putin is acutely aware of the fact that Xi has the upper hand in the bilateral balance of power, and Russian strategists know they are vulnerable to Chinese demographic and territorial domination. But Russia feels helpless and lacking in options. It needs more from the US than just fear-mongering about China.
In the run-up to the Geneva summit, Biden showed a pragmatic hand by waiving American sanctions on Russia for building the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. But the overall burden of Western sanctions for a variety of alleged Russian misdeeds such as cyber hacking, election interference and human rights violations is still enormous and it weighs down the Russian economy. For all his defiant taunts against Western imperialism, Putin will welcome US investments in the stagnant Russian economy.
As a status-conscious politician who loves to trumpet Russia’s return as a great power, being treated as an equal rather than a declining or spent force by the US has symbolic relevance to Putin. Biden’s taking the initiative in proposing the Geneva summit, and his usage of the phrase “the two great powers” for Russia and the US, has undoubtedly raised Putin’s hopes that the new US president has changed the tune from Obama’s cold-shouldering and belittling of Russia as a mere “regional power”.
The other big fear that Putin traditionally nurtures vis-à-vis the US is that it is out to undermine his authority and “destabilise” Russia in the name of democratisation. At the Geneva summit, Biden did raise thorny issues about Putin’s jailing of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but it was apparently not a time-consuming topic. The fact that Biden harped more on pursuing “strategic stability” with Russia over nuclear weapons and cyber warfare in the Geneva summit rather than on Putin’s dictatorship seemed to suggest that the US might tone down criticism of Russia over its domestic affairs and look at Russia primarily from a geopolitical lens — an ally of China that could be prised away from it so that the Beijing-Moscow axis is weakened.
But can Biden do a Nixon and really disentangle Russia from China? Two main hurdles have to be overcome.
Biden has made rebuilding the US’s trans-Atlantic alliance with Europe a cornerstone of his foreign policy. He has pressed the Europeans to take a sharper confrontational stance against China and tried to convince them that China poses a “systemic challenge” to the Western-crafted liberal international order. But due to geographical threat perceptions, many European members of NATO do not see distant China as an imminent threat, while the shenanigans of Russia right next door loom large in their consciousness. Even if Biden wants to go easy on Russia so as to fire all cylinders at China, several European countries are unlikely to relent on loosening the grip on Russia.
The second obstacle to a Russia-US normalisation or reset is the liberal discourse within the US and Europe about Putin as a villainous despot whose actions are morally outrageous. Sensational incidents involving Russian state agents acting against dissidents at home and abroad, and the harsh tactics Putin uses to crack down on protests, keep dominating headlines in the Western news media. Biden has boxed himself in on this aspect by adopting a crusading rhetoric about confronting all authoritarian regimes around the world. If he relaxes the yoke on Russia for realpolitik reasons, there would be a big backlash that he is not living up to the Western liberal credo of fighting tyrants wherever they exist.
Nonetheless, a tantalising possibility has arisen that the US could chase a potential thaw with Russia. In Putin’s words after the Geneva summit, “There is no happiness in life, only glimmers of it.” Even this glimmer has been enough to make China uneasy. Xi still holds a lot of cards to keep Putin firmly in his tent. But a great diplomatic tug-of-war for Russia’s allegiance is on.
Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed are personal