The Bad Lieutenant
Any married person can tell you that once a party lays down an impossible ultimatum, the negotiation is over and the fight underway. War aims lift off from normal considerations and there you are, the dishes still in the sink while you consider if you’re sleeping on the couch, or if she’s sleeping at her sister’s.
With hardware for 100,000 troops stacked on the border with Ukraine and troops coming the 6,000-mile journey from Vladivostok to make them go boom, this last frantic round of diplomatic talks between the US, NATO and Russia last week, never stood much of a chance. Hopping from Geneva, to Brussels then Vienna Vladimir Putin’s demands going in were almost comic: No expansion of NATO (ever, and even more so for Ukraine), an American guarantee not to protect its European allies with short and medium range nuclear missiles, and Russia gets veto power over NATO deployment in all former Soviet Union satellites. His position is simple, as a matter of policy the West will pretend that the USSR did not, in fact, collapse.
It’s the geopolitical equivalent of telling the wife that you are going to step out to pick up some strange woman, but she needs to make dinner, because when you get back, you’ll have an appetite. And don’t overcook the pork chops again or they’ll be hell to pay.
Except that the Soviet Union did collapse and Russia knows that it can’t win against the West – not alone at any rate. It may be a strategic gamble that with Europe facing an energy crisis it needs Russia to fix, and US voters wary of yet another foreign war, that NATO won’t do anything about Ukraine. And why not? We were pretty mellow about the last invasion. The calculations include a US is distracted by its rivalry with China. And it wouldn’t be wrong, either. It is a mistake, though, to assume that Russian and Chinese aggression are two separate issues.
Even the most useful historical analogies are flawed – and so is this one. The geopolitical situation now emerging is less a Cold War battle of ideologies where one will ultimately bury the other, but more akin to the Great Game of the 19thcentury: Two powers securing markets within their own imperial system. Unlike the last Great Game, this one isn’t between Imperial Russia and Great Britain in Central Asian markets, but an autocratic China and a liberal United States in a global one. The drivers of the old contest are the lieutenants in this one.
Sure it’s a demotion, but second-in-command retains a few privileges – with a Chinese anchor, Russia can continue to punch above its weight and operate beyond the reach and influence of the West. So can Iran. China’s play here is to let its bad lieutenant hold sway in Central Asia as it did in the glory days, as well as terrify the West over Europe. Like an insulated mafia boss sending out trusted capos, this allows Putin to play big man on the street, dishing out ultimatums acting as a “force multiplier” in China’s strategy, and hinting that it may show up in the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, China makes it’s moves with a degree of distance and political cover.
These “special relationships” rarely go exactly the way the lieutenant, however devoted, wants them too. Putin tried to get China’s XI Jinping’s tacit support for its European ultimatum, and didn’t quite get it. You’ve really got to admire China’s response as the gold standard for manipulative bastards: Dangle approval to lieutenant, but dodn’t quite grant it. Beijing failed to support the ultimatum, but did issue a statement that it was “displeased” that the US was dragging Europe into its Chinese containment strategy.
For it’s part, EU is waking up to the threat posed by China, but without the strategic autonomy that it can’t quite achieve there isn’t much to do about it. Europe is facing a cold winter with a Russian hand on the natural gas it relies on to heat its homes and generate electricity. Fuel prices are about twice what they were two years ago, sucking up Covid savings and dampening economic recovery. So not only are Europeans cold at night, they are awake thinking about the prospect of a degraded and nasty land war with the same Russian hand on the fuel tap. And if that war will be won, Europe knows full well that they need an increasingly distant US to do it quickly.
It’s a bad place for Europe to be in a world sorting itself into two competing blocs. And China’s finger prints are nowhere near the weapon.