President Biden, Make a Deal With Putin
A note on US foreign policy
In the Syrian war, the United States began by denouncing the Assad regime and supporting his overthrow by a pro-Western urbanite coalition of forces. That dream evaporated in 2012-2014 as salafi-jihadist groups became predominant in the Syrian rebellion. As I wrote towards the end of this process:
There is no shame is admitting that Assad’s poison pill is an effective deterrent. Washington should not let its humanitarian rhetoric get in the way of pursuing the right strategy to ensure its primacy [sic] security interests. Assad may be a butcher, but he is the best man for the job. Pollack’s strategy to oust Assad can work. But it serves no discernible American interest and comes with significant risks and costs. Instead of launching such an ambitious project, the US should hold its nose and work with Assad to defeat the Islamic State.
An Army to Oust Assad? — Policy Tensor, Aug 27, 2014.
The Obama administration continued to denounce Assad, but in practice, it acquiesced to Putin shoring up the Assad regime. The gap between discourse and reality may have been productive sensu Foucault. The United States continued the charade of reproducing the liberal-democratic discourse even as it effectively backed the reconquest of Syria by Assad’s brutal forces.
In Ukraine, the United States has poor options for deterring Putin. The Russian economy and the Kremlin’s power base is protected against Western sanctions. Part of the reason is that the internal stability of the Russian regime is not at risk from Mulder’s economic weapon. The economy is not bulletproof but definitely hardened against the economic weapon. Partly, it has to do with the fact that China can buy whatever the West doesn’t want from Russia.
Threatening to supply a Ukrainian insurgency against Russian occupation is not only threatening a humanitarian catastrophe that always attends a protracted counterinsurgency war — it is also not an effective deterrent against a limited Russian incursion.
Apart from the poverty of countermeasures commensurate with a limited Russian incursion against Ukraine there are three additional, important considerations that are in play.
First, Russia is a great nuclear power. If the strategic deterrent comes into play, Russia is a peer of the United States. This constrains the possibility space in Russo-American strategic relations to pawn moves, as it were. Under conditions of strategic deterrence, military relations between great powers require careful escalation control and strategic reassurance, especially about the propinquity of military forces. In general, under such conditions there is no choice but to leash the threat and the use of military force tightly to national policy.
Second, and conditional on the first, Russia’s military is again a factor in world affairs. The reconstitution of the Soviet army under Putin has created an entirely new situation that can be described as the Sochi consensus. For some time now, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the gulf states have looked to Sochi on Levantine questions. To be sure, some of this is the great sucking sound, the pull factor, of Gause’s ‘arc of weakness’. But it is really remarkable how much Russia has come to weigh on questions in the Middle East. Even Turkey’s so-called victory in the Azeri-Armenian conflict resulted in Russian occupation of the buffer zone.
Third, and not unrelated to the first two, the multipolar world is here. Sino-Russian relations are now closer than at any time since the Sino-Soviet split in the late-1950s. It is not clear from the open source literature whether the Chinese have learned how to quieten a nuclear submarine from the Russians (who solved the problem with Akula class in 1986). Gideon Rachman has raised the question of a three-front war. But the issue is not the third front at all.
The real issue is whether, in a Sino-American confrontation, the Chinese have to watch their backs, or the Americans do. That consideration trumps whatever order emerges in the post-Soviet sphere in Europe.
This is not a joke.
It is squarely in the US interest that the Chinese have to prepare for the possibility that they, instead of the United States, may face a two-front war. That could spell the difference between a restabilization of the balance of power between the United States and China. Or its destabilization because of a foreign policy error by the United States.
The loss of Russia may usher in a world situation where the Chinese think they can prevail against the United States. This policy error should be avoided, if at all possible. The strategic advantages of Russia being closer to the West than China, should not be squandered for discursive rigidities.
The United States has no interest in post-Soviet Europe that would call for the policy error that Chamberlain made in the mid-1930s when he rejected a tripolar alliance of Britain, France and Russia against Germany. That’s how we got to the catastrophe of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. As Chamberlain explained in a letter to his sister,
‘If we do get an agreement [for a triple alliance] as I rather think we shall, I’m afraid I shall not regard it as a triumph. I put as little value on Russian military capacity as I believe the Germans do.’
Chamberlain, private letter to his sister. Quoted in my Western perceptions of Soviet strength during the Soviet-German War.
Chamberlain was mistaken about the balance of forces in the late-1930s. So were other high racialists. Anglo-Saxon fantasies notwithstanding, it was the Russian army that defeated Hitler, and crushed the Japanese army in 1945 for good measure.
The garrison petrostate is again a factor in the world question. It would be much better to have the Chinese worried about the Russian army than the United States.
Make a deal with Putin.