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Vladimir Putin’s worst mistake the US hopes to celebrate

While Russia continues its brutal hammering on Ukraine, the US does not lose sight of the fact that its main adversary is not Vladimir Putin nor his war adventure, but Chinese. It is the main fact that escapes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he exposes his country’s heroic resistance to the invasion as a struggle of humanity.

“The American military chiefs make it clear that they will not allow Ukraine to distract them from China,” say Steven Lee Myers and Chris Buckley in an eloquent text in The New York Times. The bet is even broader.

If Germany, France and other allies multiply their military power from now on as they promise, justified in this crisis, that will leave the US a free hand. for focus exclusively on China.

For the world north, the mud in which the Russian autocrat wades is pure current and future profit. Ukraine is a terrible anecdote in that game. The version that the Kremlin would have asked the People’s Republic for military and economic aid is the latest in the maneuvers to flood China from Russia.

This unconfirmed species turned Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s effort to align himself with some Western positions and call this crisis a war for the first time, moving away from the Orwellian term for “special military operation” used by the Moscow regime.

But if Putin can serve Washington to put the rules back on the geopolitical stage, he also has other uses that are not so obvious. As the IMF has warned, this conflict will escalate the global economic crisis that was tied to the pandemic.

Putin and Xi Jinping. A complicated alliance. Reuters photo

The rise in the prices of food and energy commodities, he argued, “will have an impact throughout the world but especially in poor households where food and fuel represent a greater proportion of expenses. If the conflict escalatesthe economic damage would be even more devastating.”

The adjustments imposed by the crisis now have the furious and guilty face of Putin and his massacre in Ukraine. But it is, however, a two-pronged strategy. The horrors that flood the screens of almost everyone justify a growing social cost that at other times would trigger a certain resistance.

It is enough to note that Ukraine and Russia are responsible for about 14% of world wheat production and supply 30% of world demand. There are countries that are centrally dependent on those sources like Egypt, Nigeria or Yemen that are now looking for more expensive alternatives. The Russians and Chinese may be betting on the worsening of this disaster. Social anger will grow in the West if the scenario of needs worsens.

Putin is not crazy

The evolution of the situation does not seem to be as expected, but it is advisable to avoid simplifications. Putin is not crazy, has always been ruthless and fierce and time and words should not be wasted inquiring into its psychology. The concrete fact is that the master of the Kremlin could have failed in the characterization of the stage. History is full of these “errors”, to call them in a benevolent way.

Map of the Ukrainian cities that were attacked by Russia.

Map of the Ukrainian cities that were attacked by Russia.

As recently as 2003, the US witheringly bombed and invaded Iraq based on a bundle of lies about the supposed weapons of mass destruction of dictator Saddam Hussein, a former Washington ally gone astray.

That attack was supposed to be the first in a series of military operations on a dozen countries that would be reformatted with the “democracy of the cannons” of former President George W. Bush, the last of them Iran, the first Afghanistan.

But everything went wrong. Iraq became a severe headache for the US that transformed that country into a powerhouse of terrorism. From there and because of those circumstances, ISIS came out, for example. Afghanistan we already know how it ended.

Returning to Putin, some analysts maintain that the Russian leader and his advisers advanced with their military adventure convinced precisely that the economic crisis caused by the pandemic tied the hands of the Western leadership. So they would not aggravate the situation with sanctions to avoid self-inflicted harm.

“Putin discounted that there would be a reaction, but the main structure would remain in place, unscathed. Until before the invasion, Russia was one of the nations with the best global credit reputation and that image was growing: it gave formidable profits to companies and banks around the world”, summarizes a European diplomatic source in this column.

From this view of the Kremlin, the offensive on Ukraine would have an inevitable success measured in domestic nationalist support fueled by the display of a power that could no longer be discussed and it would quench the aggressive attitude of NATO.

The alliance with China of “unlimited friendship” that Putin announced with his colleague Xi Jinping in February, was key in that consideration. The two countries, in a 5,000-word document, warned the world that a new era was being born with other leaderships in command, Beijing and Moscow.

But now, let us insist, everything would depend on the economic and refugee crisis becoming an explosive ballast for the West. It is not clear that this will happen. It is also too precarious as a strategic formulation.

President Joe Biden.  The Chinese challenge.  AP Photo

President Joe Biden. The Chinese challenge. AP Photo

Chinese and Russians have long read a famous British geographer of the last century, Halford John Mackinder, author of a theory synthesized in the word Heartland which holds that Eurasia will be the center of future political power and that it will dominate the world over surrounding powers or the rimlandthe edges.

that article of The New York Times recalls that “a modern Russian proponent of such thinking, Aleksandr Dugin, has written extensively about what he sees as a growing clash between the Liberal and decadent West and a conservative Eurasian continent with Russia as its soul.” It would be the end of the liberal order.

It is against this that the Western establishment rose up with a powerful survival action that may have clearly unsettled Russia. Nobody expected it. Neither does China.

Therein lies the only aspect in which part of Zelensky’s speech about the value of his country to the world makes sense. What is in dispute is much more than Putin’s tsarist ambitions. It is the future design of the world. But that notion has limits.

Neither the US nor its allies will go to a third World war for Ukraine, that is why they do not accept the Ukrainian president’s demands for an aerial closure that prevents the attack of Russian bombers or a direct intervention by NATO.

There is a foreseeable gain for Washington and its partners without going to those extremes. Putin has managed to give NATO a new meaning, strengthened the US leadership, and it remains to be seen what influence this episode can have on the November legislative elections. At the same time, he eroded China, which is avoiding breaking with Russia, for now, only because it needs a counterweight against its adversary.

Doubts about XI Jinping, in a crucial year

It is an uncomfortable place for Beijing and its president Xi who, furthermore, is not showing clearly if he is in real capacity to handle this challenge in a crucial year in which he will seek a third consecutive term breaking with the prudent teachings of Deng Xiao Ping, the great helmsman of Chinese reconstruction.

Only with successes can this historical instance be reached, but the Russian adventure has cast doubt on realities of power that seemed immutable until just weeks ago.

Vladimir Putin.  Russian President.  Hard momment.  Reuters Photo

Vladimir Putin. Russian President. Hard momment. Reuters Photo

At the beginning of this nightmare, the Chinese leadership had taken refuge in the idea synthesized by academician Zheng Yongnian regarding the simultaneous decline of the US and Russia. He argued that “as long as we do not make terminal strategic errors, China’s modernization will not be interrupted, on the contrary, it will have a greater capacity and will to build a new international order.”

That rhetoric has lost slices of consistency. As he points out in foreign affairs the sinologist of Center for Strategic and International StudiesJude Blanchette, “Xi Jinping’s decision to declare unlimited partnership with Moscow was possibly the biggest foreign policy mistake of his nearly ten years in power.”

Putin will take the brunt of the punishment for his barbarity, “but that statement, along with Beijing’s diplomatic support for Moscow, It has undermined China’s reputation and cast doubt on its global ambitions.”

In fact -he adds-, the intensification of the war in Ukraine has already provoked calls for Taiwan to improve its defense capabilities and has given not only NATO, but the QUAD, the anti-China alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India in the Indo-Pacific and the AUKUS (USA Australia and Great Britain), a renewed sense of purpose”.

This raises a serious question: How will this crisis affect the internal adversaries of the Chinese leader? Which there are, of course.

It is possible that at the end of this war, Russia will be left with percentages of the Ukrainian territory that it has ruthlessly destroyed and with the commitment that kyiv will not join NATO. That outcome, which will fill the Russian autocrat with words, it will matter rather little to the western leadership that seeks to reassert itself consolidated 30 years after the end of the Cold War.

Contrary to what might be supposed, this evolution makes the future much more unpredictable. If this nightmare brings down Russia and momentarily overshadows the Chinese project, The US will seek to advance with the costs of instability that this strategy may entail. That is why Biden travels to Europe to negotiate with his allies a menu that will go far beyond Ukraine.

in the background it is not at all clear whether the partnership between Moscow and Beijing will continue. Nor will Putin’s eventual consolation prize be enough for him to survive, or whether he will escape forward by hitting other countries or using other types of weapons in an attempt to break out of confinement.

In this line, even more overwhelming scenarios are drawn. Attentive to the very thin threads that support this architecture, Ulrich Kühn, a nuclear strategist at the University of Hamburg, warns that “the possibility of the use of atomic weapons is extremely low. But it is not zero. It’s real and it could increase.” That is also what this ominous present is about.
​Copyright Clarin 2022

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