US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met yesterday on the sidelines of the OSCE conference and had an intense but “fruitful” 30-minute conversation.
From what they said afterwards – notably in separate press conferences – it appears they did little more than lay out their positions. The US is worried by Russia’s troop redeployments near Ukraine. Russia is worried about all the new weapons and military support being given to Ukraine.
In the short term I still think this is all posturing ahead of the Biden-Putin meeting, like in April when Russia last built up forces on Ukraine’s border. The guys didn't mention the mooted second summit meeting during the press conferences, but they must have discussed it, as reports say the new meeting is still on, but it will be online and now will probably happen this January, not December as reported earlier.
However, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, what I believe is the nub of this whole imbroglio is a basic change in Russia’s stance towards the West and a general hardening of Moscow’s line, which began with Lavrov’s “new rules of the game” speech in February.
We celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union next week and a lot has changed in that time. Russia went from superpower to emerging market in just a few months then, but I would argue that in just the last few years it is now back, if not as a superpower, then at least it has “emerged” as a market and that is what is behind this new hard line.
Last year the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) got over its “comfort level” of more than $500bn in reserves. (Reserves are now at an all-time high and reached $619bn as of Monday.) Those reserves basically make Russia sanction-proof. And in the new budget plan Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that the caps on spending money from the National Welfare Fund (NWF) must actually be increased, which means Russia will accumulate even more cash on top of its already insanely high level.
The second element is that the army’s modernisation, which started in 2012 and set off the stagnation by consuming all the spare cash, is now largely over. Russia’s military can now face down the whole of the EU’s armies, which military analysts say can’t beat Russia alone without the help of the US.
And the third element is that China is pretty much in exactly the same place as Russia (and probably well ahead in some areas like the economy). Moreover, Beijing shares Russia’s discomfort with the US’ dominant role in geopolitics and the two are increasingly standing together – especially as US President Joe Biden has made it abundantly clear he is spoiling for a fight with China. I don't get this policy: Biden is proposing to tone down his problems with Russia so he can concentrate on China, but all that is going to do is push Russia into China’s arms, so in the end Biden will have to deal with a combined Sino-Novy Soviet alliance. Less of a divide-and-conquer plan than a combine-and-defeat strategy, if you ask me.
There is a very serious showdown between China and the US in the South China Sea which is similar to that on Ukraine’s border, but as the US has so few allies there, whereas Russia directly abuts the EU, you hear a lot less about it. And both the diplomatic corps and the militaries of China and Russia are working increasingly closely together.
What does all this mean in practice? The main change is Putin has made it clear that he has completely given up on any hope of good relations with the West. Remember in his first term when he met with George Bush and Russia made genuine friendly overtures to the West? That all ended after the US withdrew from the ABM treaty in 2003 that put us on the path that has led here. Putin remains mistrustful after the West’s broken promises to Gorby of no eastern expansion of Nato and now he feels strong enough to do something about it: Russia is now insisting on “legal guarantees” from the West of no more Nato expansion – de facto as well as de jure, which is also new – and they are looking specifically at Ukraine, but not only there.
Unfortunately, there is no way the US is going to do anything that ties its hands in foreign policy, so I don't see this problem being resolved any time soon. The one hope is that the White House really does believe it can separate the China and Russia problems and so is willing to offer some compromises at the upcoming summit.
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