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Showing posts with label Ukraine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ukraine. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The New World (Dis)order (five part series)

(Image: businessday.ng dotcom)

NOTE: This is the final part in a five part series.
PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV: Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel

PART V:
The New World (Dis)order

Part V: The New World Dis(order)

“Experience has shown how deeply the seeds of war are planted by economic rivalry and social injustice.” -Harry Truman

In May, China released a film designed to showcase their military prowess, called Born to Fly. The film begins with American-accented, English-speaking fighter pilots causing havoc in the South China Sea while boldly declaring “We will go whenever we want,” after being asked by the Chinese pilots to leave their territory.


While the film was critically panned, the message it carried shows China being bullied by developed nations and made it clear that the only way for China to defend herself, from enemies on all sides, was through technological innovation and personal sacrifice.


A month later Chinese state media broadcast a documentary series called Chasing Dreams. The eight-part docuseries was released to commemorate the 96th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). This one featured the PLA’s readiness to attack Taiwan, featuring drills that simulated precision strikes against the island, and testimonials from serving soldiers pledging to die in their effort to retake Taiwan.


These propaganda pieces are part of stepped up efforts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to fan nationalism while showcasing China’s military prowess. Today, China's shows of force are not restricted to celluloid. This year we have witnessed a never before seen flurry of spying and aggressive tactics by China, against the United Sates.  


In February, we learned of a Chinese spy balloon flying over U.S. military bases and restricted airspace. In April, the FBI uncovered a secret police outpost in lower Manhattan, and an electronic eavesdropping facility in Cuba. PLA pilots and sailors have been increasingly engaging in dangerous skirmishes with U.S. military aircraft and naval vessels in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.


The Pentagon recently declassified a report that showed 180 such incidents of “coercive and risky” maneuvers against the US military by China - more in the past two years than in the entire decade before. In August, the U.S. had to dispatch four warships and a reconnaissance plane after China and Russia carried out a joint naval patrol near Alaska. Eleven Russian and Chinese ships sailed close to the Aleutian Islands, in what one expert described as a “historical first.”


Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he has seen Chinese-Russian joint operations increase over the past year and expects their cooperation to grow. He added that in the context of China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it makes their joint action not only concerning but also creates a more “dangerous world.


A day after the Alaskan intrusion the U.S. Navy had to deploy more than 3,000 troops to the Red Sea in a bid to deter Iran from harassing and seizing commercial vessels around the Strait of Hormuz. Since 2021, Iran has “harassed, attacked or seized” 20 internationally flagged merchant vessels. A few weeks later Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels dangerously shone lasers multiple times at the cockpit of a U.S. attack helicopter that was operating in international airspace.


These intrusions by Iran and China are not limited to military actions.


China has been stepping up its espionage game to levels never before seen by a nation state actor. The heads of the intelligence services for the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, known as the Five Eyes, appeared together on a news program for the first time ever, to publicize the threat posed by China’s hacking activities. They admitted that all countries spy, but China is taking espionage to another level by stealing corporate intellectual property, academic research and much more. So grave is their concern that the FBI Director warned that China’s espionage was a “threat to our way of life”.

 

China is not alone in the sophistication of their espionage and influence operations. Semafor broke news of a massive Iranian influence operation that was launched in 2014 by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, called the Iran Experts Initiative (IEI). They learned that the IEI managed to infiltrate the highest levels of U.S. and EU policy circles. At least three of the people on the IEI’s list were, or became, top aides to Robert Malley, Mr. Biden’s special envoy to Iran. Mr. Malley, was recently placed on leave and had his security clearance revoked.


Meanwhile, Tehran has been strengthening ties with Moscow. The WSJ reviewed foreign intelligence documents, shared with the U.S., which stated that over the last six months Iran has ferried large quantities of artillery shells and other ammunition across the Caspian Sea to help resupply Russian troops in Ukraine. The Journal reported that based on documents they reviewed Iran had shipped more than 300,000 artillery shells and over a million rounds of ammunition to Russia so far. 


In October, a top Iranian general met with his Russian counterpart in Moscow. After the meeting both countries released statements pledging increased co-operation, amid reports that Iran is increasing its support to Russia in advanced drone and missile development technology. While there is no concrete evidence that Iran helped plan or execute Hamas’s cowardly murder of  innocent, unarmed Israeli civilians, we know that Iran is the main financial backer and supplier of weapons and training to both Hamas and Hezbollah.


Iran's foreign minister has publicly warned Israel that if their strikes on Gaza continue, then “the region will go out of control.” At the same time on Israel’s northern border Hezbollah has been stepping up attacks. In the midst of all this chaos, China dispatched six warships to the Gulf region, in what Beijing’s state media called a “goodwill visit”.


China too has deep ties with Iran. They recently caught the world by surprise when they announced that they had brokered a deal for Iran to restore diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis cut ties in 2016, after Iranian protesters stormed its embassy in Tehran. While this was a major diplomatic victory for China, it was seen as another sign of the US’s waning influence in the Middle East. 


According to an Axios Middle East reporter, for China brokering the deal between Iran and Saudi was less about bringing peace and more about ensuring that two of its most important partners in the Middle East are able to get along so that Beijing can achieve its economic and political goals. Days after this rapprochement, China, Russia and Iran held joint military drills in the Gulf of Oman.


China’s ties with Saudi Arabia have been deepening at the same time that we have seen US-Saudi ties fray. Saudi and UAE leaders refused to take President Biden’s call to discuss the Ukraine crisis when the war began, and despite strong U.S. protestations the Saudis have continued to partner with Russia to coordinate cuts in oil production. 


When Mr. Biden visited Saudi Arabia this year, he was received by the governor of Jeddah without any ceremony. When Mr. Xi arrived he was welcomed with fighter jets, honorary cannon fire and the Saudi foreign minister was waiting on the tarmac. At the recent G20 climate minister’s meeting, the Saudis teamed up with China and refused to discuss a 2025 global emissions target, wrecking the entire summit, according to the FT


China also flexed its muscles at the BRICS. At their summit in South Africa, China pushed for the expansion of the bloc, despite strong opposition from India and Brazil, who voiced uneasiness at allowing openly anti-western countries to join. In the end China got its way and Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were welcomed as the bloc's newest members. At the summit it was announced that the BRICS’ development bank would start lending in South African and Brazilian currencies in order to start to cut their reliance on the US dollar.

It is clear that China is actively working to build an alternate world order to counter U.S. dominance. One that is based on authoritarian ideals and runs counter to Western liberal ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa, where China has built and runs a training school on authoritarianism. 


The Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School in Tanzania was funded by a $40 million donation from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and built by a Chinese construction company. The Central Party School which runs the the institution is the same body responsible for training China’s top party officials.


According to a joint investigation by Axios and Danish paper Politiken, China is using the school to teach African leaders about authoritarianism as an alternate governing style to democracy. Teaching them how to fuse a political party with the state. China’s goal seems to be to cultivate a global authoritarian-friendly political bloc, with access to markets, as the West increases sanctions against certain technologies and industries. It is no coincidence that the African continent happens to be rich in raw materials and energy. 


While China claims the school is a way to promote Africa’s social and economic development, the investigation found that behind closed doors “economics takes a back seat to political training”. Through interviews with African officials who have attended the training, the media outlets learned that the real story contradicts the one asserted by CCP officials. Chinese teachers sent from Beijing are telling African leaders that the party should sit above the government and court systems.


The school is a partnership between the CCP and the ruling parties of Tanzania, Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe. While all six of the countries are multiparty democracies - one thing they share in common is that each has a ruling party that has been in power for decades. Perhaps the most telling sign is that while the school’s offerings are available to young members from these ruling parties, politicians from opposition parties are not permitted access to the school.


If there is any doubt about China’s desire to build an alternate world order, then the evidence was on display in October this year when Mr. Xi hosted 130 countries to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The forum was meant to demonstrate the convening power Mr. Xi has built in the decade since launching his signature foreign policy initiative, and to showcase the challenge China now poses as a global rival to the U.S.


Mr. Putin made the trip to China, only his second foreign trip since an international arrest warrant was issued for him. Trade between Russia and China has grown dramatically over the past year and is expected to reach $200 billion by the end of the year. Recent data shows that Beijing is propping up Moscow’s economy, accounting for around half of Russia’s imports. This includes exporting goods like microchips and trench-digging excavators that may have military applications.


While it can be argued that the BRI enables China to encroach on Russia’s sphere of influence with Central Asian countries, their goals overlap in wanting to keep the secular authoritarian rulers of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia in power, to guarantee stability in the region and keep Western influence at bay.


Meanwhile, another longtime ally of China, North Korea, has been launching more missiles this year than any year prior, including 25 in a single day. The reclusive country is now preparing to sell weapons to Russia. A month after the Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Pyongyang, Mr. Kim Jong Un traveled to Russia’s main spaceport to meet with Mr. Putin. 


The two dictators agreed to greater economic and security cooperation and lashed out against the U.S.-led global order. After the meeting, according to the Russian news agency TASS, Mr. Kim Jong Un described Russia’s war in Ukraine as a “sacred struggle to punish the gathering of evil that claims hegemony and nourishes expansionist illusions.” This marks a major shift; prior to the meeting the North Korean dictator had been reticent to publicly support Russia’s invasion. 


Historically, Russia too kept North Korea at arms length, supporting sanctions against the country. Through the 2000’s and again in 2016-17 when the UN Security council limited oil supplies and cracked down on North Korea’s labour exports, Russia supported sanctions. With this newfound friendship, experts believe North Korea will supply artillery shells and in exchange will receive energy supplies and technology transfers to build nuclear submarines and spy satellites - two things Mr. Un has long wanted but lacked the technological know-how to build.


Then there is Africa’s Sahel region, which has been dubbed the ‘coup belt’ because since 2020 there have been coups in Mali, Guinea, Chad and Burkina Faso. In July, there was a military coup in Niger. Until this year Niger had been the only stable democracy in this volatile region. 


The instability being caused by these coups is being exploited by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and the Islamic State, both of which have gained ground at an alarming pace across the region. To counter these terrorist groups, the U.S. and France had established military bases in Niger and the country was considered a key security partner and nerve center for disrupting terrorist activities across the North African region. 


The U.S. spent $500 million training and arming the Niger military and has 1,100 troops soldiers stationed there, whose future is now in doubt. The French had 1,500 troops that have been withdrawn as a result of the coup. The French troops had relocated to Niger after a coup in Mali, which forced them the leave that country. After pushing the French out, Mali’s military junta ejected UN peacekeepers and then invited Russia’s Wagner Group to deploy in their place.


China is not the only authoritarian regime asserting itself on the global stage. Russia too has been acting with increasing aggression, even before the Ukraine invasion and the revelations about its support for Iran's transfer of weapons to the conflict in Ukraine.


The latest concern is that Russia’s Wagner group, while not responsible for the coup in Niger, will take advantage of the vacuum. A fear that was heightened after supporters of the coup were seen on the streets waving Russian flags, and one of the coup leaders travelled to Mali to meet with the Wagner-allied military junta there.


Russia’s Wagner Group, now without its leader, started to spread its tentacles in Africa around 2017. Wagner established operations in several African countries with much of their activity happening in countries plagued by civil war like the Central African Region (CAR), Libya, Mali and Sudan. Wagner’s services include combat operations, security, training and disinformation campaigns. They are compensated through direct cash payments or given rights to precious mineral and resources.


In CAR, Wagner defended the regime of the current President against rebel groups after he changed the constitution to remove term limits. In return, they got unrestricted logging rights and control of the lucrative gold and diamond mines in this impoverished African nation. Now, after the death of Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian government is taking control over Wagner’s contracts as it realises that it is a way for Mr. Putin to procure minerals and resources while evading sanctions.


Africa is not the only part of the world where Wagner has spread it tentacles. In 2015, Mr. Putin came to the aid of his friend Bashar al-Assad, in Syria and it was confirmed that Wagner mercenaries fought alongside the Russian military, and were responsible for turning the tide back in favour of the Syrian dictator.


In 2019, when Nicholas Maduro’s regime was under threat from popular protests supported by the U.S., Wagner mercenaries flew into Venezuela to beef up President Maduro’s security. That same year they helped quash a revolt led by senior military officers against Maduro’s regime. It is fair to say that the only reason President Maduro’s regime has survived, despite being an international pariah and one of the most sanctioned countries in the world is because it receives financial and military support from Russia, China, Iran, Cuba and Turkey.


The fact is that long before the Israel-Hamas war broke out the world was on the road on to disorder with growing instability in Africa’s Sahel region, coups in Myanmar and Kazakhstan, and US and China’s growing rivalry and deepening animosity.


President Xi Jinping has set 2027 as the deadline for China's military to be ready to "fight and win" and 2049 for the country to lead the world in "composite national strength and international influence.” While the US-China clashes echo the US-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War, the differences may be more instructive than the similarities according to scholars


China presents a far greater military, economic and technological threat to America than the Soviet Union ever did. China is far more integrated in the world economy than the Soviet Union ever was, and the American and Chinese economies, which together account for 40% of global output, are interconnected and reliant on each other; which was not true with the Soviet Union.


Many experts had opined after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the former Soviet Union soon after, that the world would enter a virtuous cycle of growth, prosperity, tolerance and freedom. They believed America would remain a unipolar power with no rivals on the world stage, and that America’s brand of liberal democracy and free-market capitalism would win. Far from becoming a unipolar power, America is no longer the only game in town.


One yardstick for gauging the success of U.S. soft power is through the spread of liberal democratic values in the thirty years since the Cold War the Cold War ended. If we look at the number of countries where citizens enjoy similar rights to free speech, free press, free and fair elections, and other liberties, a 2022 study found that of the 195 nations on earth, just 34 are liberal democracies with these freedoms.


Over the last seventeen years we have seen a steady rise of authoritarianism and an erosion of democracy, along with curtailed press freedoms and growing human rights abuses all over the world. Perhaps the most important lesson of the failure of U.S. policy, especially with respect to China, is that embracing capitalism is not a magical ingredient to ushering in democratic freedoms. China has never been and will never be interested in joining a US-led global club, relating to economics, politics or security.


Another reality is that while most Western nations remain staunch U.S. allies, they are heavily reliant on China for their supply chains and economic well-being. French President Emmanuel Macron said this year, on a plane ride back from his meeting with Mr. Xi, that Europe must not become “America’s followers” and should not blindly follow the U.S.’s lead in supporting Taiwan against China's aggression. He is not alone. 


European citizens in 11 countries, who are steadfast in their support for Ukraine and stand against Russia, when surveyed recently by the European Council on Foreign Relations said unanimously that they would want their country to remain neutral in a conflict over Taiwan between the U.S. and China. 


Then there are a number of powerful countries with whom the U.S. has a complicated relationship, like India, Saudi Arabia and even smaller ones like Qatar, on whom the U.S. is reliant. All of them wield far greater influence than they did during the Cold War. It would be fair to say that during the Cold War it was easier to determine friend from foe, but in the new world disorder there will mainly be shades of gray. 


Take the kingdom of Qatar. This tiny oil-rich Gulf nation on the face of it could be considered a staunch U.S. ally. It is home to the Al Udeid Air Base, the largest U.S. base in the Middle East. The base has served as a critical center of operations for the war in Afghanistan and continues to be for strikes on Syria. In fact, the relationship with Qatar is so important that last year the White House designated it a “Major Non-NATO Ally”.


Qatar too has made major investments in America. According to a 2022 study by the National Association of Scholars, it is the largest foreign donor to American universities. It has donated a whopping $4.7 billion, between 2001 and 2020, to top tier colleges. The Qataris’ own stakes in major NHL, NFL and NBA teams and iconic properties, like the Empire State Building. They controversially hosted the 2022 Football World Cup, after spending years buying their way into European football, acquiring a controlling stake in one of France’s best league teams, Paris St. Germain, in 2011.


However, Qatar owns the Al-Jazeera network, the most powerful media voice in the Arab world. Though the network claims it has editorial independence, it has given airtime to a Muslim Brotherhood related cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who was denounced by the Anti-Defamation League as a ‘Theologian of Terror’. In 2017 Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and cut off air, sea and land routes, after accusing it of supporting extremist groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood.


Then there is the uncomfortable truth that a few minutes drive from the Al Udeid air base you can find the home of Hamas’s de facto leader. The Qatari government not only openly hosts a group designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the U.S., UK, European Union and Canada but is one of its biggest benefactors. The country is also home to the Taliban leadership, who established an official office here in the early 2010s.


Similarly, even as Saudi Arabia has grown closer to China, and we have seen bumps in their U.S. relationship, they are not about to turn their back on the U.S. and align with China anytime soon. While China was brokering the deal with Iran, the Saudis were negotiating with the Biden administration to normalize relations with Israel, in return for a NATO-like defense pact with the U.S. and help to develop a civilian nuclear program. Then there is the fact that even though ties with Iran were restored, the Saudis and Iranians continue to have an uneasy relationship and are still engaged in a proxy war in Yemen.


India, the fourth largest economy in the world, also sits in this gray zone. Much to Mr. Biden’s chagrin Mr. Modi has refused to condemn Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and in direct violations of sanctions, dramatically increased India's purchase of Russian crude.


The reason India can operate in this gray area is that the U.S. sees it as the biggest bulwark against China. Though India and China share a common ally in Russia, they remain sworn enemies, which explains why India got a free pass on buying Russian oil and why Mr. Biden has been careful not criticize Mr. Modi on India's backsliding of democratic norms.


There is no love lost between Mr. Xi and Mr. Modi. The former chose to skip the recent G20 summit in India. It was the first time Mr. Xi missed a G20 meeting since he came to power in 2012, and Mr. Modi was conspicuously absent during China’s display of global influence at the BRI anniversary.


The Indian Prime Minister not only has remained steadfast in his refusal to join Mr. Xi’s infrastructure building program but has instead promoted alternatives. At the G20 summit Mr. Modi announced, with Mr. Biden, plans to build a rail and shipping corridor connecting India with the Middle East and Europe.


Compared to the Cold War, today’s geopolitical landscape is far more complex, more fragmented and has far fewer alliances that can be taken for granted.


Further, many Western countries are themselves rife with domestic political turmoil. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and others sense the weakness in the West’s power, as witnessed by the UK’s disastrous exit from the European Union, the U.S.’s refusal to ratify a major trade pact with Asia, the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the chaos of the Trump years.


Even within democracies, leaders like Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro and President Trump in America have been sowing distrust among the electorate around election results, in a bid to stay in power. India, under Mr. Modi, has seen its rating fall for the fourth consecutive year and is now ranked as “partly free” by Freedom House.


As a result many authoritarian leaders no longer feel the need to maintain a “veneer” of democracy. In the last few years, we have witnessed farcical elections in RussiaNicaraguaCuba and Guatemala and seen a surge in coups as far afield as SudanMyanmar and Kazakhstan.


The report states that China, Russia and other dictatorships have succeeded in shifting global incentives “jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security” while actively encouraging and supporting authoritarian approaches to governance.


In the new world disorder, authoritarian regimes are no longer isolated but instead able to thrive and actively collaborate with one another and can count on China and Russia to help prop them up, like in Belarus, Myanmar, Venezuela and  Syria.


Additionally, while misinformation and disinformation have always been weapons used by governments, the difference today is that they can be supercharged with artificial intelligence and disseminated via social media platforms that enable it to spread across the globe at light speed. Intelligence officials say that fake videos are being used aggressively by all anti-American actors, and some experts estimate that more than 90% of the content on the internet will be fake or doctored in the near future.


Much like with the Ukraine war, China and the U.S. once again stand on opposite sides of the Israel-Hamas conflict. On the world stage China has been offering itself up as a neutral peace broker in the Middle East. The Chinese foreign minister traveled to Egypt to meet with the leaders of the Arab League and held a flurry of calls with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia to coordinate their Middle East strategy. 


Yet the truth is that China's professed neutrality hides deeper ambitions according to experts, who say that China sees this crisis as a way to diminish U.S. influence, rather than to seek regional stability. As a result, they have refused to condemn Hamas, in a bid to curry favour with Arab countries, whom they see as natural allies to promote their agenda to “legitimize authoritarian practices and erode human rights protections”. Yet there is a danger that by overplaying their hand and alienating Israel to appeal to Arab nations, China's efforts could backfire and spark wider turmoil.


This danger is evidenced by the fact that even as China claims to be playing a neutral role, their state media has been blaming America for the conflict and has been perpetuating tropes of Jewish control of American politics. There has been a surge in antisemitism on Chinese internet and state media has often been selective with the information it shares. Chinese media reported on the hospital explosion in Gaza, stating Palestinian claims that Israel was behind the attack, but did not share subsequent intelligence analysis and video footage that suggests it was likely a failed Palestinian rocket destined for Israel.


However, despite all this, while the danger of a regional conflagration is high, it is not inevitable. Even as China takes advantage of the situation and seems to be stoking the fires, like the U.S. it wants a stable Middle East because it has a lot to lose if the conflict widens into a regional one.


As the world's largest oil importer, China needs a stable Middle East to fuel its economy. Around half of China’s oil imports come from the Persian Gulf. The Saudis are China’s no. 2 source of crude oil, Qatar is one of their top suppliers of liquefied natural gas, and they have been increasing oil imports from Iran which they get cheaper due to sanctions. 


The good news is that while it might be for different reasons, neither America nor China want the Israel-Hamas conflict to spill into a regional war. Working together each can use its respective influence to bring down the temperature. The U.S. has leverage with Israel and China has influence with Iran, who are Hamas and Hezbollah’s principal backers.


Another reason for pause is that the American and Chinese economies are deeply intertwined and while there has been political rhetoric about decoupling, the truth is that it would be near impossible to do, at least not without severe economic pain for both nations. This is why we have started to see a softening in tone from both sides. The U.S. is now talking about de-risking from China and Mr. Xi announced a few days ago that China is willing to cooperate with the U.S. and wants a more stable relationship, based on “mutual respect”.


Instead of trying to decouple and divide the world between them, the U.S. and China need to learn how to live and work alongside each other in a way that allows for intense competitiveness but also fosters collaboration to deal with global issues like climate change, energy, space and cybersecurity. 


The reality is that the world has become more fluid and transactional. Just as China offers dictators infrastructure, technology and arms with few strings attached, the U.S. will need to compete on transactional terms with its own basket of incentives that include free market access, technology transfers and security agreements, but it will have to do so without trying to force Western liberal values down the throats of these countries.


This does not mean the U.S. should acquiesce to China’s aims of authoritarian expansion or turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, oppression and unfair trade practices; it does mean that the US will need to recalibrate how it engages with a growing majority of nations who are taking neutral positions and seek a more pragmatic approach that will allow them to cut the best deals with both China and America.


The US-led world order still has a profound interest in seeing the spread of liberal democracy and that goal should not be abandoned. The US must be transactional but principled and assert its leadership more responsibly, using carrot and stick, rather than trying to do it forcibly.


The last time I checked the majority of the people in the world still were still clamoring to emigrate to America, and not to China. Most people in the world prefer freedom to oppression, but that does not mean they necessarily want America’s style of democracy. 


America must remember this and never use military force or attempt to install democracy like they tried and failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. 


Instead, America needs to inspire and lead by example, not instruction.

Thursday, June 1, 2023

The New World (Dis)order: PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin


(Image: Wallpaperflare dotcom)

NOTE: This is the second in a five part series.

PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV: Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel
PART V (
November): The New World (Dis)order


PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin


To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside: If you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history. All relevant decisions have been taken. I hope you hear me.”

-Vladimir Putin, 24th February 2022


In February, 2014 after three months of violent and sustained demonstrations in Ukraine, their Russian-leaning President Victor Yanukovych fled Kyiv. The Ukrainian parliament appointed an acting president and prime minister who immediately announced they wanted to bring the country closer to Europe and further away from Russia.


Fearing the Arab Spring could arrive at Moscow’s doorstep and banking on Mr. Obama’s non-interventionism, Mr. Putin invaded Crimea, days after Mr. Yanukovych fled. There is an argument to be made that his decision to annex Crimea was driven less by a desire to rewrite history and more as a strategic maneuver to ensure Russia’s Black Sea Fleet would not get evicted from its base in Sevastopol, as Ukraine drew closer to Europe.


However, regardless of his motivations, what is laughable is Mr. Putin’s claims that Crimea has always been a part of Russia, and that he was liberating its ethnic Russian population. Records in Russian government archives show that Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, under Stalin, and in 1991 Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from the Soviet Union.


At the time Mr. Obama condemned the Russian aggression in Crimea but insisted that the country was a "regional power” and said that Mr. Putin’s actions were a sign of weakness, not strength. He said the US remained committed to defending NATO allies but non-members, like Ukraine, could only count on non-military pressure and sanctions to dissuade Russia from making further territorial encroachments.


Again, Obama rejected the recommendations of his national security advisors and overruled Congress when they tried to send lethal military aid to Ukraine. A senior Obama administration official said that they did not want to “provoke Russia”. 


Unlike after Putin’s invasion of Georgia, this time the international community did impose economic sanctions and target members of Putin’s inner circle. Vice-president Biden vowed the sanctions would leave Russia standing "naked before the world”.


There is no question that the sanctions that were imposed after Putin’s invasion of Crimea hurt Russia’s economy. However, it is hard to pinpoint the direct impact they had because Russia retaliated by issuing a ban on food imports from Western nations, which contributed to rising food prices and inflation at home. Also, a drop in oil prices that occurred around the same time, put downward pressure on the Rouble. The combined effect of sanctions and these events helped exacerbate underlying weaknesses in the Russian economy.


The more important thing that happened is that Mr. Putin took on the post-Crimea sanctions as a challenge and decided to enact measures that would make the Russian economy less reliant on the West and sanction-proof in the future. 


Russia grew its foreign currency reserves to $631 billion, the fourth largest in the world. They adopted a new fiscal policy, cutting expenses to enable greater financial stability and withstand future volatility. They created their own payment system, in the event the West blocked them from SWIFT. They invested in homegrown food production to become self-reliant and far less dependent on imports from the West. 


All these measures should have been a clear indication to the West that Mr. Putin’s territorial ambitions were far from satiated. Also, Mr. Putin believed he held the ultimate trump card - he supplied 40% of Europe’s energy and the Georgian and Crimean invasions had not deterred Europe’s thirst for Russian oil.


From Putin’s perspective, it was a victory. The post-Crimea sanctions caused pain, but they did not cripple Russia or leave her standing "naked before the world”. If we reviewed his tally sheet, we would see that he achieved his goals in Georgia, annexed Crimea without a shot being fired and occupied the Donbas with scant resistance and with no consequences from NATO or the US. In addition, his popularity soared back home with the majority of Russians supporting the annexation of Crimea.


On the heels of his annexation and illegal occupation of Crimea, confident the U.S. would again not intervene militarily, an emboldened Putin sent Russian troops to Syria in 2015. It was Russia's intervention that made the difference and helped turned the tide in favour of Assad’s regime. 


Obama’s non-intervention in Syria had given Mr. Putin an opportunity to get a foothold in the Middle East. This was something Russia had wanted since the end of the Cold War, and now they were able to do it while sidelining America.


The fact is that every post-Cold War US President has underestimated Mr. Putin and failed to understand his motivations. A fundamental miscalculation of successive administrations is that unlike in democracies, where we think in four or five year terms, autocrats play the long game and plan their moves over decades, not over election cycles.

 

In 2001, Bush famously said that he had looked in Putin’s eyes and had,“seen his soul” and found him to be “very straightforward and trustworthy”. Bush was partly right because in 2008, Putin told Bush in a straightforward way during a one-on-one meeting that Ukraine was not a real country, a comment the US President laughed off.


President Obama, like his predecessor, believed he could tame Mr. Putin and declared the infamous Russia ‘reset,’ after taking office in 2009. This foreign policy reboot was launched with much fanfare when Hillary Clinton presented Sergei Lavrov with a cartoonish “reset” button which misspelled the word in Russian. 


Mr. Obama scrapped plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The administration claimed it was due to a reduced threat from Iran and technological challenges, but it was widely seen as a move to appease Mr. Putin in order to win Russian support for a vote in the UN Security Council. The vote would support tougher sanctions on Iran and bring them to the negotiating table for the deal Mr Obama sought.


Obama’s most memorable quip, reinforcing his naivety about Russia, came in the form of his response to Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential debate. After candidate Romney stated that Russia remained one of America’s greatest national security threats, Obama retorted, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War's been over for 20 years”.


To understand Mr. Putin, we have to go back to the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. His worldview was formed during this time, while he was in the KGB. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, he was stationed in Dresden, Germany. He witnessed first-hand how leaders and systems could be toppled when citizens grew too powerful. While Putin acknowledged that the Soviet Union had been in decline, he believed it was ailing due to paralysis of power and the frailty of political elites.


He wrote in his autobiography that after his office was surrounded by protestors threatening to storm the building, he called the Red Army’s German tank unit, stationed nearby, and asked them for protection. They said they could not do anything without orders from Moscow. They had reached out but no orders came. The words “Moscow is silent” are said to have haunted Putin his whole life, and shaped his worldview. 


Putin watched helplessly as everything he spent years building collapsed in the blink of an eye. First, East Germany disappeared when it was reintegrated into the West, and then the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated. In his mind, this was a direct result of the weakness of its current leadership.

 

Mr. Putin’s ambition has always been to rebuild the Russian Empire and unite all the people displaced after its collapse. He has publicly stated these aims many times. In a 2005 address to the Russian Duma, he said ”…the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.”


In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference he started by asking the audience not to get angry, or turn on the red light because his remarks might seem “polemical, pointed or inexact”. Then he launched into a tirade about United States “unipolar” global domination after the Cold War and how America’s “Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems” but created more conflict and human tragedy. 


Alluding to the US invasion of Iraq he said “We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law” and added that  “… the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.” “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”


He expressed concerns about NATO’s expansion, saying it had less to do with “modernization” or “ensuring security” and was a “serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust.” He spoke of a new world order that would upend the current one. 


He pointed to the fact that the combined GDP of India and China was greater than the U.S. and that the BRICs - Brazil, Russia, India and China - cumulative GDP surpassed that of the EU. He warned that the “economic potential” of these new centers of power would soon translate into political influence”.


Mr. Putin is convinced that the West actively works to undermine Russia, inflicting their woke, weak and morally bankrupt ideology to foment and finance colour revolutions across former Soviet republics. We saw this paranoia on display when Mr. Putin rapidly deployed “peacekeeping” troops as part of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to quell growing unrest in Kazakhstan last year.


In March 2014, Mr. Putin made a speech to both houses of parliament about the annexation of Crimea. He claimed, after holding an illegal referendum, that 96% of people had voted in favour of reuniting with Russia. In the same speech, he put the West on notice that Russia would be staking further territorial claims. 


Then in July, 2021 he laid out his mission in a 5,000 word essay entitled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which he argued that Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians are all descendants from Ancient Rus. That they are still bound by a common language and faith. According to his version of history, Ukraine has never been a sovereign nation, except for a few times when it tried and failed to become an independent state.


He accused the West of using Ukraine to undermine Russia and made false claims about Zelensky’s government actively supporting “Neo-Nazi’s” and burning people alive in Odessa. He concluded that the sovereignty of Ukraine was only possible in partnership with Russia and declared “we are one people.”


Mr. Putin has never hidden his ambitions to restore Russian greatness which he is convinced was robbed by the West, making it hard to believe that he will stop at Ukraine, even though his invasion had not gone according to plan. 


He has made it amply clear that until every former Soviet republic is fully subservient or part of Russia, Russia's very existence is threatened. Along the way he seeks to diminish US influence in Europe, degrade NATO and form a new anti-US global alliance.


There is no question that Mr. Putin’s and his generals badly miscalculated the Ukrainian invasion on every front. They underestimated the level of resistance from a disciplined and well-trained Ukrainian army, while overestimating the capability of their own forces. The biggest surprise , which nobody saw coming, was President Zelensky’s Churchillian rise and his ability to rally not just his fellow countrywomen, but the U.S. and Europe. 


With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine not going according to plan, some observers believe it might dissuade him from achieving his goals and lead him to look for an off-ramp. I disagree. 


Despite the Russian army’s battlefield humiliation, Mr. Putin remains in a strong position to finance his war because the Russian economy, while it did wobble, is far from hobbled. In fact, it weathered the sanction storm better than anyone predicted. 


Russian economic output contracted a mere 2.1% in 2022, surprising some economists who had expected a catastrophic meltdown. Meanwhile, the war has damaged billions of dollars of infrastructure and caused the Ukrainian economy to shrink by more than 30% in 2022.


An independent poll taken immediately after the invasion found that 58% of Russians approved of Putin’s military action, while 23% opposed it. Most people expected support to drop as the average Russian began to feel the day-to-day pain of Western sanctions and losses on the battlefield mounted, but the opposite has transpired with support for the war hardening and less than one fifth of Russians now opposing it. 


But Russian support must be taken with a bag of salt because Mr. Putin has unleashed a wave of repression with new laws that punish people who spread misinformation. Sharing “false information" includes using the word ‘war’, for which people can face up to 15 years in prison. 


Public works deemed critical of the war have resulted in exhibits being torn down and replaced with state propaganda. Actors, writers and artists have been hounded and forced out of jobs. Curricula in schools and universities have been changed, and students are being taught to report teachers who talk of peace, and Russians are encouraged to snitch on anyone who opposes the war.


A single father was recently sentenced to three years in prison for social media posts that came to light after his daughter made a drawing for a school project with the words “No to War” under the picture. The thirteen year old girl has been placed in a state orphanage, after her father fled arrest.


In addition, the Russian government is doling out cash payments in the country’s most impoverished regions to buy public support, and brainwashing the population. Every media outlet that countered the false state narrative has been shut down and replaced by propaganda that paints the war as “far away,” while highlighting Mr. Putin’s “economic successes, new welfare benefits and renovated clinics”.


It is true that Mr. Putin believed that European support for Ukraine would crumble fast because of their reliance on Russian energy. However, while Europe has managed to miraculously cut their reliance on Russian gas by almost half, India and China have massively increased their oil purchases, which has eased part of the hole it might have caused in Mr. Putin’s coffers, and thus his ability to continue financing his war.


To further hurt Mr. Putin’s ability to finance his war, last December the EU added a ban on sea borne Russian oil into the Europe, and prohibited European insurance and shipping services from transporting it anywhere in the world. At the same time G7 nations put a price cap on Russian oil of $60 per barrel, hoping it would deliver the fatal blow to Russia’s war chest.

 

Earlier this year, research by Columbia University found that the ban and price cap have not had the intended effect on the flow of Russian oil, and that Russia has been commanding prices ranging from $74 - $82 per barrel from China, India and other countries. A New York Times investigation used publicly available shipping data to track the movement of some of these shadow oil tankers. However, more recently there is new evidence that the price cap is starting to work and oil revenues have declined substantially, but it is still not to anywhere near a level that would bankrupt Russia, or prevent Mr. Putin from continuing to fund his war.


So, Mr. Putin has no reason either to acquiesce to peace talks or to agree to terms that would amount to a humiliating loss of pride and his political clout. For Mr. Putin to admit he wants an off-ramp, one that would result in a territorial retreat, would be a fate worse than death. For the time being we are at an impasse, with neither side willing to negotiate anything short of complete victory.


Prior to the war the NATO alliance looked fragile and fractured, with President Macron publicly declaring it “brain-dead”. NATO’s weakness is something Mr. Putin likely factored into his calculations, but unfortunately for him Russia’s invasion had the opposite effect, not only jolting NATO back to life but also bolstering European unity. 


Mr. Putin has claimed that his invasion of Ukraine was partly intended to stop NATO expansion by sending a message to other countries that border Russia not to join NATO. This too has not worked out for Mr. Putin, as the previously neutral nordic countries of Sweden and Finland overwhelmingly voted in favor of joining NATO.


Europe also got lucky with an unusually warm winter, which helped avert an energy crisis. Also, they were helped with the US boosting natural gas deliveries and brokering deals with countries like Qatar to fill the gaps. However, these are not long-term solutions and the jury is still out on whether Europe can survive a harsh winter next year.


So, where do we go from here?


Mr. Putin has made it clear that he is digging in for a long, drawn out war of attrition. This is a man who has no respect for life, so he will keep throwing ill-equipped, poorly trained Russian troops as cannon fodder onto the battlefield. While the Ukrainians have shown tremendous courage, resolve and tactical military superiority, they are reliant on the US and NATO for aid, equipment, munitions and weapons. 


To break the stalemate on the battlefield, President Zelensky is pushing for delivery of heavy weaponry like armored vehicles, tanks and fighter jets, and has grown increasingly frustrated at the pace at which they are being supplied. It was this request for heavy weapons which showed the first cracks in the Western alliance. 


Germany pushed back on sending tanks and only reluctantly agreed to send them after US prodding. Germany is also dragging its feet on doubling its defense budget, something Chancellor Schultz had publicly announced he would do three days after Russia invaded.


There are other cracks within the NATO alliance too. Hungary continues to play both sides because it is reliant on Russia for its energy needs. They even secured an exemption on the EU oil ban, along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. 


Turkey has refused to impose sanctions while significantly increasing trade with Russia, and continues to buy lots of oil. Both President Erdogan and Hungary spent months dragging their feet on approving Finland’s accession to NATO and continue to block approval for Sweden’s. 


While the US remains a staunch ally, President Biden now has to contend with a less Ukraine-friendly Republican Congress. If a Republican were to win the White House in the next election, Ukraine would most likely lose their blank cheque and without US support, they would not be able to stand up to Russia for long.


So it is in Mr. Putin’s interest to drag out this war. The longer it goes, the better the cards he will hold and President Zelensky knows that time is not on his side. He is acutely aware that only a decisive Ukrainian victory on the battlefield, sooner rather than later, will shift the calculus decisively in their favour, and force Russia to the negotiating table.


Read next installment in series:

PART III: China Awakens Under Xi Jinping