Ukraine is certain to lose this war, and the only question remaining is whether this will come after a ‘long war’ of attrition or a sudden collapse at the front. As I have noted previously, this could lead to state collapse, a Russian occupation of all of eastern even western Ukraine, the rise of anti-Russian insurgencies supported by the West, and a Russian quagmire. But over time, Russia will be able to defeat any remnants of the Ukrainian armed forces and partisan armies and consolidate control over Ukraine in lieu of a functioning regime to negotiate an agreement that obviates the need for a Russian occupation of lands beyond those it has so far annexed. Eyeing eventual defeat in its effort to expand NATO to Ukraine and undermine Russia’s relatively popular president at all costs, Washington and Brussels need to save face, narrow the gap with Moscow, and forge a new European and global security consensus—one in which it can play not the leading role but a leading role with the world’s other global powers: China, Russia, and India.
Washington’s Failed Consensus
Russia is likely to emerge from the NATO-Russia Ukrainian war significantly enhanced in its regional and global power. This might even be the case should it lose even by its own criteria. In the case of a negotiated peace or frozen conflict, any Western attempt to restart NATO expansion to Ukraine will be met with a new war or ‘special military operation’ regardless of the outcome of the present war. In the case of a Russian victory, which is quite likely, then everything is obvious. The bigger winner may be China, but since Moscow is Beijing’s closest partner then Beijing’s win is also Moscow’s own.
The West’s ‘undermine Putin’ strategy has failed. Barring a downturn in health, Putin’s grip on power remans strong. The West’s emerging ‘de-colonization’ dreams are even more unrealistic. Although Ramzan Kadyrov’s reportedly waning health opens up the possibility of an intra-Chechen, inter-clan struggle for succession that North Caucasus republic, that does not necessarily translate into countrywide instability unless separatists come to power in Chechnya. There is no longer any significant jihadism or radical nationalist separatism in the North Caucasus. Russia’s largest ethnic minority, the Volga Tatars, are well integrated into Russian society and state, and the small nationalist movement that emerged in and around the Soviet collapse has abated. Equally delusional is the hope that a democratic alternative to Putin or his immediate inner circle or successor will emerge. The Kremlin has eradicated Russia’s democratic opposition parties, which, for the most part, were badly divided and feckless in garnering popular support anyway before Putin began further restricting rights upon returning to the presidency in 2012. The liberalization of Dmitrii Medvedev’s presidency and the resulting growing support for further republicanization, coopted by Medvedev’s republican concessions in resonse to the ‘white ribbon’ demonstrations of December 2011, were aborted by Putin’s rollback of many of Medvedev’s reforms and all of the latter’s republican concessions to the white ribbon movement. This was the last gasp of the Russian pro-democracy movement likely for decades to come and certainly for as long as relations with the West remain tense.
It did not have to be this way. Excluding the period of communism under the Soviet Union and of NATO’s efforts to expand, especially to Georgia and Ukraine beginning at the beginning of our century, Russia has never been a rival to the U.S. It may have been one of many competitors, but never a rival. Different geopolitical interests and worldviews do not necessarily make rivals. Creating military threats against other great powers does, and this is precisely what Washington and Brussels have sewn in three decades of attempts to expand NATO anywhere along Russia’s borders it prefers. The U.S. and India have different worldviews and interests, and they are not in any way geopolitical rivals. They would become rivals, if Washington and Brussels could and did attempt to expand NATO to, say, China and Pakistan. Rivalry involves concerted policies aimed at undermining another power’s perceived key national security interests. Otherwise, other great powers will be left as competitors, with which tensions are easily managed through negotiations and the judicious use of limited political and economic carrots and sticks.
New Consensus for a New World
In a recent article, Thomas Graham offered an expert comrehensive discussion of why Russia will remain important to the US, but it lacked one component (www.politico.com/news/magazine/2023/10/15/thomas-graham-russia-ukraine-00121247). That component might be called the ‘Eurasian component’: Russia’s pivotal grostrategic position in and powerful watershed policies to integrate Eurasia writ large. Geographically, Russia stands at the center of the Greater Eurasian landmass stretching from Belgium to Beijing and from Siberia to India and Iran. Russia is the only country which borders all of the world’s main civilizational players in Eurasia (Confucian Asia, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and the West) and it includes within four of the five (all except Hinduism). It is the only country with outlets to the Pacific and Atlantic oceanic systems. Politically, in classic geopolitical terminology, this is a strategy of organizing the ‘World Island’ against the ‘World Ocean’ or Atlantic West, symbolized and represented by NATO. Russia, in order to counter NATO expansion, and China, in order to keep Western power from threatening China by dominating Greater Eurasia, ranging from India to Russia and from China to Turkey, have together forged a network of interlocking international organizations encompassing almost all of Greater Eurasia: BRICS+, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union, and the One Belt One Road project. BRICS alone – only 11 of some 30 countries the Sino-Russian network of networks encompasses – no makes up more than a third of the world’s economy and more than thr G7’s share of the same. All this is ignored by Graham, though this is now the key geopolitical challenge to Western hegemony, constituting a new major schism in the world; one, moreover, that is extending to the African and Latin American continents, further underminging Western power and influence.
In the new bilateral or multipolar world in which American hegemony is no more, American power will be unable to achieve and — sans provocations such as NATO’s attempts to expand all along Russia’s western borders — indeed would be needlessly wasting its time with any ‘containment’ policy. Russia is not isolated, has largely given up on ‘friendly’ relations with most of the West, particularly with the US, has no desire to expand west or recreate the USSR or Russian Empire, and is becoming more and more integrated with the ‘rest’ or non-West with every passing day. Russia is no longer under any delusions about the West that would allow the US, moreover, to “harness its power for American purposes in the global arena,” as Graham proposes. This is a policy for the last century; one that Washington already rejected or at least badly fumbled in the 1990s, as NATO expansion and its rotten fruit have demonstrated. It is no longer possible, given the already noted Russia turn to and marshaling the Rest against the West. Moreover still, the US is undergoing a own major crisis that has devolved to the level of a cold civil war, with large swathes of society, the polity, and elite abandoning the country’s culture, political culture, historical legacy, and core principles. No country can survive rejecting itself. Ironically, the demise of the Soviet project – the moment that inaugurated the quarter of a century of American unipolar hegemony – is a prime example.
The best evidence that Graham – no russophobe by any means – is still living in the old ‘American century’ is what he proposes in order to ‘harness Russia’s power.” The first three of Graham’s three areas in which the US should harness Russian power for American interests are obvious and coincide with long-standing US policy goals: (1) strategic nuclear stability; (2) avoidance of a direct conventional military conflict that could lead to nuclear war; and (3) cooperation with Russia in addressing “transnational threats, such as climate change, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, international terrorism and pandemics,” etc. But he adds a crucial fourth: “structuring relations with Russia to best position the United States to deal with its major strategic rival, China.” For the pursuit of these goals, the West should not seek to weaken Russia or at least its economy, though Graham nods to the DC consensus that “there is good reason to seek to weaken Russia so that it lacks the capacity to invade any European country”. Nowhere does he address the issue of whether NATO expansion should continue to US policy or should it be stopped. The only hint of the issue is an implied recommendation that Europe assume some “strategic autonomy” and the EU have a “higher profile in security matters” so Russian would be more willing to consult with NATO, comforted by being able to “tell itself that it is no longer dealing with a ‘collective West’ run by a single center, Washington.” Thus, another Western deception, as Moscow will understandably see it, is expected to “open up more room for bargaining.”
In Moscow, such sops will no longer wash. If the war in Ukraine ends all of Graham’s first three tasks can be undertaken with Moscow, but no way, no how in the next few decades will Moscow reorient itself further from China and closer to the West, no less in order to help the latter contain or weaken the former. That should have been US policy in the 1990s and early 2000s instead of NATO expansion. This grave strategic miscalculation cannot be redressed, and the West and/or the Rest will have to live with it or die by it.
The easiest way to develop a rapprochement with Moscow that would been sufficient to engender a new trust and thus facilitate the US national security interests in the three spheres that will dominate US-Russian relations in the decades ahead – strategic stability, European security, and China – is to renounce any further NATO expansion and negotiate with Russia a European security architecture. Regarding strategic stability, continuing NATO expansion – inherently meaning continued Western efforts to expand NATO to Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – will limit Russian willingness to compromise and side less with China on them. This is true of nuclear and conventional arms control, WMD proliferation, and cyber issues. Russia will need more enhanced capacities in all these areas to counter any continuing threats from the West, most notably in Ukraine. European security, by definition, will be impossible to secure as long as NATO expansion is pursued, as the war in Ukraine amply shows.
End of the Triangular Game
The positive trajectory of Sino-Russian relations is impossible to slow down or arrest without an end to the NATO threat to Russia—full stop. The triangular game in which the West can divide and/or play Moscow and Beijing against each other is dead for decades to come. Similarly, neither Russia nor China is interested in dividing the other from America, since Washington does their work in this regard. They have moved on to dividing the Rest from the West. As long as the West worships NATO expansion, Russia will deepen its relations with China. Although it is may be true that there is a dynamic of Russia risking becoming dependent on China, this is a two-way street. The mineral resources of Siberia and the Russian Far East are the cheapest source of resources Beijing needs to drive its internal, regional, and global development. Russia’s natural resource riches ensure China will seek to take Moscow’s interests into account and that all forms of development will be of more or less mutual benefit. China has no record of military expansionism, and as long as the West does not pose inordinate security risks to Beijing, this will remain the case. Tyumen, Sakha, and Krasnoyarsk are safe from the PLA. If the West does move forward with expanding NATO to Asia – not the office recently opened in Japan – or using AUKUS or some other method of challenging Chinese security, then Beijing will only be more inclined to rely on the best possible relations with Moscow.
In his recent article Graham made a rather sensible and sophisticated proposal for weaning Russia out from under China’s wing: “This growing asymmetry provides the United States with an opportunity to attenuate Russia’s strategic alignment with China, as Russia seeks to maintain its much-valued strategic autonomy. The guiding principle should be to provide Russia with alternatives that enhance its bargaining position and ensure that deals, both political and commercial, tilt less favorably toward Beijing. A first step would be normalizing diplomatic relations as soon as the situation in and around Ukraine provides an opening, and easing sanctions in a way that would enable Western companies to cooperate with Russian firms in regions of interest to China, such as Central Asia, the Russian Far East and the Arctic.” A complication emerges for this strategy in that in the US economic sanctions are far more difficult to remove than to impose, and the level of russophobia has been ratcheted up so high that ending sanctions on Russia will be well-nigh impossible. Another complication will be China, which may be willing to sacrifice US business activity in China to compensate for any joint US-Russian business ventures. Especially in places like Central Asia or other regions entered into the Sino-Russian the Eurasian and global network of networks, China will have sufficient leverage on the target state to ‘encourage’ it to reject such projects – which will be seen for what they are – and sign up to replacement projects involving China and Russia.
In sum, there are certainly ways to heal US-Russian relations and use any improvement to weaken the Sino-Russian near alliance. Unfortunately, there are few healthy-minded strategists remaining in a decaying America, and there is no vision beyond NATO expansion, subordination or destruction of Russia, and the defeat of China. Washington still seeks to employ military means and charges of human rights violations against its rivals rather than seeking compromises, even as it largely ignores its own human rights violations and those of its allies in pursuit of a fading hegemony.
There is an old American expression that US policymakers might want to establish a new strategy upon: ‘If you an’t beat them, then join them.’ If Western values are truly universal, then the West can be confident that cooperation and mutual compromises with foes and the understanding that can be forged by economic and cultural ties and influence they will foster a ‘long persuasion’ that will allow a vision of human rights close to its own to prevail. In the bargain, conflict will, decline, war and violence will decline, and a truly republican peace will guarantee US and global security.
EUROPE BOOKS, 2022
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2021
MCFARLAND BOOKS, 2018
About the Author –
Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., is an Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com. Websites: Russian and Eurasian Politics, gordonhahn.com and gordonhahn.academia.edu
Dr. Hahn is the author of the new book: Russian Tselostnost’: Wholeness in Russian Thought, Culture, History, and Politics (Europe Books, 2022). He has authored five previous, well-received books: The Russian Dilemma: Security, Vigilance, and Relations with the West from Ivan III to Putin (McFarland, 2021); Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the “New Cold War” (McFarland, 2018); The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland, 2014), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), and Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction, 2002). He also has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media.
Dr. Hahn taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia and was a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Kennan Institute in Washington DC, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group.