The West needs to recognize Russia’s significance

The Biden administration is being much tougher on Moscow than on Beijing. This makes little sense, as China is engaged in activities that strongly threaten U.S. and European interests. Less bashing and more openness towards Russia could benefit both sides.

Cartoon by GIS
President Biden has taken a much harder line against Russia than China. © GIS – This cartoon is available for sale in our shop.

United States President Joe Biden began his term promising a return to a more multilateral foreign policy that would include his country’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia in the decision-making process. Such statements raised expectations in Europe, though Brussels and the main capitals really discussed what it could mean. In Asia, however, the Biden team’s priority appears to be strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad), just as it was for the previous administration. The Quad consists of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, which came together to focus on military collaboration in the face of an increasingly belligerent China.

 During last year’s election campaign, Mr. Biden called China a “serious competitor” and Russia an “opponent.” This indicates that he intends to apply harsher policies toward Russia than China, even though, broadly speaking, Beijing has acted more aggressively.

It is true that several unresolved issues continue to cause tension between the West and Moscow. Among these are Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its military activity in eastern Ukraine and allegations of human rights violations.

Belligerent behavior

Yet the transgressions on the Chinese side are much worse. Internally, Beijing is committing something close to a genocide against the Uighurs in western China and is brutally forcing assimilation in Tibet. It is infringing on liberty and the rule of law in Hong Kong, persecuting Christians and trampling upon the civil rights of its citizens. Internationally, it has harassed its neighbors, bullying Taiwan and moving to enforce its expansive claims in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan. It also frequently comes into conflict with India at the countries’ border in the Himalayas.

In both human rights and international activity, China has been the worse offender.

Both Russia and China challenge the U.S. in cyberspace and stand accused of trying to influence American elections, usually by spreading fake news. In a robust democracy, such activities do little harm to the electoral process. Though it does not excuse such alleged behavior, history shows that trying to manipulate the politics of a competing state is not a new phenomenon. Such tactics are applied widely, including by the West.

Value judgments tend to be subjective, and the actions in these instances are not justified. However, it seems clear that in both human rights and international activity, China has been the worse offender.

Hostile approach

Putting values aside, there are real foreign policy interests at stake. The White House, logically, has mostly continued the hard line against China implemented by the previous administration. However, it is considering lifting some Trump-era restrictions, like an executive order preventing U.S. grid operators from buying equipment from China. The order was suspended for 90 days, and although administration officials said the prohibitions would remain in place until a review is complete, overturning it could allow crucial vulnerabilities into the American electricity grid. 

The Trump White House was also tough on Russia. It supported continuing the sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine, and took a clear position against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which could increase Europe’s dependence on Russia for natural gas. That resolute approach toward Moscow has now become hostile. Calling Russia an “opponent” is already strong, but the administration has ramped up its anti-Russia rhetoric after releasing an intelligence report that singled out Moscow for its election interference. Just last week, President Biden publicly said he agreed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “a killer” – a blatant, and likely intended, insult.

It is hard to understand why Washington would decide to bash Moscow. Doing so is probably a significant geopolitical blunder.

Though Russia is economically weaker than the U.S., has a smaller population and has close to no trade ties with the global superpower, it is hard to understand why Washington would decide to bash Moscow. Doing so is probably a significant geopolitical blunder. The West’s conflict with China is not only economic, it is a battle over global power and, especially, political systems. While this state of affairs can be ameliorated from time to time, it is unfortunately inevitable. Both sides’ military strength is already important, but it will soon become decisive.

Russia-bashing and the sanctions policy of both the U.S. and some European powers hurt Russian pride and nurture fear within Moscow that the West is trying to meddle in its internal affairs, even aiming at regime change. We must not forget Russia’s important strategic position. It is also a leading military power with modern systems and formidable strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities. Moreover, the sanctions have actually strengthened its internal economic capabilities.

Toothless measures

In 2014, during the Ukraine crisis, the West preferred verbal attacks against Russia and toothless economic measures, instead of taking a clear position and supporting Ukraine effectively. President Obama’s remark at the time that Russia was merely a “regional power” revealed an attitude that forced the Kremlin to demonstrate that it was more.

The sanctions were ineffective, and only antagonized Russia further. In fact, Moscow has begun to align some of its strategies with Beijing’s – although there is no formal alliance between the two. The Kremlin still wants to avoid a direct partnership with the Chinese, and therefore has tried to improve relations with Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea. In the meantime, European powers continue to impose sanctions.

The West is still where Moscow’s greatest geopolitical interests lie. A more open and respectful, but still firm, stance toward Russia is necessary. Such a position would support the political and territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors, but would also show rhetorical restraint and respect for the regime.

Russia and the West share some common interests, like fighting radical Islam, developing global trade and gaining access to natural resources. Focusing on these aspects could open the door to a more fruitful relationship.

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