Allow me to provide a short explanation to the out-of-touch NYT editors about why Russia will not be trusting Washington any time soon and has decided that it will likely get better results from the continued strengthening of relations with other important and influential countries.
First, there is the matter of the western corporate media, which is the mouthpiece for the political class, pushing accusations of every incredible crime against Russia’s leader short of cannibalism, and characterizing the Russian people as being inherently dishonestand so primitive that a significant percentage of them are still going to the bathroom in the bushes.
More importantly, however, there are the actual policies that Washington has implemented against Russia since Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated the end of the Cold War, after which Washington chose to take a triumphalist attitude, seeking to press its foot on a supine Russia’s chest as it flexed its muscles in the middle of the ring while the crowds lapped it up.
As readers of this blog are well aware, Secretary of State James Baker, along with other prominent members of the leadership of the western world, promised Gorbachev in early 1990 that in exchange for allowing a reunified Germany into NATO, the military alliance would not move “one inch east” further toward Russia’s borders. This promise was crucial in getting Gorbachev’s agreement as Germany had marched into Russia through the Polish-Ukrainian corridor twice in the first half of the 20th century, the second time resulting in the deaths of 27 million Soviets and the utter destruction of a third of the USSR during WWII.
In 1999, against the advice of knowledgeable diplomats and others, Bill Clinton broke that promise and welcomed Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance.
In 2002, George W. Bush unilaterally withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, one of three legs of the nuclear arms control arrangements between the two nuclear superpowers, in order to pursue a possible first strike advantage over Russia, upsetting the strategic nuclear balance.
In 2004, NATO was expanded further with the entry of seven new members, including the Baltic states right on Russia’s western border.
In 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, during a visit to Moscow, had a heated exchange with Putin about the eventual entry of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Putin explained that Ukraine was a culturally and ethnically divided country and pushing Ukraine into NATO would likely set off a negative cascade of consequences that would ultimately be detrimental to both Ukraine and Russia. He warned Rice that such a move would amount to “playing with fire.” Two years later, in a cable back to Washington, then ambassador to Russia, William Burns, relayed a conversation with Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in which Lavrov reiterated that Ukraine in NATO was a red line for Russia, presciently citing the possibility that exploiting Ukraine’s divisions on behalf of NATO expansion could lead to a civil war and Russia would be faced with having to choose whether or not to intervene – a decision Lavrov said Russia did not want to make.
In 2013-14, the democratically elected leader of Ukraine was pushed out in an illegal coup, actively supported by Washington with neo-Nazis acting as the muscle, that brought an anti-Russian government into power. Crimea, which had historically been part of Russia since the late 18th century with a majority of its population comprised of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, also had an important naval base on its coast called Sevastopol. Crimea/Sevastopol had been administratively moved by Khrushchev in 1954 from Russia to Ukraine, with no one yet foreseeing the future breakup of the USSR. In 1991, as Ukraine gained its independence, Crimea remained with Ukraine as an autonomous region and Russia retained its naval base in Sevastopol via a leasing agreement with Kiev. As events unfolded on the Maidan in February of 2014, the Russian government feared that NATO could move in on its naval base in Sevastopol.
Earlier this year, with U.S.-Russia relations at an all-time low amidst the constant media rants of Trump being an agent of the Kremlin with Robert Mueller in the role of Mighty Mouse on his way to save the day, the Trump administration announced its unilateral withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the second leg of the nuclear arms control stool.
The New START Treaty, the third and last remaining leg of the stool, which expires in 2021, does not look like it’s long for this world either.
At this point, it’s no wonder that Russia would decide to turn toward constructive working relationships with other countries and multilateral institutions that aren’t controlled by Washington, such as China, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), SCO, the Chinese Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank, and others.
China is the world’s other major economic power and the leadership in both Russia and China have publicly described the relationship between the two countries as a “strategic partnership.” And the ties seem to be strengthening all the time. According to news recently aggregated by Russia Matters, Russia and China have stepped up joint military practices:
Russian and Chinese bombers conducted their first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific on July 23.
To reinforce the strategic importance of Russian-Chinese relations, the day after these maneuvers, the Chinese government published a “white paper” in which it promised to further increase military cooperation between the two countries. More from Russia Matters:
Releasing a new defense “white paper” on July 24, China vowed to step up military cooperation with Russia and accused the U.S. of undermining regional stability, the Wall Street Journal reported. The Sino-Russian military relationship, in contrast, plays “a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability,” the paper said.
Though it aspires to have the leadership role in the region, unlike Washington, China generally does not appear to adhere to a zero-sum mentality in its relations with other nations, opting to focus on investing in mutually beneficial economic projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union is working with the BRI, as is Europe, many of the central Asian countries, Iran and Pakistan. In order for this ambitious project of a modern, high-tech trade route on land and sea that parallels the old Silk Road, China and its partners need a stable Eurasia with a developed infrastructure. Therefore, peace is in all these players’ interests.
As for those who say that ties between the two countries are undermined by China’s potential future designs on Russian territory, I see no substantive evidence that China would do anything of the sort in connection with Russia – a nuclear superpower and, as Obama even begrudgingly admitted before leaving office, is the world’s second most powerful military. There is simply no reason to believe that China’s leadership is stupid or crazy enough to think such a move would be in their interests. It’s not 1969 with two loose cannons like Khrushchev and Mao at the helm.
Moreover, what Tao Wang of Yicai Research Institute stated at the East Asia Forum three years ago about the Russian-Chinese relationship is still relevant:
….China and Russia are still complementary economies. One is rich in resources and high military technology, while the other is good at mass manufacturing and rich in cash. This complementarity is well demonstrated by their partnership in Central Asia, where China provides investment in resource-rich yet unpredictable countries while Russia ensures the stability of ruling regimes.
So the question becomes: what does Washington really have to offer Russia at this point that would be worth them seriously considering throwing themselves into the Washington camp at China’s expense?
The only truly valuable things that Washington could offer are 1) meaningful nuclear arms control negotiations, and 2) putting a freeze on NATO expansion. Unfortunately, I don’t see either of these things happening in Washington any time soon. Even if Trump decided he really wanted to pursue these things, there is no one around him that could competently conduct negotiations and the infrastructure for meaningful diplomacy – as opposed to the “everything for me and nothing for you” approach that Washington mistakes for diplomacy – is non-existent right now.
But even more than that, why in the world would Russia trust any agreement that Washington got them to sign when it repeatedly breaks agreements whenever it wants? If there’s one thing that Washington has been a smashing success at since the end of the Cold War, it would be convincing the rest of the world that its word isn’t worth 2 cents.
Too many people in the insulated political class in Washington (I’m looking right at you, NYT editors) continue to see the world as a bad facsimile of a professional wrestling show where the goodies and the baddies can switch sides from week to week with just a change of costume and a ham-handed change of narrative at their direction. In the real world, when you’ve spent years pitching diplomacy out the window and systematically destroying any modicum of trust, it works a little differently.
Natylie Baldwin is the author of The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations, forthcoming in Autumn of 2019. She is also co-author of Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated, available from Tayen Lane Publishing. The book can be purchased in paperback here or electronically here. Publisher’s page here. In October of 2015, she traveled to 6 cities in the Russian Federation and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians.