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Observations of an Expat: Russia: Threat. China: Challenge

By Tom Arms

The problem of Russia and Ukraine or Russia and anywhere else is inextricably linked to China.

Vladimir Putin would not be poised to crush Ukraine without the tacit support of President Xi Jinping. He received it when he was one of a handful of heads of state who graced the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics with their presence.

The statement that followed their meeting pledged mutual protection and stressed their common interests (Taiwan and Ukraine). But it fell short of blanket approval for a Russian invasion.

China has too much to lose if Russia invades Ukraine and destabilises Europe and the US. It has spent many billions on its Belt/Road initiative linking Chinese factories to European markets. It wants those pesky Europeans to be able to buy Chinese goods. Beijing also holds over a trillion dollars in American debt. Full-throated support for a Russian invasion of Ukraine would hit the value of the dollar and devalue that debt.

The Chinese are an autocracy. They don’t like democracies. They see them as a threat to their interests, values and the all-embracing Chinese Communist Party. But at the same time, their growing stake in the success of the economies of the democratic West dictates caution and a long-term approach.

China is a challenge to the West. It is not an immediate threat.

Russia is an immediate threat. Its historic paranoia; traditional ties with Ukraine; loss of its superpower status; dismal economic performance; a sense of inferiority; government-stoked nationalism; autocratic political traditions; and anger and humiliation over its loss of influence in the world combine with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and the world’s second-largest military force (China is first) to push Putin towards military solutions.

Moscow’s power is now limited to guns and gas taps. Putin is prepared to use these only weapons in his arsenal to reverse the humiliation of the Cold War defeat and pursue what he believes is Russia’s legitimate superpower destiny.

America’s Asian Pivot; its Afghan debacle, Middle East problems; lack of support for NATO and Europe, in general, has left the military door open to the Russian President. He is charging through.

The sweeping Asian Pivot initiated by the Obama Administration and reaffirmed by Trump and Biden was a mistake. The world’ second-largest economy and 1.4 billion Chinese cannot be ignored. It is a looming shadow over half a millennium of Western dominance.  But, as Washington is discovering, the cost of a pivot away from Europe is unacceptably high.

One of the major reasons for Cold War success was America’s exploitation of the Sino-Soviet split. China and Russia are not natural allies. Both nations crave power. They are also both at the centre of the geostrategic Eurasian land mass which British geostrategist Halford John Mackinder dubbed the world’s heartland. They have a string of territorial disputes in Siberia and the Russians have still remembered two centuries under the yoke of Asian’s Golden Horde.

One of the basic stratagems of British foreign policy has been to prevent the rise of a single dominant nation which could threaten the stability of Europe and drag Britain into war.  When it was in the EU it regularly switched its support between the two continental powerhouses France and Germany. America needs to employ the same tactic in Eurasia.

That does not necessarily mean cosying up to Beijing. But neither does it mean continually bombarding it with threats. China will remain a challenge to be dealt with but Russia is the immediate threat and it is made worse by its growing relationship with the Chinese and Washington’s inability to deal with it.

World Review

Hungary’s beleaguered far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban looks to have a secret weapon up his sleeve for the Hungarian general election scheduled for 3 April—Donald Trump. Orban’s ruling Fidesz Party enjoys a two-thirds majority In the Hungarian Parliament and appeared set to win another sweeping victory in April. But then in October, the country’s feuding opposition parties decided to unite under the leader of the provincial mayor Peter Marki-Zay. To make matters worse, Mayor Marki-Zay is a conservative. That is he is cut from the same right-wing cloth as Orban—just not as extreme.  In the 2017 elections, Fidesz won 2.8 million votes and the combined vote of the opposition votes was 2.7 million. Orban’s increasingly strident speeches show that he is worried about the coalition. He has branded Marki-Zay as communist, fascist and everything in between. He has also called on a series of foreign right-wing figures to support him. From America have come visits and endorsements from Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Tucker Carlsson and Rudy Guiliani. This week Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro flew to Hungary. Orban was an early supporter of Trump in 2016 and stood by him after his 2020 defeat. His relations with Joe Biden are poor. He was the only Western leader not invited to Biden’s Democratic support. Trump has repaid Orban’s loyalty with paeans of praise for Hungary’s anti-Biden, pro-Russian, anti-EU, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and anti-anything smacking of liberalism Prime Minister. The Orban campaign is hopeful that the global conservative standard-bearer will turn up to support Orban. Fear of covid has kept Trump inside America since 2020. But on 25-26 March the conservative pressure group CPAC will hold its annual meeting in Budapest.  Donald Trump always attends CPAC meetings.

France has quit. It is pulling its 2,500 troops out of Mali after nearly a decade of fighting Jihadist terrorists and the cost of many billions of Euros. The announcement from the Elysee Palace is a major blow to the war against Jihadism in West Africa and around the world. French troops were to West Africa what US troops were to Afghanistan. It will be difficult for other European countries who have been supporting the French effort to continue and will be as much blow to French prestige as the US withdrawal was to American. The French deployment in West Africa has been on shaky ground for the past two years, bedevilled by chronic instability and corruption. But the final straw came with the recent military coup in Mali and the refusal of the generals to hold elections before 2025 at the earliest. “We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share,” said President Emmanuel Macron. French withdrawal has opened the door to the Russians. “Private” Russian military contractors are being brought in to take over from the French. The Malian authorities have failed to explain the source of the money for the Russian mercenaries.

India is in the middle of a series of state elections. But the one that everyone is watching is Uttar Pradesh. It is the largest Indian state and the party that controls UP (as it is known) usually controls India. The ruling BJP of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds a whopping 312 out of the state assembly’s 403 seats. But the government’s handling of the pandemic, problems with farmers and raging inflation are hitting the BJP’s popularity ratings and causing some to rethink BJP Hindu nationalism. The BJP flag bearer in UP is saffron-robed monk turned politician Yogi Adityanath, the current chief minister. But he has been criticised for spouting Hindu nationalist rhetoric more extreme than that of Narendra Modi. His main challenger is Akhilash Yadar, whom the BJP ousted as chief minister in the 2017 elections. Yadar’s threat has increased as he has successfully forged alliances with several smaller parties. His election promises of free electricity and higher pensions have also struck a chord with the voters. The final result will not be known until 10 March. Until then Prime Minister Modi will be a regular visitor to UP and the promises will keep coming from Yadar in what is being billed as a referendum on Modi and his policy of Hindu nationalism.

Who can you trust in American politics?  Trump’s mounting legal problem seems to be dragging him towards a spell in an open prison. But then there are also mounting questions for Hillary Clinton over something called the Durham Report which has concluded that the Clinton campaign probably spied on the Trump Campaign (shades of the Watergate plumbers). After Trump’s 2016 victory, Department of Justice lawyer John Durham was tasked with investigating claims of Clinton meddling in the election. When Trump’s re-election was looking iffy in October 2020, Attorney General William Barr promoted Durham to the special prosecutor which meant that the investigation could continue after the Biden victory. Hillary Clinton has denied Durham’s charges which she has denounced as another Trump-inspired conspiracy. The truth is probably hidden in thousands of legal documents which are enriching hundreds of lawyers and dragging the already muddied reputation of American politics through a deeper oozy slime.

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