Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has regained standing for his nation in the last decade. The combination of high energy prices and authoritarian leadership has allowed Russia to secure a stronger position on the global stage while boosting Putin’s popularity at home.
Despite the US-Russo relationship reset early in the Obama administration, the two nations once again find themselves on opposing sides due to conflicting interests in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Despite being at odds, the US and Russia will form an alliance, albeit nominal, in the next few decades due to two factors; regional dynamics in Siberia as well as the rise of Chinese regional hegemony.
The Chinese Invasion
Russia is the largest nation in the world, divided up into 11 time zones. While politically the Russian government divides the country into 85 federal administrative units, geographically Russia is bifurcated by the Ural Mountains, with one-quarter of Russia in Europe and three-quarters in Asia. European Russia is known for Moscow and St. Petersburg, while Asian Russia is known for the freezing prison tundra of Siberia. Due to its harsh climate, the Siberian region is sparsely populated. Yet what it lacks in people, it more than makes up for in natural resources. Beneath the veneer of subzero snow lays abundant resources of gold, diamonds, minerals, gas, and oil. Asian Russia is where European Russia derives its ability to project power.
The nearly 3,000-mile border between China and Russia was effectively closed for most of the Cold War due to China’s rapprochement with the US under Richard Nixon. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the border opened up and Sino-Russo exchanges took off. Ever since the opening of the border, the fear of a Chinese “invasion” of Siberia has been present in the minds of many Russians. Even though the border is accepted by both sides, there are certain elements within the Chinese government that do not recognize it. They believe it is a product of the Century of Humiliation where a great European power forced China to cede its territory due to its weakness at the time. The Russian-Chinese border was established by the Peking Convention in 1860, where a stronger Russia essentially demarcated a line on a map and obliged a weaker China to recognize it.
Aside from the conspiratorial apprehensions, the facts on the ground also dictate a similar pattern. While China’s burgeoning 1.4 billion people are occupying a relatively smaller land mass, Russia has a population of 140 million people. The numbers become even ominous around the border area of the Siberian region. The Russians have about 6 million people versus the almost 90 million Chinese. With the borders open since the end of the Cold War, there has been a large cultural and financial osmosis from the Chinese side to Siberia. The Chinese have flooded the area in investments, workers, trade and even marriages between citizens on both sides. With such exchanges, Beijing feels closer than Moscow; metaphorically and literally.
Recently, China decided to lease a large portion of Siberia from Russia in order to develop agriculture on the large swath of land. The land was leased for 49 years in exchange for annuities as well as regional investments. Many in Russia have decried the deal and point to the similarities between the US and Russia deal almost 150 years ago that became known as Seward’s Folly. The deal resulted in the US purchasing Alaska from Russia for mere cents per acre. While Russia has not sold but only leased the land, many in Russia believe this is one of the final steps before a full reclamation process by the Chinese. The territory contains what China so desperately seeks, energy sources as well as raw materials. With the land leased, the region is officially immersed in everything Chinese except the redrawing of the border. With the Chinese side of the border being so densely populated and the Russian side sparsely, a Chinese “invasion” looks almost inevitable. To justify such actions, China just might ironically employ the Putin Doctrine to “help” ethnic Chinese wherever they may be in the world if they are being oppressed by issuing passports for those in the region that are willing to accept it. Once they are donned Chinese citizens, the Chinese army can “move in” to defend them and secure the Siberian region as well. This tactic would be similar to the Russian justification in Abkhazia and South Ossetia or Crimea.
A Russo-US Rapprochement
Even though the premise seems far-fetched in today’s geopolitical context, nothing is impossible as history has shown. Today, Putin in a bid to outdo the US and the West has looked to China as an ally to rival what they view as the Western domination of global affairs. With the Russo-Chinese alliance being stronger than ever, the plausibility of such a scenario seems nonexistent. However with anything in politics, time changes all.
When the Soviet Union found a fellow comrade nation across its border with a similar communist disposition, the US saw a potential alliance that could have threatened it in the long run. But as Machiavelli pointed out, no nation wants a stronger neighbor than itself. Thus in 1972, Nixon traveled to China to null their alliance with the Soviets and bring the Chinese into the American sphere. In the end, the Chinese saw a greater benefit by allying themselves, albeit nominally, with the Americans who were an ocean away than a stronger neighbor across the border despite professing their commitment to the same ideology.
As China grows stronger, economically and militarily, and reaches the status of a regional hegemon, Russia will have two daunting apprehensions come to light; a stronger neighbor as well as a more populous one that can flood one of its very vital regions. In order to prevent such a disaster, the Russians will need to ally themselves with the US similar to what Mao’s China had done with Nixon. This eventual Russian-US rapprochement is not something out of a Tom Clancy novel or wildly unbelievable. Despite their antagonistic stances toward each other currently, the Russians and Americans will potentially become allies one day to help contain a growing China.
NYT Presents Strong Case for a War-Crimes Prosecution Against Russia
Whereas numerous instances of U.S. war-crimes have been documented in some news-reports well enough to be successfully prosecuted in international war-crimes tribunals (but the U.N.-authorized agency the International Criminal Court cannot prosecute U.S. war-crimes but only war-crimes by third-world countries’ leaders), such well-evidenced instances by Russia are far rarer. However, on May 19th the New York Times presented precisely such an instance, under the headline “New Evidence Shows How Russian Soldiers Executed Men in Bucha”. Local security-cameras there recorded the frog-marching to their death of nine Ukrainian men who weren’t in Ukraine’s official armed forces but who had become armed to fight against the invading Russian soldiers in Bucha, and who were then executed by specifically identified Russian soldiers and their corpses abandoned on the ground as Russia’s soldiers left Bucha. Locals also told the NYT’s reporters what they had seen, and it fit with what those security cameras showed. The NYT reported:
The execution of the captured fighters and the homeowner in Bucha “is the kind of incident that could become a strong case for war crimes prosecution,” said Stephen Rapp, former United States ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. The captives, having been disarmed and taken into custody by the Russians, were “outside of combat,” under the laws of war, Mr. Rapp said. According to the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, such laws mean that prisoners must be treated humanely and protected from mistreatment in all circumstances.
In addition to the soldiers who shot the men, their commanders could be charged if they knew about the killings and failed to act to prevent or punish the conduct, Mr. Rapp said.
However, Ellen Ioanes at Vox posted on April 9th an excellent article, “Here’s what the ICC can actually do about Putin’s war crimes”, and documented in detail that the consequence would be nothing except bad publicity which the U.S. and its allies could exploit, but even that would entail “a lot of hypocrisy” because:
one of the most vocal nations suggesting Putin be tried at the Hague — the United States — isn’t itself a party to the ICC. The US government voted against the ICC during the Rome Conference in 1998; former President Bill Clinton signed on to the Rome Statute in 2000 but never submitted it to Congress for ratification. Former President George W. Bush in 2002 notified then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the US would not ratify the Rome Statute and didn’t have to abide by any of its provisions.
The U.S. Government, and many of its allies (such as the post-U.S.-coup-in-Ukraine’s government ever since 2014) perpetrate war-crimes (such as this) far more heinous than what the NYT reports there, but that doesn’t excuse what these Russian soldiers did. None of these war-crimes will be able to be successfully prosecuted.
Here is the reason why the ICC, and the U.N. itself, turned out to be this way (Ioanes’s article provided only a superficial account regarding that matter — “A permanent international court is still relatively new,” etc. — but the actual cause, or reason, goes all the way back to answering how and why that has turned out to be the case, and this requires history going back to the 1940s):
Though the United Nations had first been conceived by U.S. President FDR in 1941 only shortly before the U.S. itself famously entered WW II on “a date which will live in infamy”; and though FDR developed, prior to his death on 12 April 1945, a remarkably detailed plan for what the U.N. would be and for what its Charter would need to include, his immediate successor, Harry S. Truman, while he was at the Potsdam Conference with Churchill and Stalin in July 1945, became persuaded by his hero, General Dwight David Eisenhower, that if the U.S. would not conquer the Soviet Union, then the Soviet Union would conquer the United States; and, so, on 25 July 1945, Truman made the decision (which soon thereafter became irrevocable) to set the U.S. Government onto the path of world-domination, to conquering the Soviet Union, and he even decided to demand of Stalin, regarding eastern European countries that the Soviet Union had freed from Hitler’s grip, that “I told Stalin until we had free access to those countries and our nationals had their property rights restored, so far as we were concerned ther’d never be recognition. He seems to like it when I hit him with a hammer.” Stalin was shocked at this turn of events, because he knew, in general terms, what FDR had been intending for the U.N. to be — a democratic federation of all nations which would terminate all imperialisms and be restricted to addressing only international relations (thereby excluding anything that pertains to intranational matters, such as Truman insisted upon) — and he still hoped, even for a few months afterwards, that Truman wouldn’t turn out to be a 180-degree reversal of what FDR had been, but thereafter Stalin gave up altogether on any such hope, and knew that the U.S. was now at war against the Soviet Union. Tragically, Truman, instead of FDR, oversaw, and basically dominated, the creation of the U.N., and so it turned out to be a toothless tiger, nothing like what FDR had intended, which would have been the international democracy of nations and possessed of a practical monopoly of geostrategic weaponry and international armed force, and also including, at the earliest practicable date, an international criminal court, which would try not only the international crimes by the former Axis powers, but the international crimes by the former Allied powers. The U.N. would have been fundamentally different than it is.
And, so, though there do exist international war-crimes cases regarding which the solidly documented historical record is sufficiently complete for an unprejudiced and trustworthy conviction to be possible, it cannot happen unless and until all of the bad history since 12 April 1945 (FDR’s death) has become effectively condemned, repudiated, and reversed, by enough of the world’s nations, so that the needed type of world government (international laws and their enforcement and juridical handling), replacing all of the existing imperialisms, becomes finally instituted (which was FDR’s obsession from 1941 on). However, even today — after all of these many decades of bad history — no one is even so much as talking about this.
One of the experts that Ioanes quoted said “‘It really shows a lot of hypocrisy,’ and encourages the perception of ‘justice for thee, not for me’.” And that (“for thee, not for me”) is, really, a pervasive and total impossibility of justice, for anyone. In its place can only be hypocrisy. Perhaps that’s what “liberalism” (which is certainly NOT progressivism) comes down to: hypocritical conservatism. Rule by the aristocracy (the super-rich), everywhere.
What is bad in the past must be publicly acknowledged (no longer lied about), if ever we are to go forward to an authentically better world. If that fails to happen, the world will only continue to get even worse.
Putin’s House of Cards: What will happen to Russia’s satellites if his regime falls?
The war in Ukraine has astonished even knowledgeable observers, impressed by Ukraine’s valor and ingenuity and by the Russian military’s ineptitude. While the war’s outcome remains unknown, many are beginning to speculate what Putin’s failure to achieve his objectives in Ukraine might mean for the empire he has tried to reconstitute.
Alexei Navalny has even suggested that a defeat for Moscow would result in the break up of the Russian Federation. But what would Putin’s humiliation on the world stage mean for those countries beyond Russia’s borders that he has dominated? What would it mean for leaders who derive legitimacy not from popular support, but from Vladimir Putin’s brutal patronage?
Bashar Al-Assad’s regime might be the first to fall. Assad recently traveled to the United Arab Emirates in search of new allies. Prior to that trip, he hadn’t left Syria in eleven years except for brief excursions to Tehran or Moscow, his main benefactors. Were Putin to fall, Assad could find himself as isolated internationally as North Korea and possibly the victim of a coup by his elite. Assad currently controls only 60% of Syrian territory. With the coming shortage of bread as a result of severely reduced grain exports from Russia and Ukraine, another Arab Spring could erupt.
The Lukashenko regime in Belarus cannot exist without the economic and power support from Moscow. The Belarusian democratic revolution of 2020 was suppressed by the Russian Federation. Lukashenko possesses few independent resources to defend his unpopular regime. His participation in the Ukrainian war has left him completely dependent on the Kremlin, effectively relinquishing his country’s sovereignty. The moment a political crisis arises in Moscow, the turmoil will immediately spread to Belarus. Currently detained opposition leaders, including Viktar Babaryka and Sergei Tikhonovskiy, whose wife Svetlana probably won the 2020 Presidential election, would likely come to power.
The government of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sacrificed Kazakhstan’s national sovereignty by inviting Russian troops to help suppress protests there last January, alienating the Kazakh-speaking majority, and the Almaty elite, who largely shape public opinion, and were already outraged by Tokayev’s orders to shoot peaceful protesters. The continuing turmoil has helped produce and is exacerbated by the sharp decline of Kazakhstan’s economy, Central Asia’s largest, a downturn compounded by sanctions imposed on the Russian Federation, and by Kazakhstan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union.
The future leader of Kazakhstan will be someone who has the support of the Kazakh-speaking majority, and isn’t tainted by last January’s bloodshed. Imangali Tasmagambetov has the best shot. Immensely popular, and not a Kremlin puppet, he might be the only candidate who could consolidate support throughout Kazakh society, and enact independent and pragmatic policies.
Putin’s downfall could encourage the advancement of universal principles of democracy and human rights in all of Russia’s former satellite countries, and the restoration of their territorial integrity. With the support of Turkey, Azerbaijan will take complete possession of Karabakh while ensuring its historic autonomy within Azerbaijan. Georgia would be in a strong position to recover South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
In Moldova, despite Acting Russian Commander Rustam Minnikaev’s recent claim that Moscow’s forces could extend control along the Black Sea coast to Transnistria, should the Russian army falter, Transnistria could be unified with Chisinău, paving the way for Moldova’s European integration.
At the same time, Russia’s defeat in Ukraine could propagate new geopolitical risks. Ambitious Turkey will increase its regional influence, and countries bordering Taliban ruled Afghanistan like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will be subjected to greater Islamist challenges.
China will take advantage of the situation. With Russia’s decline, Beijing’s Belt Road Initiative could supplant the Eurasian Economic Union in Central Asia. The influence of the democratic West will be limited unless the West provides greater economic assistance to countries in the region to encourage their commitment in word and deed to democratic principles.
Although Putin often compares himself to Czar Alexander III, his real historical parallel is Nicholas II, who believed a small victorious war with underestimated Japan would elevate his second rank power to great power status in the courts of Europe. The result was defeat on the world stage, and more violence and chaos in Russia. Putin made the same mistake with Ukraine, and the consequences will threaten the survivability of his regime and his cherished goal of restoring a great Russian empire.
In the Aftermath of Russia-Ukraine Conflict: Victory without Peace or Peace without Victory?
Little did Putin from last year would have anticipated that victory would virtually be absent on Victory Day 2022 – domestically, no triumph from the battlefield to boast; internationally, no political echoes from prominent world leaders (not even from China).
Putin seemed to attempt to belie the faltering, if not foundering, so-called “special military operation” with a speech twice as long as the one from last year, relentlessly decrying the aggression from NATO and the US which ultimately led to Russia’s “forced intervention” in Ukraine. However, in the absence of claim of victory, he made no call for threat of a nuclear strike or escalation of the existential war. It is not difficult to tell, therefore, all his self-styled hardball amidst the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is being supplanted by hesitancy and second-guessing, contra his unwavering determination from three months ago.
The subdued tone exuded from Putin’s speech can be logically attributed to a slew of Russian military failures prior to Victory Day: not only did Russia fail its “Plan A” – to take down Kyiv in 24 hours and its “Plan B” – to besiege Eastern Ukraine, but Ukrainian troops succeeded in securing further gains of Kharkiv and sinking the Russian flagship Moskva with its Neptune missiles. With unambiguous support from the US and its European allies, it appears that Ukraine is to see the light at the end of the war-torn tunnel, especially after the release of a short yet powerful video message given by President Zelensky, featuring an inspiring and adamant vow of “We won then. We will win now.”
Nonetheless, it is still far too early to conclude that the peace between these two nations is right around the corner, Putin’s intransigency cannot be negligible, nor can Ukrainian citizens’ rising nationalism big with vengeance when they have witnessed the approachable upper-hand on the battlefield. As early as March, Zelensky was starting to seek peaceful solutions to the conflict with Russia. However, when Ukraine is gaining an advantageous position, the flexibility that Zelensky can bring to the negotiation table may otherwise diminish as a result of the pressure from the public opinion.
Blind and inordinate retaliation can oftentimes backfire if not handled carefully. In the early stages of the Paris Peace Conference, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George proposed a peace treaty that would punish Germany instead of crippling it. He was fairly concerned that excessive punishment may push Germany towards radical ideas such as Communism, which in turn would cause chaos and misery. The proposal was concurred with by the US President Woodrow Wilson, who was renowned for his “Fourteen Points” as a basis for peace and also believed that it was those in power that should be punished rather than the people. However, Lloyd George eventually gave in to the anti-German sentiment and Wilson’s blueprint of the US joining the League of Nations was shattered by isolationists in Congress. Consequently, the Treaty of Versailles played a resonate victory symphony while producing a short-lived peace before the emergence Nazi Germany.
Compared to the leaders involved in the first World War, political elites in the early 19th century seemed to have a deeper understanding of the trade-off between victory and peace. Despite the chaos that came with the drawn-out Napoleonic Wars, European leaders such as Metternich still made long-term peacekeeping for Europe the cornerstone of the Congress of Vienna instead of dismantling France. Leaders then were not blinded by or complacent about the short-sighted victory. It was their comprehensive and insightful planning that generated the balance of power, which sustained the peace in the continent for the next 100 years till the Sarajevo Assassination that triggered the World War I.
Does the West want to see an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict? For most of ordinary people, it is a resounding yes. But for some leaders, the answer might become tricky. Take the Biden administration for example, what better way to compensate for the scores lost to the chaotic withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last year than a proxy war to cripple the already weakened Russia? As Ukraine’s resistance is gathering momentum, Zelensky needs to keep a cool head as he has done since the start of the war rather than being pushed around by either geopolitical calculations of great powers or irrational domestic thirst for vengeance. Pushing Putin too hard (e.g. suggesting Putin’s assassination) is likely to prod him to resort to drastic actions – a nuclear strike, which is something the West may not have completely prepared for. What Zelensky should prioritize is the peace in the region and the safety of Ukrainian citizens. After all, a lasting peace is more approachable and practical to prevent history from repeating itself than an abstract victory.
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