Whether Putin decides to wage war on Ukraine or prefers to adopt
the diplomatic path, time seems to be on his side.
The perceived decline in U.S. power in light of the Ukraine crisis will impact Russia’s role in the European security architecture. It will also help China in its competition with the United States. The crisis might also influence the Biden administration’s efforts in preserving its majority in Congress in the midterm elections this November.
As a result, Jerusalem will have to make appropriate adjustments to its relations with global powers and bolster its freedom of action in the region.
The Olympic Games have long been anything but a symbol of peace and fraternity between the nations. As was the case back at the height of the Cold War, the Olympic arena has once again become a political battleground.
The Winter Olympics in Beijing presented President Xi Jinping with an opportunity to showcase his country’s national power. At the same time, the U.S. waged a diplomatic boycott of the games as part of its fierce competition with China.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony as Xi’s guest of honor, becoming the first foreign leader to meet Xi in person since the beginning of the pandemic. The two presidents published a joint statement, unfolding a common view of international affairs.
This long, elaborate and assertive manifesto challenges global dominance by the West and states that there is no “one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy.” Instead, it seeks “genuine multipolarity” and calls to protect the “international law-based world order” as opposed to the Western concept of a rules-based order.
The joint statement also opposes the enlargement of NATO, “confirms that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China” and states that “friendship between the two states has no limits.”
Putin arrived in Beijing at the height of his political career. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he has succeeded in forcing the West to engage in a serious dialogue addressing Russia’s security concerns. This is an issue that, until now, the West had refused to acknowledge as a genuine problem.
Russia’s concerns include the enlargement of NATO and the subsequent deployment of forces and weapon systems near its borders. Although U.S. President Joe Biden has been trying to position U.S.-China competition at the forefront of the international agenda, far ahead of any other issue, the Ukraine crisis initiated by Putin in recent months has pulled the rug out from under his feet by taking the pressure off Beijing.
This crisis proves that Biden’s Russian policy has reached a dead end over the past year. Since the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, U.S.-Russian relations have effectively been in free fall.
In mid-2021, a Strategic Stability Dialogue (SSD) was launched to reach new agreements on nuclear arms control and cybersecurity. Biden assessed that a cautious dialogue coupled with a policy of containment would enable him to stabilize U.S. relations with Russia and thus slow down the process of Moscow’s growing proximity to Beijing.
The problem is that Biden wanted Russia to assume a role that is not part of Putin’s vision of Russia’s global importance. At the same time, Russia perceived the sluggish dialogue between Washington and Moscow as an attempt to evade any genuine discussion of its material demands.
The current standoff embodies a conflict between two world views: Putin’s realistic approach, demanding acknowledgment of Russia’s special status in Europe due to its power, compared with the Western liberal system that champions the right of states to determine their fate.
However, in Putin’s view, liberalism has long been used by the West as a disguise to justify ousting Russia from a position of influence in the states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and to undermine Putin’s regime by constantly applying pressure for greater democratization.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama’s dismissal of Russia as merely a “regional power” in 2014 represented the establishment view in Washington that Russia was a secondary-level threat. The paradigm of Russia as a declining power is a common misconception, which ignores its relative strengths – and attributes too much importance to the (relatively small) size of the Russian economy compared with that of China and the United States.
However, it is more appropriate to measure Russia’s largely autarchic economy in terms of purchasing power parity rather than gross domestic product (GDP). In 2021 Russia’s nominal GDP was estimated to be $1.6 trillion (eleventh globally). Still, the purchasing power was estimated at $4.3 trillion (sixth globally after China, the United States, India, Japan, and Germany).
Another deceptive figure is Russia’s defense budget of $60 billion, a mere trifle compared to the American $800 billion budget or China’s $250 billion. In practice, however, Russia, which domestically manufactures all of its arms, has the equivalent of $170-200 billion available to it annually.
Moreover, in contrast to Western armies, most of the Russian defense budget is used to procure state-of-the-art weaponry rather than pay salaries.
Russia currently boasts the most extensive and best-equipped conventional military in Europe, and with considerable combat experience. In addition, it has a nuclear arsenal comparable to that of the United States. Moreover, Russia has successfully translated its leading role in commodities markets, such as oil, gas, metals and grain, into political levers.
Russia has become relatively immune to Western sanctions to which it has been subjected for numerous years, as can be seen by its low national debt, foreign exchange reserves of over $600 billion, and a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China (in the energy market, an alternative financial system to the West, and a source technology imports).
As far as the Kremlin is concerned, the current standoff is a perfect opportunity to maximize Russia’s strengths, while its rivals are forced to contend with multiple, complex challenges simultaneously. Following the hasty and chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has been perceived as shying away from the use of force. It has already made it clear that it will not fight for Ukraine.
The Biden administration has failed to promote comprehensive reforms on domestic issues due to its thin majority in the Senate. Fissures are developing in the transatlantic partnership following the establishment of the AUKUS defense alliance with Australia and Britain, and bitter competition with China has deflected attention away from Russia. Moreover, public support for the Democratic Party is declining.
The electorate is beginning to feel the impact of rising inflation due to high energy and commodity prices, which Russia also influences. This situation might lead to a loss of the Democrat majority in Congress in the November midterm elections, weakening the Biden administration’s position.
As usual, America’s European allies are divided. Although they believe that Putin’s demand to close the door on NATO expansion should be rejected, they express concerns that biting sanctions will hurt them much more than the Americans due to their economic and energy dependence on Russia.
Further, Ukraine fully understands that it will be left alone to face Russia if war breaks out. The ongoing standoff erodes public support and economic stability in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government.
Over the last decade, the crisis with the West has caused Putin to expand ties with Asia, particularly with China. During the Putin era, all territorial disputes with China were resolved.
Moreover, an agreement has been reached that neither side will ever recur to military action, even if they differ on various issues. Russia’s growing proximity to China is accompanied by concern that Moscow might turn into Beijing’s junior partner.
China, for its part, has avoided conflict with Russia, although it was not prepared to pay a substantial economic price, for example, by ignoring U.S. sanctions on Russian companies. The present crisis has enabled Putin to demonstrate Russia’s considerable importance to China, strengthening Moscow’s maneuvering room between Washington and Beijing.
Whether Putin decides to wage war on Ukraine or prefers to adopt the diplomatic path, time seems to be on his side. The multiple diplomatic moves and slow buildup of forces are designed to obscure Russian intentions and undermine Western unity. This path also serves to pressure the West for concessions.
It is more likely that the United States will now have to take Russia more seriously. The current crisis might have a historical impact on European security similar to the results of the Second World War or the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It will also project on the global dynamics when Moscow seeks to draw closer to Beijing, giving it a stronger hand to play with Washington and Brussels.
Israel, too, should try to look beyond its own domestic and regional challenges and analyze the implications of the developing strategic shifts in the international community.
The expected damage to Israel’s Western partners’ power in favor of Russia, at least in the eyes of Middle Eastern actors, reinforces the need to maintain channels of dialogue with Moscow but might also bolster Western support for Israel’s actions in the region.
Moreover, global powers might find it more challenging to reach a consensus on the Middle East than before, especially considering Syria. This makes it more critical for Israel to get separate understandings or develop new partnerships both globally and regionally to expand its military and diplomatic freedom of action.
Daniel Rakov is an expert on Russian policy in the Middle East and great-power competition in the region. He served in the IDF for more than 20 years, mainly in the Israeli Military Intelligence (Aman). From 2019 to 2021, he was a research fellow at the Russian Studies Program in the Institute for National Security Studies.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.