April 22, 2021

Diane Francis

Apr. 22, 2021 


President Joe Biden overcame a stutter, bullies, and personal losses to become the most powerful man in the world. He is tough and not to be underestimated, but he has more than met his match, so far, when it comes to Vladimir Putin and possibly China’s Xi Jinping. This may be due to the fact that two of Biden’s top advisors —Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Climate Change Envoy John Kerry — are unaccustomed to street fighting and have been mostly immersed in the world of politesse, diplomacy, and policy.

But America is up against a thuggish Putin who has been mobilizing militarily around Ukraine, and, in response to Biden’s request last week to “de-escalate”, did just the opposite. Putin has banned foreign ships and aircraft from the Black Sea region, blocked diesel oil shipments to Ukraine, and spun a fictitious narrative about a U.S. attempt to overthrow the President of Belarus as a pretext for taking over that country. The region is on high alert. Evacuations have begun in some of Ukraine’s border towns, and on April 20 its President addressed his country on television and warned that war was possible and publicly appealed to Putin for a meeting to avert violence.

Simultaneously, but not coincidentally, China has been tightening its grip over its own “near abroad” neighbors. This week, Beijing directed Hong Kong’s government to imprison prominent democracy advocates for years on trumped-up charges concerning protests, then issued a threat to Taiwan that its ties with the U.S. would lead to war. Blinken pushed back saying it would be a “serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force.”

The next day, China flew a strike force of 25 nuclear-capable jets, bombers, and surveillance aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace, and over Taipei, in addition to amassing a flotilla of warships off its coasts. This build-up was precipitated when Biden brushed off China’s complaints about Washington sending arms to Taiwan as well as a high-level delegation to the country. China’s military launched combat exercises using live fire in the Taiwan Strait “to address the security situation” and, like Russia, has established no-go zones in the waters and airspace surrounding the island.

China’s malign activities are concerning, but Putin is the priority problem because his predation is well-advanced and backed up with a track record of invasion and lawlessness. And yet, as Eastern Europe quakes, the aim of Biden’s Secretary of State has been to appease the Germans and French by, for example, refusing to shut down Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline as Congress has decreed. And former Secretary of State Kerry remains hellbent on hosting his, and Europe’s, pet project, today (April 22) — a virtual global climate change summit, an event that will allow Russia and China to neatly shift attention away from their rapaciousness.

Biden hosts that summit even though he surely understands that there is no more time for summitry, naivete, and salon diplomacy over cocktails. He must weigh in privately or publicly at the right moment because these two rogue nations have become bolder. On April 21, Putin devoted his State of the Nation address to threatening the West with “swift and tough” action if it crossed his “red lines”. As he spoke, tens of thousands of brave Russian Navalny followers staged street protests across the country only to be bludgeoned and arrested.

Putin is playing the victim and stated unequivocally that “anyone who threatens the core interests of our security will come to regret it like they never regretted anything. I hope no one decides to cross the red lines in relations with Russia – and we will decide what these red lines are in each case.”

Putin’s speech points toward the likelihood that Russia’s sights are set on annexing Belarus, where mass protests last year against its rigged Presidential re-election were threateningly democratic. Putin propped up its flagging President, and will likely ink a deal shortly to govern and send in Russian troops. Unfortunately, this will surround Ukraine on three sides and also place Russian soldiers along the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Belarus has a population of 9.5 million, is resource-rich, educated, and the size of Romania or the United Kingdom.

Ukraine is the ultimate prize, but is also Biden’s “red line”. The country was not only the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and is now one of the most important agricultural exporters in the world. It was also the Soviet Union’s Silicon Valley. The Soviet space program, aerospace industry, tech world, bio-sciences capability, and weapons expertise were centered in Ukraine, not in Russia or other former republics. Even now, the country is technologically advanced and its army has become the largest in Europe, whose fierce soldiers have been nicknamed “cyborgs” by the Russians.

Putin’s speech about “red lines” was purposely vague but what are they? Ukraine joining the EU or NATO? Or is Putin saying that if Russia annexes Belarus, or invades Ukraine, then Washington, NATO, and the European Union should simply butt out? Following that logic, do his “red lines” extend to the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, and beyond? Then there’s Kazakhstan which may be next because its leader, like Belarus’s, criticized Putin for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea. And what are Biden’s “red lines”?

China’s recent aggressions seem slightly tamer at the moment, but it has vowed to “assimilate” Taiwan, by force if necessary. Combined with Russia’s bellicosity, their hegemonic ambitions are pretty terrifying. Their salami-slice bites of conquest — an island here, a province there — are adding up, and, including their takeover targets, would be quite substantial. There’s Belarus, a chunk of Europe’s biggest country Ukraine, (bits of Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova) for Russia, and for China, there’s the unfriendly takeover of Hong Kong, with an economy the size of Singapore’s, and technologically advanced Taiwan, an unlikely prize, with an economy as big as Poland’s. The bullies’ playbook is not about incremental growth. It’s about imperialism.

Their tandem drive for power will be the geopolitical challenge of the 21st Century, and a tragedy for those in their path. For instance, when Ukraine’s reform-minded President

Volodymyr Zelensky warned his nation of war, the day before Putin’s address, he said: “Does Ukraine want war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes. Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last man.”

Likewise, Taiwan’s plucky female President, Tsai Ing-wen, has also spoken bravely and defiantly in the face of threats from China with its gigantic armed forces and navy. The island nation-state is a showcase of enterprise and its 23.57 million have built the world’s 20th largest economy. She has vowed her government will work with neighbors and the United States to ensure the peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific region against threatened action by Beijing. It is spending tens of billions on bolstering its defense.

It remains a mystery as to what’s behind this bullying and is it opportunism or ideological. In Russia’s case, as I wrote in my last newsletter, Putin is a demagogue who disdains the West and likely ascribes to new world order — Eurasianism, or an empire run by Russia and another run by Beijing. Since 1997, Putin’s geopolitical playbook has been based on a roadmap laid out by Russian fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Skeptics may discount this, but Putin’s own words at a video conference in Crimea on March 12 belie a tribal underpinning and the demonization of America’s “culture” and history. “The development of the American continent by Europeans was associated with the extermination of the local population, with genocide, as they say, today, the direct genocide of Indian tribes. Then followed a very tough, long, difficult period of slavery, very cruel. All this goes through history, to this day accompanying the life of the United States. Otherwise, where would the Black Lives Matter movement come from? Until now, African Americans face injustice and extermination.”

Then he summed up the cultural divide in “super race” terms: “Although they [the American establishment] think that we are the same as they are, we are different people. We have a different genetic and cultural-moral code.”

China, on the other hand, is rooted in pragmatism. It has delivered, unlike Russia, dramatically improved living standards and quality of life to its people. It is the largest English-speaking country in the world, and millions of its people travel, study, and live abroad. Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping told a gigantic Asian gathering this week that China wanted to preserve the existing international order underpinned by international law, the United Nations, and the World Trade Organization. Seemingly in sync with Western values, the reality is that China wants the continuation of the status quo because these global institutions have failed to prevent or even proscribe China as it flouts laws in Hong Kong, threatens Taiwan, invades India, cheats in trade, and despoils the environment.

But then Xi added that he believed it was the task of both China and Russia to safeguard international fairness and justice. There you have the global challenge in a nutshell: collusion and a belief that they serve a higher moral purpose. This makes the bullies more dangerous. And it’s now up to Biden to devise ways, with global partners, to bridle and impede them from further disrupting the world’s peace and security.