The Russia problem is really a China problem, and there is no easy fix after decades of failure

As Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border in advance of an expected invasion next year, President Biden believes economic sanctions alone can deter the threat, but Europe is so heavily dependent on Russian oil it’s difficult to see how that would be effective.  In the meantime, China is threatening Taiwan and strengthening ties to Russia itself.

Russia is massing on the Ukraine border for an expected invasion in early 2022.  The latest reports put the number at approximately 120,000 troops including the army, air force, and supporting personnel.  The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said “combat and other military equipment, such as tanks, armed vehicles and ‘Iskander’ missiles remain near the border,” after multiple Russian military exercises.  The assessment continued, Russia regularly “redeploys and accumulates its military units to maintain tension in the region,” allowing the increasingly rogue nation to “create striking forces rapidly, and lays the ground for quick reinforcement.”  The Russian presence on the border has been growing for months with military officials in the US and Europe believing they already have the forces in place for a swift invasion. Forces are also massing in the Russian satellite state of Belarus on Ukraine’s northern border a mere 160 miles away.  Intelligence gathering has increased  as well with the number of reconnaissance craft tripling since last year.

According to CNN, “Russian forces had capabilities in place along the Ukrainian border to carry out a swift and immediate invasion, including erecting supply lines such as medical units and fuel that could sustain a drawn-out conflict.”  Russia itself denies the charge, however.  President Vladimir Putin claimed the suggestion his country was planning to invade Ukraine was “provocative.”  “Russia is pursuing a peaceful foreign policy. But it has the right to ensure its safety,” he explained at a news conference on Wednesday while expressing concern at the prospect of Ukraine becoming a NATO member at some point in the future.  Ukrainian Defense Minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, believes there might be some truth to that, saying “This gathering of their troops alongside of our border, it’s a main goal of them to make destabilization process inside of our country, to stop us in our way. But we go into the NATO ally, we’re going to EU.”

This hasn’t dispelled concerns that an invasion is actively in the works.  The Russian news conference followed a one-on-one virtual meeting between Mr. Putin and US President Joe Biden on Tuesday, which sources report got heated at times.  President Biden is said to have warned his Russian counterpart about the consequences of an invasion including supposedly crippling sanctions.  This is in addition to supplying small arms and ammunition to Ukrainian forces as part of a $60 million security assistance package approved earlier this year.  Inexplicably, however, President Biden stated emphatically that there was no threat of direct US military involvement or ground forces of any kind.  President Biden repeated this when speaking to reporters on Wednesday, saying troops were “not on the table” and he was hoping there would be a round of meetings between NATO and Russia as soon as today.

The meetings would be to “discuss the future of Russia’s concerns relative to NATO writ large” and whether we can somehow come up with an accommodation that would bring “down the temperature along the eastern front.” Some are saying this proposed meeting is likely to result in concessions from the US and Europe to avoid war, appeasement in other words.  President Biden claimed he offered no accommodations at the virtual meeting and instead took the opportunity to re-emphasize the sanctions-only approach, promising consequences that no one has seen before, literally.  “There were no minced words,” he said. “I made it very clear: if in fact he invades Ukraine, there will be severe consequences, severe consequences, economic consequences like none he’s ever seen or ever have been seen.”  These sanctions would presumably include cutting Russia off from Western banking and financial markets as well as potentially forbidding US companies from doing business in Russia. 

Unfortunately, it’s entirely unclear how such sanctions would be enforced when Russia is Europe’s primary energy supplier.  According to Clean Energy Wire, almost 60% of European fossil fuels are imported.  Of that 60%, Russia supplies 30% of the petroleum, 40% of the gas, and 42% of the solid fuels. Are we really supposed to believe that the EU is going to participate in sanctions that cut off their own energy supply?  Sadly, the sanctions approach might have been effective if President Biden had continued former President Trump’s efforts to increase American energy production and supply Europe directly.  Instead, the Biden Administration has both restricted US energy production and exports, while simultaneously authorizing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia.  This means we are actively facilitating Russia’s control of European energy, effectively neutering any potential sanctions before they even start.  In fact, the new pipeline would have ultimately doubled the amount of oil flowing from Russia into Germany, but fortunately Germany itself suspended the project last month after a public outcry.  This still leaves us with the undesirable status quo:  Any sanctions on Russia would devastate Europe, making Europe unlikely to back them in any meaningful way.  In other words, without the threat of military force, it’s unlikely there is anything at all we can do to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine other than issue strongly worded letters.

At the same time, a Russian invasion of Ukraine might only be a minor challenge in the overall geopolitical order.  For all Russia’s designs on reliving the glory days of the Soviet Union, they remain a dysfunctional country with a relatively weak economy.  By comparison, the United States boasts a population almost two and half times the size, and a GDP almost five times larger.  The threat from Russia can be and has been contained, largely successfully save for a lot of sabre rattling and a few mostly inconsequential land grabs in Crimea and Georgia.  The threat from China, however, is far more real and more difficult to address given their GDP is currently approaching three fourths of the United States and their population is more than four times the size.  The communist dictatorship has both military capacity and the desire to exert as much influence as possible on the world stage, and, making matters worse, they are already deeply engaged with Russia.

This unfortunate trend began under President Obama and continues apace.  The Rand Corporation reports that “China and Russia have strengthened their relationship, increasing political, military, and economic cooperation” since 2014.  Further, “The authors expect that the Sino-Russian relationship will continue to strengthen” and that “China’s relative share of power will increase relative to the United States and Russia at least through 2022 and that aggregate Chinese and Russian power will continue to approach, but not exceed, U.S. power through 2022.”  This increasingly close alliance includes “the likelihood of continued Chinese-Russian military technical cooperation” and the “potential for Chinese-Russian joint military planning.”  The Rand Corporation’s conclusion is sobering to say the least.  “The potential for enhanced global presence by Chinese and Russian forces enabled by leveraging each other’s currently limited extra-regional resources and footprint increases the likelihood of contact and perhaps confrontation with those forces on a global scale. The U.S. military should expect to encounter Chinese and Russian forces during out-of-area or contingency operations on a more regular basis and develop appropriate skills (such as increased numbers of Foreign Area Officers) and protocols to engage with them on a hopefully nonconfrontational basis.”  Nor does the Rand Corporation think there’s anything we can do about it, writing “There is little that the United States can or should do to change the overall trajectory of Sino-Russian relations, given current overall U.S. policy priorities, especially policy toward Russia.”

As a result, China has already indicated they wouldn’t get involved if Russia invaded Ukraine.  The South China Morning Post claimed that China is “unlikely to take sides” in the potential conflict while sticking to the story that 120,000 troops on the Ukrainian border is simply to keep them out of NATO.  They report that “Feng Yujun, director of the Centre for Russian and Central Asian studies at Fudan University, said Russia’s troop deployment was a message from Moscow to the US to stop Ukraine from joining Nato.”  Mr. Yujun further explained, “The US is spending its main resources on the Indo-Pacific region against China, so it doesn’t want to create another [complicated situation] in Europe.”  In other words, we’re in a box and China has no qualms at all about Russia mounting an invasion, by not taking sides they will be implicitly supporting it.

In fact, China might be planning one of their own in Taiwan.  Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday China is properly preparing to “unify” Taiwan, describing the threat as “real and dangerous.”  “Bolstering Taiwan’s defenses is an urgent task,” he explained. “We are modernizing our capabilities, updating U.S. force posture and developing new operational concepts.”  Taiwan has maintained independence from China and a separate government since 1949, but the Chinese Communist Party has always embraced a “One China” policy that includes the island nation.  Recently, they have stepped up their aggressive actions, increasing their naval presence in the Taiwan strait and flying aircraft directly over the country.  In response, the US has provided some $32 billion in arms deals to Taiwan since 2009, even as the Taiwanese people worry an invasion is imminent.  “Let me be clear: This is an absolute priority,” Mr. Ratner said.

Unfortunately, there might be even less we can do to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan than a Russian of Ukraine.  Almost every major American company, from Apple to the NBA, is deeply dependent on the communist country, often defending China at the expense of the US, and the American people are just as dependent on Chinese products.   The US imported some $434.7 billion worth of goods in 2020, up 19% since 2010, accounting for over 20% of total imports.  Therefore, any meaningful attempt to punish China would almost equally punish the American people, already reeling from inflation and a supply chain crisisThis is why I have argued that the bipartisan infrastructure bill and Build Back Better are both missing the real opportunity to disengage our supply chain and restart American manufacturing, but for some reason these goals are rarely, if ever, mentioned.

In the meantime, we’re potentially facing a nightmare scenario where Russia moves into Ukraine and China moves into Taiwan simultaneously, and there’s not a thing we can really do about it without great costs to the American people.  This is what the Establishment hath wrought over the past 30 years or more, and perhaps even worse, there is no short term way out of this mess.  We aren’t going to go to war with Russia or China, and economic deterrence will have minimal effect.  These two countries together can upend the entire geopolitical order and move on to threaten others, devastating the balance that has existed since the end of the Cold War.  The only way out is to recognize that our trade and economic policies have been disastrous, and both seem to be inexplicably getting worse:  Increase American energy to neutralize Russia and manufacturing to limit China while keeping the threat of targeted force on the table.  Between the three, we can likely contain the threat for long enough to achieve our objectives through the soft power of hard cash.  The alternative, I fear, will be war at some point.

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