Putin’s public enthusiasm to — as he phrased it — “fully restore relations” with the US after meeting with Pompeo proves that a “New Detente” is definitely being negotiated between these two Great Powers, and while this process is only in its preliminary stages, it’s still possible to discern that the main contours of this forthcoming deal will most likely involve Russia “rebalancing” its relations with Iran and China in exchange for sanctions relief and other perks from the US in the event that the two successfully reach an agreement with one another.
The geopolitical chessboard might be about to experience major changes for the first time since the New Cold War unofficially began half a decade ago after Pompeo’s unexpected visit to Russia proved that Washington and Moscow are both equally interested in reviving Trump’s 2016 campaign vision of a “New Detente” between these two Great Powers. The Secretary of State evidently passed along a startling message to President Putin because the Russian leader all of a sudden jumped out of his “tough guy” character the day afterwards and started taking the US’ sanctions threats very seriously while talking about Nord Stream II during a press conference with his Austrian counterpart, which strongly suggested that Russia finally realizes that the US perfectly understands its severe systemic vulnerabilities and isn’t afraid to exploit them in pursuit of its envisaged deal.
The Iranian Sacrifice
What the US really wants from Russia is for it to slow down the pace of its promised Silk Road cooperation with China prior to ultimately distancing itself from the People’s Republic in exchange for progressive sanctions relief and other perks from the US such as America finally getting Ukraine to comply with the Minsk Accords. The “New Detente” would of course have other components too such as a crucial Mideast one whereby Russia is expected to “strongly encourage” Syria to initiate Iran’s dignified but “phased withdrawal” from the country, but Moscow’s already trying to make progress on that front as it is per its commitments to “Putinyahu’s Rusrael“, the game-changing alliance between Russia and “Israel” that’s taken the region by storm after both parties became more open about it since the beginning of the year.
It also shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that Putin affirmed the day after Pompeo’s visit during the same aforementioned press conference with his Austrian counterpart that “Russia is not a firefighting rescue crew” whose services should be solely depended on for solving the latest US-Iranian tensions. During the same event, he also proclaimed that “it would be better for Iran to remain a party to this treaty despite everything”, which is a drastic change of policy from last week when his spokesman said that “Iran’s decision to suspend some of its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear deal is caused by rash steps taken by Washington.”
Seeing as how Russia’s reversal is happening at the same time as India complied with Trump’s sanctions and cut off its imports of Iranian oil, it seems obvious that the Islamic Republic is a pawn in this US-led grand bargain between multiple Great Powers, though one that will probably result in Moscow “managing” Tehran at Washington’s behest as part of a prospective “New Detente” in exchange for its influential oligarchs being “allowed” to monopolize the increasingly desperate and isolated Islamic Republic’s economy. If the US lifts its sanctions waiver on Chabahar (possibly as part of a quid pro quo with the global pivot state of Pakistan for its help in the Afghan peace process), then the resultant canceling of the North-South Transport (NSTC) through India’s implied withdrawal would make Iran much more dependent on Russia.
Compromising On China
For as “politically incorrect” as it may be, Iran’s sacrifice on the altar of the “New Detente” is necessary in order to get Russia to agree to the US’ main demand that it distance itself from China. Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is a very promising series of global megaprojects that would inevitably benefit Moscow too, which is why Russia so urgently needs a profitable replacement through its prospective monopolization of the Iranian marketplace with the US’ blessing if it’s to seriously consider Washington’s proposal, especially after President Putin just wholeheartedly committed to this connectivity vision during last month’s eponymous summit. Nevertheless, apart from energy and arms sales, Russian-Chinese trade ties are conspicuously empty of any real-sector economic substance despite their strategic partnership already being half a decade old and much smaller countries making significantly greater progress on this front with the People’s Republic during this same period, so Russia wouldn’t really be losing anything by quietly backing out of BRI.
Of course, China is Russia’s neighbor and fellow co-leader of the SCO so Moscow wouldn’t ever do anything to offend Beijing too openly, which is why it’s resorting to its masterful perception management techniques in gently rolling out a euphemism for explaining its possible compliance with the US’ “New Detente” demands instead. Russia’s premier policymaking think tank, the Valdai Club, abruptly took an editorial turn in that direction after publishing two surprisingly critical pieces about China in the run-up to Pompeo’s visit, the second of which was exceptionally interesting because it might hint at the “cover story” that the country is gradually preconditioning the international audience to become familiarized with ahead of this profound foreign policy redirection (albeit likely branded as a “rebalancing”). Professor at the Russian Academy of Sciences Yana Leksyutina started the soft power salvo with her piece about “The Rise of China and the Creation of a China-Centric International Economic System” in which she harshly criticized Russia’s top strategic partner by opining the following:
“However, a large contrast between the Chinese “shop window” initiatives and the official rhetoric of the Chinese authorities betrays Beijing’s modus operandi. An example of this is the lack of transparency in the implementation of the Chinese Belt and Road initiative and individual infrastructure projects with Chinese financing, the provision of economically “linked” loans by China, the refusal to observe global standards in the implementation of projects abroad (labour, environmental and other standards), the emphasis on a bilateral format of interaction with its partners, giving China leverage over its counterparts, and, finally, Beijing’s wide use of punishment and coercive measures against countries that are harming China’s “core” interests.”
This was followed up just a day after by Valdai Club’s own programme director Oleg Barabanov writing about “China’s Road to Global Leadership: Prospects and Challenges for Russia“, which is much softer in tone than Ms. Leksyutina’s piece but nevertheless still conveys some startling insight on how Russia, its elite, and even its ordinary citizens perceive China:
“Another challenge for Russia in the context of the rise of China is related to the perception of China by Russians. Despite all the great work in the sphere of soft power to strengthen the positive image of our nations and states, a portion of the Russian public has adopted, to put it mildly, a reserved attitude to China and its residents. The echo of the notorious “Chinese threat” is tenacious. Importantly, the skepticism of China shows itself both in the liberal and conservative-patriotic segments of Russian public opinion.
“This can be seen quite clearly in the media and in statements by opinion leaders. For example, during the top-rated daily political talk shows on Russian television, whenever they talk about China, the anti-Chinese horror stories come from both liberal- and patriotic-minded opinion leaders. As a result, a surprising anti-Chinese consensus takes shape before the viewer, which brings together political forces which hold diametrically opposed views on all other matters.
Such an attitude occasionally goes beyond social stereotypes and becomes part of economic decision-making. This can be seen in the sometimes cautious attitude to Chinese investment in Russia, especially local projects. Sometimes, the locals in Russia are biased towards Chinese tourists. As a result, it is not difficult to see that in the case of a new rupture in Russia-China relations, toward which many are pushing us, quite a large part of Russian society will receive it as a quite natural and even positive development.”
On a more positive note, however, Mr. Barabanov also touched upon the concept of what he called a “non-aligned movement 2.0”, which I actually first introduced to the public in March 2018 during a Radio Sputnik analytical broadcast about how “Russia’s S-400s Are The Key To A Neo-NAM” (my terminology for this same idea). I described this concept as a Russian-led initiative that “is helping traditional American allies…diversify their relations with multipolar Great Powers while retaining pragmatic cooperation with the US, with the end result being that they’re able to more comprehensively chart a more independent foreign policy(, which) ultimately enables them to become the pioneers of a new Non-Aligned Movement (Neo-NAM) in the New Cold War that strives to attain strategic equidistance between the US and China, which would be impossible to pull off without the pivotal “balancing” role that their relationship with Russia provides.”
Mr. Barabonov’s twist on this concept, however, incorporates more of a Chinese angle than a Western one:
“The first outlines of a new concept, which can be tentatively referred to as the “non-aligned movement 2.0,” have showed up in this broader context. It boils down to the fact that a new bipolar world will crystallize in the medium term with the United States and China in opposition to one another. According to this logic, other large countries do not necessarily have to take one side of the barricade, but, on the contrary, would be better off if they maintain some kind of neutrality and coordinate their efforts.
This approach has its own perspectives as well. Historical experience shows that the Soviet Union had quite trust-based and constructive relations with many countries of the non-aligned movement. It is also clear that if pursued in a too radical and uncompromising way, the logic of the “new non-aligned movement” can become a challenge to the consolidation and unity of Eurasia, which is the top priority for the SCO and other projects.
If, for example, Russia is confronted with a tough choice and ultimatum – either you side with China, or join the non-aligned movement – we will end up with the same old zero-sum game. And in the worst-case, radical scenario, we may spoil our relations with China and get nothing in return. Therefore, here too the diplomats of all stakeholder countries will need to be particularly delicate and pragmatic as they build new continental and global projects.”
This isn’t the first time that he and I independently arrived at very similar strategic conclusions, like I explained in an earlier analysis “Interpreting The Valdai Club’s Piece On Russian-Pakistani Relations Post-Pulwama“. In the context of the Neo-NAM, however, we both predict that Russia will expand its Afro-Eurasian “balancing” act to the point of positioning itself as the leader of a new non-aligned movement and branding this informal network as a “neutral third way” between the US and China in the New Cold War just as its predecessor pretended to function between the US and the USSR in the Old Cold War. It’s important that Mr. Barabanov included this important issue in his Valdai Club piece and it was even talked about during that same week in the third Russia-Kazakhstan forum that his think tank participated in (the summary of which was provocatively headlined “Russia, China and Central Asia. Some Aspects of Geopolitical Jealousy“) because it proves that this concept is now being seriously discussed at the international policymaking level.
Getting Ready For The G20
The strategic backdrop to next month’s G20 Summit in Japan is that Russia is gradually “rebalancing” its approach towards Iran and China as a “goodwill” gesture intended to build trust with the US, though carefully not going too far in this direction in case Washington gets cold feet and leaves Moscow in a lose-lose situation by pulling out of the “New Detente” that the two are presently negotiating, which is occurring at precisely the same time as those two aforementioned Great Powers’ relations with the US are noticeably worsening. This of course isn’t a coincidence but is a throwback to the classic Kissinger strategy from the Old Cold War of driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, which at that time was mostly done through geopolitical and ideological means but is nowadays being pursued through the much more efficient one of geo-economic pressure through sanctions and the threat thereof (especially pertaining to “secondary sanctions”).
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Sochi for talks with his Russian counterpart a day before Pompeo’s visit there, symbolizing the close strategic relations between these two countries and the high level of trust and coordination that still exists between them. Even so, it’s difficult for each of them not to look askance at the other knowing that whichever of the two reaches a deal with the US first will be in a much better position in and of themselves and vis-a-vis the other, particularly if Washington doubles down the pressure on whichever of the two ends up being the “odd man out”. Thus far, it looks like Russia is making much more progress on this than China is, though that’s probably because of the timing of “Russiagate’s” ignoble end, making one wonder whether Trump would have reached out to China and already clinched a trade deal with it by now had that scandal not been resolved instead of trying to partner up with Russia like it decided to do after the “collusion” conspiracy was officially debunked.
In any case, the upcoming G20 is shaping up to be a major event because both multipolar leaders are expected to meet with Trump, and each of them will want to get on as much on his good side as possible before then in order to avoid any “uncomfortable” interactions. That shouldn’t be too difficult for Putin, who already told Pompeo that Russia would “like to fully restore relations” with the US, though President Xi is an altogether different story since his country’s state-controlled media is provocatively talking about waging a so-called “people’s war” in response to the new imposition of American tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of is imports. It can’t be ruled out that the reality TV star president will purposely make a show out of having visibly more positive interactions with Putin than with Xi, which might end up humiliating the Chinese leader on Japanese soil and therefore inflicting an unforgivable insult on him and his people.
Negotiations over a “New Detente” are still in their preliminary stages, but it’s already possible to discern the main contours that it’ll probably take, which will most likely involve Russia “rebalancing” its relations with Iran and China by “moderating” its previously strong defense of the nuclear deal and gradually distancing itself from China’s Silk Road through its leadership of a Neo-NAM in exchange for being “allowed” to monopolize the increasingly desperate and isolated Islamic Republic’s economy and receiving a certain degree of sanctions relief. Of course, while there are other pieces on this “19th-Century Great Power Chessboard” as well such as Syria, Ukraine, and Venezuela, both Iran and China are the most important for the US and Russia when it comes to reaching a “New Detente”. The outcome of next month’s G20 Summit will provide a clearer look at the progress that’s been made in this respect, but as it stands, it looks like both parties are seriously committed to seeing this deal happen and will try their utmost to clinch a comprehensive agreement with one another after the 2020 elections.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.