Osama Al Sharif
Last week’s trip to Beijing by Russian President Vladimir Putin, dubbed the Olympics summit since the visit came on the eve of the opening of the Winter Olympics in the Chinese capital, added a new twist to the simmering crisis between Moscow and the West over the potential Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping declared that there are no limits to China-Russia ties and the Russian president got a solid backing of Moscow’s position on the Ukraine issue from his counterpart. In effect it was a major moment in a new Cold War. While it is not clear if Putin will risk a major confrontation with the West on Ukraine, he has for now restored a key alliance with China.
Just like Russia, China has been targeted by US officials. Former President Donald Trump had tried to defend Russia and Putin while focusing his attention on China over issues such as US-China trade imbalance. Why he ignored his own national security agencies’ reports on alleged Russian involvement during US presidential elections remains a matter of speculation.
But his successor, President Joe Biden, has no qualms about it. He has upped the heat on both Russia and China, albeit for different reasons. Putin wants the West to respect Russia’s security concerns in Eastern Europe and may use force if need be to prevent Ukraine from joining Nato Moscow wants written assurances that this will never be the case.
Russia is a formidable military power and its strategic backyard must not be violated in any way. Ukraine has a special place in Russian and Soviet history and any attempt to tamper with that special relationship will not — in all possibility — be tolerated by Moscow. For China, which had a troubled relationship with former Soviet Union, a friendly Russia is what is needed at a time when its own ties with the West are deteriorating over unfair trade and a whole host of other issues.
But for now that is as far as this new alliance can go. Putin knows that an invasion of Ukraine will trigger sweeping sanctions that will punish the Russian economy. While bilateral trade with China has grown tenfold in the past decade and half to about $146 billion in 2021, it is still far less than the $220 billion that Russia has traded with the EU in the same year. While Putin can probably afford to lose the $34 billion annual trade with the US, Moscows knows that China alone cannot compensate for losing the European trade.
But there is a twist. For Europe the Russian gas is a lifeblood that is also difficult to replace. Shutting down the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline will hurt both Europe and Russia. There is no immediate and cost effective replacement to Russian gas at this stage. But while the West tries to meet Putin half way and assuage his security concerns, for now it appears that Russia and China have little to lose from joining hands.
Last week the US State Dept. warned that, if Russia invades Ukraine, any attempts to offset harsh sanctions against the Kremlin by bolstering the Russia-China alliance will be insufficient. “It will actually make the Russian economy in many ways more brittle,” Ned Price, press secretary of the State Dept., said. “If you deny yourself the ability to transact with the West … you are going to significantly degrade your productive capacity and your innovative potential. Putin knows that this would be a massive consequence to his country and to his economy,” he added.
Meanwhile, FBI Director Christopher Wray said last week that “There’s just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, innovation and economic security than China.” There is no doubt that for Putin and Xi the perceived foe is one and the same. A divided Europe is following the US with hesitation. Its own security may be at stake if relations with neighbouring Russia deteriorate.
Why does this matter to our region? The US withdrawal from the region is leaving behind a vacuum that is being filled by others; China and Russia included. The Arab world cannot be forced to take sides in the upcoming struggle; one which will continue even if the Ukraine crisis is resolved peacefully. China is an economic giant that the region cannot ignore. Russia now has its feet dipped in the waters of the Mediterranean in Syria and Libya. A new Cold War is bad news for the region and the rest of the world. The outcome this time might not be similar to that of the late 1980s.