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Putin’s Game between Friend and Foe

Putin’s Game between Friend and Foe

Friday, 11 February, 2022 - 05:15
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

In his lightning trip to Beijing last week Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a "Strategic Partnership" treaty with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. The event coincided with the 20th anniversary of another "Strategic Partnership" deal that he had signed in 2002 with the then US President George W Bush.


So, did the Beijing signature represent a reversal of course in Russian foreign policy that, since Russia’s admission into the G7 club (later G8), had been focused on forging closer ties with the United States?


Putin’s recent behavior, notably his efforts to portray the United States as a barrier to Russia’s global ambitions may indicate such a development. More significantly, what may be seen as Putin’s Ostpolitik comes at a time that China is flexing its muscles against the United States in a good chunk of the Asia-Pacific region. Finally, Putin may see Xi Jinping’s saber-ratting over Taiwan as echoing what he himself is doing over Ukraine.


More importantly, perhaps, does Putin’s Beijing pirouette represent a radical shift of Russia attitude towards China - something that could lead to the emergence of what Thomas Fichy and Jean-Marie Holzinger in their 2013 book, called "A New Mongol Empire" led by China with Russia as its bridgehead to Europe and Iran as its Trojan horse in the Middle East.


However, as far as Russian perception of the world is concerned transforming China from "foe" to "friend" wouldn’t be easy. In Russian perception, as reflected in culture and literature, China, often taken to represent all "Asiatic" peoples including Mongols, Tatars and Nipponese is often seen as the "foe" (vrag) along with Germans, Poles, Swedes and Lithuanians in Europe.


This fear of the "Yellow Peril" is reflected in Russian music, literature and cinema. Boris Pilniak’s "Diary of China", Ivan Goncharev’s "The Fregate Pallas", and Andrei Rogozina’s "A Russian Woman in China" are some examples, not to mention Tchaikovsky’s "The Swan Lake" and Eisenstein’s "Ivan the Awe-inspiring" (Grozny).


As the largest country in the world, Russia has numerous land and sea neighbors from the Arctic to the Caspian Basin and from the Pacific to the Black Sea and has been at war with all of them except one: the United States, a neighbor through Alaska. This is why, ever since he Russians discovered or imagined their America, the United States has often had a positive image in Russian literature and culture. Even the advent of Bolshevism as the standard-bearer of anti-Imperialism did not lead to radical changes in that imagines.


Lenin’s missives to the Politburo after launching his New Economic Policy (NEP) clearly indicate the influence of American styles of management and production methods as he understood or misunderstood them. Lenin and others in the early leadership of the Bolsheviks, including Kamenev and Zinoviev, dreamed of a socialist society that, inspired by the American "can-do" spirit can produce economic prosperity without political freedom, an illusion that has also dominated Chinese politics since Deng Xiaoping.


During the Second World War America was cast as an ally of the Soviet Union. It fed and armed the Red Army to fight the Nazis and, in the process, impressed Russians with America’s unique productive and logistic prowess.


American agricultural machinery reached thousands of kolkhozes, helping increase food production, and stop a repeat of the 1930s famines. American tractors, threshers; combine-harvesters became iconic objects. However, film-maker Pudovgin had to re-shoot several scenes of one of his propaganda features to have the Hammer and Sickle emblem stuck on US-made farm machinery which supposedly made Russian peasants happy thanks to Stalin.


America’s sympathetic image cut across ideological barriers. Communist Ilya Ehrenburg admired America as did anti-Communist Ivan Bunin. Vladimir Nabokov who transformed himself from an old-Russian into an American writer and Edward Limonov, author of "The Russian Poet prefers Tall Negroes" reflected the mixture of grudging admiration and painful envy vis-à-vis their imaginary America.


The only war that Russia fought against the US was the Cold War. But even then the US was never designated as "foe" or "hostis" (vrag or vrazhesky), a label used at different times and contexts, for Germans, Swedes, Poles, Lithuanians, the French and the Chinese. Soviet Cold War propaganda labeled the US "adversary" (protivinik). According to Carl Schmidt’s classification an "adversary" could be transformed into a partner if not a friend whereas a "foe" must be defeated or even eliminated.


It is unlikely that Putin is unaware of the difficulties he faces in trying to transform the US from rival and/or adversary into a mortal foe for his dreamed Russia. He uses a set of bogus claims that won’t stand at closer examination.


The other day in Moscow he told French President Emmanuel Macron that Russia is "concerned about European security" when it is Russia that has assembled a war machine with 120,000 men posed for invading Ukraine.


He also told Macron that Europe needs a framework for ensuring its security. But such a framework already exists in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of which Russia is a founding member, and not to mention the Helsinki Accords.


Putin’s other claim that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a potential threat to Russia is equally hard to sustain. NATO did nothing when Putin invaded and snatched territory from Georgia and Ukraine or when he militarily intervened in Syria to obtain an aero-naval base on the Mediterranean.


Three other points: First, Russia already has a partnership accord with NATO that, if used effectively, could iron out all discord through consultation and compromise. Next, NATO members account for almost 70 percent of all direct-foreign investment in the Russian economy and provide 80 percent of the market for Russian energy exports. Last year Russia was the largest exporter of crude oil to the United States. Finally, the bulk of Russia’s foreign currency reserves are lodged in banks and financial instructions located in NATO countries.


So, why is Putin playing the drums of war when he knows that he does not have the military and economic stamina and the popular backing at home without which no major conflict could produce victory if such a thing has any meaning these days.


Putin also feigns concern about NATO powers trying to sabotage Russian elections through Russian "Trojan horses" and cyber-attacks. Right now, however, it is he who is fielding an army of over 1,500 lobbyists, including a former German Chancellor, a French and an Austrian former prime ministers, to peddle his bill of goods in NATO countries.


May be he craves attention. Or maybe, sensing that his star is no longer rising at home, he is looking for a diversion. Whatever the case, the most prudent thing to do is not to dance to his tune and take part in dramatizing the crisis he has conjured This is why Macron’s dramatic visit to Moscow was a wrong move.


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