The Russians are playing a serious—and dangerous—game with the quiet acquiescence and financial support of the Chinese.
Under the pressure of Western sponsored economic sanctions and the price of oil dropping to three-year lows, Russia’s economy is deteriorating rapidly—the country will manage only 0.2 percent growth this year. Despite this, Russia continues to send armoured vehicles, artillery, air-defense systems, and combat troops into Ukraine, according to NATO’s supreme commander, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, on Wednesday.
Add to that the statement by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that long-range Russian bombers are to patrol from the Arctic to the Caribbean, including the Gulf of Mexico. And let us not forget that in late August the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, mused publicly about the use of nuclear weapons to grab control of Ukraine. (For more evidence of Russia’s “more assertive military posture” see The Globe and Mail’s Nov. 10, 2014 article, Report warns of increased Russian aggression and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Nov. 14, 2014 list of major incidents.)
One supposes that Putin sees a window of opportunity during which time he can flex Russia’s considerable military muscles with an aim to restore Russia to past levels of greatness and international respect. And one can speculate that the window opened when U.S. president Barack Obama showed an unfortunate tendency to back away from the former role of the US in the world, choosing instead a doctrine of “leading from behind.”
Obama has chosen what Charles Krauthammer calls is “a foreign policy of hesitation, delay and indecision, marked by plaintive appeals to the (fictional) ‘international community’ to do what only America can.”
And events in the Middle East and Europe have shown this doctrine to be a wretched failure, encouraging an unhealthy boldness from both Russia in Eastern Europe and towards NATO elsewhere, and China in the South China Sea where territorial disputes have escalated tensions between China and countries like Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Simple put, Putin does not fear America so long as Obama is its president, and the world is thusly made a far more dangerous place. Consequently, though economic sanctions will take a toll, Russia has countered their effect, in part, by turning to China for much needed cash. Russia has an abundance of gas and oil and China will, apparently, take all they can get of it.
Last October, Russia’s state-owned Rosneft sold China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) an equity position in an oil field in eastern Siberia. This May, Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom and CNPC signed a 30-year, US$400-billion gas deal. And this week, CNPC agreed to buy 10 per cent of Vankorneft, which operates the lucrative Vankor Field, an oil and gas field in Russia.
These are but some of the major deals made recently as part of what AFP called a Russia-China “energy alliance.” China has the cash—mountains of it, apparently—and a rapidly expanding war machine; Russia has abundant energy reserves and arguable the second most powerful war machine in existence.
In March, Russia annexed most of the Crimean Peninsula, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine. Since April, Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine have been fighting Kiev’s rule, declaring the Donetsk and Luhansk “People's Republics.” According to the UN, more than 4,000 people have died in the conflict. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crashed in eastern Ukraine on Jul. 17, 2014 and all 298 people aboard were killed. Almost certainly, the airliner was downed by Russian-backed and -armed rebels in eastern Ukraine, using a Russian surface-to-air missile.
Since the crash, Russia has pretty much thumbed its nose while the rest of the World mourned the victims. For countries like Russia and China, might is right. Superior military power and the will to use it is the only restraint they will recognize. This has been their way for centuries and they show little inclination to change with the times.
This partnership between Moscow and Beijing provides a foreign-policy challenge the likes of which Washington and its allies have not faced since the end of World War II. At that time, the West had Churchill and Roosevelt. This time around, we have Barack Obama and his empty rhetoric.