Strategic rivalries remain
Daniel Lazare says ending tensions with Russia will take more than discarding opposition to Nord Stream 2
When Joe Biden took office in January, no foreign-policy goal seemed more important than support for Ukraine, along with stepped-up hostility towards Russia.
After all, Democrats had impeached Donald Trump a year earlier for withholding military supplies from one country, while baying around the clock that the other was guilty of everything from election interference to placing bounties on the heads of US soldiers in Afghanistan. As bad as US-Russian relations were under Trump - and there is no question that they had taken a significant downturn despite Democratic charges that he was practically in bed with Russian president Vladimir Putin - the outlook therefore seemed clear: Biden would make them even worse.
But then came a seeming reversal. Despite years of Democratic opposition to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, the Biden administration changed course a little over a week ago and announced that it was waiving sanctions on the German company in charge of the project, so that construction could resume after all. A day later, secretary of state Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov were all smiles, as they exchanged elbow bumps at the Arctic Summit in Iceland. A few days after that, administration officials disclosed that Biden was aiming for a meeting with the Russian president in Geneva in mid-June - a sign, perhaps, of even more warming to come.
So is peace really breaking out despite all efforts of Washington hawks to the contrary? Quick answer: no such luck. Long-term trends do not switch course so easily.
One reason concerns the enormous war machine that the US has installed across the ‘intermarium’ - as Polish nationalists call the expanse between the Baltic and the Black Sea - since the late 1990s. It consists of military bases throughout the region: an air base in Harjumaa, Estonia, for instance, that can now accommodate A-10, F-15, F-16, F-22 and F-35 aircraft; one in Kecskemét, Hungary, that can accommodate giant C-5 transport planes; and a third in Malacky, Slovakia, that has also undergone expansion; and so on.1
It also consists of officer corps that have grown dependent on US training, assistance and aid; of newspapers and political parties dependent on constant injections of anti-Russian hysteria; and of powerful political lobbies as well. The longer such forces can keep tensions with Russia at fever pitch, the more they can count on backing from Old Europe plus the US.
It is the old story of the tail wagging the dog - except that until recently the pooch was happy to go along. But if the May 19 Nord Stream 2 switch was a sign that the old strategy might be breaking down, Sunday’s “state-sponsored hijacking” (to quote Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary) of an airliner carrying a 26-year-old Belarusian dissident named Raman Pratasevič is an indication that it is back in working order. Since it was Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko who forced the plane down, the incident enables the media to paint him as an enemy of civilised values. And, since Putin is one of Lukashenko’s few remaining backers by this point, it allows the press to paint him in the same light.
“Lukashenko … has gone too far,” thundered The New York Times, adding that things would never have gotten out of hand, were it not for Putin serving as “kindred spirit and protector.”2
This was typical of the western response. But the Times was honest enough to admit that the incident bore a curious resemblance to one in July 2013, in which Washington pressured Vienna to force down a plane carrying Bolivian president Evo Morales, because it suspected that he had invited US dissident Edward Snowden on board. This took place not under Trump, but under Barack Obama, just a few weeks after then vice-president Biden put pressure on neighbouring Ecuador to deny Snowden asylum. So today’s protests ring distinctly hollow.
But, while the Times still insists that there is a difference between the Morales and Protasevich affairs - “between denying overflight to a plane and forcing a commercial jetliner to land over a false alarm, accompanied by a warplane”, as it put it - the difference is minor, since both planes were forced down in mid-flight regardless, and it is all too easy to see how one violation of international law leads to another. If Lukashenko is guilty, he is “guilty with an explanation” (to quote Woody Allen’s Bananas). Both sides are responsible for driving up tensions.
Not that the cold warriors care, of course. All they care about is that another crisis is underway, that tensions are on the rise, and that Nato’s sword-rattling can once again resume. From their point of view, the Ryanair crisis is thus manna from heaven.
Other dynamics are meanwhile at work - especially in Washington, where Republicans are on the warpath - not only domestically, but in terms of foreign politics.
The fireworks began in mid-March, just seven or eight weeks after Biden took office. This is when Democratic calls to abolish the filibuster - the ancient Senate rule that gives just 40 senators (11 shy of a majority) carte blanche to block any and all legislation, even though they represent as little as 11% of the population. The proposal brought a furious counter-blast from Republican leader Mitch McConnell. If Dems took one step in such a direction, he announced, he would use his parliamentary powers to shut the Senate down and immobilise the Biden administration completely. “Nobody serving in this chamber can even begin … to imagine what a completely scorched-earth Senate would look like,” he declared. In April, Republicans stepped up resistance to Biden’s eight-year infrastructure-investment programme, while an uptick in inflation, slow employment growth and spot gasoline shortages due to a ransomware attack on an interstate pipeline led to cries that Biden was no better than Jimmy Carter - the hapless US president from the 1970s, whom Americans will forever associate with gas shortages, the Iranian hostage crisis and ‘malaise’.
“The calm after the four-year Trump storm,” as Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal described the post-inauguration honeymoon, was definitely over.3 But then came the Gaza war. When Biden waffled on support for Israel, more 1970s comparisons ensued. “We are living the Jimmy Carter nightmare all over again, frankly, on steroids,” rightwing broadcaster Sean Hannity declared on Fox News (another Murdoch property). Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz said about the missiles fired by Hamas:
Every one of those rockets might as well have Joe Biden’s name written on the side of it. Because it is his weakness, his appeasement, his moral relativism and ambiguity, his lack of backbone to stand up and stand with Israel that is causing this war in the Middle East.
A rightwing offensive at home was leading to stepped-up militarism abroad, as it always does. With one Republican congressman now calling for Lukashenko to be hauled before an international tribunal à la Slobodan Milošević,4 the consequences are again predictable. Pressures will mount on Democrats to get tough - pressures that they will be unable to resist, since they have done so much to build them up in the first place! If a thaw is really underway, it will rapidly fade, as the bipartisan Washington war machine springs back to life.
Not that this makes Biden’s rebuff to eastern Europe any less painful. But few of the region’s complaints about Nord Stream ever made sense to begin with. Since Nord Stream 1 went into effect in 2011, Russian leverage over European energy policy has not increased one iota, as far as anyone can tell, so there is no reason to think it will increase as a consequence of Nord Stream 2. Even if Russia does gain a modicum of leverage, moreover, it will matter less and less, as long as Germany makes good on its promise to kick the fossil-fuel habit in order to combat global warming.
So gloom-and-doom reports about Russia holding Europe hostage are baseless. Kiev, on the other hand, will lose an estimated $1.4 billion in annual transit fees from existing Russian pipelines that criss-cross the country - which is painful, given that the sum amounts to 3.6% of state revenue. But if Ukraine had not tried to stiff Gazprom, the Russian state gas company, by refusing to pay for deliveries it received in 2005-10, Russian would never have had reason to bypass the Ukraine and embark on the Nord Stream project at all. So Ukraine only has itself to blame.
Not that anyone should care about a sinkhole of corruption, in which politics are taking an alarmingly authoritarian turn, now that the government is charging two leading dissidents of its own - exiled blogger Anatoliy Shariy and member of parliament Viktor Medvedchuk - with treason, because they are regarded as overly sympathetic to Moscow. But where Ukraine could once rely on the United States to bail it out, Biden has now made it clear where his real loyalties like: ie, not with a failed state, but with Germany, the largest economy in the European Union and the fourth biggest in the world after the US, China and Japan.
Which is why the Lukashenko crisis is so welcome: because it means that Ukraine will not be out in the cold for long, once the Biden administration realises that it has need of its services after all.
There is another factor to keep in mind: the growing war drive against China. Energy expert Daniel Yergin was probably correct in remarking that the Nord Stream 2 reversal amounted to an “olive branch” to Putin, the purpose of which was to “peel Russia back from its … growing alliance with China”.5 Post-Lukashenko, it is probably too late for such a strategy, since rising tensions will drive Russia and China into each other’s arms all the more. But it is worth keeping in mind that the only reason Washington wanted to dial down tensions at all was in order to gain a free hand in dealing with what it regards as the greater enemy du jour.
De-escalation in one arena is merely a prelude to a build-up in another. Bottom line: Washington is once again on a collision course with Moscow regardless of Nord Stream 2 and what happens in Geneva next month, while its showdown with Beijing grows ever more dangerous. Once war machines get going, it takes more than a brief warming spell to turn them off.
Defense News June 25 2018: defensenews.com/smr/nato-priorities/2018/06/25/poking-the-bear-us-air-force-builds-in-russias-backyard.↩︎
T Prince, ‘US representative Chris Smith: Belarus sanctions so far “just not enough”,’ Radio Free Europe.↩︎