Saturday, March 24, 2018

Is Hostility Towards Russia Part of a Grand Strategy?

Those who know me or who have read my blog or Facebook posts, know that for a long time I have lamented the fact that since the end of the Cold War leaders in the West (US, NATO, EU) have done everything in their power to exclude Russia from integration into their network of alliances, trade organizations etc. Instead they have sought to isolate and demonize Russia, as if the Cold War had never ended. Indeed in recent years it has seemed that there has been a concerted effort to revive and heat up the Cold War.  To me this has always seemed a foolish and dangerous policy, and I have often wondered what lies behind it. The aim of this blog is to suggest a reason for the hostility to Russia.  I am not saying that it has been in place from the outset, but rather that it has emerged as part of a ‘Grand Strategy’, especially since the turn of the century, when the presidency of Boris Yeltsin was succeeded by that of Vladimir Putin.  Perhaps it was on the back burner following 9-11 when Islamic fundamentalism took centre stage, but I suspect that in the minds of strategic thinkers it has been there all along.  

Under Putin's presidency, Russia has recovered somewhat, from the depths to which it sank following the collapse of the USSR and the Yeltsin presidency,  and is now showing much more confidence in international affairs.  After seeing duplicitous Western behaviour in the invasion of Iraq, and the intervention in Libya under the false claim of protecting civilians, Russia has shown itself now ready to stand up and challenge what it sees as violations of its own interests.  The protracted conflicts in Ukraine and Syria resulting from this have helped in bringing the relationship  between Russia and the West to new lows.  

Was this sad deterioration of relations inevitable?  While Russia doubtless bears some responsibility, I think few can deny that the West has done everything in its power to goad and humiliate Russia. Is there a reason behind this strategy? Or is it just an old Cold War reflex?  Or an attitude in Washington that cannot tolerate any government unwilling to bend the knee to the American hegemon?  Or the need of the military industrial complex to have a potent enemy in order to justifiy the bloated defense budget?  Probably all of these play a part.  But since this approach to Russia has continued under both Democrat (Clinton, Obama) and Republican (Bush) presidencies, and since Trump’s pre-election intention of establishing better relations with Russia has caused so much outrage, one must ask if there are other reasons. 

Here I offer a speculative answer.  It is something that struck me on reading the following article on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  

China is currently investing enormous sums into creating a single economic area throughout the  Asian landmass by means of building transport infrastructure, increasing trade and by establishing cultural linkages.   The Silk Road Initiative involves creating transportation links (railroads, highways) along the ancient silk roads that linked Europe with China, and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative involves creating ports and infrastructure along the sea routes through the China Sea and Indian Ocean, to the Middle East.  There is also a project to develop the North East Passage sea route, through the Arctic, north of Siberia.  

Of course Asia is a cultural-historical concept, not a geographical one, in the physical sense, at least.  Physically there is one Eurasian landmass, and not only would the Belt Road Iniative link China with Central Asia, it would link China with Europe.  Imagine China linked with Western Europe by high-speed rail links. The trade opportunities between Europe, advanced in high-tech, and China with its manufacturing power and large population, would be tremendous. 

Russia would straddle the trading routes and with its vast natural resource base it would provide resources and energy to both termini.  It also has the brain power and would have the potential to experience rapid industrial and technological development. 

It would be the Heartland Theory of geographer Halford Mackinder realized. For Mackinder, The World Island was the Eurasian landmass.  He opined in 1904

who rules the World-Island commands the world.’

In this picture, the US is nowhere to be seen.  It could conceivably, in the long run, find itself relegated to an isolated, debt-ridden, backward-looking country, with a massive and unaffordable military (and a poorly educated and over-armed citizenry) relying on rust-bucket technologies and polluting energy sources.   

But if Europe could be quarantined from connection with China and the rising industrial power of East Asia, America’s nightmare could be avoided, or at least delayed.  And a way to do that would be to keep Europe and Russia locked in Cold  War attitudes of mutual suspicion and hostility towards one another.  Under this scenario, the best US strategy might be to ramp up hostility towards Russia, goading it by advancing NATO to its frontiers, tearing up arms control treaties and encouraging ‘colour revolutions’ in neighbouring states.  

This is pretty much what has happened since the end of the Cold War.  Rather than trying to bring Russia into the fold, US  policy has been the exact opposite.  Maybe there has been more thought behind this strategy than I had credited - maybe it is not just a knee-jerk Cold War style hostility to all things Russian?  If Europe can for ever be kept at daggers drawn with Russia, the dynamics of the world game would be US-Europe vs. China-Russia rather than the US vs. an integrated World Island.  

Please note I am not trying to praise the political systems in either Russia or China.  And I would certainly prefer to live in a Western democracy than either of them.  But trading connections could and should increase prosperity and opportunity for all sides.  And it should be able to happen without compromising our freedoms and values.  

But I am afraid that the US with its constant militarism, rising deficits and reliance on borrowed money, coupled with its inward looking threat of protectionism, has taken a seriously wrong turn.  

In spite of America’s bad choices, Europe doesn’t necessarily have to follow.   I don’t expect much from Brexit-absorbed Britain under Theresa May’s Tories, but I do wonder when other European powers, in particular Germany, will wake up and see that their interests don’t necessarily rise and fall in the west. The sun, after all, rises in the east.  It sets in the west.

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