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Biden vs. Putin-A New Approach

di A. Altieri D’Angelo

Foto: Joe Biden, courtesy of Gage Skidmore

President Biden will meet President Putin on June 16, 2021. Biden will tell Putin to stop engaging in disruptive tactics and infringing on people’s rights. Putin will deny that neither he nor Russia is doing anything improper and that the United States has no business interfering in Russian Federation (Russia) affairs. The result will be a photo op that will show Putin standing up to Biden, and nothing will change. It is time for a new approach.

There is no doubt that President Biden will need to call out Russia’s actions. He must make it clear that the U.S. will impose additional sanctions if there is no change. Biden may also threaten to retaliate against Russian cyberattacks. But he should also point out that Russia needs friends and not enemies.

Russia is not a strategic competitor of the U.S. or the E.U.; it is a disruptor that causes serious but not strategic concerns. It has many problems such as a stagnant economy, corruption, a problem with Muslim extremists, an increasingly exposed northern border (thanks to the melting of the Arctic ice), and an economy impacted by U.S. sanctions. It is an outcast in the western world.  However, Russia is resource-rich, has significant financial reserves, and an excellent military capability. In addition, it has one strategic problem: China (its Achilles heel).   

Vladimir Putin, courtesy of kremlin.ru

China is Russia’s greatest long-term threat. Russia’s relationship with China will lead to a decline in that country’s global power and economic independence.

Relations between China and Russia are cordial. Russia has what China needs: land and natural resources. Russia occupies a vast landmass but has too few people to use the land effectively. According to a 2021 report, China’s population is @1.408.9 billion people. Russia has 145.9.2 million people. Russian territory is estimated to be 17,098,242 square km. versus 9,706,961 square km). The population density of China is 151.02 people per square km versus 23 people per sq. km in Russia. Both countries are expected to see declines in population in the coming decades, but China will still have almost a 10 to 1 advantage in population.

Also, the Chinese have not forgotten that Russia sits on land once controlled by it. China, under Xi Jinping, has been aggressive about reclaiming land; the expansion into the South China Sea is but one example. Therefore, it is logical to assume that China will want to expand into Siberia. Russians living in the Far East already fear and resent Chinese immigration and influence. Many claim that China effectively controls a large portion of Siberia’s economy and land use. Eastern Russia could be the“lebensraum” (living room) needed by the Chinese.  (Russia should understand lebensraum.)

China is also rapidly displacing Russia in Central Asia. Russia was the biggest trading partner in that region and had exercised control over Central Asia for centuries. China’s Belt and Road plan further reduces Russia’s influence in the area.

China is now Russia’s largest trading partner. But Russia is not one of the top ten trading partners to China.

Russia is the weaker party in the relationship. It is not in Russia’s DNA to be subordinate to any country. But Putin sees no other way to offset the power of the U.S. and E.U. He knows he is riding a tiger. He is, however, not stupid; he sees what the future could look like with China. This unequal relationship creates a possible opening for the U.S., and the E.U. Biden needs to offer a way out to Putin. President Biden should outline a strategy that allows Putin to begin a process that will enable him to turn to the West over time. The process must lead to Russia becoming a full partner in the E.U. or an independent non-aligned country.

The process can start with simple, non-controversial steps. Russia and the West can negotiate a new Arctic Region agreement, leading to the region’s demilitarization and eliminating Russia’s concern about an attack along its northern border. Next, the Open Skies Treaty should be renegotiated. With each positive step, another current issue can be eliminated, and so on. The parties can agree on a cyber treaty that would obligate all parties to suppress cyber theft of any kind. The West can eliminate tariffs and increase trade with Russia when they see that Russia is honoring its commitments. It should be a step-by-step process. However, all parties must recognize that Russia will not transition to a democratic state anytime soon. And it will not accept losing countries like Ukraine to the E.U. Diplomacy, backed by verification, will need to be employed constantly.  

Russia needs allies to offset China’s power. The U.S. and the E.U., in turn, will have a trading partner (or at least a non-aligned nation) that is cooperative and not acting against western interests. Russia will gain the support of the West if and when China chooses to expand into Eastern Russia. It would be a good deal for Russia and the West.

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