Russia between China and the West: will Biden bet on post-Putin to distance Moscow from Beijing?

It was not an easy year for Vladimir Putin. The grip of the coronavirus that shows no signs of easing despite the announcement of a native vaccine; Ankara's long shadow on the international crises in Libya and the Caucasus; the tension in relations with Germany and the EU following the poisoning of Navalny; the Belarusian civil revolution and the related uncertainties about the future of the neighboring satellite state. And finally, the election of Biden, which in theory does not announce thaw scenarios between Moscow and Washington. In the background, a constitutional reform that opens the door to an extension of the presidential mandate, even if the insistent rumors about the leader's health suggest an outcome different from that hoped for (by his supporters) or feared (by his detractors). Speculations aside, the probabilities that Putin will survive politically beyond 2024 are currently quite low, so much so that what seemed at first a gimmick destined to guarantee his continuity in power today takes on the characteristics of a long transition towards a succession that is not without of unknowns. More than the Kremlin's willingness to prepare a replacement at the top, it was precisely the objective circumstances of recent months that determined a change in the perception of Russia's near future: the secondary role assumed by Putin in the administration of the health crisis, a decline in popularity indices, an increasingly compromised image outside national borders, the growing difficulties in managing regional conflicts, a troubled economy subject to sanctions, are clear signs of a weakening of the Russian president's position.

Putin's leading role remains indisputable in the institutional structure of post-Soviet Russia but, as I have tried to explain on other occasions , we are not faced with an autocracy of a personalistic nature founded exclusively on the will of the absolute sovereign. The same system of government consolidated around him has undergone several transformations over the course of twenty years: the Russia over which Putin ruled until 2010 was a relatively plural society, with spaces for civil and political participation still acceptable in comparison with those of liberal democracies; Moscow's attitude in the field of international relations also registered a decisive change in the second Putinian decade, clearly steering towards an often paranoid encirclement syndrome, which led to an aggressive policy towards neighboring countries (Ukraine above all ) and an open confrontation with the West, on a geopolitical and even an ideological level. In a recent interview with the Moscow radio station Eco , political scientist and former adviser to the presidency Gleb Pavlovsky outlined two possible scenarios for the next few years. The first sees Putin perched in power and an increase in internal repression, in short, the transformation of Russia into a classic dictatorship. The second, which Pavlosky considers the most probable, contemplates a progressive reduction of presidential protagonism and a gradual separation of the institutional system from his person. Post-Putinian Russia would preserve the legacy of Putinism but would learn to walk on its own, and Putin would have no real alternatives – apart from an authoritarian turn – to that of facilitating this transition process already underway in society.

It is worth starting from here to try to predict the next moves of the Biden administration towards Moscow. It is likely that, beyond a more pushed rhetoric in favor of respect for human rights and the rule of law, we will not – at least initially – see major changes compared to the Trumpian four-year period. The feeling is that, if formally cooperation with European allies on the Russian case intensifies, the United States will maintain a wait-and-see position. Biden's rhetoric that qualifies Russia as " the greatest threat to American security " must be read in the context of the balance of forces on the international stage: it is the greatest threat among those that Washington is able to manage without resulting in an open conflict , while China must be considered a " competitor " because any other option would lead to a head-on collision.

Probably the decisive factor in the geopolitics of the next few years will be precisely the evolution of the still ambiguous Russian-Chinese alliance. Recently Putin reiterated that relations between the respective military apparatuses are in continuous development but he has been careful not to extend his considerations to the political level. In spite of the theories of the neo-Eurasianists, the Kremlin is aware that the great Russian metropolises are looking to Europe, not to Beijing. The bet of the West is that the decline of Putinism coincides with that of the new Russian nationalism, thus allowing Moscow's hoped-for rapprochement with Europe and the consequent loss of Beijing's influence on the continent. Without the Russian bridge, the New Silk Road will not be enough for the Chinese to cast their shadow on Western democracies. Waiting does not mean immobility, according to Dmitri Trenin , director of the Carnegie Moscow Center :

“Biden's personal view is that Russia, essentially a kleptocracy, is in colossal decline; its single-product economy no longer competitive; its demographics in free fall; and his army is also second class. One thing the US and the EU will work on is to limit Russia from a geopolitical point of view. In the short term, this will mean more joint sanctions and, for Europeans, a further reduction in technology transfers to Russia ”.

In short, proclamations aside, the sanctions policy pursued by Trump (accused, despite repeated evidence to the contrary, of pro-Putinism) is destined to continue, also because – observes Fyodor Lukyanov – " sanctions are becoming a form of economic regulation in this era of new protectionism ”. An observation that is more pertinent than ever while the great gas game that Moscow is playing, again, on the double European and Asian terrain, is more alive and uncertain than ever, and which will inevitably condition US strategies in the months to come. The Nord Stream 2 is set to be completed despite pressure from the US Congress, but Biden has more arrows in his bow on European soil. The ambitions of Poland as a future major player in the continental energy market (the Warsaw contract with Gazprom expires in 2022) and the centrality of Ukraine as a transit territory (centrality that Nord Stream 2 itself risks compromising) are elements that could be decisive in an anti-Russian function. Hence the haste of Moscow but also of Berlin, which does not look favorably on a diversification of energy sources promoted and managed by Eastern countries that gravitate to the US orbit. But be careful, because to further complicate the scenario there is a project of which little is said, despite its potential relevance: it is called Power of Siberia 2 , and it is a pipeline that would bring natural gas from the Russian east five hundred kilometers from Beijing. A colossal catchment area, able to unite the two great neighbors in the coming decades. Putin gave the green light to the project last March and the works will last a long time. But the bet of a Russia with its gaze turned to the West or swallowed up by the Chinese authoritarian giant also passes from here. To understand the geopolitics of the next few years it will be necessary to keep this premise in mind: the West (read United States) will speak to Moscow for Beijing to understand.

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This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Atlantico Quotidiano at the URL on Tue, 01 Dec 2020 05:01:00 +0000.