Stage is set for crucial Biden-Putin summit

On March 17, on the eve of the first scheduled meeting in Alaska of senior Chinese and American diplomats since President Joe Biden took office, the United States sanctioned 24 Chinese officials for undermining Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms, including a member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo, Wang Chen.

In diplomatic terms, the timing of the action was pointed and clearly intentional. 

Similarly, on May 19, just as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov sat down in Iceland for their first scheduled meeting, the US State Department announced that sanctions would be imposed on contractors of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, but with the exception of the company Nord Stream 2 AG, or its chief executive officer, Matthias Warnig, a German citizen with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Also read: Less frost, more warmth at Blinken-Lavrov meet

Prima facie, it may seem a mixed bag of sanctions and waivers, but the common thread here is the United States’ lack of respect toward China and Russia. While the Biden administration calculated that China would buckle down at the Alaska meet – because that is China’s history under Western pressure – it apparently calculated that the Kremlin elites could be “incentivized” in Iceland. 

At the Alaska meeting, Yang Jiechi, Chinese Politburo member and director of Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, scattered the Biden administration’s notions.

On the other hand, even before Lavrov arrived back in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the US State Department’s sanctions waiver for Nord Stream 2 AG and its CEO Matthias Warnig as a “positive signal.”

‘A constructive manner’

This time around, the Biden administration seems to have hit the bullseye. 

The influential daily Izvestia has since cited “sources familiar with the situation” to estimate that “practical work is expected to be launched on the agenda for the Putin-Biden summit.”  The Iceland meeting was held in “a constructive manner,” the newspaper reported. The daily quoted a source as saying: “Teams in both countries will now work on the content.” 

The alacrity with which Moscow is responding needs some explanation. Basically, Washington has viewed Putin’s Russia in recent years as an increasingly oppressive autocracy run on a state-dominated, hydrocarbon-dependent, corrupt model.

There was a time when Western policy was driven by hopes of improving Russian behavior. But the “strategic patience” was predicated on the confident expectation that Putin’s style of government could not last much longer, and would be replaced by something much easier for the West to live with.

There is an impasse now, as the West’s efforts at isolating and sanctioning Russia are not getting anywhere. Meanwhile, what is far more significant, and pregnant with consequence for the future, has been the deepening and expansion of the Russia-China relationship.

As Tony Brenton, a former British envoy and “Russia hand” assigned to Moscow, wrote in an essay last year: “The two current leaders [Putin and Xi Jinping] are each others’ most frequent interlocutors. Their militaries exercise together. They vote together in the UN. The language they use about their relationship avoids the word ‘alliance,’ but only just.” 

The Western analysts who were so far skeptical about the durability of the Sino-Russian partnership grudgingly concede that their “psywar” on the Moscow elite hasn’t worked – that Russians should be worried about becoming a mere economic satellite to their booming southern neighbor; that China might someday reabsorb the huge, empty, Russian Far East; that China has evil intentions toward Russia’s dominance in its Central Asian backyard, and so on.

The Russia-China bond

Thus no matter Russia’s perceived breaches of the international order, no matter its alleged predatory instincts, no matter its systematic debunking of Western exceptionalism, the US attempts to bring Putin down are reaching nowhere. The Alexei Navalny affair amply testifies to this.