China-Russia meeting as Ukraine war rages should remind US that Putin didn’t lose

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Russian President Vladimir Putin may be losing on the battlefield, at least for now, but counting the master of the Kremlin is a mistake.

Instead, Putin quietly managed to assemble a coalition of autocrats. Who is in Putin’s “axis of evil,” as President George W. Bush called a similar collection? An unlikely but utterly pernicious group straddling continents and political systems. All are worried to varying degrees about the trajectory the war in Ukraine is setting for their economy and their role in the geopolitical landscape, but they are still fully prepared to profit from it until then.

The United States cannot assume that defeat on the battlefields of Ukraine is enough to end the threat of Putinism. It is not even enough to diminish the influence of the Russian leader in Europe.

From the more traditionally autocratic leaders — Xi Jinping in China, Kim Jong Un in North Korea, and the ayatollahs of Iran — to leaders of illiberal democracies in India, Turkey, and Hungary, a host of countries are ready to offer their goodwill , their productive force or their markets to Putin’s war machine.

This means that the United States cannot assume that defeat on Ukraine’s battlefields is enough to end the threat of Putinism. It’s not even enough to diminish the Russian leader’s influence in Europe, with Sweden and Italy poised to form new governments that may also lean towards him. The United States cannot – must not – be complacent and think that military aid to Ukraine is enough to end its threat. The West must have a much broader strategy.

Most of the members of this group share a common attribute. Either they want or desperately need the cheap Russian oil and gas that Putin is now ready to offer, or they are eager to forge ties with another international pariah. Several of them converged this week in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, as guests of Putin and members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that Russia and China established in 2001 with several former Soviet republics in Asia Central, since joined by India and Pakistan.

Xi was the most closely watched of those leaders on Thursday as he made his first trip abroad since the Covid outbreak. The Chinese leader described Putin as “my old friend”, while Putin observed: “We highly appreciate the balanced position of our Chinese friends regarding the Ukrainian crisis”. Although Xi did not mention Ukraine in his public remarks, taken in some quarters as an intentional snub, he said China firmly supports Russia’s “core interests”.

However he expresses himself publicly, Xi has been more than willing to meet Putin’s main need: a large market for cheap Russian oil, natural gas and coal to offset the imposed sanctions. by the West for its invasion of Ukraine. Russian gas deliveries have tripled this year and crude imports have soared 55%, with China also stepping up purchases of cheap Russian coal as it tries to prop up an economy hit by Covid-related shutdowns.

North Korea was not at the Samarkand session, but Kim Jong Un’s import needs are easily as acute as China’s. Kim reportedly made a deal to supply millions of rockets and artillery shells paid for with Russian wheat and oil.

On the other hand, the head of the largest democracy in the world presented himself in Samarkand. India’s Narendra Modi has already forged a “special partnership” with Putin, boosting cooperation on energy and coking coal, a vital part of India’s steel industry. And it wants cheap gas for its poor citizens, so shipments of Russian crude to India have increased sixfold since February.

Iran is a relative newcomer to the Shanghai organization, but it’s no surprise that it is looking to join any international group that has it as a member.

Iran is not only selling Putin battlefield drones, but providing a rare show of unrestrained support for his operation. “If you hadn’t taken the helm [in Ukraine]the other side would have done it and started a war,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Putin during a visit this summer.

A telling photo showed Khamenei and Putin holding hands in friendship – with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who also came to Samarkand for his first visit to a SCO summit. Like other members of Putin’s axis, Turkey has all but ignored Western sanctions and doubled its purchases of Russian oil, while Turkish companies have agreed to cooperate in a host of industries despite the sanctions.

Image: Left to right;  Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before a meeting in Tehran on July 19, 2022.
From left to right ; Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Turkish President in Tehran on July 19, 2022. Sergei Savostyanov/AFP via Getty Images

Apart from welcoming cheap energy supplies, Erdogan is keen to have more clout internationally by playing on different sides. He is one of the last NATO supporters to ratify the admission of Sweden and Finland as NATO members, brokering deals to gain their help in his fight against Kurdish rebels in exchange for his consent. And he extracts the same from Putin. Last month, Erdogan met with him for four hours and pledged to “act in a coordinated and united manner in the fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria” – a euphemism for Turkey’s efforts to eradicate the Kurdish militia YPG.

While Erdogan has traditionally been a fence-sitter, other countries even further west that are closing in on Putin should be the nail in the coffin of any US speculation that Ukraine’s disastrous war effort dealt him a fatal blow.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been Putin’s main hobbyhorse in the European Union for some time, refusing to send any military aid to Ukraine, signing a gas deal with Russia and refusing to cut use of natural gas by 15% this winter, like every other country in the EU.

But until now, other European politicians pushing ties with Putin have not been leading their respective countries. On September 11, however, Swedish voters gave a majority in parliament to a right-wing coalition that includes Jimmie Åkesson and his Swedish Democrats, whom opponents attacked for his sympathies for Europe’s fascist past and Europe’s militarist present. Cheese fries.

Italy could be on the verge of turning even more resolutely towards Putin. The country’s leading polls all point to a victory on September 25 for Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party in coalition with Matteo Salvini, a shameless Putin sympathizer and opponent of sanctions. The EU still needs unanimity to renew sweeping sanctions against Russia every six months. Much of the shift to the right in Sweden and Italy is driven by domestic considerations – particularly inflation, which sanctions are exacerbating.

So how is America going to fight this new axis that Putin has assembled? In the short term, the United States must impress on every leader that their actions could come at a very high price – far higher than paying the full price of oil. The West is a major market for products from China and India which can be deeply affected by tariffs and even embargoes.

The United States must impress on every leader that their actions could come at a very high price – far higher than paying the full price of oil.

In the longer term, leaders like Modi, Erdogan and Orban must be reminded that they are all products of at least quasi-democratic systems. Will they want their political future tied to Putin as the war in Ukraine further undermines his image and ability?

Even Xi faces headwinds within his Communist Party. As Cai Xia, a professor formerly affiliated with this party, recently observed:[B]behind the scenes, his power is being questioned like never before,” as his ties to Putin further alienate China from the international community.

President Joe Biden said he was “sure” to see Xi at the G-20 summit in November. There could be no better time for the president to put in stark terms the dangerous game that Xi and his fellow axis members are playing.

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