December 2021: Russia making major strategic moves

Russia busting some big moves.

This will not by any means be a comprehensive treatment.  Time is a big factor right now, and it’s more important to enlarge the landscape image of what’s going on by presenting recent developments together.

In the latest TOC Ready Room, we looked at Russia’s announcement about being “forced” to deploy intermediate-range missiles to Europe, which would be an overt violation of the terms of the now-defunct 1987 INF Treaty.

That in itself is a major move; “tectonic,” we might say, using the adjective deployed by Dmitry Medvedev in 2011 about the Arab Spring.

As discussed on 15 December, I assess Russia’s move to be as much about a shifting orientation vis-à-vis China as about Russia’s relations with NATO Europe.  But it’s definitely about NATO Europe (and North America) as well.  In that sense, it’s only partly about Ukraine, or the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Russian demands of NATO, to negotiate a substantially altered NATO presence in Eastern Europe, were rolled out by Moscow on Friday.  They help clarify the broad scope of Russia’s vision for a transformed security interface, including “an effective Russian veto on future NATO membership for Ukraine” and in the wording of the Reuters report, implying “the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe and the withdrawal of multinational NATO battalions from Poland and from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that were once in the Soviet Union.”

The Putin-era quest for a renegotiated relations basis with NATO Europe goes back much further than Friday.  Putin has been talking about it since the mid-2000s, and it might have been put up for serious discussion in the 2007-2008 timeframe.  But it was shelved permanently after the Western recognition of Kosovar independence from Serbia and the Russian invasion of Georgia.  Relations were soured at that point and NATO had little interest in what it saw as rewarding aggression by taking up Russian proposals.

Putin meets with military officers. Kremlin/MOD photo

Now, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov has “said Russia and the West must start from a clean sheet in rebuilding relations.”

According to Reuters, he told reporters that “The line pursued by the United States and NATO over recent years to aggressively escalate the security situation is absolutely unacceptable and extremely dangerous.”

“Ryabkov said Russia was not willing to put up with the current situation any longer,” reports Reuters, “and urged Washington to come up with a constructive response fast.”

Per Reuters, Ryabkov said “Russia was ready to start talks as soon as Saturday, with Geneva a possible venue.”  He’s also cited as saying Moscow is disappointed by the reaction coming from Western capitals.

The sense of urgency is no doubt alarming, with its undiplomatic, precipitate tone. The troop buildup near Ukraine wouldn’t argue for an immediate intention to go in with overwhelming force for a decisive military blow; the tone from Moscow seems more like goading.

There will be a lot more to say in the coming weeks.  Meanwhile, it’s important to note that this move enlarges the context of what Putin is doing, rather than affirming it as mainly bore-sighted on Ukraine.  I’ll quote here a passage from an email I sent earlier today:

On the main topic, Putin isn’t stupid.  He knows there is little prospect of a NATO-Russia agreement on non-expansion.  Biden probably wouldn’t stop one, but European NATO members would.

What Putin wants is a Russian negotiating forum with NATO members in it, pondering Russian demands, because that’s the best vehicle for dividing and paralyzing NATO.  That, he can have instantly merely by proposing it, if there’s enough dissent in NATO about the wisdom and purpose of such a group.  There may be.  Poland, the Baltic Republics, Norway – they won’t like it.  (They might see certain advantages in it, if it could really be leveraged to constrain Russia in beneficial ways.  With a weak United States, that’s very unlikely.)  But I don’t think Germany, Spain, or Italy would reject it outright.  Spain and Italy wouldn’t want to lead from the front on it, but Germany never minds to do that now.

Turkey and Greece, with their separate security reasons and their enmity, and their particular relations with Russia, are probably ready any time to engage in such a “dialogue.”

The posture of the EU will matter.

Trudeau in se is pretty much a non-quantity, but you know Putin will want to engage on Arctic issues as a Russia-NATO matter, and national politics in Canada and Denmark, as well as Norway, would go to max alert over that.

If possible, Putin would like to throw NATO into disorder and induce a collapse of Ukrainian security expectations, rather than having to execute an all-out invasion.  Piling a whole new generation of relationship demands on NATO, while Russia has nearly 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, is a big downpayment on doing that.

But the larger point is that Putin really does want to change the security regime with NATO.  He’d like to weaken and divide NATO, and leave just enough of its shell to keep the old-school NATO members committed to it, and thus constrained.

We catch a glimpse of the real scope of what’s going on by looking further east.  Russia’s big strategic declarations this week, on a relations shift with NATO and the intermediate-range missiles, came immediately after his 15 December phone conference with Xi Jinping, of which Western media have taken little note so far.

But a major announcement from the conference readout was that Russia and China have agreed to move forward with an alternative to the U.S-sponsored SWIFT banking clearinghouse mechanism, with implementation envisioned by the end of 2022.

Discussion of this concept has been out there for years, basically since the U.S. became increasingly overt about using SWIFT for anti-terrorism and sanctions-enforcement programs.  Such uses have been on everyone’s radar in the wake of 9/11, and with the on-again/off-again sanctions on nations like Iran, Syria, North Korea, and the regimes that trade with them.

But specifically time-scoping the proposal is new, especially in a readout involving Putin and Xi.  They’re very careful just about what gets “leaked,” let alone what’s stated in formal readouts.  They want to be heard as serious.

The governing lifestyle. CCTV video, YouTube

I do think analyst Pepe Escobar somewhat overstates the enthusiasm of other nations for shifting all their banking to a hub run by China and Russia.  What I suspect the two sponsors themselves would have to do is run formally segregated banking systems, keeping their participation in SWIFT going but operating the alternative mechanism for interested comers.

We can expect such an arrangement to be rife with corruption and espionage on participants; it would be mainly, at least early on, for those who want to operate outside the supervision of examiners in Washington, D.C.  If other nations like the BRICS (whose interests are probably shifting with their domestic politics and the howling international winds) still want to take part in an alternative to SWIFT, I suspect Beijing and Moscow would have to accommodate similar two-track participation on their part.  Capitalization could be something of a problem rather than a priority.

But a weak USA would make the Russia-China mechanism more viable than it would otherwise be.  All of these moves together imply a Russian vision of changing opportunities in a world with an ever-weakening United States.  They imply the same about China, of course, but it’s well to remember that Russia is looking just as hard and as urgently for weaknesses to probe.  Neither country expects now to revert to the post-1945 status quo.  Open season on the global order is in full swing.

Feature image:  Biden and Putin arriving at their summit meeting in Geneva, June 2021.  NBC News video, YouTube

2 thoughts on “December 2021: Russia making major strategic moves”

  1. Tsar Vladimir and the Emperor Xi have some interesting strategies to pursue, before one tries to eat the other.

    1) Russia wants its empire back and knows that it cannot actually really go to war to get it (and no it doesn’t care a wit about the nation-states agreeing to the takeover, either. Vlad is a full-on psychopath with dreams of the re-establishment of a Russian autocracy. Of course, no Russian autocrat has ever ruled without using terror and secret police to control the population. Poots comes from a long and dirty history dating back to Ivan IV. He has no conscience and certainly no interest in the peasants other than as cannon fodder. His conscript army and air forces are huge, and dumb. They do what they are told because they’d be dead if they didn’t. It’s that easy. So, Poots has all of the internal enablers in his back pocket, and dreams of Russian glory sparkling in his eyes.

    2) NATO, united and firm in defending its stance, membership, and agreements is the only thing keeping a madman from taking his empire back. Tsar of all the Russias… is after all the main title. Interesting that he’s basically an East German by long exposure, training, and cultural base. You might as well be flipping through the pages of European history concerning the love/hate/hate harder relationship between the Prussians and the Russians. We are seeing a fundamental return to that particular evil croc-agator.

    3) As you point out, Poots knows that he really can’t launch an actual shooting war without risking someone actually honoring the NATO treaties and thus leaving a few glowing piles of dead bodies and dirt for the Chinese to ignore while the Emperor Xi rules the remainder of the world. So yeah… he’s looking for leverage and with the NATO clown car drivers running the show, and the Germans getting really close to being painfully German, again, he’s looking to drive wedges, undermine, weaken, and disunify NATO. He thinks that he can do it, now, and is working to strike hard while the Zombie draws flies in the White House, Macron is lead around with a leash held by wifey-poo (he gets all trembly and excited when she pulls out the riding crop), Boris can’t zip up his fly or put down the bottle, and Germany is led by brassy bossy women ordering around sweaty lipped-dewy eyed eunuchs. It’s easy pickin’s for a “real man” like Tsar Vladimir. (It also doesn’t help that a big chunk of America’s Conservative movement is becoming irrationally isolationist, and has swallowed whole the Left’s anti-war propaganda.)

    4) Where is this going? It depends on the Globalist Oligarchs who run most NATO countries. Some care, some don’t. It’s going to depend on whether or not their palms are greased enough from one side or the other to make it worth their while. The Deep State has always been more interested in its trival power games than actually being effective at managing its vaunted transnational superstate. So, the Emperor Xi will make nice with Tsar Vladimir, until Vlad oversteps or succeeds in neutering the remainder of the Western alliance. Then Xi will make whatever move that he has in mind to solidify the Mandate of Heaven.

    It’ll all hinge on India, Australia, Korea, Japan, and a scattering of revived SEATO allies. That’s a pretty thin reed to hold.


  2. The Russians put their marker down publicly in the least uncertain terms possible. The indicators (that we’re privy to) point to the situation being far worse than what seems apparent. In their view, the time is ripe. They believe they can win now.
    Either at the negotiating table or the battlefield, the Russians are going to get what they want. As I’ve said, and many far more knowledgeable have said, on many a past occasion, our policies since the end of the Cold War have left Russia little choice.
    At worse, if we are once again influenced by the blob, borg, deep state, military industrialists, their vassals in east Europe, and the ‘Ukrainian lobby’ at the likes of the Atlantic Council, we’re going to end up with a ‘real’ war — one we cannot win. On the other hand, at best, we can address the errors made at the end of the Cold War and finally construct that elusive new security architecture in Europe.
    Don’t underestimate the gravity of the situation. And lets not let the dream slip away like it did last time. –jg

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