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All eyes on Russia ahead of Putin-Xi meeting

All eyes on Russia ahead of Putin-Xi meeting
All Eyes on Russia Ahead of Putin-Xi Meeting | Quick Take | GZERO Media

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Happy week. We are still in the thick of it when it comes to all things Russia. So let me jump right in.

Latest on the Russia front. Well, really, over the last six weeks, if you weren't paying attention to what people were saying and just what activities were going on on the ground, what you'd be seeing was steady escalation, more and more Russian troops with offensive capabilities to the front, both at the direct border with Ukraine, as well as now into Belarus as well, ostensibly for exercises, but we don't tend to see coincidences in this line of work.

And if the Russians wanted to engage in a full-scale invasion, they're not quite there yet, but they certainly will be by the time the Olympics are over. That's relevant, by the way, because there is this Olympics moratorium on fighting, which is at the United Nations, but which the Chinese actually not only co-sponsored, but actually drafted along with the United Nations leadership. And to the extent that President Putin cares at all about his relationship with China, and Beijing hosting the Olympics and Putin, traveling right over there, it is very, very, very hard to imagine that the Russians would engage in any direct military activities in Ukraine before the Olympics are over. And certainly not while Putin is over there in Beijing for the opening ceremony.

I feel fairly confident about that, which means there's still a few weeks for diplomacy to play out. There are still a few weeks for climb down, but to be clear, from the Russian side, everything points to escalation so far. From the Western side, there certainly lots of willingness to engage in diplomacy, but there also has been a strengthening of the expected deterrence if there is any form of an attack. That's come from the United States, come from the US allies. And most recently it's come also from the United Kingdom, the foreign secretary saying that there would be full sanctions readiness taken against not just people directly involved in making the calls, the orders on what would transpire in Ukraine, but anyone directly linked to the Kremlin. That means lots of oligarchs who park all sorts of cash and massive amounts of real estate holdings in the United Kingdom. Something that I'm very skeptical that the Brits would actually do.

It's interesting. I mean, Navalny, the opposition leader at Russia presently in jail, and others have been calling after the UK government to go after oligarch money forever. It's never happened. I think that the UK is concerned about strengthening, what it would mean, they want to strengthen anti money laundering rules, but that seizing oligarch assets would send very strong messages to all sorts of strong men and crooks and cronies across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. And London makes an enormous amount of money off of that. I mean, first you do Brexit, and then you go after all of your oligarchs from sort of everywhere internationally? There are sort of all sorts of willingness to punch yourself in the face if you're UK leadership in recent years, but this I think is a step too far.

I do think the UK though wants to signal that they are a hundred percent aligned with the United States, especially in a post Brexit environment. That they are more reliable. And so I think a harder line UK posture fits in with that. That's not as much as the headlines are telling you, but generally speaking, yeah, I think there's been a lot more NATO alignment, more US-Europe alignment on policies vis-à-vis the Russians in the last couple of weeks.

That's interesting in so far as it should make it a little bit less likely that Putin engages even in relatively limited military incursions into Ukraine, but it also means the implications of such strikes if they were to occur, and there's still a really good chance they happen, would be much more dangerous. Escalation from the West, and then further cycles, further spiral that gets us into major power conflict, not World War III, but nonetheless, real knock-on implications for countries all over the world, which is why we're spending so much time on this.

The other thing I would pay attention to is the President Putin, President Xi summit coming at the end of this week. It's probably the most important geopolitical summit we've had in years in terms of the implications of what happens if it goes really well, or if it doesn't go so well. It's pretty clear that this relationship is moving from tactical to strategic. It's moving towards a real alliance. And I say that in part, because both sides feel for different reasons like they're being backed into a corner. President Xi is looking for more friends. He's of course lost the Indian government in a dramatic way through his own escalation over the last couple of years. There's been more isolation, more domestic focus in China with COVID. And there's more of a feeling that the United States is playing a more hard-line policy that is unfixable to a degree. And so, if that's the case, a closer relationship with Russia makes more sense.

Putin, of course, it's more obvious. He sees NATO as more strongly arrayed against them. He's deeply unhappy with the geopolitical status quo in Europe. He sees no way of opening up, unless there's a surprising diplomatic breakthrough. He sees that democratic force is increasingly arrayed against him and a threat towards him. He's seen it in Belarus. He saw it even in Kazakhstan. He's seen it in Moldova. He's seen in Armenia. He's seen in Georgia. And now potentially he has to be worried about that in Russia longer term too. So, who you're going to work with? You're going to work with the Chinese.

In that regard, I think it's a very, very important meeting. I would say that while the relationship feels more strategic, it's not that the Chinese are going to offer that much, at least in the near term to the Russians economically. I mean, for example, they don't have the gas pipeline infrastructure. So if the Russians are cutting off a gas to Europe, it's not like the Chinese can make that up. Furthermore, they haven't invested all that much in Russia economically over the past years. They don't have an awful lot of exposure to help sink or float the Russian economy. But diplomatically, I think it's very important.

In this regard, I do think that the announcement that the United States is bringing this issue to the United Nation Security Council, on balance I think is a mistake. The Biden administration has done a really solid job in engaging in an enormous amount of proactive diplomacy with all of the NATO allies and have gotten them to a more unified position on Russia and Ukraine, both in terms of military support for the Ukrainians, as well as direct consequences, which they would all put towards the Russians if there was either a broad invasion or a more limited incursion.

That's all in favor of American national security interest and policy, but the Chinese have stayed out of this, mostly, so far. The Russians want to bring them in. We'll see how far that goes but having a big conversation at the security council that tries to focus in international spotlight on Russia-Ukraine, makes it more likely that the Chinese will veto. That the Chinese publicly will be more aligned with the Russians. And as the Americans, why would you want to make the Chinese take that kind of a decision? I would say you don't. You don't want to use your capital on getting them to abstain, which is something that frankly isn't all that important or useful to the United States. And you certainly don't want to risk the likelihood that they are publicly on board with the Russians. The same Chinese that have opposed intervention into sovereign countries policies. And of course, they said very little after the Russians did very differently with Crimea and the Donbas. Why would you push them in that direction?

So I see that as a mistake. We'll see where that goes today, tomorrow, but that's it for me. Hope everyone's well, and I'll talk to y'all real soon.

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