03.06.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

With an Eye on China, the US Un-sanctions Nord Stream 2

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When the US president Joe Biden recently waived sanctions on the company overseeing the Nord Stream 2 project, it came as a surprise to many. The decision was largely seen as the Biden administration’s way to ‘normalise’ US ties with Germany after their bi-lateral relations having been very consistently torpedoed by the Trump administration. But the question that is not being asked is: why would the Biden administration take this step at a time when the pro-Nord Stream2 leader of Germany, Angela Merkel, is about to retire from politics in September, and when its successor candidate, especially from the opposition Green party, does not share her enthusiasm and political support for the project? As it stands, Annalena Baerbock, the environmentalist Greens’ candidate, said the pipeline issue was “about war and peace”, arguing that Nord Stream 2 risks undermining Ukraine’s security. Therefore, wouldn’t it be logical for the Biden administration to wait for Merkel’s departure and the arrival of a fresh leader, possibly from the Green party, to permanently kill the Nord Stream 2 project?

The Biden administration has taken a different approach, one that is not necessarily about the US relations with Germany, but mainly about how the US can redefine its relations with Russia in ways that could wean the latter away from the Chinese, allowing the US a better strategic position to tackle its most powerful global adversary (China). In other words, by offering Russia a leeway and greater economic presence in Europe, the Biden administration is looking to break the Russia-China axis.

In its 2020 worldwide threat assessment to Congress, the US intelligence community had stated that “China and Russia are more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s.” And, one of the reasons that has been driving them closer is the US sanctions. For instance, in as early as March 2021, when Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, met his counterpart Wang Yi in China, they spoke of efforts to build “technological independence” and bypass western financial systems that the US uses to sanction them. This explain why the Biden administration, which started off as being ‘tough’ on Russia, has changed its Russia policy, realising that sanctions have only brought its two greatest rivals closer, as a means to break the inner strength of these ties.

Accordingly, when the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently met his Russian counterpart, the atmosphere prevailing in the meeting was completely different from the one that defined the US-China Anchorage meeting in which both sides primarily exchanged verbal hostilities and barbs. Lavrov, on the contrary, described the Reykjavik dialogue as “constructive”, while Blinken stressed that the world would be safer if Moscow and Washington “can work together cooperatively”. The atmosphere was also in complete contrast to the way the recently held G7 summit blamed Russia for its “irresponsible and destabilising” behaviour. What explains this shift?

While this is not to suggest that a fundamental change of heart has taken place in the US about Russia, it remains that there is an increasing sense in the US about redefining the estranged Russia-US relations since the 2014 Ukraine affair. Russia’s estrangement with the West has been concomitant with Russia’s growing ties with China. With the latter consistently defying the US and not showing any willingness to ‘respect’ or accept the US’ political, economic and technological domination of the word, it becomes logical for the US to devise a strategy that could wean China’s most powerful ally away from it. The sanctions waiver, therefore, is an “olive branch” the US has offered to Moscow.

Therefore, if one of the primary reasons for the increasingly deep Russia-China relations is their shared view of the West as a hostile alliance against both of them, the US, by allowing Nord Stream 2 to complete, is looking to give a message of ‘friendship’ to Russia. In simple words, the US aims to deprive Russia-China relations of the underlying logic that has been keeping them together.

Therefore, by weaning Russia away from the Chinese, the US and NATO can more specifically focus on the ‘China threat.’ The strategy of indirectly encouraging a wedge between Russia and China fits well into the ‘new age of conflict’ the US is looking to start vis-à-vis China.

Mainstream media in the US, accordingly, is already fanning out ‘rivalry’ between China and Russia. A very recently published report in The Washington Post describes the China-Russia state of affairs as mutually antagonistic, with Moscow having “more to fear from Beijing than Washington.” According to this report, Russia’s “fear” of China makes it possible for the West to “enlist Moscow as a silent but meaningful partner in the global campaign to curb the pernicious aspects of the Chinese Communist Party’s international influence.”

Could this be, at least for Joe Biden, the main agenda for his June meeting with Vladimir Putin? There can hardly be any doubt about how much the US wants to defeat the Chinese rise to global pre-eminence. Accordingly, there can hardly be any doubt about the US not seeking to dislodge the core foundation of Russia-China ties by making at least one of them a ‘friend of the West.’

Will the Russians take the bait? It seems highly unlikely. But, for the US, this strategy appears to be attractive enough to be tried. While it may not yield the desired results, the US seems to have calculated that pursuing this path is unlikely to yield any potential or real cost, and that it can easily revert to its ‘sanctions model’ as and when needed. For the Russians, however, it is not only the anti-Chinese political expediency underlying the US’ friendly posture that makes US advances not only less reliable and prone to disruption, but the fact that a host of other contentious issues continue to remain unresolved between the US and Russia make an overnight strategic shift in Russia towards the US a wishful thinking only.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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