Not Even Wrong About Russia
Wolfgang Pauli once said of a young physicist's work, "It is not even wrong." The put-down applies to Republican thinking about Russia: my conservative colleagues don't even know what the ruckus is about. The Germans know, and that's why Chancellor Angela Merkel today opposed sanctions against Russia except in the case of further aggression. Her position was echoed by former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.
Sanctions would throw B'rer Putin into the Briar, er, Bamboo Patch.
A specter is haunting Europe, and that is the specter of a Russian-Chinese alliance at the expense of Europe. China is dynamic, and its dynamism is transforming the "Silk Road" countries that lie across Russia's southern border. China is building high-speed rail and high-speed internet south to Rangoon and eastward to Istanbul, intent on transforming its neighbors into an export market for high-value-added manufacturing and high-tech products. It's one of the most remarkable ventures in world economic history, and the most underreported story of the year. My conservative friends have been predicting China's economic demise every year for the past dozen, and have been wrong each time. They notice the elephant dung, but ignore the elephant.
China's appetite for Siberian resources, including hydrocarbons and perhaps including water, is limitless. The Russians and Chinese have every reason to suspect each other. But if they put their differences aside, the economic synergies would be extensive. What should worry the West is the prospective synergies in military technology as well. Russia is rolling out the S500 air defense system. We shuddered at the prospect that Russia might provide its 20-year-old S300 system to Damascus or Tehran; we really don't know how much better the new iteration is, but it might be a great deal better. Chinese rocketry already is good enough to sink any American ship within several hundred miles of its coastline. We really don't want them to get together.
That's precisely what may happen if the West succeeds in "isolating" Russia, as Germany's leading news organization Der Spiegel has been warning. Of course, all this is on the German language site, beamed to the homefolks; the Germans don't bother trying to explain things to the Anglos any more. Use Google translate if you want to read it.
A fundament of American policy since Henry Kissinger engineered the great opening to China more than four decades ago has been to keep Russia and China from combining against the West. John Lewis Gaddis in his history of the Cold War claims that the U.S. opening to China was the decisive event in winning the Cold War; I have criticized this view in the past for underestimating the importance of the Central Front in Europe, but it surely was a critical dimension of U.S. policy.
Presently, we may undo the work of the Cold War era and stand godfather to a new Sino-Russian alliance. This without doubt would be the stupidest move in the history of American foreign policy. Russia's economy is weak, but Russia has considerable latent resources in military technology. Russia has a limitless market for natural resources in China and a prospective partner in military technology. If we continue to dismantle our defense capacity while Russia and China nourish theirs, we will be in deep trouble.
The best response to Putin's challenge would be a massive increase in defense R&D, with a view to neutralizing Russia's perceived areas of strength in missile and air defense technology (remember how SDI cowed Gorbachev in the 1980s?). That would command China's respect and reduce Russia's attractiveness as a prospective partner. The Crimea was, is, and will be Russian, and it's pointless to cry over milk that was spilled in 1783. We need to think several moves ahead on the chessboard. Otherwise, Chancellor Merkel is quite right: sanctions are pointless.
As for the West's credibility: the stock price of Gazprom, the Russian state company that ships gas to Europe, jumped more than 5% today while Western leaders gathered to anathemize the beastly Russians. The market, as usual, has the last laugh.