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Keep One Eye on Xi and the Other on Putin

As Washington focuses on competition with China, it can’t afford to forget the threat from Russia.
May 11, 2021
Keep One Eye on Xi and the Other on Putin
(Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kiev last week on the heels of his first G7 meeting in London. The trip demonstrated strong, high-level U.S. support for Ukraine, suggesting that the Biden administration takes seriously the threat posed by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime. Such a message of resolve in Europe is especially welcome as the growing challenge from China tends to crowd out attention to other enduring geopolitical threats, including those coming from Moscow.

The view of the Russian peril is clear from Kiev. The Russian Army recently massed forces on Ukraine’s border and in occupied Crimea. But Ukraine’s fate is also important to the United States, because the Biden administration’s Russia policy—and how it handles a possible June meeting between Putin and President Biden—will be an early indicator of whether the administration can manage simultaneous challenges from Beijing and Moscow.

To be sure, the Chinese Communist Party poses a major challenge and threat to the United States, our allies, and the democracies around the world. Previous U.S. administrations shared this view, and according to the Biden administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released in March, China “is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.” China’s leaders, the guidance continues, “seek unfair advantages, behave aggressively and coercively, and undermine the rules and values at the heart of an open and stable international system.”

The administration is right in its description of China. Under President Xi Jinping, China has launched a vigorous campaign to overtake the United States as the leading global player. The authoritarian Xi has also overseen a genocide against the Uyghurs and an ugly crackdown on those living in Hong Kong and inside the mainland; flexed China’s military muscles in the South China Sea and threatened Taiwan; and used technology to surveil, censor, and threaten its own people and those beyond China’s borders.

The threat posed by Russia under Putin is different—but no less dangerous. In the present and near-term, one could argue, Putin presents a more serious danger. The rival who seeks to outcompete may be the larger strategic threat, but if one ignores the rival that seeks to sabotage and destroy, the strategic contest may not be—ultimately— the determinant one.

After all, it was Putin, not Xi, who invaded and occupied the territory of two neighbors (Georgia and Ukraine) in the last 13 years and launched a cyber-attack against Estonia, a NATO member. It was Russia, not China, that blatantly interfered in our last two presidential elections. Putin, not Xi, intervened militarily to prop up the murderous Assad regime in Syria. Leaders in Moscow, not those in Beijing, have threatened to use nuclear weapons against their neighbors. And it has been Putin’s agents, not Xi’s, who have repeatedly killed political opponents on NATO and EU members’ territories.

Inside Russia, Putin critics like opposition leader Aleksei Navalny face constant threats. Living in NATO and/or EU countries does not guarantee safety for Putin’s critics either, as evidenced by the 2006 poisoning of Aleksander Litvinenko in the United Kingdom and the attempted poisoning in the same country a dozen years later of Sergei Skripal. Other Russians living in the U.K. have died under mysterious circumstances, including Aleksander Perepilichny, a Russian businessman-turned-whistleblower who died after jogging near London in 2012.

Russian security services are suspected of involvement in the murder of a Chechen dissident in central Berlin in August 2019; a similar murder occurred in Vienna last year. The mysterious death in 2015 of Mikhail Lesin, a former Russian minister found dead in a Washington, D.C. hotel room, may have been the work of Putin’s henchmen as well. Putin’s agents, including the same ones alleged to have attempted to kill Skripal, also are suspected of killing two Czech citizens after they blew up an ammunitions depot in that country in 2014. Bulgarian authorities are opening an investigation to determine whether Russian agents may have done the same in that country.

In its Interim Guidance, the Biden administration acknowledges that “Russia remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage.” In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee April 29, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said, “The Russian military is an existential threat to the United States.” Berrier said the country’s military is being used to maintain influence over states “along its periphery, compete with US global primacy and compel adversaries who challenge Russia’s vital national interests.”

Biden, in an interview in March, agreed that Putin is a “killer.” His administration has imposed two rounds of sanctions on the Putin regime for a range of nefarious activities, including the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny, the SolarWinds hack, and its interference in last year’s election. At the same time, Biden proposed holding a summit with Putin this summer to, as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan put it, see about getting the relationship “on a more stable, predictable path.”

Warning that we risk inadvertently pushing Russia and China closer together, so-called realists argue we should work with Russia to confront the bigger, longer-term challenge posed by China. According to this prescription, we should put aside our concerns about Putin’s egregious behavior, forget the Russian invasion and ongoing aggression against Ukraine, and ignore the case of Navalny and the nasty crackdown on human rights inside Russia, because we have larger interests at stake.

This position is both strategically unsound and morally repugnant. Strategically, it overestimates the degree to which we could rely on any collaboration with Putin’s regime against Beijing and analytically overrates the possibility for a genuine and deep partnership between China and Russia. Theirs is a relationship of convenience driven by their respective desires to secure authoritarian leadership at home and project power abroad. When it is inconvenient, it will fray—and Russia, with an economy just 10 percent the size of China’s economically and shrinking, is likely to regret any role it played in assisting Chinese military modernization.

Morally, the United States cannot advance a values-based foreign policy, as Biden has promised, or renew its leadership role in our democratic alliances by overlooking Putin’s murderous corruption. Better relations with Putin are only possible if we sacrifice our values, our interests, and other countries in the process.

To be clear, both Xi and Putin are dangerous, authoritarian leaders. We simply do not have the luxury to focus on one and not the other. We must address both challenges simultaneously.

One way to do that would be for President Biden to follow up on Secretary Blinken’s positive visit to Kiev by meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky next month. A presidential trip to Kiev might be too much to ask for, but Zelensky should be invited to join G7 leaders when they meet in London. That would enable all of them together and in separate bilateral meetings to demonstrate their support for Ukraine and send Putin a loud and clear message—one Xi would likely hear, too.

Daniel Baer and David J. Kramer

Daniel Baer is senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during the Obama administration. David J. Kramer served as assistant aecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the George W. Bush administration and is director of European & Eurasian Studies at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.