Russia and China Think the US is Trifling

With bounties and genocide, the autocratic Great Powers jumped the shark | #TC76

Welcome to Third Cultured, a Queer Reading of the American Empire through crisis-after-crisis — written by yours truly, Kyle Borland.

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It didn’t happen overnight but the chief rivals of the United States – China and Russia – operate under the assumption that the US, and by association, its connected network of allies, are paper tigers on our best day. It’s not hard to see the mental calculus going on in Putin or Xi’s head. Ever since Obama failed to back up his “red line,” it’s been open season on the world stage. With an orange tyrant and the American people unwilling to shoulder the ever-increasing costs of being the world’s policeman, the better part of the last decade empowered despots and strongmen to tighten their grips on their respective societies.

Unfortunately, neither of our competitors is satisfied with the global order status quo and they look to prestige wins internationally to cover up for the much to be desired domestically. A dynamic the US is intimately familiar with as well.

In Russia’s case, its big move post-Pax Americana was to annex Crimea in 2014, igniting the Donbass War in eastern Ukraine that rages to this day. After seeing how well real politick played with the Russian people, Putin continued to involve Russia’s military in any conflict it could slide in a wedge against the US and the West, particularly in Libya, Syria, and Venezuela. This tactic is known as “hybrid war” using a “strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news, and covert and deniable military operations.”

However, as Putin’s current approval ratings show amid COVID and following a failed pension reform plan, he over-reached years ago, getting lost in the chess match of international relations. And, as we learned over the weekend, that included targeting US troops in Afghanistan for cash rewards.

Russian Bounties

The NYT reported a Russian military intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to the Taliban for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan, resulting in at least one US death. Worse yet, Trump and his administration knew about the operation for months, if not for more than a year. Trump denied ever being briefed about the program but his administration openly admits they knew, revealing weaknesses in the president’s administration no matter the truth. Putin and the Taliban also denied the existence of such a program, but the trail of intelligence, particularly the recovery of $500,000 cash by SEAL Team 6 from a Taliban outpost, coupled with President Trump being “cozied up to Putin” – leaves little room for doubt.

Here is what we know.

True to form, the White House sat on this intel for months deliberating on what actions to take (and taking none). Meanwhile, the president re-invited Russia to the G7 even though he was aware of the bounty program and the on-going provocations from Russia’s navy in several theaters, including the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Arctic near Alaska. To top it off, Trump also gushed national security details to Putin and President Erdogan of Turkey, while degrading our long-standing allies. So incapable of meeting the tasks of his office he devolves to petty gossip with the other bullies of the global sandbox.

In hundreds of highly classified phone calls with foreign heads of state, President Donald Trump was so consistently unprepared for discussion of serious issues, so often outplayed in his conversations with powerful leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and so abusive to leaders of America's principal allies, that the calls helped convince some senior US officials -- including his former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff -- that the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States, according to White House and intelligence officials intimately familiar with the contents of the conversations.

Nonetheless, Trump will find it hard to wiggle himself out of this corner with both himself and Papa Putin intact. Even the GOP is demanding answers from the White House. With the story ever-changing, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi requested a House briefing to determine, “was the president briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed.” The Speaker continued:

"Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable."

Between COVID, the election, and now another (rightful) whirlwind congressional investigation – the next four months are going to make Dante’s Inferno look like a Highway 30A.

The House is also looking to pass a resolution that would allow it to enforce its own subpoenas, levying fines on officials who defy them for testimony or documents. After Bolton’s book bombshells, hopefully, this is a sign that Democrats won’t leave anything on the board this time around.

Chinese Miscalculations

Until recently, China has always been applauded for its deft “charm offensive.” This was in reference to Beijing’s tendency to fly under the radar of major powers as a potential competitor, rival, or threat because of the mistaken assumption (which the. CCP played into) that China would “inevitably” democratize. This complacency on behalf of Western countries allowed China to rapidly close the gap between it and richer nations, particularly in the realms of military development and high-tech innovation. For decades, CCP elites were more than happy to hold their cards close to their chest and bide their time, as they quietly rose at the expense of the status quo.

When Xi came to power in 2013, he wasted no time in showing he did not intend to follow the “sleeping giant” precedent. Soon after Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” (notice a pattern?), Xi announced China’s “Belt and Road Initiative.” AKA the grand strategy of China and, if all goes according to plan, the entirety of Afro-Eurasia’s economy come mid-century.

When Trump was elected president in 2016, Xi shed the last of the humility facade and had China step vocally into the role it was already playing in the world: a Great Power.

As he should have in all honesty. China is a Great Power and, outside the past 200 years, a global superpower. However, Great Power status (nor that of a superpower) does not prescribe a nation a blank check to oppress and go back on the agreements it made to its people and other nations of the world.

Unfortunately, the CCP and Xi are on a tear in showing the world just how much of a charade they’ve been playing the past several decades. Just this week:

In his newsletter “Sinocism,” Bill Bishop described the top-level repercussions Beijing is likely to face from the credible accusations of genocide detailed above.

  • make it harder for the EU, and especially Germany, to take a relatively soft line towards China;

  • make it even more difficult for Huawei to win bids for 5G networks in developed nations given the company’s work in Xinjiang;

  • increase calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

  • increase pressure on the Trump Administration to impose sanctions on PRC officials under the Global Magnitsky Act.

This is our new normal. Cursed to live in interesting times. In times of Great Power conflict and destabilization. I can’t pretend to know what will happen next – although I have theories if you’re curious – but it’s clear as day how we got here.

America let its foot off the gas. At home and abroad.

We’ve let our institutions deteriorate, including our alliances and multilateral institutions, and destroyed what was left of our credibility believing in delusions of grandeur and American exceptionalism. We saw ourselves invincible from the historical inevitabilities of competitive peers and even plagues. We consumed delicious propaganda that painted pictures of our virtue so intoxicating the world rode the fantasy right along with us.

Still, some of it was real. Some of our righteousness, our worth as a nation, is real but we must uphold the aspects that make us truly great, that set us apart from the despots and the tyrants of the world. With both Russia and China, we only know about the bounties or the on-going genocide because of the Freedom of the Press. We can’t do anything about Putin or Xi (yet), but we can use the powers inherent to the Amerian people to hold our own bloated braggart accountable. Beijing and Moscow jumped the shark believing they can target the States directly without a forceful response.

It’s not 2035 yet, and nothing brings Americans together like a fight.

Stay safe and healthy, beautiful people. And, thanks for reading.


Kyle (@kgborland)

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