Some of the most important living American strategists such as Henry Kissinger and Steve Bannon have long tried to lobby the Trump administration to end its arm wrestling against Russia. Moscow is currently pursuing a powerful alliance with China, and despite several occasions to take advantage of a modern-day Sino-Soviet split, none have been exploited thus far.
The COVID-19 pandemic might have been the West’s last opportunity to listen to Kissinger, but the die is cast: China has been blamed for letting the virus spread worldwide and allegedly hiding the truth about the experiments conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whereas Russia has been accused of spreading disinformation and fostering divisions within the European Union and is witnessing its own growing encirclement.
The War of Narratives
Contrary to China and the US, Russia didn’t engage in a global face mask diplomacy, but limited the delivery of humanitarian aid and assistance to the countries within its own sphere of influence. But there have been some exceptions as shown by the huge operation From Russia With Love destined to Italy, and by the cargo sent to the US itself. The Kremlin has been trying to exploit the crisis not to pursue an imperialist agenda — as various other powers are trying to do — but to reset the relationship with the West.
In both cases, the Russian engagement has been source of harsh controversies and the country has been accused of aspiring to divide the NATO and the EU from within via disinformation campaigns. Conversely, it is arguable that effective information warfare did take place — but against Russia. The Italian press tried to present the high risk humanitarian operation as the starting point of a military invasion and spread many other fake news items which crossed the national borders and received such a bitter welcome in Moscow that it sparked a diplomatic row.
The Italian press, backed by some politicians, missed the point: the Kremlin does know that Italy is unreliable and no political shift is likely to happen because of a humanitarian mission, that’s why is it possible to believe that the operation may have been truly designed for humanitarian reasons or to counter China’s over-exposition.
EU Accusations Against Russia
In the meantime, the External Action Service of the European Union claimed that Kremlin-linked media are staging information warfares across the member states with the goal of aggravating “the public health crisis, specifically by undermining public trust in national healthcare systems — thus preventing an effective response to the outbreak”.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean the things didn’t go better and it has been the US Ministry of Defense, Mark Esper, to lead the anti-Russian — and anti-Chinese — front. The Pentagon has repeatedly accused Russia of backing the Chinese efforts to spread disinformation in the West to the detriment of alliance’s cohesion, whereas the most popular newspapers are being published sensational articles whose titles are even more meaningful, like The New York Times‘ “Putin’s Long War Against American Science“.
Esper, interviewed by the Italian press, expressed his viewpoint about the Russian engagement: “Unfortunately, Russia and China are both taking advantage of a unique situation to advance their own interests. Russia provided medical assistance to Italy but then attempted to use that assistance to drive a wedge between Italy and its allies with a disinformation campaign.”
Competition Instead of Cooperation
Against the background of the disinformation-related accusations, Russia has witnessed to its growing encirclement from every front: Arctic, Balkans, Eastern Europe, Central Asia.
On May 1, the US Navy and the British Royal Navy conducted a considerably large-sized military operation near the Norwegian Arctic, officially to assert the freedom of navigation. The fleet entered the Barents Sea for the first time in the post-Cold War era, a very remarkable moment. Some 1,200 soldiers aboard three destroyers and other means, including one Poseidon P-8 and one nuclear submarine, took part in the mission. The mission is merely the US’ latest show of force in the Arctic, whose hegemonic relation represents a top-priority for the country since the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House.
Hydrocarbon → Nuclear
Moreover, in the days of the pandemic the US has extended the energy dominance doctrine from the hydrocarbon industry to the nuclear energy, releasing a plan to weaponize the uranium production and counter the Kremlin’s nuclear diplomacy in the developing and underdeveloped country.
Then, in the Balkans, Turkey is forwarding a smart mask diplomacy addressed to Russian-influenced countries like Serbia, Moldova and Bosnia, which have quickly become open-air battlefields where cargoes are delivered in accordance with ethnic and religious criteria. Whereas the Kremlin greenlights loans and aid to Chișinău, Ankara sends shipments to its little dominion, the Turkish-inhabited Gagauzia; the same scenario is repeating in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the Russians are focusing the provision of aid to the Serbian republic and the Turks to the Bosnian Muslims.
The post-pandemic destiny of both countries is being written right now as shown by the already-visible effects produced by Turkey’s mask diplomacy: Sarajevo has recently stopped the border-trespassing of a Russian mission destined to the Serb republic, pushing the Russian embassy to intervene, whereas the Gagauz authorities have accorded Turkey to open a consulate in the republic’s capital of Comrat.
The same strategy is being pursued in Central Asia via the Turkic Council and is bearing fruit. Kazakhstan has recently reached an agreement with the Turkish defense giant Aselsan for the provision of remote weapon platforms, and talks are underway to strengthen and enhance the regional infrastructure network in the post-pandemic to raise the trade among the member states. Turkey has also sent aid to Ukraine, with which the partnership is more and more intense and extended, from trade to defense, from industry to the Crimean question.
There is only one interpretation possible to explain Ankara’s engagement in the Russian space: Turkey is the instrument with which the West is entering areas otherwise hard to infiltrate. Such hypothesis is corroborated by the outcomes produced by the Turkish actions which essentially work against the Kremlin’s interest and undermine its influence.
The Missed Opportunity
The war of narratives and the decision to put aside cooperation in favor of an ever-increasing competition have been shortsight-caused strategic mistakes whose consequences will materialize fully in the post-pandemic. The West had the opportunity to reset the damaged relation with Russia but it preferred to go on with the neo-containment, and it did so despite the awareness of some China-targeting discontent in the Kremlin with regard to the outbreak of the COVID-19.
Now, in the post-pandemic world order Russia will find itself more encircled than ever before whereas China will confront a very Chinese-unfriendly global panorama. The likely effect will be the countries’ further rapprochement. In fact, in 2020 — as in 2014 — it’s the West that is pushing the two centuries-old rivals together, prompting them to put aside their deep-rooted mutual hostilities in the name of realpolitik.