On the heels of an embarrassing feud with the United States involving blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who now lives in New York city, and the recent US announcement that it will increase its naval fleet presence in Asia from 50% to 60% by 2020, Beijing is hosting newly elected Russian President Vladimir Putin today for a three day visit. The show of Sino-Russian solidarity comes at a critical moment for East-West relations as the balance of power in the Middle East pivots upon the crisis in Syria and mounting concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
In response to Putin’s visit, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called the equivalent of a diplomatic audible, deciding to push back her visit to Azerbaijan and Armenia to stop in the port city of Batumi, Georgia. Georgia, a nation with NATO aspirations that shares its northern caucasus border with Russia, is considered by Russia to be within its sphere of influence. As recent as 2008, Georgia went to war with Russia and lost a portion of its northern territory to a Russian military incursion. The show of US-Georgian solidarity is a significant counterweight to Putin’s visit to China and sends a clear message of US disapproval for the move. Clinton’s visit is also sure to irk Putin at a time when even his domestic mandate is tenuous at best.
Diplomatic and political tensions between the United States and Russia have escalated in the first half of 2012. Putin’s legitimacy has come under sustained pressure as scores of citizen protestors repeatedly took to the streets in the run-up to the Russian election. Secretary Clinton has warned of the dangerous erosion of democratic institutions in Russia and repeatedly called out both China and Russia for their lack of support in condemning the Assad regime’s massacres in Syria. Responsively, Putin has tried to shift attention to a bogus outside threat: the basing of US missile defense systems in Poland, a neighbor of Russia. The missile defense issue is also used by Putin to flex Russia’s atrophied international influence.
Nonetheless, the issues surrounding and business of missile defense both in Europe and in the Gulf appear to be approaching a breaking point for Moscow. The United States is moving forward with missile defense systems in Europe and in particular, in Poland, with the intention of protecting the European continent from an Iranian ballistic missile threat. To compound Moscow’s frustration, Secretary Clinton recently signed deals to upgrade Saudi Arabia’s patriot missile systems worth $1.7 billion and to provide the UAE with an anti-missile defense capability worth $3.48 billion, undercutting one of Russia’s most lucrative and sought after commercial pursuits in the region. Well played Madame Secretary.
Enjoy your dim sum Mr. Putin.