In Other News – Russia, China, and Opportunities for the US – 12/2/2022

December 2, 2022

Russia is trying to wear us down, but it’s wearing itself down in the process. Russian airstrikes have caused immense damage to the power grid in Ukraine, and this week President Zelenskyy has asserted that Putin is trying “to turn the cold of winter into a weapon of mass destruction.” Ukrainian officials have stated that rolling blackouts could continue until March and that citizens should prepare for long periods of shutdown. Russia is angling to wear Ukraine down, but he’s also hoping to wear down European resolve against him.

According to the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, European nations should prepare to receive hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians over the winter as the living conditions become untenable. But with their own housing shortages compounded by inflation, high energy prices, and social discontent, welcoming refugees will be a challenge for many governments. Putin knows this, and he also knows that Europe is nearing its challenging December 5 cut-off date for Russian oil imports.

But this week, NATO members met in Romania and reiterated that Ukraine is eligible for NATO membership and that the alliance will continue to send more financial, humanitarian, and military aid to Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s membership process will be set aside for now to maintain firm unity of NATO members during this time of immediate crisis. Secretary of State Blinken also announced that the US government will provide over $53 million to support Ukraine’s acquisition of critical electricity grid equipment over the winter, and NATO ministers further vowed to help rebuild Ukraine once the war is over.

Russia is also increasingly facing its own internal challenges. Although the immediate impact of sanctions can be debated, sanctions are a marathon not a sprint, and we’re entering higher mileage territory. Sanctions have also demonstrated the resolve of NATO and allies to stand up to Putin and made his technological and military procurements more difficult. Putin must also continue to justify the food and energy crises and the general negative economic impact of the war to his allies, who are probably growing tired of his tropes. Further, internal dissent in Russia continues to rise, and as more bodies are sent home disapproval will only increase.

China, soccer and soft power and an opportunity for the United States. Over the last 50 or so years, China has constructed and renovated hundreds of sports stadiums worldwide as part of its soft power diplomacy. China started the effort in neighboring Mongolia but has since built numerous facilities throughout Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and South Pacific. The Chinese understood the power of sports and have used construction efforts to their political advantage. The stadiums were commonly “gifted” by the Chinese to countries as a reward for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Other times, nations would shift their stance on Taiwan after receiving the “gifts.”

Over the years, the stadium construction, along with other soft power initiatives, has allowed China to gain more political support from countries in places like Latin America and Africa. Stadiums are relatively affordable and offer big payoffs in terms of happiness. The symbolic camaraderie has also permitted China with an inroad to other lucrative infrastructure projects in these regions and allowed China to become a top trading partner for multiple continents.

But China is now slowing economically and facing a rare degree of internal turmoil due to its inhumane Covid policies, among other things. At the recent Chinese National Congress, President Xi scarcely mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative and it’s likely that instead of gifting stadiums, China will need to focus on supporting industries that directly impact its own citizens – things like copper, petroleum, and soybeans. At the same time, many Belt and Road countries will begin to see the underside of their Chinese infrastructure projects: public debt. Under these circumstances, there’s an opportunity for the United States to develop and reignite key relationships in strategic places like Latin America to counter China’s influence.