Letter From the Editors

It’s becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to relations along the East-West divide, there’s no going back to the times of “irrational exuberance” (to borrow a phrase from Alan Greenspan – as columnist Vladimir Frolov did this week). No one is gazing into anyone’s eyes and getting a sense of their soul. During their 2011 meeting, then-VP Biden allegedly told Putin, “I don’t think you have a soul.” To which Putin replied, cryptically, “then we understand each other.” No wonder the phone conversation between Biden and Putin this week resulted in nebulous calls for a summit and very real sanctions for Russia (all part of the US president’s promise to “walk and chew gum at the same time,” says Frolov).

The sanctions were imposed in part over the SolarWinds hack, which US intelligence says has Moscow’s fingerprints all over it, writes the Moscow Times. Considering that, according to Vasily Kashin, the Biden administration isn’t about to ease up on Beijing, either (currently, more Chinese companies are subject to sanctions than Russian ones), it’s clear that “cold war 2.0” is going to be waged virtually. The world is being divided into two technological ecosystems – one that revolves around China, and the other around the US. This may bring cooperation between Moscow and Beijing to a new level, says Kashin. Before, Chinese companies operating in Europe and the US could “easily afford to sacrifice the Russian [market]. Now [China] needs to think about life under new conditions. And in these conditions, the Russian market becomes promising.”

A Russia-China alliance always makes Western politicians nervous. As Sergei Mikhailov aptly puts it, “As long as Russia and China are doing something together, it can’t be good.” But just how compatible are Moscow and Beijing? Economically speaking, Beijing’s trade with the EU, for instance, has been growing (while Russia’s has been shrinking), writes Mikhailov. Sure, there’s military-technical cooperation. However, the one area where the two powers are most well-matched is human rights – or lack thereof. Both Beijing and Moscow like to underscore the right of every country to determine its own policy (read: repress who it wants to when it wants to) and to eschew the Western concept of universal human rights and values that transcend borders. But, according to Mikhailov, that is a sign of weakness rather than strength: “The history of the cold war showed that slowly but surely, the issue of human rights eroded the legitimacy of the Soviet regime. . . . As soon as Russia leaves Aleksei Navalny alone and China stops reeducating the Uighurs, their citizens will immediately start wondering about the gap between universal values and their national ones.” So Moscow and Beijing are forced to constantly keep up the pressure, lest their house of cards come tumbling down.

As if to drive that point home, the Moscow authorities this week shut down Doxa, a student magazine started at the Russian Higher School of Economics. Prosecutors say the outlet incited students to attend unauthorized rallies in support of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny. At the same time, prosecutors are moving to have the latter’s Anticorruption Foundation declared an extremist organization. According to Navalny’s associates, this would “clear the way for hundreds of criminal cases.”

Perennial Belarussian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko also found himself seeking to reinforce his position – by visiting sunny Azerbaijan to ask for money. The Belarussian leader congratulated Azerbaijani President Ilkham Aliyev for successfully “returning” lost territories in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, adding: “Azerbaijan took a great step toward achieving its national dream.” This is not exactly politic, says political analyst Valery Karbalevich, since Belarus is Armenia’s ally in the CSTO. But a leader whose foreign policy “has narrowed to the CIS, plus China” can’t afford to beat around the bush. That’s one more member for Team China in the Great Coming Digital Confrontation. The lines have been drawn. But which future leader will have the courage to say, “Tear down this firewall!”?