Letter From the Editors

There’s an old Russian saying that “nothing is more permanent than the temporary.” This week in the Digest has certainly illustrated that point, with once-staid alliances getting tossed aside faster than an old iPhone. The US’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan has demonstrated the jarring new reality of Afghanistan-2021 vs. Afghanistan-2001, writes Fyodor Lukyanov. The “friends of America” that lined up to be Washington’s comrades-in-arms 20 years ago are scrambling to figure out where they go from here – and whether the high costs they incurred, both material and human, have been worth it. With Kabul once again taken by the Taliban, Afghanistan is the poster child of Washington’s failed hegemony. But it’s hardly the only one, writes Lukyanov – what about longtime ally Egypt, as embodied by former president Hosni Mubarak, abandoned to his fate at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011? Or take Mikhail Saakashvili, who earnestly expected America to fight the good fight for him in 2008. Is this a sign of the fickle times we live in? Hardly, concludes Lukyanov: “We have become accustomed to a different norm, a very short-term norm: ideology as the decisive factor” in building – and preserving – alliances. However, this notion is a brief trend, while situational alliances are the actual historical norm.

Perhaps that’s a lesson Ukrainian President Zelensky, who met with Joe Biden in the White House this week, should take to heart. He received the usual assurances that America has Ukraine’s back in terms of territorial integrity and protection “in the face of Russian aggression.” In more specific terms, it means Zelensky scored $60 million for boosting its defense capabilities and another $45 million in humanitarian aid over the Donetsk Basin conflict.

However, Andrei Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council believes that Washington’s overtures to Ukraine are rather symbolic, since like his predecessor, Biden also “believes that France and Germany should deal with Ukraine.” So once again, the message seems to be: “Thanks for visiting – don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

But noncommittal as they sound, ad hoc alliances are still fraught with risks. Take the growing military cooperation between Russia and China. According to Aleksandr Golts, Moscow may be jumping the gun in helping Beijing boost its military capabilities, as illustrated this week with joint exercises at China’s Qingtongxia training base. Moscow is also helping China develop its own missile attack early warning system (MAEWS) – currently only Russia and the US have such systems. But is boosting China’s military might really in Moscow’s interests? After all, writes Golts, being a nuclear superpower on a par with Washington is really the only ace Moscow has up its sleeve these days when it comes to relations with the US. “If Beijing were to make a phenomenal breakthrough in building up offensive nuclear weapons, Moscow would lose that leverage,” he concludes.

This reshuffle of alliances has its upside, too, as demonstrated by this week’s Baghdad Conference on Cooperation and Partnership. It drew together such irreconcilable nations as Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Turkey and its antithesis, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el‑Sisi. Qatar, just recently “sent to Coventry” by other Persian Gulf states, was also welcomed at the event. Perhaps the most surprising guest was the sole European representative – French President Emmanuel Macron. As Sergei Mikhailov writes, now that Washington has abandoned its global ambitions, regional powers and an increasingly ambitious France are looking to fill the vacuum. And Macron wanted to drive home the message that France (along with the rest of Europe) is not like the US, which sought to force its ideologically driven vision on the region. Instead, the French leader outlined a policy of “non-interference, non-indifference.” The French have always been the trendsetters in fashion – so why not politics? Vive le non-indifference!