The Simple, Brutal Reality Of ‘Eastern Powers’

There’s a bull market in geopolitical counter-narrative. A raging, raging bull market. It’s been going on for nearly a decade now.

Generally speaking, that counter-narrative takes the form of push back against Pax Americana and it’s almost always couched in terms that reflect a penchant for “Whataboutism” on the part of Washington’s strategic adversaries.

It’s all propaganda, which is to say it’s all cynical and designed primarily to poison the well such that autocrats and dictators can deflect from their own failures by reference to someone else’s, typically America’s. “You can’t trust Washington, look at Iraq!” And so on.

To be sure, some of (a lot of, even) the criticism at the heart of counter-narrative propaganda campaigns has merit. America’s post-War foreign policy record’s plainly abysmal, at least where the US military’s concerned, and that sorry track record serves as a veritable piñata for the Kremlin, and also for Beijing.

Further, neoliberalism failed huge subsections of Western electorates, and you could argue the push to create a global community in pursuit of a shared human destiny has gone “too far” to the extent it’s resulted in the erasure of national identities. Etc. You know the criticisms. I damn sure know them. And, again, I know they have merit.

But just as you’d be a hopeless dupe to take Wile E. Coyote’s word for it that Road Runner deserves to die, you’d be a naive simpleton to get your foreign policy hot takes from Hua Chunying and Maria Zakharova. They’re cartoon villains. Plain and simple.

I say that as much as possible without prejudice. On some levels, I like Zakharova. She’s fiery, darkly funny, smart, quick as lightning on her feet and infallibly loyal (to a very bad cause, but loyal all the same). But she’s still a cartoon villain. She just is. She’s Vladimir Putin’s propaganda minister.

I bring all of this up because Putin was in Kazakhstan on Thursday pitching Eastern Powers — to borrow and adapt one bank’s Austin Powers-inspired spoof of Zoltan Pozsar’s new monetary world order thesis. “Eastern Powers” isn’t just a hilarious moniker for a former New York Fed employee’s stumble down the propaganda rabbit hole. It’s also a good nickname for Moscow’s moonshot: Piggybacking on China’s rise to establish Sino-Russo hegemony at a time when the West’s grappling with overlapping existential crises.

That was the subject on Thursday in Astana, where Putin told visiting dignitaries that Russia will establish an “indivisible security” alliance to “replace the outdated Euro-centric and Euro-Atlantic models.”

Spoiler alert: No, Russia will not. Do that. China might. Russia won’t. Because Russia can’t. The country’s currency is worthless scrip. Putin presides over the single-most egregious kleptocracy in modern world history. It’s a nascent failed state.

The fall of the Soviet Union should’ve been an opportunity for the Russian people. But they never had a chance. Smash-and-grab capitalism allowed a handful of oligarchs to commandeer virtually all of the country’s wealth in the interlude between the Soviet era and Putin’s neo-tsarist authoritarianism. The oligarchs — including and especially Boris Berezovsky  — enabled Putin’s rise, only to see him morph into an implacable, ruthless dictator who murdered dissidents (including Berezovsky) on the way to a wholesale expropriation of the country’s resources and wealth.

Again: That’s the stuff of failed states. And you could argue Russia’s a kind of failed state in-waiting. It’s already failed in many respects, but for a variety of reasons, not least of which is Putin’s nuclear arsenal, Russia’s still a world power. Nominally. A greatly diminished world power with no economic clout to speak of, and a world power increasingly beholden to a stronger state, in China.

Putin’s trip to Kazakhstan included a meeting with Xi. Both men were in Astana this week for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. If you’re unfamiliar, the SCO’s a joint creation of China and Russia.

Like a lot of China-Russia-led “alternative” multilateral bodies, the SCO doesn’t really do anything. Well, that’s not entirely true: It legitimizes autocrats. Or tries to. For example, in 2018, the SCO described Russia’s electoral procedures under Putin as “transparent, credible and democratic.”

Let me ask you something: Do you want to live under a security umbrella comprised of organizations willing to characterize Putin’s sham elections as “transparent, credible and democratic”? No? Me neither. And neither do the scores of Putin sycophants penning social media and blog posts from the safe confines of Western capitals and American suburbs, by the way.

Xi and Putin trafficked in the same old bulls–t this week. The SCO, Putin said, “has firmly established itself as one of the key pillars of a fair, multipolar world order.” That isn’t true. The SCO hasn’t “established itself” at all. Let alone as a “key pillar” of anything. I’d wager most readers have never heard of the SCO.

For his part, Xi said China and Russia are “uphold[ing] the aspiration of friendship” in the face of an “ever-changing international situation.”

On Thursday, in separate remarks, Putin again blamed NATO for his invasion of Ukraine. “The result of [the Euro-Atlantic] world order is well known: A growing number of crises around the world, one of which of course is Ukraine,” he said.

Yes, “of course.” “Of course,” it’s Washington’s fault (and London’s fault, and Paris’s fault, and Ottawa’s fault) that Putin invaded his neighbor. He says that — “of course” — as though it’s self-evident. Self-evident that no blame — none at all — for a war rests with the man who, provoked or not, crossed the border.

It’s important — and growing more so by the week — that Western voters internalize this simple reality: Although the “Euro-Atlantic world order” Putin and Xi regularly deride is indeed deeply flawed, and while US foreign policy has indeed manifested in absolutely heinous outcomes for millions of people all over the world, the inescapable reality is that Russia and China are out-and-out dictatorships. A world beholden to them is a world beholden to dictators. By definition.

Crazy as it sounds, I’m open to the possibility that such a world might actually be a better place! Stranger things have happened. But even in the unlikely scenario that a China-Russia world order turns out better from a utilitarian perspective than a US-Euro world order, it still won’t change the fact that Sino-Russo hegemony would be a world run by dictators, while Pax Americana’s a world run by democracies, however flawed and however tragically incompetent.

If you pick up a “Let’s Go Brandon!” sign and wander around downtown in a major US city, the worst that’ll happen to you is a fist fight. The same’s true of someone who parades around with a “F–k Donald Trump!” sign. It’s possible you’ll be shot, but crucially, you won’t be shot by the government, and whoever shoots you will go to jail for murder.

The SCO last year admitted Iran. This year, it admitted Belarus. If you pick up a “F–k Putin!” sign, or a “F–k Xi” sign, or a “F– k Khamenei!” sign, or a “F–k Lukashenko!” sign and go strolling around Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Minsk, respectively, you’ll very likely be in jail by the end of the day. Depending on who you are, and how seriously Putin, Xi, Khamenei or Lukashenko takes your anti-government sentiments, you’ll be tortured and killed. Then they’ll come after your family.

Don’t forget that. Don’t ever forget that.


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5 thoughts on “The Simple, Brutal Reality Of ‘Eastern Powers’

  1. Ukraine was because of NATO? Tsk. I thought he told Tucker that it was because a Polish soldier pissed into the borsh of his great great great grandfather… I’m starting to think this Putin guy is a liar…

    NB: Do you know (I mean, I know you do but do the rest of the readers here know) which country China “lost” the most land to? Russia… And not a little (albeit strategic) speck like Taiwan but big beautiful huge chunks of land… enough to make a country or two. If Xi is willing to stare down the US to get Taiwan, what will he do to get back greater Manchuria?

    1. One person told me once that land stolen by Russia is more important to China than Taiwan ever was. This could be the basis behind the friendship. China plays the long game, keep thy enemies close.

  2. I admit this is the first time I hear about that “key pillar of the fair multipolar world “ called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The name alone suggests who’s “daddy” in that relationship.

    I am not that open to the possibility that a world under Putin might actually be a better place. That’d likely be a version of Russia on a bigger scale. No thanks! Under Xi? I don’t know – still a long shot but a more likely.

  3. “Western” nations need to do more to counter the extreme amounts of foreign propaganda that countries like Russia and China are pushing on social media and fringe “news” outlets.

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