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Who Will Win the New Great Game?

To claim we are living through a new Cold War is both an understatement and a category mistake. The 20th-century face-off between the Communist East and the Capitalist West was, ideology aside, about two superpowers trying to contain each other. The global conflict of today is far less static.

What we are witnessing instead is a new Great Game, a collision of great powers that are trying to roll back one another’s spheres of influence. Unlike the Great Game of the 19th century between the British and the Russian Empire that culminated in the fight for dominance over Afghanistan, today’s Great Game is global, more complex and much more dangerous.

Call it the Game of Threes. It involves three prime players, Russia, China and the West, which are competing in three ways: geographically, intellectually and economically. And there are three places where the different claims to power clash: Syria, Ukraine and the Pacific. Many of the defining conflicts of our time can be defined through some combination of those three sets.

To differing degrees, governments and citizens from Cairo to Copenhagen have grown skeptical about whether liberal democracy and postwar internationalism have been, or will be, the right choice for them. To all those doubters, China and Russia stand ready as alternative models and protective powers, offering new arrangements for bilateral and multilateral alignments. You don’t want to follow international law, European integration or anti-corruption schemes? Follow us!

What will prove more attractive to the Egyptian government, for instance, in the likely case of another mass uprising in the country: an alignment with Europe, which is annoyingly nervous about the respect for human rights, or an alignment with Russia, which has proved that it will look the other way in the face of domestic oppression — even if an ally uses chemical weapons against its own people?

While Russia offers military ruthlessness, China offers a mercantile variant. Unlike the West, China doesn’t let human rights and the rule of law get in the way of investments. In late 2017, Beijing increased its investment in Ukraine, announcing it as an important building block in its new Silk Road to Europe. The government in corruption-ridden Kiev has already gladly declared 2019 to be “the Year of China” in Ukraine.

Or consider the Balkans. You could, as prime minister of a Balkan state, wait endlessly for the European Union to let you enter the club by adhering to strict compliance standards and implement its 80,000 pages of required laws. Or you could turn to Chinese investors, who won’t ask for any such fuss. In 2016, the president of China, Xi Jinping, spent three days on a state visit in Serbia. The year before, Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, only stopped there for a few hours.

State-controlled Chinese companies have since bought Serbia’s biggest steel mill, the Tirana International Airport in Albania and a major coal power plant in Romania, and leased part of the harbor of Piraeus in Greece, to name but a few of its strategic acquisitions in Europe.

While China does not seem as driven by aggressive anti-Western sentiments as Russia does, Beijing and Moscow share the strategic goal: to reduce Western influence worldwide. China delivers the money to bolster new alliances, while Russia delivers the political poison to weaken the old ones. It’s a perfect match.

Just as during the 19th-century Great Game, the Kremlin has the advantage of not needing to worry about public criticism at home as it pushes an illiberal agenda abroad. On the contrary: While applying military force abroad tends to destabilize Western governments, it seems only to bolster the regime of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

If anything, the Russian population glories in the atrocities of its former leaders as well as those of the current one. According to a 2017 poll by the Levada Center, 38 percent of Russians regard the mass murderer Joseph Stalin as the “most outstanding person” in world history, followed by Mr. Putin at 34 percent.

Here’s where the intellectual dimension of the Great Game comes in: Societal self-criticism, alien to a large part of Russian society, is a defining feature of many Western countries. Publicly expressed and debated tensions between the state and the people, and among various factions of the public, are what make a liberal society tick.

But the strength of this skepticism can prove to be a weakness if exploited by a force that seeks the destruction of the very concept of truth. As an intellectual force, Russia is to Europe what Mephisto is to Faust: “I am the Spirit that denies!” To paraphrase Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote the most famous version of their story: For all the West has built, should rightly to destruction run.

This is why the Russian disinformation and its grotesque twisting of facts is so effective. Mr. Putin knows that Europeans deeply distrust their governments on questions of war and peace, especially after several of them relied on twisted intelligence to justify the Iraq war. The poison used on the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England, and the chemical weapons dropped with impunity on the children of Syria kill people as well as trust in elected representatives in London, Paris and Berlin.

There is no doubt that the international community has violated its own standards at times, conducting legally questionable or outright illegal actions in Kosovo, Iraq and Syria. Russia and China are doing the opposite: using their power as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to block justice and to undermine the West.

Who will win in the long run? It is too soon to know whether the West is willing to stand up collectively to the challenge. The good news, though, is that Russia and China may yet lose at the new Great Game. It’s expensive to play, and global power grabs untethered to a broader vision of global order tend to falter, as resources and lives expended abroad fail to bring peace and progress at home.

The German poet Theodor Fontane famously described the catastrophe that ended the British Army’s attempt to secure hegemony against Russia in the Hindu Kush in 1842: “With 13,000 the trek began — one came home from Afghanistan.” In one way or another, Russia and China may soon reap similar results.

Jochen Bittner