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Interview

Xi Jinping, Biden will establish new red lines for each other — diplomat Bryza

12 November, 2023 Sunday
13:08

Matthew Bryza, former Assistant Secretary of State, former Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, comments on the meeting between the leaders of the United States and China and how the Middle East conflict affects Ukraine

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Matthew Bryza is a former Assistant Secretary of State and former Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council. The key question is what is happening now in the United States around money for Ukraine. We understand that there have been several versions. The latest developments are that the Democrats have blocked the Republicans if they do not support the combination of two aid packages for Ukraine and Israel.

I actually think that's not such bad news because it's no secret that part of the Republican Party is growing but still a minority has opposed any military aid for Ukraine or for any country. And the Democrats have been tactically smart in the situation because they know that the most right-wing Republicans, especially Evangelical Christians want to help Israel, and many of them would prefer to help Israel and not help Ukraine. So the Democrats are pursuing the aid for Ukraine in a wise way, and of course the assistance will get through for Ukraine. It's just a short-term political battle that's being waged in Washington that ultimately won't result in Ukraine not receiving that money.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, published certain theses in The Economist, and we see the key problem as the problem of resources and the issue of strategic weapons that could change the current situation in the war in our favor. We understand that our enemy has extremely large resources, we are talking about military, financial and technological resources, and we need relevant support.

For certain I agree with you in that President Putin is betting that he can re-engineer the entire Russian economy to be focused only on producing weapons for a longer amount of time then the United States and its European allies will continue to provide both tactically and strategically important weapons to Ukraine that you mentioned. We should take a look at how successful Ukraine has actually been lately. I know that general Zaluzhnyi talked about stalemate and we'll talk about that in a second. And on the land side of the war, there hasn't been a lot of progress. I mean 17 kilometers have been retaken on average by Ukraine since the offenses began. But in the Black Sea the situation is much more positive for Ukraine, but we could talk about all that in a second. What I'm trying to say is the more precise weapons and longer range weapons the United States and other NATO allies have been providing Ukraine are having a significant impact in degrading Russia's Naval forces and Naval capabilities that's really important. But as time goes on, eventually people get tired of providing billions and billions of dollars to Ukraine or to any country. That's just another reason why it's so important for Ukraine to continue making progress on the battlefield.

In any case, you know extremely well how the American political military establishment thinks, how the Pentagon thinks, how the White House thinks. We understand that General Zaluzhnyi actually sent an extremely powerful signal. I think that some of the American generals have deciphered it correctly, as well as a lot of national security advisors in the White House. But still, everything will depend on the people who will put their signatures - the President of the United States, the head of the Congress, if of course the congressmen vote. So the issue is the one of strategic targeted assistance to Ukraine in order to change the course of the war.

I agree that the US military establishment definitely understands the profound strategic interests of the United States in Ukraine, not only losing to Russia, but defeating Russia, and we can discuss what defeating Russia means. And again the vast majority of the members of the US Congress agree on that. The problem is domestic US politics. Many American voters don't really understand what's happening in Ukraine. They've been hearing about it for almost two years, and now there's this new issue of Israel and they're becoming tired of warfare in general which is why President Biden so disastrously pulled US forces out of Afghanistan a couple years ago. So I think in the end the leaders of Congress, especially the Senate Majority Leader, that's Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has been very strong in saying it's essential that the United States sustains its support for Ukraine. All the senior officials in the US Congress have said the same thing. It's been a group of maybe eight or so Republicans that have been trying to gain attention from voters and steal the national attention of the country that have been saying maybe the US should stop supporting Ukraine. What worries me a bit more than the last time you and I spoke is the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. The last time you and I spoke I said much would depend in terms of UA aid to Ukraine on who the next Speaker of the House of Representatives would be. The two candidates that were the possibilities then one was very supportive of aid to Ukraine and one was not supportive. Neither of those was elected. The person who was elected is very much a supporter of President Trump, and president Trump has said he wants to end the war immediately and he will if he's elected president, of course, he won't be able to. But that suggests that he wouldn't want to sustain the support to Ukraine. So with the exception of this very powerful man, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I think the politically Elite in the US government all understands how crucial it is that the United States maintain its support for Ukraine and there really is no need to reduce support for Ukraine because of the increased support for Israel. That's a false comparison.

There is a big game going on right now. In just a few days, President Joseph Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will meet in San Francisco, and we will obviously hear a lot of different correct protocol statements, but the key story is how they will look at what is called spheres and zones of influence. We understand that the two superpowers have the opportunity to communicate through their presidents, and we can only predict how these conversations might go. But I would ask you to outline the perimeter along which the American president and the Chinese leader will move, and at the same time, how this can directly affect Russia's aggression against Ukraine?

Thank you for that very elegant question. The point of the meeting in San Francisco is to try to find a way to continue de-escalating the high level of tension in US-China relations. We all recall the Speaker of House Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan last year. It was a visit that Biden did not want to have happen, but he didn't tell her not to do it. I mean he couldn't forbid her to go because of the separation of power in the United States, but he could have pressured her politically but instead he let her go. And that created in my opinion unnecessary additional attention in US-Chinese relations. Since then there have been a series of visits by US ministers to China to try to find ways the US and China can not only reduce their political tension, but also cooperate on certain issues. For example, on fighting climate change. So I expect there'll be some discussion and working together on climate change. There will be a discussion on how to reduce the consequences of the trade war between the US and China. We all recall that President Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese imports into the US and launched a trade war and Biden has continued it and Xi Jinping doesn't like that. So I think Xi will want to hear from Biden what Biden plans to reduce the trade tensions. And then of course President Biden will look for ways to persuade China to reduce its support for Russia's war on Ukraine, and will probably stress that a redline for the United States is the provision of weapons by China to Russia. China hasn't done that. China clearly does not want Russia to escalate the war. China is looking at the war in Ukraine the way to counter US influence in the world and strengthen China's influence. But China doesn't have an interest in the war in Ukraine intensifying or in Ukraine losing. Ukraine is also an important trading partner for China. And then finally, of course Taiwan is a huge issue on the agenda, and Ukraine is a big part of that discussion. I think President Biden will be reminding president Xi that just as Russia's invasion of Ukraine was disastrous because of Ukraine's ability to fight and its fine morale. The same would be the case if China were to attack Taiwan.

So this meeting is a combination of wanting to reduce tension, and wanting to cooperate with each other as well. But then Biden clearly would deter Xi Jinping from providing Russia weapons or from attacking Taiwan.

It is common in politics that if you cannot solve a particular problem now, you can postpone it so that someone who comes after you in the next political cycle can start solving it. And in Ukraine, we are waiting for very quick, concrete decisions. Will President Biden, taking into account the American election campaign, take clear radical pro-Ukrainian steps?

Well Biden recently did make a drastic pro-Ukrainian step by asking for 63 billion more dollars in support for Ukraine to get through the rest of the year, and he has been providing Ukraine the weapons that Ukraine needs, still not F-16, but of course ATACMS now, as we talked about the last time I was with you. And of course the HIMARS in the past and the M1 Abrams, so Biden believes that he did take the radical step by saying okay, we want to provide 63 billion dollars more in assistance to Ukraine and each dollar that is provided is going to killing Russian soldiers which is a radical thing if you step back and think about it from the perspective of where Biden was at the beginning of the war, when he was hesitant to provide these more precise and longer range weapons. So I think in the back of Biden's mind and in the back of Jake Sullivan's mind is always a fear that if they take a step that's too radical, Russia might escalate to the nuclear weapons usage level. I think that's a mistake by them. Self-deterrence leads to a greater likelihood of a broader war and as time has gone on, the Biden Administration has been less and less intimidated by Russia's clearly false threats to escalate to the nuclear level. 

When it comes to Putin and the geography of his influence, I actually think he is dramatically less influential throughout Central Asia and in Azerbaijan, in Armenia, maybe he's more influential in Georgia, which is a very complex and problematic place. But you mentioned Tokayev, remember that last year when Putin had declared the autonomy of Donetsk and Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Tokayev at the same stage with Putin at the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, right next to him refused to recognize the legitimacy of that move by Putin and said we believe in territorial Integrity. I have talked to leaders of some of those countries that I just mentioned and it's clear they no longer fear Putin, and Putin has lost a lot of influence. 

Putin's a bit desperate. Armenia has moved in directions Putin does not want. Armenia now has ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which means Armenia would need to arrest Putin if he came to Armenia. Prime Minister Pashinyan has said repeatedly that Russia is no longer their protector. They can't rely on Russia. So I think if you step back and look at the whole situation from let's say 10,000 meters, the situation is really bad for Putin and I still think increasingly good for Ukraine, but the key is as you said sustaining that assistance from the United States, and I do think it will continue.

We can see how two strategies have been set in motion simultaneously. This is the Euro-Atlantic strategy and the strategy of China and its allies, in particular, we are talking about visible allies, China's vassals or states that are now trying to participate in the redistribution of resources and influence. That is, we see two big strategies at work at the same time. During World War II, the United States managed to assemble what is called the Euro-Atlantic World. It did not include a large part of central Europe, which was occupied by the Soviet Union. Now we see completely different players, and China looks much stronger than the Russian Federation. But in general, if we are talking about a grand American strategy of deterring Russia in Ukraine, what can we expect? Will there be, for example, a repeat of what we saw in the Middle East, when the US made it very clear to Hezbollah and Iran that the American aircraft carrier groups were not just there for the sake of getting closer to the coast. And if the Ayatollah government wants to escalate tensions, then the United States will find a very clear missile response.

The main competition in the world today, of course is between the US, post World War II view of open markets, free trade, expanding political and economic freedom versus China's view of wanting more state control and wanting to be able to set new rules that allow Beijing to have much more control over other people and not to mention the Taiwan issue. But getting to the Middle East, I very much agree with you that the US deployment of those two aircraft carrier battle groups was intended to send a message to Hezbollah and to Iran, its patron, that if you widen the war in Israel Gaza, the US will retaliate. And the retaliation would likely deal a debilitating blow to Hezbollah just like in 2006 Hezbollah was greatly degraded and it took years to rebuild it. And Iran doesn't want to have to rebuild Hezbollah again, and Iran depends on its law in number one in order to control much of the politics of Lebanon and number two to have great influence in Syria. So Iran doesn't want to lose the asset of Hezbollah and it's sort of like what we were talking about a few minutes ago about nuclear deterrence. Hezbollah can inflict a lot of pain and death on Israel. But once it does that, Hezbollah will be destroyed and so Iran wants to keep that deterrent available for it to be able to shape events not only in Israel, but beyond in the Middle East.

And we've seen Iranian proxies taking limited actions like Huties who shot down a US drone from Yemen. They are positioning themselves potentially for a serious US counter-strike. And if the US does that, yes, it'll send a powerful message to Iran that if Hezbollah does anything similar, it'll be terrible for Hezbollah, and terrible for Iran. Iran does not want a war with the United States, a war Iran knows it could never win. But of course Iran will not back down either and so Ukraine is actually relevant to all of this, and the developing world or the so-called Global South is watching. They are wondering why the United States in its European allies are not being more supportive of the Palestinian cause. If you look carefully at how Biden statements have changed. Biden actually has been warning Israel and pressing Israel to stop its murderous campaign against Palestinians and Gaza. But the more Israel attacks the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank ,the more support comes to the opponents of the United States and Europe when it comes to Ukraine. And so that's a worrisome development for Ukraine. But at the end of the day Iran does not want a war with the United States.

In your opinion, how firmly is Ukraine now on the US agenda, and is there a possibility of a repeat of the very unpleasant Afghanistan incident, when first the level of financial support starts to decline, and then a big tragic breakup occurs? That is, how deeply is Ukraine in the heart of the American establishment?

Afghanistan is a false comparison because the United States was in Afghanistan for 20 years and the situation was just getting worse and worse. In Ukraine the situation I believe is getting better as I mentioned in the Black Sea Ukraine's innovative tactics and technologies forced the Russian Black Sea Fleet to retreat, to move out of Sevastopol and to go to other Black Sea ports like Novorosiysk. So systematically step by step Ukraine is making progress whether we call the current situation on land a stalemate or not, it is making progress. And the more of the precision and longer range US weapons are available to Ukraine, the more progress there will be. I have always thought that for Biden Ukraine is at the absolute core of his current view of US National Security. 

As you know, I live here in Turkey and when I was asked by President Erdogan's team what I think would be issues on which the US and Turkey could work together, the first issue on top of the list, all the way back in January of 2021 was Ukraine. 

For Biden Ukraine is really important. You'll recall that he was of course the point person under President Obama for Ukraine and for Biden NATO and deterring Russian aggression against the NATO family and working with NATO member states to manage Global problems is where he begins all of his foreign policy, everything begins from NATO. And so that is what Ukraine is all about. It's a future NATO member and it's the future NATO member that is fighting for NATO now to prevent Russia from attacking NATO territory. Biden knows that, Secretary Blinken, National Security advisor Sullivan, they all operate from that perspective. So in terms of the executive branch of the US government, Ukraine remains at the center of the strategic calculus.

Israel, of course, is politically in terms of domestic modern American politics. Probably the most important foreign policy issue, always, because of the Jewish American diaspora, because of morality, because of the Holocaust and because Israel appears to be a nuclear weapon state, and because Iran is committed to wiping Israel off the face of the year. So Israel is always going to be when there's a crisis sucking out the oxygen from the room, but to answer your question at the core of the Biden Administration strategic heart is Ukraine and the understanding and the conviction that Russia must lose.

God bless America

Slava Ukraini.

Heroiam Slava.

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