In the past several days, four separate events have occurred that, each in a significant way, signal the need for concern in the US.
The War in Ukraine
Like an example of double think in a seminar on Orwell’s 1984, two The New York Times’ headlines read simultaneously that "Russia Claims Victory in Bakhmut" and "Ukraine Turns Tide in Bakhmut." The Western media then gave an Orwellian example of rewriting history with the claim that, with Russia’s victory in Bakhmut, they had fallen into Ukraine’s trap. If the Russian occupation of Bakhmut was a trap, the Ukrainian military could have left long ago, sprung the trap and spared the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers.
Though far from the end of the war, the fall of Bakhmut is important. In March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned, perhaps somewhat dramatically in his quest for more weapons, that, if Russia wins control of Bakhmut, "it would be open road for the Russians . . . to other towns in Ukraine" and said that if Bakhmut is captured, "Our society will push me to have to compromise" with Russia. Now the media has turned "fortress Bakhmut" into a "symbolic victory."
The victory in Bakhmut is not merely symbolic for two reasons. Though the town itself may not be of much value, its locations is. A number of transportation lines run through Bakhmut. Russian control of Bakhmut makes it difficult for Ukraine to supply its forces and gives Russia increased mobility throughout the Donbas region. And though the conquest of Bakhmut may not really give Russia an open road west, it may allow them to advance several tens of kilometers to Ukraine’s next defensive line.
More importantly, though, the Russian assault on Bakhmut may not have been primarily about territory. As Ukraine continued to pour soldiers into Bakhmut, the Russian army, like death’s maw, devoured everyone Kiev sent in to displace it. Bakhmut may have been more about depleting Ukrainian troops and artillery to weaken its military for the anticipated Ukrainian offensive than it was about territory. Occupying Bakhmut also presents the possibility that, as Ukrainian forces move south for their offensive, they could find themselves dangerously between Russian forces on two sides.
The New Cold War
On May 16, Russian hypersonic Kinzhal missiles hit a US made Patriot air defense system in Kiev. The public debate quickly focussed on whether the Patriot unit was damaged or destroyed. But the true concern for the US was that it had been hit at all.
Ukraine is reported to have been supplied with the very latest Patriot systems. Russia has just revealed that it is capable of penetrating and striking the most sophisticated US air defense system. That may be of serious concern to the US and its NATO allies. It is rumored that NATO may have called urgent meetings to discuss the dangerous reality that they have just had confirmed for the first time.
Confrontation with China
On May 20, the G7 issued a joint communiqué. The section on "relations with China" states that "we are not decoupling," from China, but that "economic resilience requires de-risking. . . ."
But "de-risking" is the rebellious language of a Europe resisting US pressure to economically decouple from China.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has emphasized an expanding partnership with China and insisted that China occupying "a key role on the world stage" does not “justif[y] . . . calls by some to isolate China.” Scholz then stated clearly that “even in changed circumstances, China remains an important business and trading partner for Germany and Europe – we don’t want to decouple from it.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, like Scholz, has said that “differences over political systems that make Europe and China ‘rivals’ should not lead to the ‘decoupling’ and ‘escalating tensions’ that some regard as inevitable.” He insisted that “I do not believe, and do not want to believe, in this scenario.” Macron has been "critical of the Biden administration’s tough line on China," according to The New York Times, "and believes any decoupling, or "de-linking," is not good for Europe, given the vast economic interests at stake." The French objective, a diplomatic source told The Times, "is not to break ties with China. On the contrary, our objective is to reinforce those ties on better foundations." French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna phrased it as "We are talking about de-risking rather than decoupling."
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president said in a speech that "it is neither viable – nor in Europe’s interest – to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white – and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on de-risk – not decouple."
The wording of the joint communiqué seems to reflect a loss for the US in the battle with China for Europe. Europe has refused to sign on for de-coupling. Reuters reports that "[d]ifferences between G7 members emerged in the run-up to [the meeting in] Hiroshima." The agreed upon wording of the communiqué is, in the words of a French official, "a little more balanced," reflecting European and Japanese concerns.
The rejection by Europe of the US insistence on de-coupling and the reluctant acceptance by the US of the wording of "de-risking" may represent an important loss by the US and a recognition of its limitations in pressuring Europe to one day adopt Russia style economic pressures on China.
As promised, in its attempt to broker a political settlement between Russia and Ukraine, Special Representative of the Chinese Government on Eurasian Affairs Li Hui has begun his travels to several countries.
CIA Director William Burns recently said that "the United States . . . is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical bloc. And our position at the head of the table isn’t guaranteed.” The US is no longer the sole hegemon in unipolar world. It is important that it is China that is attempting to broker the peace. But perhaps even more important is not that America’s "position at the head of the table isn’t guaranteed," but that even a place at the table is not guaranteed. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Li Hui will travel to Ukraine, Poland, France, Germany and Russia for communication on a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis." China will negotiate with Russia, Ukraine and Europe: the US will be shut out.
China’s inclusion of Europe reflects Xi Jinping’s insistence that Europe is an “independent pole in a multipolar world and Macron’s goal that Europe become a "third superpower." The Chinese guest list suggests the creation of new poles in a new multipolar world. That new reality is reinforced by the emergence of Africa as an important, independent pole with the May 16 announcement that Putin and Zelensky have agreed to separately host a delegation of African heads of state who will also attempt to broker a political settlement to the war.
In the course of a week, the US has suffered setbacks to its goals in Ukraine, to its Cold War capabilities, to its control over Europe in any future conflict with China and to it hegemony in a unipolar world. It’s been a bad week for America.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.