Events in Kiev this week have monopolized our attention, but behind the protests are signs that the “Central Powers“—Iran, Russia, and China—have managed to take advantage of the strategic bungling of the United States and its allies. WRM wrote about this in depth last week, but hints of this have been coming for some time: In 2011 essay for The American Interest, Samantha Ravich examined what she calls the “strategic cultures” shared by the three Central Powers:
Although China, Russia and Iran are not members of some new “axis of evil”, it is not off the mark to think of them, under their current leaderships, as part of an authoritarian rotary, or a group of governments that share similar strategic outlooks and know-how to invest broadly and creatively in their own long-term advantage. They are not allies, but they do share a certain body language, which gives them a mild affinity for one another. They know, too, that the United States doesn’t speak that language and shares no such affinity.The strategic cultures of China, Russia and Iran are all deeply rooted in their specific historical narratives, but they nonetheless share striking similarities. Each narrative runs the gamut from glory to ignominy. Each remembers a time when its empire was vast and its culture widespread. Yet each recalls humiliations suffered at the hands of foreigners, sometimes aided by internal dissidents, who exploited internal instability to end an empire. The two quests spawned from these narratives—to reclaim past glory and to guard against future humiliation—are ubiquitous in these countries’ strategic writings, and they influence how their current leaderships act in the world and in relation to the United States.
In the same issue, A. Wess Mitchell and Jakub Grygiel discussed how peripheral powers like China and Russia use a “probing” strategy to test the strength of a dominant power like America:
Would-be revisionists need to answer these questions before they act. One way past powers in their position have done so is by employing a strategy of periphery-probing—using low-intensity tests on the outer limits of the leading power’s strategic position. The tools used in probing run the spectrum from diplomatic pressure and political subversion to provocative maneuvers and small-scale military actions. The key is to achieve economy of exertion, to apply just enough pressure to gauge and tax the hegemon’s strength, but without provoking costly showdowns. Through this process, the revisionist can see what the United States is willing to defend and, more broadly, whether the geopolitical map of U.S. power still accurately reflects reality on the ground….We need not rely on abstract reasoning to believe that probing behavior already exists; there are several concrete examples before our eyes. Perhaps the most striking example is Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia. The appearance of Russian troops forcefully redrawing the boundaries of the post-Cold War regional security order without an effective U.S. response established a clear precedent for low-cost challenges to U.S. interests. Subsequent Russian ratcheting may even have been premised on this successful probe. On missile defense, Russia threatened to place Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad. On Ukraine, it restated its opposition to a NATO Membership Action Plan. On Georgia, it ignored the EU-brokered ceasefire agreement and left its troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.