Russia’s Putin Is Trying to Build a New Axis of Autocrats

From a Washington Post column by Josh Rogin headlined “Putin is trying to build a new axis of autocrats”:

Taking a page from the Western alliance-building playbook, Russian President Vladimir Putin is devoting considerable time and energy to fostering a new axis of autocrats that is bringing Moscow into ever tighter collaboration with China, North Korea and Iran. Western countries play down these developments at their own peril. A powerful anti-Western bloc of dictatorships is taking shape.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran have been working to upgrade their cooperation. Sharing a common set of anti-American grievances and anti-Western objectives, these dictators are finding new ways to work together on both the tactical and strategic levels.

“Strategic circumstances are driving these countries together,” to cooperate in more active and complex ways, a senior Biden administration official told me — and U.S. strategy has yet to adapt.

To be sure, the dictators’ talk of warming friendships always has an element of propaganda. Putin’s crowing about Russia’s ability to withstand Western pressure at his economic forum in Vladivostok this week should not be taken at face value. Even so, the West can’t ignore growing signs that the autocrats are getting more organized — in ways that threaten U.S. and European interests.

The Russia-China strategic partnership that Putin and Xi Jinping forged in February in Beijing — to some derision at the time — is accelerating in the military, energy and financial arenas. Although China is not providing weapons to Russia directly, their military cooperation continues to deepen. For example, China has sent 2,000 troops to participate in Putin’s “Vostok 2022” joint military exercises taking place in far eastern Russia.

Putin and Xi are set to meet next week in Uzbekistan to advance their joint pledge in February to build a Russia-China partnership “superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era.” In advance of the meeting, the two countries signed a series of gas deals that will be executed in their own currencies, a step toward establishing independence from the U.S. dollar and avoiding U.S. sanctions.

What was once a tactical military alliance between Russia and Iran in Syria is now expanding. Iran is supplying Russia with armed drones for use in Ukraine and helping Russia to evade Western energy and financial sanctions. Putin traveled in July to Tehran, where he signed energy and trade cooperation deals while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei joined him in blaming the United States and NATO for the Ukraine war.

Moscow and Pyongyang are closer than they have been in decades. In a letter to Kim Jong Un last month, Putin reportedly pledged to “expand the comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations” between the two countries. Russia is said to be supplying wheat and energy to North Korea in return for diplomatic support at the United Nations. Pyongyang has also recognized Russian-occupied territories in eastern Ukraine as independent states.

There are reports that thousands of North Korean workers could be shipped into eastern Ukraine to support the Moscow-controlled puppet governments there. The U.S. intelligence community is said to believe that Russia might buy “millions” of artillery shells from North Korea. That deal might never materialize. But if it did, it would mean that Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, was abandoning any pretense of adhering to the U.N.’s own sanctions against Pyongyang.

The Biden administration’s line is to say that Putin’s outreach to other isolated dictators, such as Kim, shows that he is desperate and therefore the U.S. policy of pressuring Russia is working. When asked about the burgeoning ties between Russia and North Korea, a senior U.S. defense official told me: “From our perspective, it’s more a sign of weakness than of strength.” This makes sense as public messaging, but such talk does little to address the problem.

Some officials and experts point out that there are good reasons to believe that Moscow’s latest efforts to build an autocratic bloc against the West will not succeed. Dictators have trouble trusting each other. There are limits to what North Korea or Iran can really offer. Meanwhile, Russia’s increasing dependence on China is a big problem for Putin over the long term.

But policymakers cannot afford to sit back and hope that the autocrats will fail. Western governments must devise a coherent response. The first step is to acknowledge the expanding authoritarian alliance and the threat it poses to our interests. Then Western countries need to come up with new and innovative military, diplomatic and economic strategies to combat the autocrats’ increased cooperation where it impacts us.

A world divided into blocs is not a good outcome. Any responsible policy must include diplomacy aimed at engaging these adversaries and attempting to preserve the overall multilateral system. But if the axis of autocrats continues to grow, the United States and its partners must be ready.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

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