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Russia and the Silk Road Approach

MADRID – The unraveling of Ukraine has brought to the fore three major foreign policy challenges for the West: the danger of isolating Russia, the conundrum of China’s aloofness, and the pervasive lack of fresh ideas. Surmounting them will require a concerted drive to enhance cooperation and build trust among countries with disparate political systems and national interests. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road economic belt could contribute to such an effort.

Europe and the United States’ response to the crisis in Ukraine has failed in two respects. First and foremost, it has been anemic, projecting an image of weakness that undermines its ability to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which has been tacitly accepted, or counter its aggressive behavior toward eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the use of targeted sanctions and diplomatic snubs has contributed to Russia’s international isolation, undercutting the long-term goal of building a functional relationship.

While it is critical for the West to stand by its principles, including by imposing biting sanctions, pragmatism is equally important. After all, a weak, isolated Russia is far more dangerous than a strong, internationally integrated one. And yet there can be no denying that the relationship with Russia is now broken, with mutual trust having reached its lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In this context, bringing Russia back into the international fold will require the involvement of China. But, for China, the Ukraine issue is complex, owing to its interest in fostering closer ties with Russia and, to some degree, the parallels with its own actions in places like Tibet. Given this – and China’s general reticence to assume a global leadership position – direct Chinese engagement is likely to come only through targeted initiatives with concrete goals.