Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
March 21, 2023
As you know, I try to write this record of modern America from the perspective of what stories will matter in 150 years (about the span between the present and the Civil War).
So, for all the chop in the water about the former president facing indictments, the story that really seems uppermost to me today is the visit China’s president Xi Jinping made today to Moscow for a meeting with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby told reporters today that China and Russia would both like “to see the rest of the world play by their rules rather than the ones that…are enshrined in the U.N. Charter and what everybody else is…following.” Kirby said the White House sees the relationship of Xi and Putin as a “marriage of convenience.” He explained:
“In President Putin and Russia, President Xi sees a counterweight to American influence and NATO influence certainly on the continent and elsewhere around the world. In President Xi, President Putin sees a potential backer.” Putin needs Xi’s support because of his misadventure in Ukraine. There, Kirby said, Putin is “blowing through inventory. He’s blowing through manpower. His military is getting embarrassed constantly. They’ve lost greater than 50 percent of the territory that they took in the first few months of this war. He needs help from President Xi, and that’s what this visit was all about.”
“Now,” he added, “whether it results in anything, we’ll see.”
When a reporter asked Kirby if Xi would provide lethal aid to Russia, Kirby answered, “We don’t think that China is taking it off the table, but they haven’t moved in that direction. We’ve seen no indication that they’re about to or — or fixing to provide lethal weapons.”
The Institute for the Study of War concluded that the outcome of the meeting was likely less than Putin wanted. It noted that Putin represented the meeting as showing the two countries working together against an adversarial West, while Xi only said the two countries were working together. This is a significant step down from the stance China took before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, in which it declared it had a “no limits partnership” with Russia, suggesting China is not inclined to give Russia all the support it needs for that war.
Putin has been trying to rally states in Africa to his cause and likely hoped Xi would help that effort, but he did not.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia put out a statement deepening their cooperation, but Sam Greene, Director for Democratic Resilience at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Professor of Russian Politics at King’s College London, noted that the economic benefits of the statement all flowed from Russia to China, including Russia’s announcement that it will use yuan for foreign transactions with Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
“This summit…brings home exactly how much Putin has lost,” Greene wrote. “Prior to the war—even after 2014—Putin occupied a position of strategic maneuverability. He could arbitrage between east and west, reaping windfalls for his regime along the way. That’s all gone now. Putin tells his people he’s fighting for Russia’s sovereignty. In truth, he’s mortgaged the Kremlin to Beijing.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan met with Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky today in a surprise trip to Ukraine at Zelensky’s invitation. It is the first visit of a Japanese prime minister to a country at war since World War II and demonstrates Japan’s growing international foreign policy presence. Last month, when Japan pledged $5.5 billion in humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Kishida said: “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is not just a European matter, but a challenge to the rules and principles of the entire international community.” Today, he confirmed Japan’s “solidarity and unwavering support for Ukraine.”
The next most important issue of the day, to my mind, was President Joe Biden’s designation of two new national monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906: Avi Kwa Ame in Nevada and Castner Range in Texas. These are Biden’s second and third new monument designations. Last fall he created the Camp Hale–Continental Divide National Monument in Colorado, and in 2021 he restored the protections to Bears Ears, Grand Staircase–Escalante, and Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monuments that Trump had removed. Both of the new monuments cover land sacred to Indigenous American tribes. Together, they protect nearly 514,000 acres.
Biden also directed Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to start the process of designating a marine sanctuary in the Pacific covering 777,000 square miles.
Biden is advancing his promise to conserve American lands, but he is also answering criticism of his administration’s approval of the controversial Alaska Willow oil drilling project on March 13. ConocoPhillips had existing leases for the project, and it has bipartisan support in Alaska, where locals expect it will bring jobs and income, so after debate, the administration let the project move forward. But environmentalists and those who recognize the immediate need to address climate change vehemently opposed the project, launched lawsuits immediately, and criticized the president.
“Our national wonders are literally the envy of the world,″ Biden said as he announced the new monuments. “They’ve always been and always will be central to our heritage as a people and essential to our identity as a nation.″
But while conservation groups and tribal members cheered the new designations, the new Republican governor of Nevada, Joe Lombardo, said that the federal government was confiscating Nevada land—a red-hot issue in the home state of the Bundy ranchers who have engaged in armed standoffs with law enforcement officers over public land—and said the new Nevada monument is “a historic mistake that will cost Nevadans for generations to come.”
None of this is to say that Trump’s troubles are not important. Indeed, the indictment of a president is unprecedented, and there is good reason to watch it closely, not least because the Republican Party has tied itself to him so completely it is now responding to the growing tide of legal news by calling for the investigation or even the arrest of those handling Trump’s many lawsuits– an alarming development.
Right now, though, much of what we are seeing is being churned up by Trump himself, and it feels far less important than the fact it appears that neither the legal nor the political momentum is in his favor.