The Washington Post

Putin builds a new axis of autocrats

- JOSH ROGIN

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.

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