China is also a problem for Putin. Yes, he welcomes the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, on an official visit to Moscow, and the two feel a strong bond, as any two autocrats naturally would, faced as they are with lectures and demands from the democratic powers of the West. But geography dictates that Russia's alliance with China is mainly tactical. While Russia is delivering increasing amounts of oil (and probably natural gas soon, too) to China, something for which Beijing is grateful, the two giant nations share long borders in the Far East and in Central Asia that through the centuries have been volatile.
The Russian Far East, an area roughly twice the size of Europe, has a paltry population of fewer than 7 million that may fall to fewer than 5 million in coming decades. Russia had expanded into this region in the 19th century and early 20th century during a fit of nationalistic imperialism when China was comparatively weak. That era is past, and on the other side of the border Russia faces a population of 100 million people in Chinese Manchuria. Resource acquisition is the principal goal of Chinese foreign policy, and the Russian Far East is rich in reserves of natural gas, oil, timber, diamonds and gold. Unless China itself implodes -- a possibility but not a probability -- China must be seen as a long-range threat to Russia.
In Central Asia, meanwhile, besides building oil and natural gas pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan into western China, Beijing has invested billions to mine copper in Afghanistan and has invested in oil exploration there, too. The Chinese have also won concessions to mine gold in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Beijing is attempting to build a rail system that will link Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with China. For Putin, who must try to establish a buffer zone in former Soviet Central Asia of the kind he is trying to establish in Eastern Europe, China must be seen as a rival, to say the least.
So once again, we return to the question: where is Putin's Nixon?
Nixon would understand Russia's geopolitical insecurities and partially assuage them, in order to gain some leverage over China, just as four decades ago he had moved closer to China in order to gain some leverage over Russia. Were the United States to give Russia more leeway in the Caucasus and Central Asia -- rather than trying to compete with Russia in those regions -- Russia might find ingenious ways to make China more nervous along its land borders. And that, in turn, would make China somewhat less able to devote so much of its energy to projecting power in the Pacific Basin, where it threatens American allies. None of this would remotely fall into the category of aggressive or irresponsible international behavior, mind you. Trying to adjust the global balance of power in one's favor is a perennial goal of statesmanship.
But even if Obama intellectually realizes such truths and opportunities, the public policy climate in the United States is not that of the Cold War, which would have allowed for a broader dynamic between Washington and Moscow to each side's mutual benefit. The result is that China profits, to the endless frustration of Putin. As for the United States, it gains little advantage in the outcome.