The photo of the rover Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2) from January 11, 2019 shows the lander of the Chang’e-4 probe. China announced on Friday that the Chang’e 4 mission, which realized the first soft landing on the other side of the moon, was a complete success.

Xinhua News Agency | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

Let’s call it lunar politics.

This week the Russian space agency Roscosmos signed an agreement with the Chinese national space administration to create an international scientific lunar station “with open access to all interested nations and international partners”. It was the most dramatic sign yet that Moscow sees its space future with China rather than the United States, further underscoring its growing strategic focus on Beijing.

This follows on from a quarter of a century of US-Russia space cooperation launched by those who dreamed of post-Cold War reconciliation between Moscow and Washington. The highlight was the construction and operation of the International Space Station.

This week’s agreement was also an obvious allegation against NASA’s invitation to Russia to join the Artemis project, named after Apollo’s twin sister, that aims to put the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024. With international partners, Artemis would also explore the lunar surface more thoroughly than ever before using advanced technologies.

“They don’t see their program as international, but rather similar to NATO,” scoffed Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, who had previously made a lot of mockery in Brussels as the former Russian ambassador to NATO. “We are not interested in participating in such a project.”

Rather than thinking about what all of this means for the future of space, it may be more important for the Biden administration to think about how this latest news should be incorporated into its emerging approach to Putin’s Russia.

President Biden is under no illusions about Putin and shows that he will get involved if he comes to the conclusion that this is in the interests of the US and will be sanctioned if necessary. His first foreign policy victory was an agreement with Putin to extend the new talks on strategic arms limitation that President Trump had abandoned.

ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – JUNE 6, 2019: China’s Persident Xi Jinping (L) and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shake hands at a ceremony at St. Petersburg University awarding Xi Jinping an honorary doctorate from St. Petersburg University.

Alexei Nikolsky | TASS | Getty Images

However, after the poisoning and subsequent imprisonment of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Biden, together with the European Union, also imposed new sanctions against Russia. It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will react to new or existing US sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, currently the most active issue that divides EU and even German politics.

Whichever course Biden takes, he would be wise not to exacerbate the mistakes of previous governments because he misjudges Russia’s decline or focuses too much on Beijing.

“Putin does not have the same power as his Soviet predecessors in the 1970s or that of Chinese President Xi Jinping today,” writes Michael McFaul, US ambassador for President Obama in Moscow, in Foreign Affairs. “But Russia is also not the weak and dilapidated state it was in the 1990s. Despite negative demographic trends and the withdrawal of market reforms, it has once again become one of the most powerful countries in the world – with significantly more military, cyber, economic factors – and and ideological power than most Americans appreciate. ”

McFaul notes that Russia has modernized its nuclear weapons but the US has not, and that it has significantly improved its conventional military. Russia has the eleventh largest economy in the world with a GDP per capita higher than that of China.

“Putin has also made huge investments in space weapons, intelligence and cyber capabilities, which the United States learned the hard way from,” wrote McFaul, referring to the major cyberattack exposed earlier this year after breaking several parts the US had permeated government and thousands of other organizations.

At the same time, Putin is showing less reluctance to act aggressively against domestic opponents, to oppose Western powers, and to seem willing to take risks in order to achieve a twofold motive: to restore Russian prestige and influence and to reduce the prestige of the United States.

Henry Foy, head of the Moscow office of the Financial Times, presented a compelling account of today’s Russia this weekend under the headline “Vladimir Putin’s brutal third act.”

Foy writes: “After 20 years in which Putin’s rule was sustained first by economic prosperity and then by combative patriotism, his government has now turned to repression as the central instrument for maintaining power.”

The world has seen this graphically in the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, and his arrest when he returned to Russia after recovering in a German hospital. Foy also reports on a “snowstorm of laws” passed late last year against existing and potential opponents. The final step came today (Saturday) when the Russian authorities arrested 200 local politicians, including some of the most prominent opposition figures, during a protest in Moscow.

Some see Putin’s increasingly ruthless pouring over of dissent and widespread arrests amid the size and breadth of protests in support of Navalny as a sign of Putin’s growing vulnerability.

Still others see his actions from the conquest of Crimea in 2014 to the obvious recent cyberattacks as evidence of his increased capabilities. They warn against bolder actions.

Both views are correct – Putin is more vulnerable and at the same time more productive. His domestic repression and his assertiveness abroad are two sides of the same man.

So what to do

The Atlantic Council, the organization where I am President and CEO, had unusual public excitement this week from employee feuds over the right course for dealing with Putin’s Russia.

The arguments centered on the importance of human rights concerns in shaping US policy towards Moscow.

Wherever the subject is discussed, it is hard to deny that Russia’s growing strategic bond with China, underlined by this week’s Moonshot deal, is just one of the many pieces of evidence that the Western approach to Moscow has shown over the past 20 years Years ago has not been able to achieve the results you want.

What is urgently needed is a review of the Russia strategy by the Biden government, initially recognizing that misconceptions about Russia’s decline have tarnished the need for a more strategic approach.

It should be one that combines more attractive elements of engagement with more sophisticated forms of containment together with partners. It takes patience and partners.

What is needed is a strategic context for the patchwork of policies and measures related to Russia: new or existing economic sanction regimes against Russia, possible response to recent cyberattacks, more effective methods of combating disinformation, and a more creative response to growing Sino-Russian strategy cooperation.

Overreaction is never good policy, but underestimating Russia is a far greater danger right now.

The long-term goal should be what NASA hoped for 25 years ago – reconciliation and cooperation between the US and Russia. Then put this in the context of a Europe whole and free and in peace in which Russia finds its rightful place, the dream that President George HW Bush formulated a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Whatever Putin wants, it’s hard to believe that the Russians wouldn’t even prefer this result to a Sino-Russian moon landing.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, award-winning journalist, and President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of America’s most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked for the Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as foreign correspondent, assistant editor-in-chief and senior editor for the European edition of the newspaper. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place in the World” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his view every Saturday of the top stories and trends of the past week.

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