The neighborhood

 Luis Rubio

In 2014, when Russia invaded and took control of the Crimean Peninsula, President Obama’s reaction was that this is “so 19th century” and no longer done in the 21st. Everything indicates that this memorandum did not reach the Kremlin. The invasion of Ukraine, of which Crimea was then a part, shows that geopolitics is as alive as ever. Nations are moved by interests, not by ideology, a memorandum that has not reached Mexico’s national palace either.

Behind the invasion of Ukraine there are two elements: one is the strategy of the West (the United States and Europe) throughout the decades after the end of the cold war; and the other is Russia’s ambition to restore its sources of strategic depth. For many years, US policy focused on distancing the then Soviet Union from China, with the aim of preventing the other two major world powers from approaching each other. However, starting in the 1990s, this strategy was abandoned less for clarity of direction than for the inertia generated by the victory of the West over the former communist power.

What the West did not contemplate was the impact that this would have on Russia, a nation that, under the leadership of Putin, has devoted itself to recreating its zone of influence. In 2008 it invaded part of Georgia, in 2014 it took Crimea, in 2020 it forced an electoral result in Belarus, which was followed by Nagorno-Karabakh and, more recently, it restored peace in Kazakhstan, remaining as the guarantor of internal order. The strategy is evident, leaving only two weak flanks: Ukraine and the Baltics. Putin has employed a variety of means, not all of them violent, to achieve his goal. The invasion of Ukraine -direct action and without proxies- could well change the course of the world because now no one can ignore its implications.

The reverberations of Ukraine are beginning to be felt in immediate indicators, such as the prices of raw materials, particularly oil, because that region is especially relevant in this matter, and grains, and, eventually, in the growth rates of the economies most affected, especially in Europe. But the greatest impact of this intervention will foreseeably be felt in the return of the zones of influence in the world, a phenomenon that had already been taking shape in the South China Sea and around Russia. The one that is missing, and the one that affects Mexico, is the Western Hemisphere.

The end of the cold war was interpreted very differently in Russia and in the West. Although history could have been different (newspapers, magazines and social media these days are saturated with lamentations to this effect), the tangible fact is that instead of converging, the West and Russia moved in opposite directions. Beyond recriminations, some valid others not, the West took advantage of the end of the cold war to focus on improving the lives of its citizens, assuming that Russia was nothing more than, in the words of a famous politician, “a gas station with nuclear weapons.” Well, now it turns out that this gas station is forcing the West out of its lethargy and that has fundamental implications for Mexico.

In the 1980s, just as the cold war was winding down, Mexico chose to approach the United States to solve its economic problems. Contrary to the prediction of the catastrophists, the rapprochement gave Mexico enormous freedoms in terms of foreign policy because NAFTA constituted an agreement on the essence of the relationship, a shared vision of the future. The point was not to agree on each and every issue, but to commit to resolving them so that closeness would confer security to the Americans and development to Mexico.

In terms of development, the scheme worked less well than desired because Mexico did not carry out the internal transformation that this would have required; however, in terms of the bilateral relationship, perhaps the most complex border in the world, problems were resolved and both governments did what was necessary to avoid unnecessary conflicts.

Two things have changed. One is called Trump and the other López Obrador. Trump violated the essence of the understanding of 1988 in two ways: one, attacking Mexico and blaming it for his country’s problems; and the other, by link issues (migration vs. exports) he violated the explicit agreement never to do that.

López Obrador was key in the process of ratifying the TMEC, but his vision is clearly opposed to such closeness. Step by step, he has distanced Mexico from American priorities and, like the kid who challenges his teacher, he flirts with China and Russia as if it were a game.

In recent weeks, the Americans have abandoned their obvious decision not to respond to López Obrador and have begun to define their “red lines” clearly and precisely, most of these aimed at forcing Mexico to avoid further internal deterioration. Putin’s actions can only accelerate this process because the US will once again begin to see the world with a geopolitical logic, where Mexico is in the front row. The Mexican government no longer has much room to maneuver, especially if it wants to protect what little is left of economic growth, all linked to exports to the US.