Late last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that a military alliance between Moscow and Beijing was possible, but added that both sides “in general” have no need for an alliance. In addition to a lack of actual need for such a formal alliance, some experts suggest it could “tie Russia’s hands” and potentially scare off traditional partners.
“Russia has no need to strike a formal military alliance with China against the United States now,” Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitry Trenin told Tass. Trenin also expressed his belief that such an alliance would be impractical for Russia.
“Such union would tie hands of both parties, and would scare the neighbors, India in particular, who would be forced to abandon partnership with Russia and cooperate closer with the U.S.,” Trenin added.
A formal alliance could present problems, not the least of which would be the hierarchy within the allied structures. While the Soviet Union was always been seen as the “top dog” in the Warsaw Pact, it would be hard to see Moscow accepting a secondary role to Beijing. Likewise, given the rapid expansion of the Chinese military, it is unlikely Beijing would find itself as the lesser partner to Moscow.
Then there is the issue of what such a true military alliance would actually mean. It might only be feasible if the United States—or another power—actually attacked both countries at the same time. That isn’t likely to happen, but in such a hypothetical what would it mean for a military alliance?
“It is possible to speculate that, in case of the U.S.’s [military] aggression against Russia, China, while supporting Russia politically, would refrain from taking part in the war,” said Trenin. “In my opinion, this is exactly how [we] should react to a military clash between the U.S. and China, which seems to become more and more probable.”
Instead of a formal alliance, Putin suggested that Russia and China might hold ground and naval drills, or even exchange technology and practices in developing new weapons.
Few True Allies for Russia
The Soviet Union was the de facto leader of the powerful Warsaw Pact, yet today Russia is a partner in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), an intergovernmental alliance created in 1992 that now unites six post-Soviet states: Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It is easy to see Russia as the lead power, but whether those other countries would come to its aid in an armed conflict is debatable.
While Russia also counts Syria as a close ally—all that has gotten Moscow is a desert testing ground for its military hardware as Syria deals with a nearly decade long civil war. Syria is all but incapable of supporting Russia in nearly any capacity, other than providing Russia with an overseas naval facility.
India has been seen as another potential ally, but as tensions have risen between New Delhi and Beijing it has placed Moscow in a difficult position. Moving closer to either would alienate the other.
Russia finds itself in a similarly awkward situation with Turkey—the latter may be a buyer of the former’s hardware, notably the S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft defense system, but Moscow and Ankara are backing different sides in the aforementioned Syrian Civil War. Likewise, Russia and Turkey have baggage going back for centuries, while more importantly, Turkey remains a member of NATO.
It is unlikely even Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would change military partners by ditching NATO to join with Russia. Moscow certainly wouldn’t come to Turkey’s aid should Ankara find itself at war with Greece—especially as in such a conflict Turkey could find itself at war with all of NATO if Article 5 were invoked.
History of Bad Alliances
Since the founding of the Russian Empire under Peter the Great, Russia has been on the winning side more often than on the losing side—and notably gained a lot of territory for its efforts.
However, it often found itself in very bad alliances. The worst was with the Austrian Empire, as Imperial Russia came to its ally’s aid during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. It was thanks to Russian intervention that the revolution was crushed.
Yet less than a decade later when Russia found itself at war with France, Great Britain, Turkey, and Sardinia in the Crimean War, the Austrian Foreign Minister Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg declined to help. He infamously stated, “Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude.”
This in many ways lit the long fuse that would set off the First World War, as Russia entered into an alliance with France. Yet when Russia found itself at war with Japan, France remained neutral. During the Bosnian crisis in 1908-09, France declined to support Russia against Austria and Germany. What held the French and Russians together was a common economic interest. Russia looked to industrialize and French investors provided the capital.
However, the alliance system in Europe ended up ensuring that any minor conflict—such as Austria’s beef with Serbia—engulfed the continent!
After the fall of Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union was isolated. While French and British diplomats tried to form a military alliance with Moscow against Nazi Germany, the Germans offered better terms, and briefly, Stalin and Hitler became economic allies. That changed of course in 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets were strong enough that they courted allies. Yet, as the Cold War drew to a close President Mikhail Gorbachev proposed that the Soviet Union should join NATO. While then-U.S. Secretary of State James Baker dismissed the idea, it has been floated a few times since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
Instead, most of the former Warsaw Pact powers are members of NATO, as are the Baltic States, while Ukraine is seen as a NATO partner if not a member. This has left Russia isolated, and while Moscow was successful in its bid to reclaim Crimea (site of the war with France, the UK, and Turkey) the Russian military couldn’t possibly attempt to expand without risking a war it could never hope to win.
Instead, Russia could turn to China—but as noted if war did come it would just prove to be another alliance that wouldn’t offer Moscow much except words. It would be very easy to suggest that China wouldn’t hesitate to show the world her ingratitude, and if so no one would be astonished.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.