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Can America Reboot Its Relationship with Russia to Take on China?

U.S.-Russia Relations
Image: Creative Commons.

United States efforts to compete simultaneously with both China and Russia is driving them closer together and is creating common interests against the US. This is a strategic nightmare for the US, but one we have largely failed to recognize. This “competition” has eclipsed the historical animosity between them and has created an exponentially larger threat. This portends a future where the US is unable to defend its interests or those of its allies against joint Chinese-Russian efforts.

The US can change this dynamic by initiating a strategic rebalance towards Moscow that introduces doubt into Beijing’s decision-making and allows latent friction between the two to resurface. This starts with opening a substantive dialogue with Moscow that halts Russia’s descent into Beijing’s orbit, allows the US to divert resources toward the primary threat from China, and preserves American interests.

What’s at Stake

While Beijing and Moscow have not entered into a formal alliance, they are growing closer in all domains, especially in military cooperation. The Joint-Sea 2021 Naval Exercise and the first joint patrol through the Tsugaru Strait in the Sea of Japan are just two recent examples of this growing relationship.

The consequences of a Russian-Chinese partnership are every bit as far-reaching as our showdown with the Soviets during the Cold War because it threatens our leadership role in the world, and by extension our democracy, economy, and political freedoms. Full alignment of Russia’s advanced military with Beijing’s deep economic, diplomatic, and growing military power would represent a formidable force against the global order. What’s at stake is the future of the international system and America’s role in that system.

The Enemy of my Enemy….

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has arrived as a potent force on the world stage. It wields economic strength that Russia under the Soviet system never possessed. Its ability to use economic coercion such as trade, tourism, debt traps, and One Belt, One Road (OBOR) are evidence of this. Its technology industry is quickly catching up to the West and its emerging military capabilities have surprised the US military in critical areas such as hypersonic glide vehicles, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence. Its United Front Work Department (UFWD) yields impressive informational capacity that effectively manages the narrative about China and the Chinese Communist Party even outside of the PRC.

While Russia is often viewed simply as a declining nuclear state in the final throes of great power status, this should not delude us into thinking they pose no danger. Russia maintains a capable and technologically advanced military that if combined with the PRC’s deep power, represents an ominous threat.

In fact, Beijing and Moscow have already developed a relationship that includes participation in joint bilateral exercises, aerial patrols, and naval maneuvers in the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas where the US and its allies have dominated for years. Other cooperation includes air defense operations, information sharing, military-to-military exchanges, and the sale to China of strategically important and tactically relevant systems such as the Su-35 fighter aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems. These elements are bolstered by joint statements criticizing US unilateralism and coordinating UN Security Council votes to block US and UN initiatives. And despite any residual snickering about the US’s new Space Force, the memorandum of understanding signed between Russia and China last spring to jointly build and operate a lunar base is deadly serious.

Dismissing these concerns out of hand because Moscow and Beijing “don’t have an alliance” misses the point. They don’t need to have an alliance to complicate our planning or stymie our objectives. While both nations have said that they are not interested in a formal alliance, they are calling their relationship a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination. If this still seems insignificant, consider that in many ways, Sino-Russian cooperation already surpasses the level and spectrum of activities that the US currently maintains with its non-ally Taiwan.

Winning the Battle, Losing the War

With this growing cooperation, the possibility of a two-front war is a concern. The resources required to prepare for and win a conventional war against two near-peer adversaries is overwhelming. Doing so in a resource-constrained environment means that our forces will be spread thin everywhere, resulting in insufficient capabilities to deter aggression anywhere. A decision to defend Taiwan from China would require the US to flow forces into the region from other theaters; but what would we do if Russia takes advantage of a distracted US to simultaneously invade the Baltics?

Regardless of the scenario, a loss or stalemate in one or both wars would decrease allied confidence in the US as the security partner of choice and could lead traditional NATO and Indo-Pacific allies to hedge with Russia or the PRC.

These possibilities demand new ways to mitigate the risk that go beyond endless spending on competition, even if that means difficult decisions to make accommodations with “the lesser evil,” a decision that America has made in the past.

Playing the China Card

In the late 1960s, the US leveraged the Sino-Soviet split and started a secret dialogue with Beijing to help counterbalance the expanding power of the Soviet Union, the greater threat at the time.  While this led to eventual diplomatic recognition and Beijing’s inclusion in the international system, the more important aspect was that it helped isolate the Soviet Union and introduced strategic dilemmas into their decision-making by forcing them to examine their actions against the possibility of a combined US-China front.

While the US ultimately failed to re-examine the continued utility of this arrangement following the Cold War, this does not detract from the success of that strategy at the time, which allowed the US to concentrate efforts on the Soviet threat vice the lesser threat from Beijing. It also leveraged something Beijing desperately needed – international legitimacy and economic growth.

The Russia Card

Many are relying on historical animosity between Beijing and Moscow to stop them from meaningful cooperation. Perhaps this will eventually be true. Until then, the US needs an approach that stops uniting them against a common threat, draws Russia away from drifting further into Beijing’s orbit, and introduces uncertainty into Beijing’s decision-making.

We must open a dialogue with Moscow as a first step in reversing this trend to find ways forward that serve US interests. We can’t do this by stubbornly refusing to discuss issues of substance until they first accept our positions – that will never happen. This will be unpalatable, but necessary if the US is going to retain its position as leader of the international system.

Why It Will Work

Even a limited dialogue with Moscow benefits us by giving Beijing pause over the potential of combined US-Russian responses. This allows the US to redirect some resources away from competing with Russia and focus them on the more critical threat from China. Similarly, Beijing would be forced to devote more of their resources away from the US and back onto Russia.

This can succeed because Russia’s center-of-gravity and its primary threat perception comes from Europe generally, and NATO specifically. With NATO’s expansion eastward, Russia’s strategic position is the worst that it has been in 400 years, and has helped drive Moscow into the willing arms of Beijing. This means that a small, even if only symbolic, contribution to Russia’s security could have a disproportionate effect on Russian behavior by shifting Moscow’s risk calculus regarding China in our favor.

Risks and Rewards

There are obvious concerns accompanying a strategic rebalance to Moscow as any rapprochement would be perceived as a slight to NATO. The Baltic states and the former Warsaw Pact nations will be especially worried. This can be partially mitigated by an initial approach that focuses on Ukraine since one of our most divisive issues is still over Crimea. Regardless, any approach to Russia would need to be carefully balanced with assurances – to both sides – about American commitment to NATO and to a new US-Russia relationship.

Others may oppose this due to concerns over values, but China commits at least as many human rights violations as Russia by numbers alone. Even so, the US has engaged with China in areas of “mutual interest” while shunning Russia for actions no more deplorable. Is taking Crimea really worse than reclaiming and militarizing disputed features in the South China Sea?

Admittedly, Putin’s actions to silence dissent, interfere in elections, or assassinate rivals are reprehensible and we should never condone them. And yet, the combined power of Russia and China present a foe that will be nearly impossible to defeat – even if we had the political will to do so. Sacrificing our global leadership position out of a sanctimonious aversion to working with Russia squanders any platform that we have to spread our values.

An Opening Hand

A first move might involve engaging in meaningful talks over further expansion of NATO, relaxing or adjusting the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), bringing Russia back into the G8 (now G7) group of nations, and putting US-Russia military-to-military relations back on the table. But these are only starting points

In doing so, the US must be crystal clear about what it expects to get out of this relationship. This means only engaging in areas where we are willing to take concrete action to adjust, change, or reverse the policy. Right now that is nowhere, which has gotten us precisely nowhere with Moscow.

Until the benefits of any US-Russian reconciliation outweigh the risks of Moscow’s current relationship with Beijing, we should not be surprised to see them grow even closer. It is still possible to influence events, but the relationship is evolving quickly and will not remain static. A substantive dialogue on issues that matter to both parties is the best way to preserve America’s interests. The consequences of failure have never been direr.

Clint Mallory is a United States military officer with various operational and staff assignments focusing on China and Great Power Competition.  These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the Department of Defense.

Written By

Clint Mallory is a United States military officer with various operational and staff assignments focusing on China and Great Power Competition. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the Department of Defense.