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How to Win in Ukraine without Creating a Russia-China Axis

Ukraine
Image of Russian TOS Unit. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

There is a terrible dilemma in the West’s support for Ukraine. Provide enough support to Kyiv to inflict severe costs on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but fail to topple him, and he falls into a desperate alliance with China. Seek to end the war in Ukraine by providing concessions to Moscow, and Putin will learn his lessons, consolidate his hold on Russia, rearm, and eventually re-assert Russian power again in Eastern Europe or abroad. In both cases, Russia will be lost to democracy. The problem is compounded by the fact that Ukraine will at some point refuse to be an instrument of the West, and will seek to recapture territory that will scupper ceasefire negotiations. Besides, it is exceedingly difficult to calibrate the precise military support to Kyiv and sanctions on Russia to produce the desired outcome. As with Italy’s 1935 invasion of Abyssinia, the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, and even Japan’s 1937 attack on China, in the lead-up to the Second World War, the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine is a sideshow for strategic-military developments in Asia. Any conventional war over Taiwan will be of a magnitude ten times greater than the current conflict, extending into the Pacific and Indian Ocean littorals.

Pushing Russia into an energy alliance with China, which has ten times the population and manufacturing capacity, is a formula for strategic disaster, especially as China surpasses US economic power in the next two decades. A Moscow-Beijing Axis will merge China’s potentially hegemonic economy and population with Russia’s agricultural, energy and most importantly, mining resources, in particular Uranium 238. It will also bring with it in tow most of the states of Central Asia, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Pakistan, and Belarus. Desperate to maintain its influence in Europe, and only able to operate commercially within the Chinese sphere due to sanctions, Moscow might choose to make territorial concessions to China, particularly in the Amur Region of the Far East, or provided bases in the Arctic, which would pose a direct threat to the security of North America.

Such compromises seem at odds with the Russian commitment to use nuclear weapons to defend even minor secessions. However, the demographic contraction of Russia, and the fact that it is outnumbered ten to one by China’s population, coupled with festering historical disputes, may lead to a desperate policy of cutting costs. There are only thirty million Russians east of the Ural Mountains, and only 6 million Russians remaining east of Irkutsk and Lake Baykal (a twenty-five percent decline since 2000). It is therefore conceivable that Russia could cede a third of its total territory to Beijing, approximately 7 million square kilometers, which also contains approximately half of Russia’s uranium supply. Worryingly, Russia may initiate a simultaneous crisis, to distract Europe from aiding the US in a Taiwan contingency.

The first solution, which is to inflict a decisive military defeat on Russia, implies ejection from Ukraine and pursuit into Russian territory, is very likely to produce a continuous escalation from tactical to theatre nuclear weapons. The most influential academic nuclear strategist, naval historian Bernard Brodie (The Absolute Weapon – 1946) argued that given the impossibility of a practical defense against a nuclear attack, a hidden second-strike arsenal, in this case Russia’s, would make deterrence exceptionally robust. It is not likely therefore that Russia would be susceptible to nuclear compellence. Most strategic studies historians, including Columbia University professor Richard Betts, agree that in cases of militarized confrontations involving nuclear weapons, where nuclear firepower is in effect unlimited, and cannot be defended against, crises are typically resolved in favor of the country with the greater interest at stake. It was for this reason that the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was settled to the advantage of Washington, which had a much greater interest in denuclearizing the Caribbean. Of course, in the case of territories adjacent to Russia, Moscow has a significant advantage in the balance of interests. In fact, we have been thinking about nuclear strategy for over a century now: H.G. Wells actually wrote a vivid description of a nuclear war, and its aftermath in 1913, before the First World War (The World Set Free).

The second solution, which requires far more patience and restraint, is to nurture the natural tendency for Sino-Russian mutual insecurity and mistrust, a policy that was successfully implemented during the Cold War. Total US victory was actually conceivable in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In Korea, it would have involved the use of B-29-delivered fission bombs, supporting a United Nations advance across the Yalu River and onto Beijing to impose a settlement. An invasion of North Vietnam would have required the landing of US Marines at Haiphong Harbour, supported by an armored advance up the coast, followed by an intense border skirmish against a relief force of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. However, in both instances, military objectives were subordinated to the strategic goal of winning the Cold War, by fostering the fragmentation of the Communist alliance. Specifically, the US conceded to an indecisive peace in the Korean peninsula, and a defeat in Vietnam, in order to draw China away from the Soviet orbit. These choices required tremendous political will. Choosing to stalemate in the Korean War was very demoralizing to a US accustomed to winning decisively. The US’s choice to be defeated in Vietnam was exceptionally expensive, with the US losing almost 10,000 rotary and fixed wing aircraft during the war. By comparison, in the first two months of the Russo-Ukrainian War, Moscow’s fixed wing aircraft losses are comparable to Argentine losses during the 1982 Falklands War, less than 200 aircraft.

Balance of power theory predicts that states will come to fear those states closest to them, which in the case of Russia and China, are each other, given their exceptionally long border. Furthermore, Harvard University professor Stephen Walt has argued that states also consider past history as a guide to intentions, and this often explains why some alignments are composed of unnecessarily overwhelming coalitions against particularly aggressive states, like Imperial Japan or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the context of Sino-Soviet relations, mistrust began in the 1930s when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin aided the more effective Guomintang (the enemies of Mao Zedong’s Communists), in a desperate attempt to counter-balance the Imperial Japanese then invading China. In 1954 and 1958, during respective Taiwan Straits Crises, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev refused to provide Beijing an offensive nuclear umbrella, causing an ideological split at the subsequent summit in 1959. After years of minor disputes, in 1969, fuelled by the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, China provoked a border conflict with the Soviets at three points along its Far Eastern and Central Asian frontier. The US maneuvered carefully to avoid provoking China, setting the state for US President Richard Nixon’s epically successful 1971 trip to visit Chairman Mao Zedong of Communist China, which compelled the Soviet Union to relocate a quarter of their military into the Far East, effectively ending Soviet military preponderance in Europe.

An important principle of balance of power politics is that to avoid the world being dangerously dominated by a single military power, countries need to be prepared to associate with new allies, however odious. This includes the West, even now, seeking to improve relations with Russia. For example, the democratic allies defeated Nazism conjointly with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, and by financially inducing fascist Spain to remain neutral. British intelligence services provided training to the Khmer Rouge to blunt the spread of Vietnamese communism in Southeast Asia. If we survive the coming “new Cold War” with China, we can imagine a subsequent world where China will be a key ally needed to help contain a dynamically youthful, agriculturally rich, culturally assertive, and illiberally-democratic India. The current ill-treatment of India’s substantial Muslim minority (numbering over 200 million), does not bode well for the idea that democracies will never fight each other in the future.

In practical terms, this means seeking a publicly distasteful, negotiated end to hostilities that does not seek to displace the Siloviki from power. This would mean compromising on the policy of inflicting costs on Russian forces, abandoning the Ukrainian reconquest of Donetsk, Luhansk and Crimea, not seeking war reparations, not requiring Russia to hand-over war criminals, and peeling back sanctions.

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, an author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014), and a former operations officer, 3 Field Engineer Regiment. He has published extensively on security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO).

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University (Montreal), former army engineer officer, and has written extensively on Pakistan, where he conducted field research for over ten years

20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Error403

    May 20, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    Let’s not beat about the bush;no one’s gonna win in Ukraine without use of nuclear weapons.

    Biden and NATO serious about winning for zelenskiiiy? Dust off the covers of those b61s.

    Same for Russia.Wanna win against those neo-nazis and their sponsors.Use nukes.

    Why NATO and non-NATO allies failed to win in Afghanistan ?
    They dared not use nukes.The talibs employed poor man’s nukes – suicide bombers !

    THEY WON and kicked out the most powerful war machine in the galaxy.

    • Steven

      May 22, 2022 at 12:51 pm

      What would you have nuked in Afghanistan?

  2. William Barrett

    May 20, 2022 at 3:06 pm

    Respectfully, I profoundly disagree with the assessment that pushing Russia and China together is bad for the US.

    Let’s be realistic. There is no world in which Russia or China will operate as fair, trustworthy partners on the global stage, where they will respect human rights, or the territorial integrity of their neighbors, if it is in their interests not to.

    For all the fear of a cold war, it should be noted that the cold war never turned hot. it did prevent open conflict between superpowers.

    And there were no US and western businesses lining up to sell out their country by doing deals with the Soviets. the lines were clear.

    The greatest problem the US faces today and in the near future is the unwillingness of US and western businesses to cut ties with China.

    If China and Russia were pushed together, by your own admission, their neighbors would be likely to fear them.

    Regardless of the US foreign policy mistakes (and they are legion), the vast majority of nations will see the moral and security differences between an alignment with “the West” led my the US, NATO and European nations, and an alignment with a new Eastern Star alliance composed of China and Russia, supported by the nation-state lepers of Iran, North Korea (and to a lesser extent, Pakistan, Cuba, Venezuela)

    This re-alignment will provide clarity, and impetus for the US and west to finally wean themselves of the fiction that engaging China economically will result in liberalization socially.

    Better to have a clear cut division. A new cold war would hurt China and Russia far more than the West.

    Aligned, with only each other to trade with, their economies will stagnate.

    Whereas the west will revitalize by redeveloping those capacities lost to China over the past 3 decades.

    LET THEM ALIGN. A new cold war, one in which China is treated as the economic pariah that the Soviet Union was, would strengthen the West, at the same time it reduced the chances of open conflict, because the lines would be so clear, and the consequences so dire.

    • TrustbutVerify

      May 21, 2022 at 9:17 am

      Totally agree. Dr. Spencer-Churchill assumes that China’s economic rise would continue in such circumstances. By allying itself with Russia, it buys the same sanctions regime and we require all Western companies to divest. This was already occurring as many western manufacturers were relocating out of China. We need to divest, cripple their economies, and let them try to survive.

  3. Jacksonian Libertarian

    May 20, 2022 at 4:47 pm

    That ship has sailed. But as Authoritarians, they will never trust each other, remember Stalin and Hitler divided up Poland between them, and then Hitler attacked Stalin. So, Putin will never trust Xi, and Xi is already looking at Siberia as a Northern Resource Zone. Xi likes that Russia is weakening it’s military, and will drag his feet in providing assistance.

    He will give Putin excuses for why he can’t provide military assistance, so watch for that.

  4. Tom

    May 20, 2022 at 4:51 pm

    There’s desperation on display in Russia’s army over how they are losing the war due to a lack of trained personnel, low morale, antique weapons and poor leadership. The fix? They plan on enlisting over 40 year olds to donate their lives in service to a fascist failure. What next? A babushka brigade armed with sticks and stones?

    • rick

      June 4, 2022 at 10:51 pm

      false. bot comment with ukr disinformation begone.

  5. Fluffy Dog

    May 20, 2022 at 5:35 pm

    When I read the analysis by the professionals, I see two things always present: lack of imagination (or extrapolation of past policies) and disregard for the currently developing trends.
    For example, some articles on this site (and others too) keep harping on nuclear agreements with Russia as if we still live in a bipolar world of US and Russia.
    Technology today is more important than the number of people, and Israel is a prime example of its use in the face of larger armies of its enemies. Yet, evaluating Russian capabilities always involves the number of tanks and nukes (which, incidentally need constant and diligent maintenance).

    Russia today is a country with underdeveloped hi-tech, deteriorating infrastructure, and a brain drain. Its alignment with China will not produce an alliance of two powerful nations that can take the lead in the world. Russia is fast becoming a natural resource appendage of China, its dependant. Add to that Chinese claims on large territories it seeded to Russia in the 19th century, and one can see that alliance is out of the question. It will be a suzerain-vassal relationship.

    China built its tech on stolen American inventions. It built its economy on American companies’ know-how, which they were forced to transfer to China if they wanted to build and operate a plant there. Cutting ties with China would be painful, but it’s needed if we are to make our foreign policies independent of Chinese blackmail. Europe is going through that right now with Russia. We need to start that with China before we have a crisis.

    The US can do that. Last year was the first time the American GDP growth rate was higher than the Chinese in the last 20 years.

    • rick

      June 4, 2022 at 10:57 pm

      its funny because US tech domination was possible to all those russian brains “drained” from russia. russia also has an advantage in hypersonics so i wouldn’t jump to such asinine conclusions so quick. also US gdp growth rate means nothing as it is falling apart and rotting alive. inflation run away, political divisions, massive poverty and income inequality, dysfunctional healthcare, aging infrastructure, crime rates increase, natural disaster increase all gonna take more and more of US energy and focus on internal affairs and divert it from external affairs. US is done, and China Russia or anything in-between should be the last of its worries.

  6. Steven Carleton

    May 20, 2022 at 8:22 pm

    US doesn’t need to cut all econ ties to China – they should continue to be allowed to produce cheap junk sold in US big box stores for purchase by Americans with plastic credit. The threat is the Chinese penetration into US universities, using their R&D to further dual-use tech. There’s no way to tell how much research the CCP sponsors at our major universities and they refuse to reveal the foreign funding.

  7. Steven Carleton

    May 20, 2022 at 8:39 pm

    China and Russia will inevitably clash over the ‘stan’ nations of south Asia. The Chinese General Secretary is hell-bent on his ‘Belt and Road’ vision which would be a nightmare for Russia if Xi could somehow make it work, which he wont. Russia is increasingly becoming islamic and asian. It’s euro demographic is shrinking.

  8. Stefan Stackhouse

    May 20, 2022 at 9:39 pm

    While the ethnic Russian population in eastern Siberia is declining, the ethnic Chinese population there has been increasing substantially in recent years. Eventually, the region WILL be de facto Chinese, regardless of whose de jure flag flies over it. The Chinese play a long game – much longer than do any of our armchair theorists. They can afford to be patient in the north as long as the goods keep coming their way.

    I would venture to guess that the Russians see this quite clearly. While we are in a bind, so are they. China represents a very real long-term threat, and also a very urgent near-term ally. I thus doubt that the Russians are going to just submit to becoming a tributary vassal of China. They will forge close, co-dependent relations – but also keep just a little distance and freedom of movement.

  9. Albano

    May 21, 2022 at 10:40 am

    I read this publication for comic relief… It’s hard to find another neocon publication with so consistently dumb and blatantly false takes… Keep up the good work fellas.

    • Global Horse

      May 23, 2022 at 6:30 am

      This article reads like it’s 1980 and thinks he’s Brezinski.

      The train already left the station on the Russia-ChiCom alliance. It’s not changing.

  10. Ankur

    May 21, 2022 at 1:36 pm

    Let’s ally with China because India mistreats Muslims. Great logic there. People need to travel and see reality. This article belongs on the NYT.

  11. Demitry

    May 22, 2022 at 3:13 am

    Russia is in undated with WHITE SUPREMIST NEO NAZI FACTIONS SO PUKING SPEW-TIN NEEDS TO ATTACK HIS OWN CIVILIANS IN THEIR TENS OF MILLIONS.

  12. They Call Me Mister T

    May 22, 2022 at 6:38 am

    From your article, it’s clear that China and Russia can increase their chances of success by causing trouble on multiple fronts, and -not- doing so gives the advantage to the coalition opposing them. The fact that you are already planning a confrontation with “illiberal” India makes them more likely to partner with China, not less.

    It’s good that someone can see how an increasingly expensive war in Ukraine gives the advantage to the CCP, but there will have to be many more fallen cities before the West comes to its senses. Plus ca change.

    • Isitinyet

      May 22, 2022 at 7:57 am

      If Russia sentence two and a half Ukrainians to death penalty prisoners of war, I suggest Ukraine behead all Russian prisoners they have in hold of Russian troops. Its called an eye for an eye. THE WEST IS GOING TO SET FIRE TO ALL RUSSIAN OIL DUMPS AND THE SAUCES THERE OF AND DESTROY RUSSIA FOR GOOD HA HA HA HA

      • They Call Me Mister T

        May 22, 2022 at 10:58 am

        Calm down there, Bandera. Russia is used to fighting Hitlerite rules and can easily retaliate along the same lines.

  13. Richard Young

    May 22, 2022 at 8:29 am

    Russia has already won. Stop with the push to get America in a a proxy conflict with Russia. Ukraine is a corrupt country that deserves everything its getting. You poke the Bear then cry when the Bear attacks. We just borrowed 40 billion from China to give to Ukraine while our spending and Inflation is off the charts.

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