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).