Russia: between the US and China

Author: Artyom Lukin, Far Eastern Federal University

As the geopolitical competition between China and the US intensifies, other actors must decide how they will position themselves in this power struggle. Of these, Russia is arguably one of the most crucial ‘swing states’ in the contemporary global arena.

Russia and China have been close ‘strategic partners’ since the late 1990s, but there is speculation that Russia will eventually abandon China and choose to align itself — or even ally with — the US-led west. As Russia increasingly feels the threat from a rising China, it will have no choice but to move closer to the US and the EU.

Even inside Russia, some foreign policy hands hold the view that Moscow needs to enter into some form of strategic alignment with Washington and Brussels, pointing to the challenges of a rising China as a major reason for such a move. This line of strategic thinking is logical from the balance-of-power perspective, which expects states to form coalitions against potential hegemons. This seems to be a sensible strategy for Russia, which shares a 4209-kilometre border with China and is thus much more exposed to China-related geopolitical risks than any Western state.

Both Russia’s governing elites and its citizens are wary of China. In the past two centuries Russia has been more advanced than China, and this encouraged the Russians to think of China somewhat condescendingly. But that traditional perception is now being reassessed. Russian leaders strongly believe that in the international arena, capabilities rather than intentions are what really matter. It follows that some form of entente with the US — the leader of the Western community — would insure Russia against the threat of a growing China. But the problem with this reasoning is that Russia sees the US as a bigger and more immediate threat than China. There are four main reasons for this.

First, Russia believes the West seeks to transform Russia in its own image so that Russia would lose its core identity. It views US and EU efforts to export democracy and liberal values as aggressive moves designed to undermine the ideational and institutional foundations of Russia’s statehood. In contrast, Moscow highly appreciates China’s principle of non-interference and its tolerance of diverse models of political and socio-economic development.

Second, Moscow is worried about the West’s penetration of Russia’s ‘near abroad’ — the territory of the former Soviet Union. The tensions peaked under George W. Bush, culminating in a brief war between Russia and Georgia, a US ally. And while Washington has somewhat reduced its involvement in the post-Soviet space under the Obama administration, the Kremlin nevertheless remains deeply suspicious of US intentions in Russia’s backyard. Meanwhile, China is also increasing its engagement with the former Soviet republics, especially in Central Asia, but is careful not to provoke Russian ire. China’s links to post-Soviet states are mainly economic and have not challenged Russia’s residual political hegemony. To be sure, Russia is not particularly happy about China’s growing economic leverage over the Central Asian republics, but it is willing to put up with it as long as China respects Russia’s strategic interests in the area.

Third, the US military strategy is a more serious concern to Russia than China’s. In particular, NATO’s missile defence program is causing grave apprehension in Moscow. The national strategic establishment strongly believes that, once completed, the US missile shield will neutralise Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Meanwhile, Russia regards China’s current military posture as less of a security risk because China’s defence modernisation and deployments are principally aimed at the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and the Western Pacific.

Finally, foreign policy rhetoric and diplomatic style seem to shape Moscow’s perceptions of potential threats. The US freely talks about its status as the sole superpower and its determination to lead the world, and this causes much irritation in Russia. By contrast, China endorses the idea of a multipolar world, wholly backed by Moscow.

Russia now finds itself sandwiched between the Occident and the Orient. Russian leadership is well aware that China, with its growing strategic capabilities, may pose a serious geopolitical risk in the future. But Russia so far perceives this danger as mostly hypothetical and distant compared to the clear and direct challenges the US and its Western allies currently present.

If the US really wants to have Russia on its side in the unfolding competition with China, the US must abandon the promotion of liberal democracy in the post-Soviet space, recognise Russia’s hegemony in this region and scrap its missile defence plans in Europe. But it is unlikely that the US will agree to these conditions in the foreseeable future, so rather than tilting toward the US, Russia will most likely continue to pursue its quasi-alliance with China.

Artyom Lukin is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.

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